John Blee: The Poetry of Color

John Blee with his painting "Appalachin Spring" | Tom Wolff

If color is a language, then John Blee can be considered a lyric poet.
The Washington painter, whose solo exhibition will be seen at The Ralls Collection in October, produces abstracts lit with the sheen of a summer sunset.

Vivid oranges and yellows play against sky blues that shade into purples, punctuated by pinks that range from the palest of roses to vibrant corals. In less skillful hands, the effect could be garish. Instead, Blee’s colors, no matter how surprising their combinations, sing with an assured harmony.

“You paint out of the whole experience of your life,” says Blee, and an important part of that life was spent growing up in India and Pakistan, where his father was a State Department officer. “Indian color is off the scale—it’s not subdued,” he says, and his paintings reflect its sun-drenched intensity. Blee also points to the richly hued Indian Basohli miniature paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries as inspiration for his colors. His artwork—and life—is also informed by another influence nurtured during those years, the spirituality of India.

Blee counts among his mentors painter Helen Frankenthaler, whose work helped shape the Color Field movement of the 1940s and 50s. “I remember when I met [her], when I was still an art student. I found her color amazing. Colorists are very rare. I asked her how she chose colors and she replied it was like a poet choosing a word for a poem. I feel the same.”

Jane Roberts, whose Paris gallery hosted exhibitions of Blee’s work in 2008 and in June of this year, singles out his “supreme sense of color and light, like late Bonnard, whom he particularly loves. His paintings seem to glow from inside and have a joyous life of their own, unlike many abstract paintings which are merely formal exercises. A French collector, a busy lawyer, who bought a painting in 2008 told me that she has John’s painting opposite her desk and it literally calms her down after difficult meetings!”

Blee’s exhibition will focus on his latest works, paintings he groups into his “Orchard Suite,” whose genesis originated two years ago after seeing an exhibit of late Bonnards at the Metropolitan Museum of art. “There was one with a checked tablecloth in the bottom of the canvas with a still life on it,” Blee says. “It suggested to me the space of a landscape—the checks were like small farms seen from a mountain—and the fruit spilled over them the fruits of the land. From that picture I made ‘Eastern Orchard,’ the first of what I think of as my continuing suite”

“But,” he adds, “Klee in the series of ‘Magic Square’ pictures [of the 1920s and 30s] always has played inside of me. Those works are like the purest sounds in music and they deeply engage me. I first started looking at Klee seriously when I was 14 or 15 in Delhi and bought a book of his work, my first thick art book. I still look at it.” The rhythmically deployed, rectangular forms that appear in much of Blee’s work often echo Klee.

Gallery director Marsha Ralls finds other parallels in the “Orchard Suite” paintings: “These particular works of John’s really are a continuation of the Washington Color School. The color really glows.”

The series also has literary roots, a 1920s collection of French-language poems by writer Rainer Maria Rilke, grouped under the title The Orchard. “The word ‘orchard’ has a sense of the seasons to me, of ripening and flowering,” says Blee. “It encompasses fruition, growth, decay, and transformation.”

That John Blee’s paintings are underscored by both visual and literary sources—as well as philosophical ones—isn’t surprising. Spend time talking to him and he’ll weave a rich thread of references that range from Baudelaire to poet Hilda Morley to Hindu mythology to Braque. It’s this sense of connection and synthesis that fuels Blee’s creativity.

“I believe very strongly that all the arts, though focused differently, have the same source. We speak in words, and where words are the most like painting is in poetry. It is not just or solely the images of poetry, it is the power of language itself. For me music and dance and theater are all the same as poetry and painting.”

Blee says that “in the New York School of painting, which I descend from, as with the [pre-World War I] School of Paris, poets have allied themselves with painters and vice versa. I read Frank O’Hara’s criticism in art magazines when I was a kid in Delhi. All my own critical work is based on those pieces, the verbal part anyway. O’Hara had a real love of painting that I share. His poetry is very much alive and accessible in the moment, coming right from life and spilling out.”

“Rilke, though, was a far greater influence,” he says. “I read him first as a late teen, and really only began to ‘get’ him after a year or two. But his vast poetic landscape and a desire to go beyond all and put it together in a larger vision has always been part of my own search in my painting.”

“For me, the poet of my own life is Hilda Morley whom I met at the artists’ colony Yaddo in 1973 and knew until her death in 1998. She knew all the New York painters and composers and had been married to composer Stefan Wolpe. She was the real thing. Her poetry mirrored the New York School of painting. One needs living examples to understand this complicated thing called ‘life,’ and being an ‘artist’ is not something that is easy. Hilda knew instinctually how to carry on and to be.”

John Blee seems to have taken the lesson of “how to carry on and to be” to heart. He’s one of the city’s most notable painters, selected by critic and writer F. Lennox Campello among those included in his new book, 100 Artists of Washington, D.C. The top-floor studio of his house (whose color-splashed floor is a painting in itself) is filled with works in progress. He’s found a rewarding avenue in the courses he teaches at U.D.C and the Art League of Alexandria. And there’s always that next painting on the horizon, another opportunity, as Blee says, “to put the impossible in front of you, to aim as high as you can.”


John Blee’s work can be seen in “20 Years, 20 Artists at The Ralls Collection” through Sept. 24. Dates for his October exhibition are to be announced. (The Ralls Collection, 1516 31st St., NW,

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