Lennart Anderson: A Retrospective
The New York Studio School, October 18 – November 28, 2021
I distinctly remember my high school painting teacher, Francis Cunningham, criticizing a student’s still-life painting, and the question came down to choice of objects. He said that if you painted an apple, it should be one you had grown yourself, not bought in a supermarket; and if you painted a violin, it should be a Stradivarius.
This seemed a little unreasonable to me as a seventeen-year-old living in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, on account of both the home-grown apple and the high-ticket violin. But I never stopped thinking about it, and I can see now that it became a core pillar in my belief system for much of my working life. What was good about that stricture was that asking that you paint an apple that you picked from your own tree insured that the object was an integral and meaningful part of your life; that you didn’t have a casual or detached or conflicted relationship to whatever it was you were painting, and having to peel-off a shrunk-wrap piece of plastic from a supermarket apple (as you did in those days) signaled a barrier, a level of remove from the object, that ran counter to the feeling necessary for a meaningful painting.
Getting hold of a Stradivarius posed an even more difficult problem. Again, it may have seemed high-handed to ask this of a seventeen-year-old, but it, too, signaled an attitude towards subject matter that was operative for over a thousand years, which was: that what was worth painting should itself be beautiful and worthy of attention—not cheap, poorly made, or tawdry. He wanted us to paint a Stradivarius for the same reason he didn’t want us to buy cheap plastic palette knives, but good metal ones with wooden handles, sturdy and well-made, that would work well and last.
This feeling, that the object of a painting should itself express some accepted, inherent idea of beauty, was operative until the early part of the twentieth century, when a change was signaled by American paintings of ash cans, and Steichen’s two lonely milk bottles on a tenement fire escape.
So when I first walked into a Lennart Anderson show at Davis & Long in the early eighties, with the apple and the Stradivarius floating around somewhere in my consciousness, I can safely say that I blew a gasket when I encountered the most beautiful painting I could imagine of a… a Melita coffee filter?
Next to it was a table-top still-life assembly worthy of Chardin, that featured—Lord help me—a Jiffy popcorn popper!
The assault to my sensibilities went on: one of those disposable cardboard fruit containers, an empty aluminum pie tin—when would it end?
My busted gasket was immediately mended, though, with love for this more democratic spirit that could see the beauty in these objects. These were not the flat, snarky, too-cool-for-school, neon-colored objects of Pop Art—soup cans, lipsticks, or Coca-Cola bottles—meant to be quickly and easily recognized for the commercial objects they were, and then passed over with a chuckle. These were objects consummately studied and made beautiful by daylight and incredibly fine observation, with an extraordinarily delicate and nuanced eye for color and light. Anderson came to represent for me a much more catholic impulse in terms of subject matter. Anything that was visually compelling was fine, regardless of its pedigree. Also, he represented the primacy of observation, of just looking and looking and interrogating the object about its color and value and relationship to everything else in its proximity.
I moved out of New York in the mid-eighties, and the next Anderson exhibition I saw was Three Idylls at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York. Frankly, I didn’t quite know what to make of his Idylls series: they were at such odds with the view of Anderson I had formed in my head. I think I wrote them off, not so much as an aberration, but as a path he was starting to develop, and that I would need to wait and see what came of it. But the current Lennart Anderson retrospective at the New York Studio School makes it abundantly clear, however, that in addition to works of strict observation and a humble acceptance of nature as it is, Anderson was interested in grand artifice and works of the imagination right from the very start. The study for a Bacchanal, with its conceptual and imaginative affinities with the later Idylls, dates all the way back to 1956!
At the dawn of the seventeenth century, the English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote:
The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.
This could well be a credo for the observant Anderson that I knew and revered. Paintings like Lettuce #3 (1995) or Still Life with Red Potatoes, Yams, Onions and Strainer (1990) epitomize this beautifully straightforward and unassuming attitude.
But there has always been another Anderson, one that was not averse to a whole harvest of invention. Seeing the Idylls, the Bachanal, the two formal still life/interiors, and especially the four street scenes in the current exhibition made me go back and see exactly how much artifice was always present in his work. The exhibition highlights how he loved other art as much as he loved nature; how he spent a good part of his working life planting, cultivating, and harvesting this invention, an invention born of a deep knowledge of the history of Western art, from the frescoes of Pompeii, through the geometric underpinnings of Piero and Uccello and the Italian Renaissance, to the idyllic concoctions of Puvis and even to Balthus and Hopper.
There are at least two poles in Anderson’s work, poles that you see him gravitating towards and veering away from throughout his life: Anderson, the dogged and humble observer of nature, but also Anderson, the formal constructor and inventor. And while the former—with its pitch-perfect sense of tone, daylight, and atmosphere—has a life-affirming positivity; the latter has a brooding sense of mystery, accident, and impending chaos that only the underpinnings of geometry can keep at bay.
