The Color of Seasons
Nature and Abstraction in the
 Paintings of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein

The Exhibition That Never Was
But Made Its Mark Anyway

The April 2020 painting exhibition at Galatea Fine Art gallery (Boston) was all ready to open, awaiting festive crowds of fans for the traditional First Friday opening reception. The invitation postcards were all printed, the beautiful catalog, an effort of months, receiving last edits. The two artists were eager to attempt a bold experiment, of interhanging realistic artwork with decidedly abstract paintings, in pairs matching by color, feeling, inner vibration. The subject was framed by the show's title: "The Color of Seasons: Nature and Abstraction in the Paintings of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein". And yet, this exhibition was about to become the first victim of the coronavirus pandemic's total shutdown of Boston's thriving art scene, along with almost all business and cultural activities.

Not all however was lost. Brian George's utterly absorbing catalog Essay, which follows, accomplishes a nearly impossible feat. Not only does it revive the spirit of this exhibition, using poetic and metaphysical language to evoke visual phenomena, but it digs way deeper, into the common roots of Art and Nature.

The subject of Nature and Art, their correspondences and convergence, always comes up anew in difficult times, like ours increasingly is; it reflects upon us differently with every new age... . I think that Carolyn Newberger and I made a pretty convincing case for it, visually, and that Brian George picked up on it as only a true writer-philosopher (with a strong background as an artist himself) could. Thus we offer you the following Essay. And the exhibition itself may yet take place one day, arising like Phoenix out of the ashes of our difficult times.

Philip Gerstein




Parallel Paths That Intersect

Notes on "The Color of Seasons: Nature and Abstraction
in the Paintings of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein"

Brian George


Carolyn Newberger, Weeping Tree *


Philip Gerstein, Count O'Litski *

    The artist is more than an improved camera; he is more complex,
    richer, and more spatial. He is a creature on the earth and a creature within the whole, that is to say, a creature on a star among the stars.
    Paul Klee (1)

Whether the artist engages in a dialogue with the outer structures of Nature (structures that become ever more inward as she probes), as does Carolyn Newberger, or whether he probes into the forces that move beneath its surface, as does Philip Gerstein, these two paths may be variant methods for answering a common set of questions, for responding to a set of challenges that go beyond mere style. Among such questions are the following: How have the converging crises of the Anthropocene changed our sense of what a "landscape" is, and is there even such a thing as a "landscape"? Is the artist's desire to create physical objects a response to the displacements caused by the decentralized plutocracy, a part of some larger effort to re-localize our connection to the Earth?

Such questions may, perhaps, be less linear than toroidal. Such challenges may be less sequential than simultaneous, and all attempts to dissect them may only cause new branches to sprout. From the Hydra's teeth, the ranks of well-armed skeletons grow. Quantum and Einsteinian physics do not quite overlap. The cultures that we appropriate return from the depths to taunt us. The apparent oppositions of the artist to Nature, of representation to abstraction, and even of the living to the dead, may point to some vaster and more paradoxical web whose workings we may never be more than "just about" to define.

The artist paints what he/she sees, but where does this vision originate, and to whom does it belong? Things were so much simpler in the 19th century, when the artist could set up an easel in a landscape and paint "Nature" in his/her style, as influenced by principles learned at the academy, or by scientists proposing new color theories, or by the insights of an avant-garde circle of friends. Nature—in all of her virginal purity, her nostalgic poetry, her shifting light, her sublime terror—was "out there." The artist stood at his/her easel—as a representative of culture, or perhaps a rebel against it.

