The curves and cubes, triangles and hexagons release chaotically under Knutson’s control, calling up crazy quilts, Renaissance floor mosaics, and Fiesta-ware, all of which have influenced him. Stephanie Snyder ’91, who directs the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed and co-curated the exhibition with Terri M. Hopkins of The Art Gym, has been watching Knutson’s work develop for more than a decade—in fact, she was his painting student at Reed. “Michael’s work is characterized by that point between structural formalism and gestural subjectivity,” she says, “each major shift a flip of volume and field.”
Who would guess that Knutson, while an undergraduate at the University of Washington in the early ’70s, started out painting enormous, suburban middle-America lawn chairs, a sort of Hockney-meets-Monet? Then, while getting his M.F.A. at Yale, he saw the abstract, black-and-white boxed-out geometries of his painting teacher at Yale, Al Held, with their “schematic clarity, so spatially ambiguous and confounding. It forced me toward a new way of seeing.”
Knutson’s earlier black-and-white acrylic paintings of geometric planes gave way to interlocking and convergent spheres and boxes in limited palettes, with titles from Fats Waller tunes. Seeing figures in those shapes led Knutson toward his Greek myth series in the early-to-mid-’80s. Then, an exhibition of Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns revved up his verve for abstraction, dominated by colorful, frenetic webbing. By the late ’80s, he was mixing sand and sawdust into his acrylics and, inspired by Antoni Gaudi’s mosaics, adding broken mirrors as well. In the mid-’90s, after a Piet Mondrian exhibition, Knutson returned to oils. His brazen brush rediscovered the paint’s tactility and color clarity; and it brought color as pattern into the work, revealing to him the hexagon.
“The lattice I’ve been using for over 16 years is an extension of interlocked cubes in three directions, an endless, spatially shifting tug-of-war,” Knutson explains. The resultant primary-colored concentric forms soon spun into spirals, which, in 2000, he multiplied, while reducing his palette and building up his paints. As Snyder puts it in her essay in the exhibition catalog (beautifully designed by Joshua Berger, of Plazm, Portland), “Knutson’s packed surfaces force paint into a rather masochistic relationship with itself.”
Knutson’s relationship with his artwork, however, is anything but. “I just need the concentration of a free day or weekend to get the drawing on part of the canvas and lay out my colors. I can feel exhausted after drawing class, walk into my studio and start working, because at that point, it’s just ‘paint-by-number,’” he jokes.
Even as chair of three committees and adviser for three senior theses, Knutson’s main challenge isn’t about time or balance. “With over 30 years of teaching, there’s so much more today to present to students,” he says. “I want to expose them to a range of possibilities and encourage conversations about the aesthetic or emotional effect in the life of a painting. Reed students are very idealistic; everything is new. And that’s gratifying for me because I live that—myself—with my own work. Each painting I start is like the first one I ever made.”
Michael Knutson’s paintings are from the catalog of his mid-career retrospective, Michael Knutson Paintings and Drawings, 1981–2006. Additional artwork may be found on Knutson's website. Photographs of paintings by David Krapes.