In this regard, the four street scenes are worth examining in some detail. St. Mark’s Place (1969–76) is a vision of perfect stillness, drawing the viewer into a crystalline world of silence and order. Four figures and a dog are frozen in a domestic quadrille. Is this a family group—two brothers, mother, father, and the family dog? We don’t know, but we feel tempted to read it as such. But if it is a family, it is a detached one. The two boys act as a human sundial, swinging around the pole about as quickly as the revolving sun throwing its shadow. The father, straight-backed and purposeful, is intently training the dog with a treat, and the dog—frozen in mid-air—will be leaping for his treat today, tomorrow, and forever, arrested in motion as in a Muybridge photograph. The central boy in the green shirt, whose portrait is studied in another painting, is utterly impassive. He looks at us, but conveys almost nothing. He displays the blankness of a Piero della Francesca, a blankness Bernard Berenson praised as the unknowing “art of the ineloquent.”
The only possible emotive connection is between the orange-shirted boy and the woman/mother, who has come out to investigate, making eye contact with the boy. And of course, the whole scene begs for comparison with several slightly earlier works, notably Balthus’s Passage du Commerce-Saint-Andre (1952–54).
As well, the female figure on the steps of a city stoop, framed by the diagonal of a raking shadow, has striking echoes of Edward Hopper’s Summertime.
And while St. Mark’s Place, by virtue of its size and by its intense sense of a particular moment in a distinct human constellation, is a mysterious and compelling painting, it is no doubt a shock to the system of anyone looking for the Anderson who quietly and humbly sat down and tried to transcribe nature on canvas. The Anderson who indefatigably searches for subtly observed color/values is not present here. Anderson was once quoted as saying to a student who came from a rigidly academic background: “It is a shame you must carry the burden of having studied at that school. It teaches you to tell the subject what it is, but when you paint, you do not tell nature, you ask. You don’t tell! You ask!”
Well, St. Mark’s Place does very little, if any, asking of nature. It is a completely artificial environment, a theatrical stage set with an oratorio in progress, rather than a piece of nature, with completely invented, programmatic color. It asks nothing of nature, rather it tells the subject what it is going to be. Look at the highly formal and schematized color in the foreground: the boy in the green shirt is surrounded by an orange wall, while the boy in the orange shirt is in front of a green wall. Of course, this is all done on purpose; in Italian Renaissance painting, the Virgin Mary invariably wears a red dress and a blue cloak, just as St. Francis always wears a brown/gray habit. And this predetermined color-scheme was essential to the Renaissance’s desired sense of clarity and order. But any kind of color-scheme is inherently the epitome of “telling nature” what it is. It is hard to even use the word “nature” here; rather “drama” or “theater.”
Street Scene (1961) presents a decidedly different urban event.
The infinite stillness of St. Mark’s Place has been shattered. A cart has over-turned, and a child injured. The alarm has been sounded, and the denizens of this street come running, reacting with urgency and frenzy. Neighbors, young and old, come running to check on the injured child, who is being cradled in the lap of a woman. With the child’s stylized gesture of lament/despair, these could be figures out of a Massacre of the Innocents. The man in the orange shirt calls out; a young girl, the central figure in the scene, comes bursting through the house doors, pigtails flying, mouth open in a scream we cannot hear. The “family” of St. Mark’s Place has here been extended to include aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, neighbors. Whatever their exact relationship, they are clearly members of the same clan, the same community, demonstrated by the intensity and immediacy with which they react to this event. None of them are casual bystanders or mere witnesses. The notion of family and gender is worth pursuing in this painting as well, because it is hard not to notice that the men and women are largely segregated in this tableau, men on the right, women on the left. And in general, the women react with focused attention and purposeful action, while several of the men are in the throes of some ritualized, tribal frenzy, with self-contained, spastic movements whose purpose is hard to glean. Their movements have the sort of archaic, hierarchic quality one sees in Assyrian reliefs.
In this painting, the figures—particularly the women—are more stylized than in almost any other Anderson painting. By stylized, I mean non-anatomical, schematic constructions of the figure with an emphasis on contour, whose naturalism is given up for the sake of linear rhythms and design. And also, to resist the temptation to ever think that this is real, to insist that this is art, not life, and that art has its own timeless beauties, while life is always in flux. The woman who is reaching towards the child in the center of the composition—with her arm and leg rigidly parallel—is a long way from the lithe grace of Nude (1961–64).
On a recent trip to Naples, I was stopped in my tracks by a Pompeian fresco in the National Archeological Museum, and the resemblance it bore to the setting of Street Scene.
In the Villa from Boscoreale, over two thousand years ago, we see a stage set very similar to that of Street Scene; a strip of street, a centralized doorway with flanking columns, and column bases that act as a stoop. Above, we have similar horizontal bands over a field broken up into strong rectangular shapes, and an overall orange-red tonality. This Roman street presents just the sort of flat grid into which Anderson would insert his contemporary urban drama.