"In the old days I had too much respect for nature," writes poet Henri Michaux, "I put myself in front of things and landscapes and let them alone. No more of that, now I will intervene."(2)

With Cezanne's alchemical transmutation of the landscape, in which Nature and the artist met on a plane that was "not this" and "not that," the best way to define the relationship of the two might be to say "it's complicated," as we often do when asked a question to which we have no immediate answer. We do not describe; we prevaricate, and we hope that our cliché will bring an end to the discussion. We assume, however, that the only problem is our lack of desire in giving voice to these complexities. In fact, a genuine mystery may confront us. If Cezanne's "Mont Saint Victoire" is not a mountain, neither is it simply a picture of a mountain, as this had previously been understood. Rather, it is a third thing, a new presence, a plane of interactions, on which a marriage of ambiguous forces could be coaxed into existence. "At this moment, I am one with my picture," writes Cezanne. "We are an iridescent chaos."(3 )

The artist wishing to work directly from Nature must do so with the awareness that our relationship with her is now anything but innocent. She must begin by acknowledging that modern corporate/post-industrial society has ripped up its own roots. She must frame her naturalism in a way that references—at least in passing—the past 150 years of stylistic experimentation, much as contemporary classical music has had to find ways to move beyond serialism to some new version of tonality.

An abstract painter must approach the same challenge from a different angle. Even as he attempts to do something that has not been done before, he must, once again, frame his work in a way that references the past 150 years of stylistic experimentation. He must pass through the "unknown, remembered gate," in T.S. Eliot's formulation, "to arrive at where (he) started and know the place for the first time."(4) The challenge is not necessarily to innovate, as such, but rather to approach the sources with which he would play with fresh eyes.

Things were so much simpler in the 19th century, when Nature was either a virgin or a whore, a catalogue of wonders or an arena for the gladiatorial combat between species. Back then, it was permissible to weep before a sunset. Back then, the Congo was not an ecosystem or a web of ancient cultures; it was an economic windfall, a slave labor camp, a source of endless rubber, in return for which King Leopold sketched a blueprint for the Holocaust. Now, we keep our hands much cleaner. We are able to read about such issues on our iPhones.

So, what is Nature, and how should the artist—as cultural or anti-cultural representative—frame his/her relationship to her? Is Nature a set of biogenetic laws, a body whose cells are the species? Is she a form of sexualized geometry, the shadow of a realm of ideal forms, an occult system of correspondences? Is she a generous but unforgiving goddess, the avenger of bleached coral reefs? Is she the creatrix of new stars in the spiral of Barnard's Loop, a black hole, the space that underlies the circling of all particles, the dragonfly waiting to meet you on your morning walk in the Berkshires?

As we test our descriptions of Nature, she may very well probe us. We are not exactly in charge. So too, the cultural moment with which we would grapple may have slipped by in the night. In this exhibit, Newberger and Gerstein, in their complementary ways, have done their best to simply begin from where they are.


Carolyn Newberger, Everything Is Interesting *


Philip Gerstein, After the Humans *

Carolyn Newberger

In Illuminating the Hidden Forest, her series for the Berkshire Edge, Carolyn Newberger describes herself as an artistic "hunter-gatherer." She writes:

    I found many hemlocks, lying heavily on the ground, circles of branches thrust rigidly into the air. But no more varnish caps. Instead, I found a hollow stump into which I peered, feeling a bit as though I were violating its privacy, peeping into its private parts.(5)

When I first encountered Newberger's work, I was immediately struck by this sense of intimacy, an intimacy that was as vast as it was tiny, as exploratory as it was direct. In a painting by Newberger, there is not, let us say, one tree and one observing artist; there are many trees and many artists within one breathing web. Newberger does not express opinions about nature; she asks questions. She creates small openings that lead to larger spaces.

In looking at Newberger's paintings, I cannot help but think, "Does the tree that I am looking at feel, and how is this feeling different from or similar to my feeling? As I look at this mushroom colony in the crevasse of a log, are these mushrooms looking back?" Such questions are nonsensical, of course, but art gives us permission to ask them, and certain artists, such as Newberger, enact a liminal theatre in which the asking can become an end in itself.

