Ray Kass

Artist & Founder — Mt Lake Workshop


Schunn, Inga. "Collaboration Meditation; Captiva Works and Metempsychosis" Richmond Arts Review, November 6, 2013  | CURATED EXHIBITION

Allen, Mike. "Guest art review: Taubman Museum's "Virginia Crossroads"" Roanoke Times, February 13, 2013  | CURATED EXHIBITION

Cotter, Holland. “A Sun’s Influence on a Galaxy of Stars” The New York Times, December 6, 2012  | CURATED EXHIBITION

Falco, Gina Lee. "The Vision of John Cage" The Vienna Review, March 1, 2012  | CURATED EXHIBITION

Ritchie, Amy. "Beneath the Surface; Ray Kass brings Mountain Lake to Reynolds Gallery” Style Weekly, January, 31, 2012  | SOLO EXHIBITION

Ryan, Dinah. "Ron Johnson + Ray Kass" Art Papers, Issue 03, Page 53, May / June 2012  | GROUP EXHIBITION

Nichols, Beth. "Interpretations of the James – A Traveling Exhibition by Twelve Virginia Artists" The Arts Center in Orange, 2007  | GROUP EXHIBITION

Goodman, Jonathan. “Ray Kass at Zone: Chelsea” Art in America, February, 2006  | SOLO EXHIBITION

Gronlund, Melissa. “Ray Kass, AVC” ArtNews, February 2003  | SOLO EXHIBITION

Harrison, Helen A. “Art Review; Compositions by Cage, For Seeing, Not Listening” The New York Times, July 7, 2002  | CURATED EXHIBITION

Coates, Jennifer. "Watercolor: A critical celebration; Atlantic by Ray Kass, and Wave by Susan Shatter" ArtNet, October 11, 2002  | GROUP EXHIBITION

Taylor, Robert. “Nature in the Abstract” The Boston Globe, October 8, 1976  | SOLO EXHIBITION


John Cage’s Watercolors at The Mountain Lake Workshop” Burchfield Penney Art Center, April 22, 2013

Chute, James. “Cage Centennial Festival concludes with Roger Reynolds holding the brush” The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 10, 2012

"National Academy Museum Presents John Cage: The Sight of Silence, Only Exhibition of Cage’s Visual Work Presented in New York During City-Wide Cage Centennial Celebration, Largest Show Presented in Twenty Years” National Academy Museum & School, July 11, 2012

Peck, Cynthia. “Say Something About John Cage” The Vienna Review, March 2, 2012

Bingham, Tom. "“The Sight Of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors” by Ray Kass (distrib. by University of Virginia Press)” Generally Eclectic Review, December 5, 2011

"The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors” Publishers Weekly, July 1, 2011

Hiles, Rachel. "Books in Brief Spring 2010" Tricycle, Spring 2010

Wei, Lilly. "Zen and Now" ArtNews, December, 2009

John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures” Publishers Weekly, October 1, 2009
Additionally: Braziller, George. “Publishers Weekly Covers John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures” George Braziller Blog, February 26, 2009

Glueck, Grace. "Art: Whitney Presents a Graves Retrospective" The New York Times, September 16, 1983

Ray Kass: Images of the Winged Earth

Donald B. Kuspit

Ray Kass is an American transcendentalist painter who has found in the openness of nature an image comprehensive enough to be the objective correlative of the visionary psyche.  For the transcendentalist, nature, the world outside of human construction, is enigmatic and dualistic, at once concrete and abstract, self-consciously--mystically or symbiotically—felt.  In Kass’ work, the two streams of this transcendentalist conceptualization converge.  For him, nature is the space of the abstract sublime, a symbol of the infinite, cosmic to the extent of jeopardizing all detail;  at the same time, nature is a surreal substance in Kass’ painting, full of almost uncontrollably expressive—automatist—detail, emblematic of the self at its deepest. 1

Kass’ paintings take nature’s vestige of virginal sublimity, which still exists like an outpost in the emotional wilderness of society, and expand it into a biomorphic vision of autonomous openness.  He transforms nature into a purely aesthetic space, emblematic of the existential search by which the self overcomes banality, allowing the imagination to reach beyond the “given” into the realm of the “possible,” especially toward fulfillment of the “possible self.”  At the same time, he invests his energy in the metaphoric detail of nature, reading its contingency and variability as the sign of his own emotional survival as well as the literal survival of nature, making the latter a symbol of romantic possibility through aestheticization.

These paintings read as a sacred art of social revolt—as all visionary art subliminally is—in headlong rebellion against the unfulfilled self fostered by the facile gratifications of modern life.  Kass’ images reveal the self as an invisible yet potent presence that  dramatically intensifies and transfigures space, light, and atmosphere with its spiritual energy.  These paintings can be understood as the explosive outpourings of a self too long confined within itself.  They turn the depths of this self into a vista of limitless space, a distance that can be traversed in an introspective glance but which remains unfathomable.

 In the New York Cityscapes of the mid-eighties the panoramic, horizontal sweeps of the view from various rooftops “return the city to natures.”  2   A similar grand, comprehensive sweep is evident in such early, more realistic watercolors as JUNE, MAINE: 5 A.M. SUNRISE, BRAVE BOAT HARBOR, 1974. and MOUNTAIN LAKE OVERLOOK WITH SLEEPING LADY IN VIEW, 1976.  In these works, although his feeling for nature was profound, Kass had not yet embraced it as a psychic symbol, experienced romantically.  Rather, he had submerged his feeling for nature in deliberate objectivity, muting his expressivity, which in fact only slowly made its way into the open through later works that would fuse feeling with object through distortion and revelation.  In a sense this expressive change, although anticipated in earlier works, is abruptly signaled by the unbalanced, even precarious character of the scene—suggestive of delirium—in such works as SUNSET: NEW YORK CITY AND HUDSON RIVER LOOKING NORTH FROM CANAL STREET, 1984, and METROPOLITAN LIFE, 1986.  There, in contrast to the balanced, safe look of the early watercolors, the buildings are transfigured into spiritual forms, dramatized as atmospheric space and light, while remaining surreally provocative shapes.

