One of the worst-kept secrets in the Philadelphia art world is the career of Warren Rohrer, a Mennonite from Lancaster who absorbed modern precepts into his art, an art based solidly on the structures of his childhood — the farms and rolling landscapes of Lancaster County and the Conestoga River.
Rohrer is hardly unknown to the commercial art establishment, having had numerous exhibitions in galleries over the years.
But while Rohrer’s work has been exhibited since 1955 and there have been several smaller museum shows, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is providing the first major presentation of his work. All the while, the museum is touting Rohrer as "one of the premier painters to emerge from Pennsylvania in the 20th century," and holds his work in its permanent collection.
"Warren Rohrer: Paintings 1972-93," which runs through Aug. 17, comprises more than 32 paintings, mostly huge canvases and almost all richly colored.
Art Museum curator Susan Rosenberg takes the tack that Rohrer’s 1972 journey to Europe exposed him to American colorists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and thus changed his work from the "traditions of representational landscape painting." She also notes that he clung to his earliest inspirations, the orderly division of Lancaster County farmland.
"By making the grid a basis for his work, Rohrer developed a systematic way of painting that responded to the order and spirit of the Pennsylvania landscape," she states. "He developed a distinct personal handwriting as an artist, and his paintings reveal that he achieved not only satisfaction, but powerful clarity regarding his roots."
Those roots go back nine generations. Rohrer was born in Smoketown, outside of Lancaster, in 1927 and was raised in the culture of working the land and becoming a farmer and a minister. That he sought out art was daring in that time and place. In fact, he would often compare his working methods with that of a farmer preparing a field and producing a crop.
His family was both devout Mennonite and devout farmers, tracing their immigrant roots to the early 1700s. The Mennonites are less strict about worldly matters than the Amish; still, as Rohrer remarked toward the end of his career, "The celebrated practice of nonconformity did not seem to allow me the right of individuality."
Rohrer earned a degree in Bible studies from Eastern Mennonite College, graduating in 1950. He took art courses at what is now James Madison University, but his first formal art training came during a summer art program at Pennsylvania State University, run by Hobson Pittman, an instructor at the Academy of the Fine Arts.
By 1955, one of Rohrer’s paintings was selected to be exhibited in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie International.
For more than 20 years, Rohrer, his wife and two sons lived on a farm in Christiana. He worked in an old barn with an apple orchard on one side and a pond on the other. His life’s work would be the Lancaster County landscape.
Several years before his death in 1995, Rohrer described the role of his native landscape to his art. "I always am aware of the feelings I have about the Lancaster County landscape, that while it at times is very beautiful, it sometimes gnaws from a different perspective — both being real responses."
After he switched to a more abstract and color-filled grid system, Rohrer moved in 1984 to Chestnut Hill. He took over the former studio of Violet Oakley but each week he drove back to a particular field in Lancaster County. The holly field was contained in a curve of the Conestoga River and over the years Rohrer made hundreds of photographs and sketches of the view.
While the foundations of his art would remain the agricultural grid, Rohrer over the years became more interested in color and texture. Many of his paintings are so tactile that one can easily feel the sensation of rubbing fingers over the subject.
Rohrer was well-known in the Philadelphia-area art community, as he taught for some 14 years at the Philadelphia Museum School and eight years at what is now the University of the Arts.
Following many years of museum neglect, Rohrer is getting his due in a handsome exhibit of some startling masterpieces. A quote from museum director Anne d’Harnoncourt sums up this show nicely: "The apparent quiet of his paintings belies their compelling power and their lasting hold on the imagination. Their complexity continues to grow more beguiling as time goes on, and the particularity of their vision all the more remarkable."
Warren Rohrer: Paintings 1972-93
Through Aug. 17
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Adults, $10; seniors (62+), $7; ages 13-18 and students with valid ID, $7; 12 and under, free; Sundays, pay what you wish