We see what is put before us, or so it is convenient to believe. We see what is put before us, in some portion of its detail, at one level of its microcosmic expansion, at one level of its macrocosmic contraction, but, in the liminal space of Newberger's pictures, what we see should perhaps be understood as a suggestion that we know less than we think, that we should question our whole concept of what constitutes a "landscape," that we should treat our preconceptions lightly.

While Newberger's painting may focus on this patch of Sphagnum moss, on that outcrop of fungal culture, it is no coincidence, I think, that her explorations correspond to current scientific developments and the concepts of Deep Ecology. Over and over, in various periods, we can see this type of a-causal link, with breakthroughs in the arts and sciences occurring in synchronization, with key figures being only marginally—if at all—aware of each other's efforts. The artist and his/her period share space; this relationship may be somewhat similar, perhaps, to that between weather and climate.

In 1905, for example, Einstein published his Theory of Special Relativity, which put forward such concepts as length contraction, time dilation, relativistic mass, mass-energy equivalency, and the relativity of simultaneity. In 1907, Picasso completed "Demoiselles d'Avignon," a painting in which both objects and cultures were seen from multiple angles. (Picasso probably did not read physics journals while sipping absinthe at Les Deux Magots.) Then, between 1907 and 1916, Einstein developed his Theory of General Relativity, which challenged many of the predictions of Newtonian physics and described gravity as a geometric property of space and time. These were the very years in which such artists as af Klint, Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian gave birth to the first abstractions.

As crises converge in the Anthropocene, certain artists, such as Newberger, may be prompted to re-localize their vision, to see the planet from the viewpoint of the plant. If early 20th century physics led artists to deconstruct the object, Deep Ecology challenges us to think in terms of relationships, to grasp how each part depends for its existence on the whole.

Researchers from the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich and at Stanford University, for example, have used the database of the Global Forest Initiative—which covers 1.2 million forest tree plots with more than 28,000 species—to demonstrate that under every forest there is an intricate web of roots, fungi, and bacteria that form a kind of internet mutual-support system. This web is said to be 500-million years old. In 2013, David Johnson of the University of Aberdeen showed that broad beans use fungal networks to pick up impending threats, such as aphids. "Some form of signaling was going on between plants about herbivory by aphids," says Johnson, "and those signals were being picked up though mychorrhizal mycelial networks."(6) Likewise, in her 2011 documentary Do Trees Communicate?, Suzanne Simard demonstrated that forest plants "are not really individuals in the sense that Darwin thought they were individuals competing for the survival of the fittest."(7)

Even as we expand the context of our vision, we must challenge ourselves to think small. Of what vaster web are both we and the "wood-wide web" a part? J.F. Martel, in "How Symbols Matter: Sign City is a place where nothing can ever happen," writes:

    Art does not represent reality; it captures it from an oblique angle from which the object of perception, the act of perceiving, and the power of the percept reveal their strange unicity. Through symbols, the work of art forces us to see the world imaginally—which is to say, not in terms of fixed representations illuminated by the blinding light of intellect, but rather of moving spheres shifting in and out of shadow, bioluminescent, illumined from within.(8)

Having stepped beyond the surface of the mirror, the artist may then choose to invert the structure of her questions, as does Newberger—not "How can I use this fern to make a picture?" but rather, "What is it that this fern is asking me to do?"


Carolyn Newberger, September Forest *



Philip Gerstein, The Name of the Wind *


Philip Gerstein

A few weeks back, when speaking with Philip Gerstein, I said, "Some writers come up with outlines and then simply fill them in. I can't imagine working in this way. Even when I do begin with an outline, the final essay or poem bears no relation to it when it's done. If I wrote to express my emotions or ideas, I probably wouldn't bother to write at all. My goal in writing is to discover what I know." Gerstein responded, "Yes, exactly! That's also why I paint. While a piece may look spontaneous, I don't know and don't want to know where the process is going to take me. Even if I have a clear goal at the beginning, I can't guess if the painting is going to take two weeks or two years to come to rest."

