This is not a story (Part 2)
To commemorate an exhibition of the late Bonnie Bronson's work, Randal Davis writes about the influences, context and history that shaped Bronson's development as an artist. Continued from Part One.
“For this is action, this not being sure, this careless Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow, Making ready to forget, and always coming back To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.”
—John Ashbery, “Soonest Mended” 
A work from Bronson’s student years is charged with all the feeling of someone ready for change. A large (34 × 22in) charcoal and graphite study of a standing figure, drawn on inexpensive Kraft paper, was nearly completed before being partially eradicated by bold splashes of color, decisively leaving behind the anonymous proficiency of student work. “Action painting” enacted.
It is not so surprising, however, that her works of the early 1960s, and from her first one-person show at Mt. Angel College in 1964, are clearly indebted to Abstract Expressionism. As Bruce Guenther observed, “although Abstract Expressionism was just another style by the late 1950s, it represented a quickening spirit in the air on the West Coast, a new path that gave young artists a footing in avant-garde painting.”  By that time, Bronson’s husband, Lee Kelly, was gaining increasing recognition throughout the Northwest for his abstract painting and polychrome sculptures, both of which were, at that time, also within the idiom of Abstract Expressionism.
One of Bronson’s earliest surviving sketchbooks, begun in 1961, features several loosely improvisational renderings of Kelly’s sculptures of the period, but a series of small paintings on paper from the same time reveal that Bronson’s somewhat precocious mastery of the idiom also took place in terms distinctly different from Kelly’s. These small, monochromatic, oil on paper works manifest an awareness of Franz Kline, though less perhaps his paintings than his distinctive studies executed on the pages of discarded telephone books.
Bronson and Kelly’s full-scale paintings were rather closer to de Kooning than Pollock, sharing a propensity for distinct forms, often outlined, as in, say, Bronson’s earth-toned Untitled [cream] (1963) and Kelly’s Innerscape (1959) or Gray Blue (1962). Kelly generally favored a higher-keyed palette, with “roiling surfaces and massing of brushstrokes,” Guenther notes, “scumbling veils of pigment [to] build a dense, often opaque surface of condensed forms.”
Bronson, for her part, preferred a closely valued palette, relying more on subtle modulations than bold contrasts. In this regard, even these very early works show a characteristic that remained almost constant throughout her work—the exploration of colors, whether vibrant or subdued, within a strictly limited, approaching monochromatic, range, manifesting, as Ashbery put it, “the complexities hidden” in the reductive.
Another, even more telling distinction obtained between Bronson and Kelly at the time: their use of a normative geometry. In Bronson’s Untitled [cream] (1963), it is not at all hard to see the rectilinear forms, as if the composition is built upon a nascent grid. The smoky and crepuscular ambiance of Untitled [black] (1963) might superficially appear a different matter, but it too is rectilinear; divided first vertically and then again on the horizontal, it presents an almost perfectly quadrated image. On the other hand, Kelly’s “condensed forms” were typically far less regular and much the more biomorphic. This aspect of Bronson’s painting was, of course, prophetic. Although she did not codify her use of what she called “modulars” until a decade later, with the commissioning of two large pieces by the upscale retailer Nordstrom, a defining, near constant characteristic of her work is its reliance on geometric systems, even if of an idiosyncratic sort.
For all their differences though, it is possible to suggest that both Bronson and Kelly had each found themselves at a sort of artistic impasse in the first half of the 1960s. It was surely notable that the circumstances of their lives changed profoundly at this time—their son Jason was born in 1962, joining Kelly’s daughter Kassandra (from his first marriage). And, they had settled into their home and studios in North Portland.
During the following year, their home and studios both suffered damage in the Columbus Day storm of 1963 and they decided to relocate. Making what was for the time a conspicuously radical move, they purchased a 5-acre former dairy farm outside of rural Oregon City, some 15 miles southwest of Portland, and they began renovating the large barn, already then in its fifth decade, and outlying buildings to be living and work spaces. They continued to live and work there until Bronson’s untimely death in 1990, and Leland Iron Works, named in wry tribute to sculptor David Smith, remains Kelly’s primary studio and base of operations.
We could drift into that story—of an unusual place and their lives together. “Tell it, then,” a listener might say. And, yes, it is a good story, but not the one I will tell. I offer instead a smaller, yet perhaps more resonant story—how Bronson came to abandon the Abstract Expressionist idiom which, until then, had served her well.
Part Three >
7. John Ashbery, The Double Dream of Spring (New York: Ecco Press, 1976): 19.
8. Bruce Guenther, “Doubtful Sound / Distant Shore,” text for Lee Kelly’s Doubtful Sound exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, 2008. Unpublished, n. pag. See also his Lee Kelly (Portland: Portland Art Museum, 2010): 10-13.