In his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire stated that ‘modernity’ required, “above all a man of the world to fulfill. He has every-where sought after the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life, the distinguishing character of that quality which, with the reader’s kind permission, we have called ‘modernity’. Often weird, violent and excessive, he has contrived to concentrate in his drawings the acrid or heady bouquet of the wine of life.” If we are to seek for such a representation of ‘modernity’ in Salt Lake City, of that which captures the “fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life,” we need look no further than the art of Karen Horne, painter of Salt Lake City.
Though she was born in New York City, and studied art at Yale and abroad, Karen Horne has deep roots in Utah, and has lived much of her life here. She is a great-granddaughter to Alice Merrill Horne, the early Utah painter and patron of the arts. Her mother, Phyllis Horne, studied fashion illustration and couture design in New York and went on to become a noted Utah painter; her father studied at Cornell Medical School, and moved the family first to California and later to Bountiful, Utah, to practice medicine. Horne followed a similar pattern, returning to Utah after years in Manhattan. It was there she met husband Michael Rowley on Madison Avenue, where he was director of a master print gallery while Horne was working at The Frick Collection. They returned to Salt Lake City in 1996 to live in Sugar House where Karen would continue her practice of doing what she had been doing in Manhattan, which was “painting plein air in the parks and working on street scenes.”
Horne studied abroad in 1984 in Italy and she says, “I think my summer living in Florence and visiting Rome, Venice and other Italian cities sold me on the ‘piazza.’ I loved seeing the street life in Roman piazze, and enjoying the spectacle of Italians doing their early morning marketing in open air fruit and fish markets, then their evening promenade, and later enjoying al fresco dining. It seemed that their cities were designed to encourage gathering and mingling. Many public spaces! A constant parade!” This early encounter with Italian ‘modernity’ would be a preparation for the canvases that would come out of Manhattan, and then the work that would evolve in Salt Lake City to become what we see today in Night and Day, a retrospective exhibit at the Gallery at Library Square, hung as a complement to the 2014 Utah Arts Festival.
Horne calls herself a “contemporary impressionist,” an apt description for an artist who is able to capture the mood of a moment using color to respond to changing conditions and the infinite phenomena of light. Although a viewer might not immediately correlate the bright fuchsia in “Gallivan Skaters” with night-time skating, in reality, so much of what is the essence of the experience of skating at night on ice is the reflection of the bright lights above, whatever hue they might be: electric blue, neon green, fluorescent yellow, fuchsia. In “Gallivan Skaters” we see a dominance of fuchsia, but there is also vermillion red, turquoise blue, other tonalities of pink, and even the icy glow of white as actual shadow in the night, and it is these exciting, lucid colors that give energy to this particular moment, give presence to this experience of these skaters on this night and this moment unlike any other as the change of light is infinite and might never be repeated.
This ability both to see and to express unique moments developed early for Horne, in a childhood full of creativity. “Growing up, we were always making something, and encouraged to create as well,” Horne says of her formative years. “We were never short of creative materials: clay, watercolor, drawing supplies, fabric, felt, etc.” An aunt that visited the family while they were in New York City says that as a toddler Horne showed her what she called ‘my birds.’ “In the closet I’d arranged my mother’s high heels with various colored stockings. These were ‘my birds.’ My father was always saying ‘Karen sees things nobody else sees.’ As I go about the day, I’m always craning my head, on the lookout for compositions, color juxtapositions, etc. I do respond very directly to color and light effects, and sometimes feel a little spacey and removed from mundane life because I’m always visualizing paintings.”
Despite these early artistic inclinations, Horne’s future with the brush was only one of many options. “In my teenage years, I was very involved in math and science,” she says. “Somehow spatial relations came easily to me, and I loved the abstract quality of equations. I was on the math team at Skyline. But there were always artistic influences around me. I also loved writing essays and poetry. There were medical doctors in our family, but they were cultured and not just science nerds. They all loved and collected art as well.”
The pivotal transition happened for Horne as she began attending college. Although granted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah, she found the prospect of Pre-Med at Yale more interesting. “Although I started Yale with satisfying my Pre-Med courses, lab work just felt alien,” she says. “I guess I loved the abstraction of math and science more than the reality of donning a white coat and working with beakers.” Once she began taking painting and sculpture classes, she said she found her ‘tribe.’ “I connected both with fellow students, and with masters from the past. These subjects suddenly felt more compelling. I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and my mind was blown.”