A Slight Detour

There are certain things that surprise and disorient me, however much they are common knowledge. I can never quite believe that rock and roll has been around for almost 70 years or that abstraction has been around for more than a century. When I look at Kandinsky's work from 1913, or, more recently, at Hilma af Klint's work from 1906, I am overwhelmed by the freshness of the paintings, by the sense of open-ended discovery. Since then, abstraction—and painting in general—has perhaps died and been reborn any number of times.

In 2013, I went to a show at the ICA Boston called This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s. I was very excited to go, since I think of the 1980s in terms of one of these "rebirths" of the possibilities of painting, although not necessarily of abstraction. There were, unfortunately, very few real paintings in the show. The whole focus was on such concepts as the fusion of word and image, redefinitions of gender identity, the status of representation as such, the skewering of art as luxury commodity, the end of the counterculture and the end of history, rebellion versus its cooptation—and whether one can be distinguished from the other, the use of sexualized images by advertisers to promote our lust for objects, the threat of nuclear war, the government's lack of response to the AIDS crisis, the intersection of the primal and the technological, and the centrality of irony to the decade. The show was quite well put together, and it seemed to perfectly fulfill the vision of its curator. The one thing the show did not do was the very thing I was hoping that it would.

Gone entirely were such painters as Schnabel, Kiefer, Cucchi, Chia, Clemente, Rothenberg, Baselitz, and Paladino. These artists were no longer fashionable, perhaps, but their absence brought to mind those Stalinist photos in which former party officials—the victims of show trials—had been mysteriously airbrushed out. I was also reminded of Ravel's comment when he was asked if he had ever created any masterpieces. He replied, "I have created only one masterpiece, the Bolero. Unfortunately, it contains no music." As I wandered through the show—and all too often since—I yearned to experience the brushiness of brushwork, the harmonized chaos of a non-conceptual composition, the physical presence of the canvas, the tactile paintness of the paint.


Carolyn Newberger, Mangrove *


Philip Gerstein, Spring Forward *

When I stand before Gerstein's paintings, I can savor the offhand allusions to various past styles and painters without feeling that he is engaged in an ironic game or academic exercise. I can appreciate such allusions in the same way that I would appreciate the allusions in Eliot's "The Wasteland," in an improvisation by Thelonious Monk, in the way that the brushstrokes in a Chinese landscape will allude to 2000 years of history without ever ceasing to be spontaneous gestures in the moment. It is significant, I think, that he cites Kandinsky as a major creative model. Kandinsky certainly thought deeply about painting, and he elaborated various theories, but what is most important about him is perhaps his sense of mystery, his confronting of it and probing into it, his attempts to create structures to give some form to the encounter, his not resting for more than a few years with any fixed formulation. Always, he would return to the moment of inception, to a sense that a painting is a dialogue between two equal partners.

When I look at Gerstein's work, I am never in any doubt that this is someone who loves to paint. I am never in doubt that he is someone who thinks deeply about painting. Like Newberger, he is also a kind of hunter-gatherer, who quietly stalks the plains where herds of Impressionists, Cubists, Fauvists, Constructivists, Expressionists, Neoplasticists, Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, and Color Field painters roam.

In Gerstein's work, these seemingly contradictory styles somehow fit together. For me, his more minimalistic works have a meditative or even hallucinatory aspect. (In this, they are like Rothko and Newman but unlike Stella and Kelly.) I tend to see the vertical and horizontal divisions as planes of consciousness, as the materialization of out-of-body states, as the bands of a Kabbalistic spectrum. The more expressionistic works are no less spiritual, that is to say, they are no less spiritually open than they are formally open. Their color is as much light as it is color, and their brushwork is subject to the mercurial revisions of the one eternal moment.

