Precision and Freedom | A History of Donald Cole

“An artist’s energy is no mystery. There is the left brain you favor, the interests you discover, your experiences along the way and the drive to create an expression in a form. The creative process you use is individual.” – Donald Cole

Donald Cole’s impressive six decades of artwork hold a variety of dualities, seemingly without tension. He manages to encompass not only starkly opposite poles, but the entire spectrum within them as well. Consistency and change. Order and disorder. Respect and irreverence. The old and the new. With the grace of hindsight, which allows us to view six decades of his career, the greatest duality seems to be his ability to embody both meticulous precision and exuberant freedom - in both his artwork and his life. 


1930s

Donald Cole was born 1930 in New York City. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Cole was shaped by formative early experiences such a school fieldtrip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that opened his eyes to the world of paintings. This led him to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where he saw the great European Modernists, and then taking himself to galleries where the Abstract Expressionists were emerging. 

Abstract Expressionism reflected and influenced Cole’s views on the world and on art. The emerging painters were rule breakers, exploring radical new ways of infusing art with emotional content and reflecting the pleasures and pains of the world around them. As the US entered World War II, Cole developed a strong sense of social justice by critically looking at the politics of the world around him, the New York landscape, and within his family life.

Cole pursued engineering and received a BS from Bucknell University in 1953. He became friends with the Bucknell artist-in-residence, Bruce Mitchell – a friendship that continued while Cole served four years in the Navy and then settled into a role at an engineering firm. Cole wanted to practice with a brush on paper and Mitchell suggested two books – one on Chinese calligraphy and a children’s book by Florence Case. Learning control by studying calligraphy and swooping gestures from children’s art exercises, Cole unconsciously formed the poles between which his artistic practice would eventually range – precision and freedom. 


1960s

Cole continued working as an engineer through the early 1960s until an overheard conversation became one of the pivotal moments in his life. One day while returning to his office from lunch, Cole listened in to a fragment of conversation by two engineers who were emphatically, orgasmically discussing the path of water running through pipes. Then and there, Cole knew that he would never be so excited about water running through pipes. It was time to take his life in a different direction. 

Using the G.I. Bill, Cole moved to Iowa City to study painting in the well-regarded masters’ program at University of Iowa, receiving his MFA in 1963.  Following his degree, Cole traveled to Alabama to teach design at Auburn University. Moving to the South in the early 60s, Cole was immersed in the social justice movement. His artistic evolution continued and was aided by the international group of painters and architects that formed Auburn’s Architecture Department. 

While Cole was testing what he had learned in graduate school for speciousness (never one to fully trust authoritative declarations of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways), he began to explore the various methods of visual systems employed by architects in their designing.

“After (graduate school), I spent a year breaking every rule for making great art that they taught me.. because I felt like it was a limitation…. Then I began to follow my interest – being inspired by nature – not making landscapes, but finding painting systems that relate to the complexities of nature – the order and disorder.” – Don Cole, Island View, 1999



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Two of Cole’s earliest paintings on record perfectly encapsulate the spectrum that he was exploring and testing. Scaffold and Tracking (both 1965) illustrate the far ends of the ‘order and disorder’ spectrum he was exploring and experiencing, both in the world and internally. 

Scaffold explored structure and color, but a ‘mischievous impulse’ led Cole to turn each color block into a child’s ‘goo goo eye.’ This infusion of humor was a breakthrough from formal teachings and systems. Tracking was the next step toward exploration and freedom of the brush.



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1970s


By the 1970s, Donald Cole was back in New York City and living in the industrial district that would soon become known as Soho. He was married and two daughters were born, which made world events seem more personal and urgent as he contemplated the world his children would live in. He began teaching positions at Parsons School of Design and Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) that he would keep until the mid-90s.

After years of tension and protest, the withdrawal of the US from Vietnam was followed by a sense of renewal and creative energy in Cole’s Soho environment. His paintings from the time express the vibrancy and grit of the city - fireworks of bright colors, energetic brushstrokes and found materials (discarded fabrics, lost gloves, paper ephemera) picked up from the streets, a literal piece of the times.



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Cole was exhibiting regularly at the prestigious Nancy Hoffman Gallery and was a founding member of cooperative gallery 55 Mercer (whose early exhibition documents are now in the collection of the Smithsonian). His solo exhibitions began receiving regular press coverage in publications including the New York Times, Art Forum and Arts Magazine.

“There are surprises in store for those who take the time to really examine Cole’s paintings. These abstract unstretched works of acrylic on canvas are composed of lots of thin layers, with a vocabulary of drops, blotches, stripes, swirls, and loops that result in some arresting and beautiful passages. Cole likes to have a lot of action, a lot of elements in his paintings, seeming to buck current trends but with exciting results.”  - Ellen Lubell, Arts Magazine, 1978

Cole’s work grew to larger sizes than ever before, as he increasingly used arm and body motion to control his brushwork. His work was exhibited in galleries and museums including Worcester Museum of Art, MA, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN, Delaware Art Museum, DE and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, and the State University of NY at Plattsburgh. He was also awarded two awards from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). 

