Robert Jerome (Jerry) Walden, Sr. (b. 1941, Langdale AL; d. 2019, Rock Hill, SC, USA) was an artist and professor of art from the rural south. Taking advantage of the GI Bill for his service in the US Air Force (1960-62) he earned his BFA from Auburn University (Auburn, AL) in 1968 and his MFA in painting from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia (Athens, GA) in 1971. Schooled heavily in the academic tradition of figure drawing he was equally accomplished in representation and pure abstraction, which he explored primarily in painting, drawing and printmaking but at times in sculpture and mixed-media collage and assemblage. Stylistically his studio practice waxed and waned between expressionism, minimalism and surrealism and at times, combining aspects of these styles in the same artwork.
In his early work Jerry was heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism, especially the work of Willem de Kooning. In the fall of 1968 Jerry was profoundly affected by the artwork he saw in The Art of the Real USA 1948-1968 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, the first significant exhibition of Minimalism, and his work soon reflected this experience.
The exhibition featured the work by American artists made from 1948-1968. Now their names are so familiar to us their last names are enough to identify them, like, Pollock, O' Keefe, Reinhardt, Rothko, Andre, Judd, Martin, Johns, Kelly, Newman, Smithson, Still, Le Witt and others. Most importantly for Jerry the work of Kenneth Nolan and especially the new black paintings of Frank Stella had a profound effect on his thinking.
After that experience Jerry's work transitioned to reflect the more contemporary trends of the late 1960s. For a short while he was working in both stylistic directions of Expressionism and Minimalism at the same time. However, by the spring of 1969, having earned his BFA, Jerry moved completely away from Expressionism and fully embraced Minimalism as he pursued his MFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia.
In addition to contemporary art of the time, paintings of the Italian Renaissance, particularly Raphael, Piero della Francesca, the work of Rembrandt Van Rijn and especially, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose influence surfaced in later years, was of lasting importance to Jerry's thinking.
Also at this time and influenced by Rembrandt, Jerry began a serious exploration of printmaking and self-portraits. Printmaking joined painting and drawing as his third major medium. In the 1970s and 80s Jerry conducted several workshops and lectures about printmaking at universities all over the country. He made numerous self-portraits in all media over the course of his life.
Of the multiple areas of interest and exploration in Jerry's work, like process, color theory and formalism, the recurring themes of religion and humor surfaced again and again. Jerry grew up in small town Alabama in a very devout Southern Baptist family, a religious tradition he rejected as an adult. However, this background and his deep love and appreciation of Italian painting of the 12th through the 17th Centuries kept Christianity a common theme in his work.
Jerry employed humor, puns and sarcasm in his titles or imagery, for example, even in the sober hard-edged paintings of the early 1970s, titles like Adam's Anus or Slices of the Company Pie are full of equal parts silliness, sarcasm and disgust. And, humor for its own sake was never far away as seen in Image Plate 1 of his master's thesis, Mental Image as Visual Image.
Embedded within religious art are two motifs, representation and the figure, both of which Jerry used to varying degrees throughout his life, even in the pure abstraction of his work in this period. In rough drafts of his dissertation later omitted in his final version, Jerry credits Raphael’s Sistine Madonna as the source for the triangles in the minimal paintings of his thesis exhibition. Also, the tall narrow format of this work was a reference to his own "tall and thin" figure as he stated in a Studio Visit conversation between Jerry and his gallery Robert Henry Contemporary in New York City in February of 2019.
Also mentioned in that conversation at that time is a motif in Jerry's paintings that appeared for the first time in the paintings of 1971. That is the addition of tall narrow "wings", as Jerry called them, to the sides of the paintings. These "wings" reappeared more than a dozen years later in his work of the 1980s and 90s.
Jerry received his MFA in May of 1971 and began his first teaching position at Delta State College (now University), a small state school in the Delta of northwest Mississippi that August. The radical change in landscape from the rolling hills of northeast Georgia to the relative isolation and extreme flatness of the Delta had a distinct effect on Jerry's thinking that marked the second major shift in his maturing work. Also at this time Jerry would experience the first of several artistic identity crises of his life and he began to question is abilities and artistic direction.
By the end of 1971 Jerry's work moved away from hard-edged minimalism and looked more painterly as illustrated in the two drawings, Distance and Delta Distance Mountains. Both of these drawings reacted to his new environment and expressed a longing for the rolling hills of the landscape that he left in Georgia. Angles and triangles in particular continued to dominate his compositions at this time even as his work grew more representational. Humor, sarcasm and Christianity and most often the combination of these themes dominated his work, and his compositions looked more surreal and psychedelic.