With certain of Gerstein's paintings, there is an almost Mozartean balance, a subtle geometry that supports but does not dominate the brushwork. Other pieces are more off kilter, more like a multi-team trapeze act. What excites me, however, is that even the most organized of his compositions never feel predictable or seem to have been filled in according to some pre-set method. (The temptation of method does, I think, represent a genuine danger and stunted some of the later explorations of the original Abstract Expressionists.) There is, in Gerstein's work, a living and very unpredictable relationship between the part and the whole. Stepping back, you can take in the structure like the bones and nerves and organs of a body. As you allow your eye to move, however, an individual brushstroke will seem to reconfigure the whole surface of the painting. In the more minimalistic works, the slight distortion of a vertical line, a shifting of the light on a bead- or mineral-encrusted surface, the viewer's optical recalibration of the pull between two colors, or some deliberate imperfection will also generate this effect. However balanced, there is nothing that stays put, and the painting is less a statement than an invitation to the dance.


Carolyn Newberger, Acorns on the Forest Floor *


Philip Gerstein, Summer Bountiful *

The centrality of dialogue—of an "I-Thou" relationship between the artist and nature, between the artist and his painting, between the artist and all of those forces that exist beyond either her knowledge or control—is, I think, the key factor that joins Gerstein's work to Newberger's. J.F. Martel, in "Consciousness and the Aesthetic Imagination," argues

    For insofar as it belongs to the order of dream and vision, art isn't part of culture. On the contrary, it is the intrusion of Nature into the human realm. And what the intrusion reveals, ultimately, is that in truth there never was "culture." Words, concepts, beliefs, ideations are forces in a universe of forces.(9)

With Newberger's work, what first struck me was an almost spooky sense of being watched. Not only were her eyes and ears wide-open during her excursions into the forest; the mushrooms and lichens and trees that she discovered were also watching her, and through her paintings, me. So too with Gerstein's work. As I study one of his paintings, I can never tell if I am reenacting the process of Gerstein producing a painting or of the painting painting Gerstein.

In the writing of this essay, I too have been subject to the shadowy machinations of some process of which I am no more than a part. A few months back, Gerstein had asked me if I would be interested in writing something for this exhibit. I said, "Sure," and then forgot all about it. Then, one day over lunch, he reminded me of my promise and informed me that I had a week or so before they would need the piece for the catalogue. Coincidentally, on that same day, my daughter E. told me of the recent research into mycorrhizal fungal networks. I was fascinated to learn of the existence of these living internet-type structures.

I had been asking myself, "How does Gerstein's work connect with Newberger's?" I had certainly observed the parallel nature of their paths, but I was not at all sure yet where or how these intersected. The fungi helped to crystalize my half-formed intuitions. I knew that I had been asking certain questions to myself; I didn't know that I had sent out feelers underground, that other presences had heard. The "wood-wide web" presented me with a metaphor for the relationship between the artists in this show, for the relationship between art and what we too casually call "Nature," for the relationship between the intentions of the living and the influence of the dead, for the relationship between the root-like tangles of the creative process and the artist's articulation of its secrets in the moment.

One artist may cultivate a close physical relationship with Nature, with the lichen on a log, with the tangled branches by a stream, and her representations then transform themselves into powerful abstract patterns. Another artist, in his studio, may make his psyche into a field, a plane with no fixed edges where the forces of Nature play, and the result is a representation of patterns normally hidden from our view. If the efforts of these artists are much less separate than they seem, or than certain 20th century critics have told us that they should be, their alchemy may nonetheless require one more element, or ten, or one hundred, or ten thousand, and you, the "viewer," may in some way be essential to this process. Luckily, in The Color of Seasons: Nature and Abstraction, you will be able to engage in a dialogue with the recent work of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein, and these paintings will not—unlike the mychorrhizal mycelial networks—have to wait 500 million years to be discovered.



