Eugene Healy: Painting-Collages of Lyrical Expressionism

Coastal Weather Series, No.15, 2020, mixed media collage, 29.5 x 9.5 inches

Eugene Healy is always happy to discuss his painting-collages, but before doing so there are two artists who he likes to quote. One is Edward Hopper, who said, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” The other is Francis Bacon, who said, “The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.”

Whereas many artists have included collage in their repertoire, Healy has focused on the painted collage for his entire career. His consistent source of inspiration has been the shoreline; specifically the ever-changing atmosphere of Long Island Sound as well as the island’s side facing the Atlantic Ocean. On his favorite shores (from the Hamptons to Stonington, Connecticut to Watch Hill, Rhode Island and Nantucket) the ever-changing weather evokes particular moods in his abstract painted collages. His works are a synthesis of painting, architecture, and music: “My painting-collages are as much built as they are painted. Like a careful writer, I eliminate unnecessary words when I paint and strip the object down to its fundamental truths. This gives an image energy and integrity. It is these fundamental truths that have a way of imbuing a creative act with beauty and power. That is why great art, like love for another person, is honest and true. You may not be able to explain this truth in words, but you know it when you see it and feel it. One of the reasons the art of the Renaissance was magnificent was that many artists painted primarily out of religious faith and beliefs. They believed in what they were doing and expressed the truth as they saw it. The end-results were creations of timeless beauty and power.”

Reactions to Healy’s painting-collages are visceral, inviting long contemplation, reminding us of what the British art critic Clive Bell described as “significant form” way back in 1913. Examining Healy’s signature style reveals why. Many of his works are composed of two basic sections. The lower field grounds us in the earth with a foundation of carefully structured fragments of oils on canvas and printed fabrics, pieces of watercolors on paper, and even beach sand and pieces of window screens.  The compositions of two masters of the lyrical expressionist landscape — Nicholas De Stael [1914–1955] and Richard Diebenkorn [1904–1989] — come to mind. Within this groundwork, Healy’s balanced notes of color set the stage for the burst of energy emerging in the upper section — the sky. Here the patches of color from the earth give way to broader areas that invoke a range of atmospheric conditions experienced along the shoreline, from sunny beach days to evening light, from foggy mornings to imminent rain. For example, his Coastal Weather series is as convincing as Martin Johnson Heade’s famous mid 19th century series of Approaching Thunderstorm paintings. Comparisons can also be drawn to the bravura brushstrokes and staining of the Chinese expressionist master Zao Wou Ki [1921–2013] used in his paintings to conjure atmospheric effects.

Healy approaches each work like a musical composer, almost obsessively making changes, over and over, arranging different collage elements until he is certain his expressions sing. He evokes the spirits of a particular place and time that had simply lain dormant in our memories. Ultimately, he proves himself a master who infuses his painting-collages with shapes and colors that poetically yield the vocabulary of the implied landscape yet remain essentially non-objective. “Architecture applies to my work in the physical way I make my collage paintings,” he says.  “My compositions are as much built as they are painted. I move forms around in a way that makes them stand solidly on the picture plane. My collages are heavily layered with ground materials like sand, canvas, and fabrics that reveal texture and add an element of tactile interest to the composition. The musical analogy and tonality is added through both oil and acrylic pigments, often worked up from cool and warm grays made from the mixture of complimentary colors. Finally, evoking a sense of place in my work is an important communicative element.”

Healy began exhibiting his works in 1967 before earning his MFA from the New York Institute of Technology in 1972. While exhibiting at museums and galleries throughout the country, he has also served as the curator for American Vision, a three-year traveling exhibition launched in 1979 at New York University. Later, he served as Director of the National Artists’ Alliance, and was Exhibition Designer for the Yale Center for British Art. His painted collages are in numerous private, corporate, and museum collections, including the collection of Jack Welch, the legendary former chairman of GE Capital.