Terry's St. John's Action Painting

March 2020

by Peter Najarian

Terry St. John came into his own as a painter when he found what his paint could do by wiping it away and brushing it back again. “There’s a dimension we don’t understand,” wrote Milton Resnick regarding de Kooning years ago. “In other words, if you have a landscape or an interior you have a space. You can deal with it in terms of image or what not. But you can’t really understand what paint is doing. Paint is doing something you ask it to do in order to get the nose on somebody’s face. The paint also does something that isn’t the nose on the face. What it does is fascinating. It’s a new geography.”

And though Terry was not under the influence of de Kooning, who was the major artist of his time, he did follow what de Kooning was all about, just as de Kooning followed Picasso who followed Cezanne who followed all painters back to the caves where the bison on the walls depended on the paint of the oxides and the earth in the walls, as in word geography that came from ge meaning earth and graphia a kind of drawing.

And drawing was to feel what was drawn, and to feel was to touch, and it was when Terry began painting outside that he came in touch with geography when he painted plein air with old Lou Siegriest at Mt. Diablo. 

“’Landscape painting separates the men from the boys,” he would remember Lou saying, which meant facing the challenge of space and finding what lay inside the vanishing point, and what better place for this than with the expanding vista from the mountaintop. 

And then he would move to other sites along the estuary and the shoreline of the bay to develop his own version of what he had inherited from what was called action painting that was the art of his time.

Art, as Aristotle said in his Poetics, which was for me not only about poesy but any art, was in creating an action, which meant the movement of the soul, and the term action painting, which was coined by the critic Harold Rosenberg regarding the rise of de Kooning et al when Terry was just a teen, meant the movement of the soul in painting as well, and as such it was a form of landscape painting, a painting of the earth, and though a figure could be used it would be subsumed in finding a totality where up and down and right and left was a story of life itself.  All painting was a kind of story and to learn how to read it was a kind of geography lesson. 

And so, Terry began by wiping away and starting again, while each wipe would leave a trail of colors like seeds that would sprout through each successive stroke of his knife and brush, until he would have to end like all stories had to end, unless like Scheherazade’s tales their end would be the beginning of another where he would face again the void that had to be filled, and when we walked into the recent exhibit of his work in the Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco, we were deeply moved to see how far he had come in his past sixty years. 

We really had to see it in person, since seeing any painting reproduced was like listening to recorded music that could never approach hearing it alive, especially in his many layers like the improvising in jazz music that was continually transforming, and it was more than exciting, it was uplifting.