"...Parker shared the Abstract Expressionist belief in painting as possibility and freedom...But Parker was not an Abstract Expressionist. His ambition was not heroic. There are almost no signs of struggle, heaviness and brooding in his work. There is no metaphysical longing. Parker was a formalist in his belief that the medium of painting could determine its message."
It's a difficult task to categorize Ray Parker as an artist. Considered an Abstract Expressionist, a Color Field painter, as well as a Lyrical Abstractionist, Parker's style shifted, changed and evolved over four decades between the early 1950's and into the 1980's. His inspiration came from many different directions. As an art student at the University of Iowa in 1940, it was Cubism, in the 1950's it was from his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko and the improvisational nature of Jazz music. In the 1960's he was pushed by minimalism and the simplicity of Color Field painting. And finally, by the late 1960's into the early 1970's, he turned to conceptual and colorful cut-outs by Henri Matisse. Constantly evolving as an artist, his respect for space, color and form remained throughout his lifetime.
Parker's work from the 1950's illustrates the continuation of his early interest in Cubist form and blocks of color. In this example from 1951 (below), there is a striking combination of both Cubism as well as the refined gesture of the Abstract Expressionists.
He was readily accepted into the New York School and was considered an important member. He was included in "The New Talent" exhibition at MoMA in 1950 as well as the "Annual Exhibtion of Contemporary Painting" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1952.
The following decade is what Ray Parker became most recognized for, his Simple Paintings - which are anything but. Weighty, dense and monumental, the shapes that make up Parker's Simple Paintings cannot be placed within a period; the rough edges and brushstrokes of Abstraction within the geometric minimalism of Color Field painting makes them undefinable.
Ray Parker's painting process in the 1960's still had it's basis in Abstract Expressionism, he began painting without a preconceived plan or sketch. Tacking raw canvas onto the wall, he would prep it only with a priming coat to maintain the brightness of color. Using a rag dipped in paint, Parker would allow the color to expand to it's fullness of form, using his hand and the material to dictate the final composition.
"...I had made the simple paintings by applying the paint with rags...freed me of the limits and rules I had made for myself for color and field. Now I could make a screwy shape, even a line! Color, yes! Field, yes! Elaborate shapes, lateral movements. changing speeds, multiple rhythms (once more) Yes! Anything, Yes! And withal, these new paintings are simple and direct."
Late 1960's - 1970's
This period was inspired by Matisse's Cut-Outs from his artist book from 1947 entitled, Jazz. Many of us were lucky enough to see this wonderful recent exhibition at MoMA, "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" in October 2014, but the last time these works were on view in New York was in 1961. An exhibition, again at the MoMA, "The Last Works of Henri Matisse: Large Cut Gouaches" would have been where Ray Parker would have seen and been inspired by their simple yet lyrical forms and vibrating colors.
Additional Reading and Citations
Quote from Michael Brenson, "Review/Art; Ray Parker's Piece of the Abstract Puzzle," New York Times, September 28, 1990, which can be read here
Ray Parker's painting process and additional information on his Simple Paintings from William C. Agee, Evelyn Kranes Kossak Professor of Art History, Hunter College, New York from the exhibition catalogue, Ray Parker Paintings 1958-1971: Color into Drawing, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1990, pp. 7-8, which can be read here
Quote by Ray Parker from the above, can also be found in his 1975 statement published in the Catalogue of the American Collection, The Tate Gallery, London, 1978, p. 5.