The social isolation and radical flatness of The Delta of had a profound effect on Jerry’s work. This marked the second major shift in his thinking, the first being a switch from the influence of Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism in the late 60s. This new direction moved away from pure geometric abstraction toward imagery incorporating the figure and landscape, often using humor, religion, Surrealism and usually, the combination of all three.
Jerry and fellow DSU faculty member, artist Floyd Shaman, rented a tumbledown house (also known locally as a shack) in the small African-American community of Renova just outside Cleveland, MS as their studio. The name Renova appeared in several artworks from that period, and the meaning of that name (re = again; nova = new) is ironically metaphoric of this period of transition in Jerry's work.
At the times when his work was in transition throughout his career Jerry instinctively returned to drawing. As he worked out new images and ideas he also made numerous studies. He responded to the radical flatness of the Mississippi Delta where the horizon is always visible in the distance by counterintuitively visualizing mountains. Because of their basic shape, triangles or deltas, mountains also served as part of a play on words as seen in the drawing Study for a Delta Mountain Range.
Jerry's religious heritage and his personal struggles with it were never far away. In 1972, he made several works that relate to this inner conflict, a series of crucifixion paintings and prints with references to Biblical stories. Many of these references were made with irony, sarcasm or self-deprecating humor.
Perhaps the best examples of his work from the mid-70s to early 1980s can be seen in the numerous self-portraits he created in varied media: collage, painting, printmaking, drawing and assemblage. Often with satirical or self-deprecating humor and sometimes religious references these works revealed personality but also his feelings of insecurity and angst as an artist.
Sometimes Jerry's self-portraits included portraits of friends or family, and often with inside jokes. In Table Scraps, for example, Jerry depicted himself on the right as an angel and his closest friend sculptor Floyd Shaman as a devil on the left. The nude female figure in the center is Jerry's drawing of a marble sculpture by another fellow artist, Duncan Baird. This lithograph and several of the following artworks also contained common objects in the artist's possession at the time. Like the Italian Renaissance painting he so loved, many of these objects are metaphorical or symbolic of something, and some are completely random inclusions for the sake of composition or just plain whimsy.
Sometime around 1975 Jerry moved out of the Renova studio. Instead he enclosed the carport of his family's home and made that into the first of three studios he built for himself. It is in this studio where two works of lasting importance were made. Self-Portrait As A Combat Artist and he began Via Crusis (Self-portrait with Four Other Drunks Observing the Cross on the Way to the Crucifixion) that he carried with him to Italy while teaching at the University of Georgia Cortona program in the summer or 1976, discussed below. Self-Portrait As A Combat Artist effectively marks the end of the identity crisis that began in 1971. The composition combines hard-edge zig-zagging diagonal lines in the background, drops and splatters of paint (made by suspending an old plastic milk jug with a hole in it from the ceiling and swinging it around) and an expertly rendered self-portrait of the artist's face and hands. Thus these paintings encapsulate the three major motifs in Jerry's œuvre: portraiture, expressionism and formalism. Like the lithograph Table Scraps these paintings also included objects from Jerry's life, like the Japanese bayonet his father brought back from his time in the Pacific Theater during WWII, the belt buckle that belonged to his friend Floyd Shaman and the lampshade from his den in the family home that Jerry refashioned into a helmet, etc.
In the summer of 1976 Jerry was invited to be a guest teaching artist in the Italian studies program of his alma mater, the University of Georgia, in Cortona, Italy. This was the first of many trips Jerry made to Italy throughout his lifetime. That summer was a pivotal experience and had a distinct effect on Jerry's work. The painting Via Crusis (Self-portrait with Four Other Drunks Observing the Cross on the Way to the Crucifixion) was the major artwork produced as a direct result of that trip. Jerry actually folded the unstretched in progress painting up, put it in his suitcase and took it to Italy. He finished it at his home studio later that summer after returning from Italy. It includes a self-portrait carrying a cross and portraits of four of his students that became friends that summer. This maximalist painting is about as far away as possible from his very minimal work of just five years earlier. The influence of Italian portraiture seen on this trip to Italy is clearly visible in both Via Crusis and Untitled Self-Portrait from the fall 1976. Again, everyday objects are included, like the clay figures made by his children and the wood panelling from the family den, etc.
