Allan Gurganus on Melissa Meyer

April 8, 2020

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Melissa Meyer, In May the light of Yaddo, 1995, oil on canvas

The writer Allan Gurganus first met the painter Melissa Meyer at Yaddo in 1975, when both were young talents just beginning to find their footing. In his account of how that summer brought the “rusticated woodwind” hues of Yaddo’s lakes and forest paths into Meyer’s work for the first time, Gurganus makes a powerful case for the transformative powers of a Yaddo residency—and the lifelong friendships it fosters. 

Yaddo entered the color and shook the content of Melissa Meyer’s painting in 1975, and I was a lucky new friend who got to watch. We were both so young we thought Twenty Nine made you ancient. Over the weeks of a first stay in Saratoga, I watched the way the woods, the lakes, the Rose Garden, even the sound of a nearby racetrack, first trickled then surged into the work of this immensely gifted young painter.

Meyer usually lived in Manhattan. A city girl with city ways. Somewhat new to the country, she was one of those urbanites who regularly braves muggers and yet feels wary of crickets too hideously loud. “What was THAT?”

But a strange naturalizing began occurring this steamy lovely season spent upstate. I saw the flinty tones, the hard black lines of work she’d brought with her—uncoil. Something opened in this small paradise of evergreens. Something reassuring in its long days innocent of telephones and car alarms and our lives’ usual constant interruption. The greens offered themselves first. Then the browns came her way, and an odd new teal blue. Color in Meyer’s oils subtly shifted from the jazzy Manhattan brass of black and golds—to a more rusticated woodwind range of hue. I saw, as I visited her studio, how this seriously playful young painter opened into whatever space was offered her. She usually lived wide-open to the City’s adrenaline frenzy of novels read, recordings heard, clubs frequented. But Yaddo’s four hundred acres yielded unlikelier influences: bullrushes’ tan down? rocks lichened a bile-green? the needless miracle of dragonfly wings! The artist’s walks around the lakes became—not simply Time-outs—but a surprising new source in-coming. Meyer was also using her student ID to get into the New York City Ballet almost nightly.

So, by day, to enjoy good talk at breakfast, a quorum of silence during working hours, a solid meal that ends with bread pudding, and then to pile into someone’s jalopy and drive to the Performing Arts Center and get to watch Martins and Farrell dance at their platinum peak. Hell, there must be a couple of good paintings waiting latent in all that. And Meyer found them.

By season’s end, when she threw open her studio and invited everyone, you could tell—I mean, which pictures had been started and finished in New York; which ones were begun there and completed here; which bridging works involved her only slowly coming to trust that she was going to get to stay here a while longer; and then the Saratoga paintings. These were my favorites. I bought one at the time, and for most of the money in my savings account. Now, twenty-five years later (can it be? moi? nous?), I still marvel at its lake-blue, its lake-browns, its goldfish-like striations just beneath the surface. It still shows the ravishing confidence of a young hand already in such control of a brush, and yet letting it go ahead and do whatever it seemed to invent, for the first time ever.

I have grown more devoted to the large talent and true authority of Melissa Meyer, an artist met young, long known, and ever more admired. Her works are now in the Met and at the Modern. And if either of those places ever asked me to date some large BC/AD stylistic divide in Melissa Meyer’s painting, it would have to be the split that summer made. I mean, when Meyer—a huge Audrey Hepburn fan—ceased to be only an urban sophisticate; when she started to know she was also an Earthling—in her life and with her paint.

Am I sentimental to credit that season she took note of how the black V’s inscribed across white birch bark resemble Manhattan graffiti marring an otherwise clean wall, and how this relates to Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, Chinese calligraphy and most especially her own work? I think not. I love predicting Meyer’s evolution as an artist by simply looking at the one work I own. In it I see again this new marriage—”opposites attract”—of dislocations. I see two realms’ richness doing battle for where, to quote Bill Clinton, “Is is.” I see that struggle resolving in a lyricism so well-earned.

So, Yaddo muddied the impractical spike heels of a 1975 City Girl. That summer turned up one spadeful of generative earth. Into the work it went. It still leavens a zone of spinning heartfelt urban incandescence.

By Allan Gurganus, from an exhibition curated by Barbara Toll as part of Yaddo’s centenary celebrations.

Copyright © 2000 by The Corporation of Yaddo