As much as Horne connected to the old masters, it was color that would be her primary interest and driving motivational force. “In my intensive [Joseph] Albers color course, I had to collect paint chips and magazine pages to do collage pieces. I remember my floor being covered with colored paper one semester, a sea of value and color shifts. This course was so valuable in helping me refine my color sensitivity.”
This passion for color combined with what Horne calls a “more gutsy, gestural and modern impressionism,” to form her unique artistic observation of the world around her. That world is frequently urban, and filled with people. Horne has repeatedly painted the museums, the eateries and the entertainment venues she frequents. Her “Evening at the Rose Wagner,” is a studied moment in time, capturing the color of light as it affects the myriad components of the entirety. Many of us have been in the same place, but spend most of our time thinking, “What about this traffic? Are we ever going to find a parking place? Do you have the tickets? Oh my hair! Are you sure this dress looks all right? Oh I cannot wait to see the new piece.” Neither the eye nor the mind is fixated on the present visual beauty. This is where the beauty and magic of the painting of Karen Horne and the ‘modernity’ of the painter of Salt Lake City steps in and captures the life that most are experiencing but are not really seeing, are not looking at. This is the life that will be astonishingly familiar to anyone entering the Gallery at Library Square.
Appropriate to this exhibition, which opened to coincide with the 2014 Utah Arts Festival, is a triptych of paintings that show Library Square facing the City County Building at the height of the festival excitement: “Rainbow of T-Shirts at the Utah Arts Festival,” “Late Afternoon at the Utah Arts Festival” and “Evening at the Utah Arts Festival.” The subject of the Arts Festival has been one of fascination for Horne, who is reminded by it of the piazze of Italy, and sees it as a gathering place and time for all walks of life in Salt Lake City.
Like the “Gallivan” and the “Rose Wagner,” the pieces in the triptych are but glimpses of a moment at the festival, and like the “Gallivan,” the “Rose Wagner,” and all of the paintings that are on display, these capture the presence and the present of that moment in color responding to myriad phenomena of light in that brief impression of fleeting time, never to be repeated, and like before, offer more of a sense of totality of truth to these elements to the viewer, than the festival-goer in any of these scenes, given any given duration of time, without the presence of mind to see and to look, but thinking, “What shall we have to drink? Where was that booth with the pottery? Where’s John? What a lovely quilt! Oh my, it’s so hot! How much time do we have? I’m getting worn out.”
Instead of all of this distraction, Horne has her artistic eye and color palette focused on the realities and conditions of an early afternoon painting when the colors are fresh, cool, inviting, the greens are minty and cool, alive, vibrant, the building and canapés are blue, as are most of the figures; the full light of overhead sun has not hit them directly. The mood, accordingly, is one of welcoming and energizing readiness for the day ahead. Then, late afternoon hits, midday has passed, the shadows are long, the colors are lucid in this “golden hour” when the red is vermillion and the whites seem to glow, the blacks have a liveliness, and the patchwork of color is the throng of people at the day’s climax. A night scene shows fewer people and with less detail but with more lucid color, neon yellows and greens, and white penetrating the black that illuminates the scene and creating nightlife and an excitement of ‘modernity’ to this canvas, just as light articulates the color that is studied by the vision of Horne in every canvas, to find that essence of ‘modernity,’ the infinite present and truthful immediacy, as the artist must see and must look and we, those who know and will recognize, find ourselves face to face with the genuine reality of our own city, in these many paintings of Salt Lake City’s modern life.
Karen Horne is the eyes that see and the brush that looks giving full reality to the situation as well as mood and spirit and captures all of these aspects in pure color as one might not experience them one’s self given all of the time one could desire. For over twenty years now, Horne has been painting the people and scenes, and above all the colors, around her. Series of these works have been exhibited regularly at Horne Fine Art, the gallery she and husband Michael opened on 800 South in 2003. The current exhibit at the Gallery at Library Square should not be missed, however, as it brings together a marvelous collection of her works exploring the changing light of Salt Lake City, providing any local viewer both a sensation of recognition and discovery.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.