Cole was becoming known for his masterful use of bright color, his active compositions and the inherent energy in his paintings. The artist still held a deep, enduring respect for the Abstract Expressionism of his youth and his work continued the evolution of the movement, while many New York painters around him rejected emotion, sentimentality in favor of Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Among the monumental works of the 70s is the sinuous, celebratory Some River, a reaction to increasing environmental awareness and congressional acts to protect wild rivers and water systems. Another monumental painting Being Rude, expresses a frenetic angst - jagged explosions of color, fractured shapes, and endless layers express the enduring, multilayered, and seemingly unresolvable nature of conflict between Israel and Palestine.  



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“Cole’s roots lie in abstract expressionism which he has enriched with a plethoric layering of color, imagery, various modes of paint application, and the written word, phrase, or paragraph. He is a true master of his color, able to balance vibrant hues with rare grace.” - Eve Vaterlaus, Art/World, 1981


1980s

“Donald Cole has always resisted fads. He never fell into any of the fashions that periodically swoop down on us… and his most recent work is probably less fashionable yet, though all the more audacious for it. Who else, after all, paints chickens?” – Robert Berner, Arts Magazine, 1982

In the first half of the 1980s, Cole’s work became the most overtly political, and yet the most humorous, that it would ever be. After decades of war, nuclear buildup, and global political strife that seemed never ending, the paintings of this time express both a frustration and an acceptance of the failures of humanity. Now in his fifties, Cole had seen multiple times the ever-revolving cycles of politics and power struggles.

While sketching chickens in a farm pen in 1980, Cole observed interactions that struck him as interestingly human. The observation was confirmed when he soon read an essay by V.S. Pritchett, British writer and literary critic, describing the “nervous, anxious human chicken.”

Cole’s chicken paintings were a blend of dark humor and absurdity. Chickens began as a stand-in for Cole himself, a less personal way to insert himself into his work, as in the large-scale Golden Egg, where a cartoonish chicken paints the sky and revels in the joy of creation itself. Chickens also became stand-ins for humanity in general - silly, sad, aggressive, funny, and confused. Many paintings from this time overtly critiqued the American-Vietnam War, President Reagan’s policies (such as the “Star Wars Initiative” and tax breaks to the rich under the “trickle down” theory), and environmental destruction. In 1981's Fowl Play, a grasping chicken is overlaid with the word Buc Buc, the sound a chicken makes but also a homophone for 'bucks,' the obsession of capitalist America. 

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The chicken paintings caused a stir in the New York gallery world, where Cole had built his reputation as a serious abstract painter. His mischievous sense of humor had rarely been so overtly seen in his work. With the support of his new gallery, the Frank Marino Gallery, increasing appreciation of his dark humor and Cole’s penchant at the time for wearing a fabric cockscomb on his head at anti-nuclear protests, Cole found notoriety, if not total acceptance, for the work. 

Donald Cole caricatured in the Village Voice, 1982

“Throughout the rich and various works of Don Cole… appears the chicken. The bird is Cole’s leading man in his humorous and gently satirical (yet dead serious) drama of the human condition.”  – Eve Vaterlous, Art/World, 1981

In the second half of the 80s, Cole, always ready to explore new frontiers, began to fully immerse himself in global travel, especially after meeting dancer/choreographer/textile artist, Joan Wortis (soon to become his second wife). A trip to Morocco shifted Cole’s work, with new color palettes, shapes, and surface textures informed by curvilinear alphabets, ancient architecture and mosaics. 

The 80s saw further expansion of Cole’s exhibition career, beginning to reach internationally with exhibitions in France and Japan. Cole taught at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel as part of a Parsons School of Design affiliate program. Museum exhibitions increased with the Nassau Museum of Fine Arts (NY), and the Adirondack Museum (NY), and more.



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1990s

Cole and Wortis married on January 1, 1992 and began an adventurous decade full of travel and change. After a year-long teaching position at the Kanazawa International Design Institute in Japan, the couple traveled throughout Japan, the newly reopened Vietnam, Laos, Taiwan, Korea, India, Nepal, Thailand, Java and Bali. In 1994, the couple took another giant leap and moved to the beautiful Vashon Island, WA, a small island off the coast from Seattle. Their home, an adapted church house in the woods, and their large barn studio was the perfect setting for a new phase. 

As they immersed themselves in the tight-knit community of Vashon Island, Cole spent the next few years experimenting with increasingly complex ways of creating surface textures in paintings, inspired by images and emotions from their years of travel. “We brought home mental images of wonderful places, colors, forms and the shapes of written languages,” wrote Cole. These mental images found their way into his new work in increasingly complex ways, creating several decades of paintings that were not intentionally stylized, but informed by a more global outlook on art and aesthetics.




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Cole’s colorful work was exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest at galleries and museums including the Coos Art Museum, (OR), Whatcom Museum, (WA), and the Seattle Art Museum Gallery, (WA). 


