Rochelle Caper: Color, Memory, and the Unconscious

Emma Laramie
Stuart Denenberg

She called herself an artist when she was seventeen! As a young girl Rochelle would argue with her mother about the color and style of clothes as a means of expression. The drive and sensibility that sustained her life spent pursuing the right combination of colors and form were there from the start.

She attended classes at UCLA when Diebenkorn, McCracken, and Ruscha were teaching or lecturing there. In her freshman year she saw the Matisse retrospective and was profoundly inspired by his vibrant color. She also encountered The New York School, feeling “completely hooked” after seeing paintings by Motherwell and de Kooning. Caper believed that they had “tapped into her own innermost feelings about art.” She graduated in 1971 with a BFA.

Caper engaged with her artistic heroes stylistically and thematically. Spirituality and the psyche were of utmost importance de Kooning and Newman; for the “Blue Four” artists Kandinsky and Klee. For Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko color remained essential to unlocking the unconscious. Caper’s work continued linking color and abstract form to express memory and the inner “self.” The artist described this linkage:

My paintings are about color, memory, and the unconscious. By the unconscious, I mean fantasy, fantasy that has to do with primitive instincts and emotional potency. I think artists are perhaps among those people closest to this primitive material as a daily experience in the studio. It is only through willingness to remain in close touch with these sometimes dangerous and harsh and sometimes beautiful and moving fantasies that the significant work emerges. It is in the process of my work that color and content revive the fantasy and hopefully hold the viewer to some experience of that revived state.

Caper exhibited in 1986 with Jan Baum, a quintessential LA gallery known for nurturing the careers of other California artists like Chris Burden and Betye Saar. In the LA Times review of her show her paintings were compared to Georgia O’Keeffe and Kandinsky, citing her depiction of the natural world as well as her command of abstract composition. However the work was soon to undergo its first significant shift, and a departure from lyrical biomorphism.

A colleague visiting her studio complimented a work in progress. But Caper had felt unsatisfied with the picture, and in frustration began, in her words, “attacking” the canvas with black paint, a color she had avoided. What transpired was a breakthrough—she layered black on many other paintings in her studio discovering that color was revealing itself more powerfully through the black layer, as if in “burying” the original compositions she was “excavating” them into truer form.

If the ‘black’ paintings of the 1980s seem to draw light into their depths, the third phase of her art abandoned form for color in a series of large oils on paper, about three by four feet. They are reminiscent of Jackson Pollock but not derivative in overall fields of dashes, swirls, and tugs of paint. The palette is bright, challenging, but never garish and resolves in a unified resonance with tremendous energy, working across the surface in large painterly marks.

Open to innovation and growth, Caper had gone forward to a fourth mutation. The final works of the 1990s and 2000s, appear lit from within, even from beneath the canvas. The canvases now softened into ethereal bands of color, nearly subliminal forms in close tones. Works from these last decades began with a single color modulated by another color, the surface worked and reworked until it acquired meaning, presence, and wholeness. Diffuse bands or dots of color move and emerge from within, simultaneously showing forcefulness and restraint.

The culmination of this series, her last works, is large group of acrylics on paper in a 10 x 10-inch format, their size the result of a move from her large Fred Fisher studio in Westwood to a small second bedroom in her chic apartment. Despite their size this group of paintings has true scale—in jpegs they might be 6 feet square. In these pristine jewels, forms float up from enormous depths, wonderfully accomplished and deeply poetic. One can almost read them diagnostically as if a reflection of good days and bad days, Rochelle’s long struggle with the many cancers of Lynch syndrome that finally ended her life in 2021. Her spirit, optimism, love of life—and of art–exhibit a strength that carried her through even the darkest days.

It is precisely “meaning, presence, and wholeness” that Rochelle Caper’s sumptuous paintings attempt and achieve, their beauty underwriting high aesthetic intent, seriousness of purpose, and perfect facture.

    1. Rochelle Caper, Journal entry, date unknown.
    2. Rochelle Caper, Artist Statement, date unknown
    3. “Galleries,” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1986.
    4. Rochelle Caper, Journal entry, date unknown.

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