In 1977 Jerry moved his family into an old house in Cleveland, MS built in 1927 in need of renovation. In the back yard of this house stood a concrete block foundation of a no longer extant greenhouse. On this foundation Jerry built the second of three studios he would construct for himself, doing much of the work himself with the help of students and friends. Self-Portrait as the Edi Amin of Home Maintenance is a three-dimensional self-portrait assemblage from 1979 and a direct reference to these experiences. The title is a reference to Idi Amin, the brutal military dictator of Uganda whom Jerry ridiculed as an evil buffoon. This is the largest assemblage Jerry produced up to that time. This piece also included familiar objects from his everyday life: Jerry's old shoes, paint brushes, door knobs, broken children's toys, Christmas tree decorations, etc.
In 1980, Jerry accepted a new teaching position at the University of Southern Mississippi. That summer he moved his family to Hattiesburg, MS, and his work would take another radical turn that reflected his new experiences and attitude. Reinvigorated in his new environment Jerry, in a sense, started over by returning to non-objective abstraction. This time however, the hard-edged geometry of the early 70s was replaced with layered biomorphic forms as he re-embraced Abstract Expressionism as evidenced in the painting Danae (from Greek mythology) from 1981. The human figure remained a regular point of reference throughout the 80s as did religious themes.
At USM Jerry helped establish an Italian studies program in Rome. Although he continued making self-portraits and prints these took a back seat in the 1980s. The experience of multiple trips to Italy decidedly affected his work and religion became more prominent as Jerry saw more and more religious artwork during teaching summers in Italy.
On one of his summer teaching trips in Italy, Jerry saw Pieter Brueghel the Elder's, The Blind Leading the Blind housed at the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. Jerry returned home to Mississippi later that summer and was so moved by what he saw in that 400+year-old painting, he made a large series of work in response.
In 1985 Jerry assumed the position as chairman of the Department of Art at USM. In typical humor he joked at the time that the title of Brueghel’s painting, The Blind Leading the Blind, was the motto of his new chairmanship of the department. Due to time constraints this new administrative position limited Jerry's teaching but also his production of new work. Over the next ten years this limitation grew increasingly difficult to manage as political maneuvering within the department and personal issues at home became untenable.
Religious themed painting was, of course, not the only work Jerry completed at this time. He continued to teach figure drawing classes in addition to painting and printmaking. From time to time he created figure-based paintings and drawings.
Most of the paintings on canvas of this time were made lying on the floor with very liquid paints. He made these liquids himself using acrylic paint from the tube mixed with Rhoplex polymer. Often Jerry included metallic powders normally used in car paints, mixed in a blender with the polymer and poured on the horizontal canvas. This process required weights to be strategically placed on the canvas to pool the liquid. Jerry then placed a fan next to the painting until the liquid dried to a sufficient hardness. At which time, he used a hammer to knock the weights from the canvas. These weights could be anything from coffee cans full of screws, hammer heads, planks of wood, chunks of found concrete, to rocks. The circular outline of a weight can be seen in the top right of Self Portrait Before Birth. By 1986 Jerry left pieces of the weights on the canvas to add additional textures and shapes to the composition and also to leave more residue of the process; which we also discussed in the Studio Visit conversation with his gallery in March 2019.
Also mentioned earlier and in the Studio Visit conversation are the panels or "wings" as Jerry called them that he added to the left and right of paintings. These “wings” reappear in the mid-late-80s. However, here the flat minimal black canvas stretched over wood panel “wings” are juxtaposed with heavily textured expressionistic compositions rather than to complement the minimal compositions of the early 1970s; thus again combining Jerry's two most important contemporary influences, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, in one artwork.
In 1995 Jerry retired from the University of Southern Mississippi as Professor Emeritus. However, he assumed another position as chair of the Department of Art at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC in August.
The mid-1990s proved to be the most fallow time in Jerry's career as he also mentioned in the Studio Visit conversation. In reference to the highly embellished large paintings he created over the previous decade Jerry said, "I overdid, trying to make a one of a kind, and after a few years pretty much almost stopped painting."
After retiring from Winthrop University and surviving a serious battle with lymphoma in 2006 Jerry felt renewed and invigorated. He stated, "Upon retirement from the day job in ’06, my long time stewing over my embarrassment and loss of confidence in much of my painting of the 80s and 90s turned to action…I started over by painting over those old paintings."
This led to what was probably his most productive period as an artist. Soon after recovering from cancer Jerry built the third studio he would build in his life on his property at home about 30 miles south of Charlotte, NC. From 2006 to 2019 in that studio Jerry transitioned once again away from Expressionism and back to hard-edged Minimalism. For example, Jerry painted over Blind Leading the Blind III from 1987 calling new work Deconstructing Jerry #1 it became the first painting of a new series of the same name.
