The best way to describe Edith Carlson's abstract paintings is to quote George Dibble (1904-92), renowned artist, educator and longtime art critic for The Salt Lake Tribune. In his 1991 review of Carlson's exhibit "Desert Light" at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, Dibble wrote:

"What we have here is a series of canvases painted in judicious combinations of simplified geometrical forms that interact within fields of closely managed gradations and progressions: so sensitively functional that evolutions are less like the moving hands on a clock than the delicacy of a shadow changing the contours of a cloud."

Precise and poetic.

Just like Carlson's art.

Beginning Friday, Jan. 21, the Salt Lake Art Center will exhibit 20 of Carlson's large canvases from 1970-85 — the smallest being 50 by 50 inches — for what is sure to be one of the most talked-about shows of 2000.

For more than 40 years Carlson has been producing works of balance, harmony and transcendence. Her career has spanned numerous geographical locations and artistic movements from New York and New Mexico to Arizona and Utah, from Abstract Expressionism and Pop to Minimalism and Post Modernism.

Yet throughout these changes, Carlson has remained single-minded in her approach to her work.

Carlson discovered, while studying with Emil Bisttram in Taos, N.M., in the mid-1950s, that she could see into light and shadow with an artist's eye, wrote art critic Susanna Sheffield in the "Desert Light" exhibit catalog.

She went on to explain that Carlson's ability to see the range of subtle colors that make up light and shadow gave her the ability to paint light itself rather than the forms that light illuminates.

"In painting light and shadow captured in moments of pure balance, she paints not her own moods, but the implied clarity of illumination itself."

However, because Carlson disdains analyzing one's own work, she can't remember how or when the idea for her harmonious, geometric paintings came about. "You see," she says, "a lot of artists will analyze this and analyze that and I don't. I just do."

What she had was a vision of what could be done in abstract art: the combining of the intellectual with the emotional.

"So much of what was coming out of Minimalism — with the exception of Agnes Martin — was static," Carlson says. "I mean artists were taking unprimed canvas and painting a border around it and that was it."

To get what she saw in her mind, Carlson painted every day, seven days a week, with no holidays. "I simply started painting, and I painted and painted and painted and painted until I started getting what I saw in my head." The process took 10 years.

But the result of her visual pilgrimage is not easy for everyone to understand.

"To feel the pulse of her art, one must look slowly, repeatedly, from different viewpoints, up close and from across the room," writes Katherine Nelson, art historian.

In truth, one must spend time in front of a Carlson painting, casting aside any preconceived notion that a recognizable image must be present for understanding or enjoyment.

If one spends the time, the subtle, colorful shadings create a spiritual rebirth for the eye, a rejoining with the primary phenomenon of sight — light and shadow. To not spend the time in front of each canvas is to deny oneself a very moving experience.

Carlson's exhibit will be at the Salt Lake Art Center through April 9.

On Wednesday, Feb. 9, Carlson will discuss her unique approach to art and life as part of the Art Center's "Art Talks" program. On Wednesday, Feb. 23, writer, critic and art historian E. Jane Connell will discuss the historical and contemporary perspective on Carlson's work. Both events will run from 7-8 p.m. at the SLAC.

Carlson is represented by Phillips Gallery.