Kass’s use of beeswax enhances his elusive, evocative forms and surfaces.  In “fusing” (to use his word) the “multiple watercolor layers of each painting into a uniform surface,” the beeswax not only creates a tangible atmosphere, spiritual in effect, but also forms an organic part of the painting.  This makes it seem to be a “natural” representation of nature, in a way not unrelated to the way Veronica’s veil is a “representation” of Christ.

A sense of spontaneous generation is also crucial to Kass’ imagery.  The layers of watercolor that generated FLUME, 1977, to give an example, were later partially washed off in the actual waterfall that the painting depicts, 3  uniting the literal and illusory, the actual and imaginative.  FLUME confirms Kass’s fascination with illusory space as a magical bridge between social and psychic space (what D. W. Winnicott calls potential space, in which separation from and merger with the object are simultaneous).  Kass’ remarkably convincing rendering of space, in which it appears at once descriptive and enigmatic, is ultimately a matter of textural richness and energy.

For all their landscape character, Kass’ paintings has a deep affinity with abstract field painting, with its polyphonic equivalences of gesture.  This is especially evident in such works as YELLOW SULPHUR SPRINGS, VINES No. III, 1989, SINKING CREEK POLYPTYCH, 1990, as well as WILSON CREEK POLYPTYCH, 1989, and POLYPTYCH: WILSON CREEK and two versions of WAKING, WALKING, SINGING, all three 1991.  These works show their modernism by heir use of the grid, which gives them a fragmentary character, whatever the consistency of theme and handling.  Indeed, in the WAKING, WALKING. SINGING paintings, fragments of nature become calligraphic emblems that seem to exist in their own abstract right—a kind of mannerist modernist abstraction.  Manneristic tendencies were already strongly evident in the distortions of the New York Cityscapes, in their attempt to reconcile geometrical order and gestural excitement, and especially in their attempt to do so in a way that does not strike an easy balance between these opposites.

Kass is perhaps at his most uncanny and least intellectualized, that is, least self-consciously modernist, in the WINGED EARTH works of the late eighties.  A restless union of vigor an delicacy, luminous elation and morbid bleakness, they seem to show his feeling for nature at its most unmediated and virginal..  Here, Kass’ art, however sophisticated, seems to exist entirely at the service of his feeling, rather than to make a point of its own.  The MUSCARELLE POLYPTYCH, 1993, with its nineteen panels, is a climactic example of his visionary ability to give the earth wings, that is, to render earth’s apparently infinite space—recalling what Kant calls the mathematical sublime—while capturing its constant, churning process of self transformation.  This work, essentially an accumulation of fragments that converge in a mysterious, engulfing whole, is a kind of unfolding of what was already evident in COASTAL STONE,1973:  a sense that nature is complete in each of its parts.  Both works relate to specific sites, as Kass’s paintings generally do, but the site in MUSCARELLE POLYPTYCH has become conceptual as well as local.

Indeed, all of the polyptychs share this duality, which is reflected in Kass’ working process.  The paintings are comprised of multiple images, outlines of nature derived from tracings on glass, then transferred to translucent vellum, numbered and stored for later access through computer-generated chance operations.  The element of chance gives to the configurations a certain unconscious point, encouraging us to experience nature without the symbolic order to protect with a name. 4  To Kass, this is the only way we can understand nature’s rawness and the raw feeling it can evoke.

The WINGED EARTH series is the touchstone of Kass’ oeuvre.  It looks backward to such works as the descriptive COASTAL STONES, 1974, and the doggedly abstract BLACK WAVE, 1982;  it looks forward to the geometrically-shaped paintings, in which the texture of the material on which they are made and the painterly surface converge.  Most importantly, they demonstrate the perpetually transitional character of Kass’ imagery, restlessly exploring and revealing new aspects of nature’s accessibility to the human quest for aesthetic and emotional transcendence. 



     1     Mark Rothko’s painting is a climactic presentation of this side of the tradition,
           which was best articulated by Emerson. Morris Graves, about whom Kass has
           written, represents the darker side of the transcendentalist tradition, which
           appears also in Thoreau, who projectively identified with every detail of nature,
           which is why he observed it with such schizoid acuteness.

     2    From a statement by the artist.

     3    Artist’s statement. In the collection of the Art Museum of Western Virginia,
           FLUME may be viewed in the museum’s 20th Century Gallery, 2nd floor.

     4    Kass’s use of chance operations was influenced by the work of John Cage,
           with whom he collaborated in The Mountain Lake Workshop, where Cage
           created his New River Watercolors between 1983 and 1990.


At the time of this essay, Donald Kuspit was Contributing Editor to ARTFORUM and SCULPTURE magazines, and was Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.


This essay accompanied the exhibition Ray Kass;  Images of the Winged Earth, Art Museum of Western Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia, November 13, 1993-February 20, 1994, funded in part by the Norfolk Southern Foundation, the National Endowment for the arts, and the  Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Copyright © 2015 Ray Kass & Mountain Lake Workshop. All Rights Reserved.