Thus began the final pivot of Jerry's professional career as he once again moved away from Expressionism and embraced hard-edged Minimalism. However, this transition was a slow process. Initially, Jerry left portions of the original paintings visible in the new compositions. Triangles and diagonals made a constant appearance in Jerry's work throughout his career. Triangles in particular made another appearance in several pieces of the work of this time.
Jerry used one-inch blue and white masking tape to delineate these new lines of color and applied the paint with a palette knife. He often left the masking tape in place and painted it into the composition, thus adding texture and hard-edged color. This combination of minimal hard-edged stripes with gestural painterly stripes and texture, once again combined the two influences of Expressionism and Minimalism.
Jerry made about 43 or so new works painted over older works in the Deconstructing Jerry series before he felt confident enough to begin making new work on unpainted canvas or paper. Also, about this time Jerry added parenthetical statements to the titles, which referenced events or recollections of his daily life. He continued adding these references as he made entirely new work. With his tongue firmly planted into his cheek, he dubbed this new series Reconstructing Deconstructing Jerry.
When Jerry reached 100 new paintings in the Reconstructing Deconstructing Jerry series he changed the titles. His next body of work was titled its number in sequence of production but still included the parenthetical reference. The basic structure of each composition, ruled in pencil on raw canvas, mimicked the angles and lines of the stretcher frame itself. Therefore, the visual form of the painting was derived from the architectural dynamics of the stretcher. The graphite lines wrap around the edges of the stretcher and bring the usually hidden structural elements to the surface of the canvas. Jerry intuitively added lines from different points along the edge of the stretcher adding complexity while reemphasizing and repeating the basic structure. This highlighted the materiality of each artwork. Jerry stated, “My paintings start out being about their construction, not so much as a record of process, but they begin and end as objects, as built things with paint on them.”
Once the composition was drawn in pencil on the canvas, Jerry began a two-step painting process. The first layer of color was chosen at random, and the second layer of color was carefully chosen for its visual characteristics as it harmonized and contrasted with the existing colors on the canvas. After much thought and looking, Jerry added and subtracted colors, and this process was repeated until the overall composition reached a logical conclusion, where no one element could be removed without fundamentally altering the whole painting. This series culminated in Jerry's exhibition Edge Over Easy at Robert Henry Contemporary in 2014.
As a side project, Jerry made a series of several copperpoint drawings similar in composition to his paintings of the time.
Also in 2014 Jerry visited Sir Isaac Newton's birthplace; which caused him to re-experience Newton's color theories. In the course of his research on prisms Newton created the first color wheel. This chance encounter launched Jerry into a series of paintings that explored the seven colors of Newton's theories.
After returning home and while reorganizing the flat files in his studio, Jerry found several studies for paintings he made in 1971 but had never realized as paintings. Although he had no desire to finish the paintings in the studies, Jerry did reintroduce chevrons into his work in much the same manner of the work from the early 1970s.
Exhibited alongside small paintings from 1971 this new body of work made its public debut at the art fair VOLTA NY in 2016.
This exploration culminated in Jerry’s fourth, and what would prove to be his final, exhibition at Robert Henry Contemporary in 2017 titled, Seven Twice, Seven Twice. This exhibition consisted of two large-scale paintings, one on canvas and one on paper, each an inexact copy of the other. Both paintings were comprised of seven sections, arranged horizontally in the first and vertically in the second. The colors in both artworks are derived from Sir Isaac Newton’s seven-hue color chart he developed from his studies and observations of sunlight through a prism (Optiks, 1704).
The largest paintings of the series exploring Newton's prism studies took over six months to make each. So, Jerry decided to take a break from large-scale work. He launched into a large series of small studies, of varying sizes, many of which he completed in one or two days.
In the final two years of his life Jerry completed numerous studies for paintings that ranged in size from just a couple of inches to 24 inches square. The titles of these new studies contain a 6 digit numeral recording the month, date and year each piece was completed. Along the way Jerry resurrected another motif that appeared in his work of the 1970s in addition to the angles and triangles. This was the inclusion of value gradations so subtle that cameras are challenged to capture an accurate reproduction of the work, thus making this work difficult to photograph.
In late summer of 2019 Jerry started painting the second of two large paintings he would create, born out of the studies he made over the preceding two years. This painting proved to be Jerry’s last work of art completed just two days before his accidental death in September.