Work of the Week – “Caja #1” by Ralph Nelson

Monday, February 6, 2017

by Matt Gorga

 Painting "Caja 1" by Ralph NelsonOne glance at Ralph Nelson’s Caja #1 takes you beyond the confines of reality into an expressive and philosophically charged dream-state, pushing the boundaries of artistic limits in a way that inspires thought and reflection. Perhaps the painting’s box-shaped figures inspired the title, which translates from Spanish to “box.” Given Nelson’s surrealist influences, however, it’s more likely that he was getting at something a bit deeper, encouraging the viewer to “think outside the box.”

Ralph Nelson (1914-1953), born in Mt. Vernon, NY, was inspired by the thoughts and ideals of the surrealist movement. His work, like that of more recognized surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, aimed to liberate the mind, freeing oneself from the confines of rational thought.

His paintings were well respected by artists and collectors of the time. His work found its way into the French Art Show for War Relief in 1947, the Art of This Century gallery, the Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibition in 1947, WPA funded projects, and even into the private collection of the founder of surrealism, Andre Breton.

Browsing the Asheville Art Museum’s collection, I put in my headphones, hoping to channel an open-mind and some creative energy from John Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme. I came across many beautiful and expressive works, but Ralph Nelson’s spoke out to me in a way that emulated the music I was hearing. The cool colors, energetic brush strokes, and boundless creativity of the painting matched the cool, laid-back beat and piano of Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, with John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison’s melodies twisting and tangling, creating form out of the formless.

Jazz often encourages an active listener, and this painting encourages an active viewer. It beckons further exploration and an effort to make sense of it all. Picasso’s Guernica comes to mind, as do works by Jackson Pollock, with the eye first pulled towards the light blue and gradually journeying counter-clockwise, exploring the complete expanse of the painting, letting the thoughts and ideas come and go. Am I looking at a box representing the rational, shredded to pieces exploding outward into a beautiful burst of ideas and creative thought?

Artwork above: Ralph Nelson, Caja #1, 1940, Gouache Painting, 19 x 24.5 inches. Gift of Michael & Caryl Marsh. Permanent Collection. 2001.23.17.23.