EDWARD CORBETT (1919-1971), moved to Taos in 1951.
I intend my work as poetry. 56
—Edward Corbett, 1952
Edward Corbett believed, with the rest of the abstract expressionists, that the value of art is intrinsic. He reflected on his own intentions as a painter and an intellectual at grips with ideas that dominated his world at the time:
I knew that I had to find a way of painting that I could do as well as [the Europeans] did their Surrealism and Cubism … and I had to literally work towards a discovery. I didn’t know what I was working towards. It was a mystery. The end was there but it was imagined. The end. I could imagine without knowing what it looked like in the painting … 57
By the time he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1952 “15 Americans” exhibit, Corbett had found the imaginative track he would continue to follow. The process began with his childhood in the Southwest and continued through his time as a student, and later a teacher, at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco. 58 He made his first visit to Taos as early as 1947 and relocated there
in 1951. 59
Corbett completed only four or five paintings during his 20 years in Taos; the balance of his works were drawings in charcoal, chalk, pastel, pencil, and occasionally, casein. He started painting by placing colors on the canvas and then gradually eliminating or lessening them by covering them with white. 60 The canvases are filled with almost imperceptible detail. These paintings provided the structural and thematic basis for his later work.
According to Corbett, “Abstract appearances are seen, the matter is felt, the experience is emotionalized, and through continual experience the symbol is formed.” 61 Abstract appearances—suggested by the land and by architectural forms that grow out of nature—led him to a symbology of the land, not landscape pictures. Corbett, however, was equivocal about the natural environment as a catalyst for art. He wrote, “I admit to being influenced by not only nature out-of-doors, but nature within,” and concluded, “If sources of nature exist, I trust they do not influence the painting.” 62 Perhaps this denial of the influence of natural forms served as a defense measure: fully abstract work could have lost some of its magic if described with words such as “this is a cliff.”
Whatever they were based on, Corbett’s images suggest the fullness of night, heavy snow, deep canyons, stark light; subtle hues fill paper and canvas with considerable life force, the understated vigor of immensely rugged land overflowing with delicacies of color and movement and light flashes. In his Taos drawings, the interplay of negative and positive creates depth; their soft-edged forms interlock in a lyric poetry of form. His work, often in grays and browns, shows that the successful use of hue is a matter of making combinations and relationships rather than the degree of pigment saturation. Corbett’s exacting drawings create the tension of anticipation, “not the experience of possessing an event, but a mystery … about what might happen.” 63 [cite source]
Edited excerpt from David Witt, Taos Moderns (1992)