Accident (Street Scene) (1955–57) presents yet another urban disaster, but with a very different emotive tone. This accident feels much more civic, less compressed into familial drama. Street Scene from 1961 has both a horizontal and a vertical axis, the vertical axis bisecting the horizontal, running from the reflection of the sky in the window glass, to the girl in the doorway, to the overturned cart. This axis is emphasized because all of these points are bright blue, the only real cools in an otherwise warm painting. But Accident (Street Scene) (1955–57) is completely on the horizontal axis, with almost all the figures lined-up parallel to the picture plane, like the frieze on an ancient sarcophagus. Accident presents us with a scrum of fourteen figures and two dogs—gesticulating, running, reaching, expressing dismay—all centered around what looks like the prone body of a figure on the sidewalk. While almost everything in the painting takes place parallel to the picture plane, we see the injured body head first, his axis—and that of the leashed dog on the right, penetrating the picture plane as does nothing else in the painting. And while the other two street scenes take place in front of a house, giving them a more domestic overtone, this one clearly takes place on the public street, and the figures surrounding the body seem more like concerned pedestrians than family members.
This painting is in motion—the figures are more fugitive, less pinned down—and they balk at holding their places. There are numerous linear drawing corrections, making us unsure of the paintings ultimate configuration. Several passages—the prone accident victim and the beginnings of some sort of a figure behind the blue shirted black man—barely make it into legibility. The painting itself shares the agitation of the scene, and its characters refuse to settle into a final gestalt. We are still in the world of monolithic, local color—red shirt, blue shirt, brown pants—all very nameable colors and very much at odds with Anderson’s lifelong search for “unnamable color.” But easily identifiable local color has always been used in complex narrative paintings for the sake of clarity, simplicity, and intelligibility. In this manner of seeing, observation is discarded because it makes things too complex and too multi-determined. For the sake of clarity, the central man’s vest must stay orange, so that he can easily be distinguished from the black man, whose shirt is blue. But it still represents a very different impulse from that of an artist whose clarion call is to ask, rather than to tell nature what it is. At the center of this painting is a mystery, an injured body without a story, without an explanation of how he/she got there, or if he/she will recover.
The last street scene, Street Scene (Falling Man) of 1951, may help identify the underlying ambiguity in Accident, while at the same time setting off another string of ambiguities. Falling Man is a diminutive, but deceptively important painting for the exhibition. It presents us with a truly horrifying scene; a man falling from the sky, about to smash into the pavement below.
At a crowded street corner, pedestrians frantically scatter to avoid being hit by the most disquieting of projectiles, a man falling from the sky. In his attempt to backpedal, one man loses his hat, which goes flying off of his head. Again, we enter the scene in medias res, given no background or inkling into why or even what exactly is happening. We enter at the climactic moment of impending impact. Is this the figure, lying inert on the pavement, in the center of Accident? Are these paintings connected?
Even though Falling Man is the second smallest and one of the least developed paintings in the exhibition, it is a crucial statement that speaks to the brooding undercurrent that we feel in several of the major paintings in the exhibition, a darkness we feel not only in many of the street scenes, but bubbling up in paintings like the portrait of Henry Kowert and Lion Mask.
Anderson wrote of Falling Man that he was interested in Tintoretto’s Miracle of Saint Mark and that he “wanted to try and get a figure at that angle into a composition.”
That is all very well, but it is striking that he could be fascinated with this figure as a compositional problem, but ignore the emotional disjuncture. In Tintoretto’s painting, St. Mark is an active, even heroic figure, who is rescuing a Christian slave from being martyred. He is anything but falling—he is flying, a difference hard to overlook. In Falling Man, the figure is just that, an inactive mass, a helpless victim, about to meet his death on the pavement. Again, this brooding undercurrent asserts itself.
As we have seen, Anderson is like a sponge, soaking up not only everything that has gone before him, but also everything around him. Much has been said about his relationship to various chapters in the history of art, but much less about his relationship to his contemporaries. I was surprised, looking at this exhibition, at how connected he was to other artists working at the same time, whether he was close to them or not. One striking example: seeing all of Anderson’s street scenes together made me think immediately of Daniel Bennett Schwartz and his monumental Portrait of the Artist, Running, along with the myriad studies he executed for that painting.
The similarities are legion. Both created complex narratives with a heightened sense of anxiety and danger, played out on the urban stage. Both utilize agitated figures, human and canine, who enact a drama whose script we barely know. And both started with more fluid, less-determined versions en route to final compositions that attempt to pin-down these scenes into some kind of timeless order. But it is not only Schwartz; I see his relationship to Alan Feltus, Francis Cunningham, and Aaron Shikler, as well. And this is a comforting thought to me: the idea that this chapter in representational painting has a compelling shape, a visual zeitgeist, of which Anderson was a major part.
Any Lennart Anderson show is a cause for celebration, and The New York Studio School is to be deeply thanked for providing this opportunity to see Anderson’s work afresh. There were works I greatly missed and would have loved to see in a retrospective like this: any of the several portraits of Morris Dorsky, or of Michael Lapp, and of course, the iconic full length Portrait of Barbara S. I likewise would loved to have seen included several other major still life paintings, such as Still Life with Kettle, or Still Life with Knife.
But this gives us much to look forward to in the future.