1) Paul Klee, The Thinking Eye: The Notebooks of Paul Klee, ed. Jurg Spiller, G. Wittenborn, New York, 1961, 63

2) Henri Michaux, "Intervention," Selected Writings, New Directions, New York, 1968, 53

3) Quoted in Helene Cixous, "The Last Painting or the Portrait of God," in Clive Cazeaux, ed. The Continental Aesthetics Reader, Routledge, London, 2000, 588

4) T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Collected Poems 1909-1962, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1991

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;

5) Carolyn Newberger, Illuminating the Hidden Forest, the Berkshire Edge,
June 22, 2019

6) Nic Fleming, BBC, "Plants talk to each other using an internet of fungus,"
Nov. 11, 2014

7) Nic Fleming, BBC, "Plants talk to each other using an internet of fungus,"
Nov. 11, 2014

8) J.F. Martel, "How Symbols Matter: Sign City is a place where nothing new
can ever happen," The Finch, 2016

9) J.F. Martel, "Consciousness in the Aesthetic Imagination," Metapsychosis,
July 2016



Carolyn Newberger, Weeping Tree, 2018, watercolor & pastel, 8 x 6 inches

Philip Gerstein, Count O'Litski, 2017, oil stick, acrylic, glass beads, mixed textural media on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches

Carolyn Newberger, Everything Is Interesting, 2018, watercolor, pastel, 8 x 6 inches

Philip Gerstein, After the Humans, 2016, acrylic, mixed media on wood panel, 30 x 20 inches

Carolyn Newberger, September Forest, 2018, watercolor, 6 x 16 inches

Philip Gerstein, The Name of the Wind, 2018, oil stick, acrylic, mixed textural media on wood panel, 20 x 30 inches

Carolyn Newberger, Mangrove, 2015, watercolor, 11 x 15 inches

Philip Gerstein, Spring Forward, 2014, oil stick, acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches

Carolyn Newberger, Acorns on the Forest Floor, 2020, watercolor, 10 x 14 inches

Philip Gerstein, Summer Bountiful, 2017, oil stick, acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches

Cover Photos:
(left) Carolyn Newberger, Everything Is Interesting,
8" x 6", watercolor, pastel,  2018
(right) Phillip Gerstein Up-Rising, 30" x 24"
acrylic & mixed media on wood panel, 2016

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BRIAN GEORGE is the author of two books of essays and five books of poetry. These include Voyage to a Nonexistent Home; Masks of Origin; Maps of the Metaphysical Double: In the Footprints of de Chirico; To Akasha: An Incantation for the Crossing of an Ocean; and The Preexistent Race Descends. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, an exhibited artist and former teacher. He often tells people first discovering his work that his goal is not so much to be read as to be reread, and then lived with.

CAROLYN NEWBERGER is an artist, musician and writer who came to art after an academic career in psychology at Harvard Medical School. She's won awards from Watercolor Magazine, the Danforth Museum, Cambridge Art Association, and the New England Watercolor Society, of which she is a signature member.  Carolyn writes and illustrates music and dance reviews in The Berkshire Edge, a Western Massachusetts newspaper. She is working on an illustrated book of essays, "Illuminating the Hidden Forest," currently being serialized in weekly articles.  Many of her paintings in this exhibition are part of this project.

Born and raised in Moscow, USSR, PHILIP GERSTEIN began exhibiting his work in the 1980's with the Boston Visual Artists Union, after pursuing a PhD in Art History at Harvard University.  He studied painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Japanese calligraphy with Toshu Ogawa. Philip has been exhibiting in NYC, Provincetown MA, and very extensively in the Boston area, as well as organizing and curating painting and photography shows. His work has been reviewed, reproduced and praised in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, ArtScope Magazine, and Art New England, and he is the author of the prize-winning essay, "Art of Color: Beauty in art comes in so many forms; art of color is a special case of it." International Painting Annual 4. 1st. Cincinnati: Manifest Press, 2014.

©2020 Brian George, Carolyn Newberger, Philip Gerstein
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine







A catalog of the exhibition is available at Lulu.com:



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