2000s

The 2000s decade, as Cole entered his 70s, saw him return to India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as Myanmar/Burma, China, and Brazil. 

His travels in South and Southeast Asia resulted in a major series of work for his 2001 exhibit, “Conversations with Hanuman,” a two-person show with sculptor Elaine Hanowell at Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery. A series of monumentally sized paintings, the weathered surfaces and worn colors were drawn from Cole’s impressions of crumbling walls, antique textiles, and street graffiti.

Cole's reference photographs and rubbings of surface textures 

By this time, Cole had developed methods of painting, printing, and masking the canvas, resulting in surfaces that look ancient with Cole’s contemporary colors and mix of imagery. The impressive paintings presented an abstracted exploration of the story of Hindu god, Hanuman, whose “loyalty, devotion, courage, absence of ego, and compassion” made the character a perfect “avatar of all that is good in a person,” to Cole. The series perfectly showcased the evolution that Cole’s work had undergone during the 90s.



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"The paintings… have a great rush of color and a smattering of figures borrowed from Indian art, but the pattern has a worn and weathered allure like an antique Persian carpet. That effect seems right, like something you'd come across in a decaying temple." - Sheila Farr, The Seattle Times, 2001

Cole’s work was included in two Northwest Biennials at the Tacoma Art Museum, in 2001 and 2004. Cole and Wortis continued to travel the globe, spending time in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, China, and Brazil. Cole’s next major solo exhibition in Seattle, “Unpredictable Arrivals” at ArtXchange Gallery, continued his exploration of surface texture, but now focusing on the lines and shapes of street graffiti around the world, particularly the overall effect of decades of signage and paint, continually layered over each other on walls in India.



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2010s

In 2009, at the age of 79, Cole and Wortis, along with Elaine Hanowell, trekked through the mountains of Vietnam. Cole’s sketches from the time formed the basis of his following work, as he applied his sense of color and surface to a new series of landscape paintings. These works culminated in 2010’s solo exhibition, "Mountain Visions," at ArtXchange Gallery. Ranging from monumental works to matchbox sized sketches, the exhibition showcased Cole’s ability to walk the line between abstraction and representation in a series of colorful works that focused on the elegant shapes of northern Vietnam’s mountain ranges. 

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Now in his 80s, Cole began the process of cataloguing and evaluating his work from the previous decades, which spurred the artist to reflect on (and ultimately destroy) the paintings he deemed unsuccessful. What resulted was his next show, “Motion/Emotion,” a series of artworks collaging and remixing paintings made since the late 1960s. Within the destruction was the energy of creation, as Cole used pieces of old works to create new paintings exploring the motion and energy of the human body, often inspired by the body shapes in Brazilian capoeira and contemporary hip-hop dancing. 

Cole and Wortis continued to travel – for pleasure, for inspiration, and to visit family that were now living around the world. Trips to England, France, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Australia and New Zealand prompted further landscape exploration in more intimate works on paper, some exhibited at ArtXchange Gallery in the 2019 two-person exhibition, “Silk and Stone: Exploring Abstract Terrain.” 



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2020s

Cole celebrated his 90th birthday in 2020, amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic. Celebrants gathered online from the Northwest, the East Coast, Australia, England, and more to share their reflections on Cole and his art. “Don's art is a record of how far he has gone,” said poet and writer, John Levy. “His art has depths, the true depths of the genuine. And it's fun, which, to me, matters a lot. The fun comes from the energy and freedom, full engagement and sense of play and of seriousness. As if to say, art matters, and matters in a similar way that play, at any age, also matters.

At the turn of a new decade, Cole is still visiting his studio daily, creating new work and reflecting on the social and political upheavals of the previous years. Paintings such as Realaction, visually expressed Cole’s feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic, with fractured shapes raining from the top symbolizing failures in leadership. Newer paintings find a return to pleasing shapes and joyful brushwork. Balance reflects Cole’s wish and hope for balance to return to world in 2021. The free improvisation of Anomalies was created during the pandemic-influenced artist retreat that Cole found himself in. As always, Cole found escape and freedom in his work. 



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Looking over the six-decade history of Donald Cole’s art career, his interpretations and reflections of the world speak as loudly as ever. The cycle of power and politics continues to turn, and many of the same problems still exist that Cole began exploring in the 60s and 70s. Power struggles, ecological exploitation, and warfare. Yet the imperfect beauty of life, always expressed so emotionally in his work, still remains as well. Within the lifelong artistic journey, we can be inspired by the continual artist’s drive toward creation and renewal. 

Among Cole’s friends and family, a certain story often makes the rounds at gatherings. At the age of twelve, they say, Cole took the family dog for a walk around New York City. Upon his return, Cole’s father asked where he had walked and Cole described a rambling, zig zag path through the Upper West Side. When his father (a straight path kind of man) asked him why he took such a circuitous way, Cole replied 'that was where the dog wanted to go.'

In both his artwork and his life, Cole has always let the dog decide where to go, thereby discovering new paths and adventures along the way.