The painter Lennart Anderson died Thursday October 8 at the age of 87. In my opinion, he was the greatest artist of the figurative revival in contemporary American art. "Revival" is not quite an accurate word in Anderson's case. He was always a figurative painter in a career that spanned about 60 years. In that sense he differs from other pioneers of the figurative revival like Alfred Leslie, Phillip Guston, and Phillip Pearlstein who had backgrounds in abstract painting. Anderson belongs to a small tradition of figurative painting that began with Robert Henri and continued through artists like Edward Hopper and Edwin Dickinson that never really ended. Like the Magical Realists, this tradition existed right next to the Abstract Expressionism that dominated the 1950s. In the case of Anderson, he was literally right next door to them. He kept a studio in the same neighborhood with Willem DeKooning and Franz Kline. Anderson had his first solo show in the now legendary Tanager Gallery that launched the careers of so many first and second generation Abstract Expressionist painters. The relationship between abstract and figurative painting in the mid 20th century was a lot more complicated than the textbooks say.
Lennart Anderson was born and raised in Detroit. His father worked for Ford Motor Company as a pattern maker. He studied first at the Detroit Art Institute and then at the Cranbrook Academy of Art (where I studied from 1981 to 1982 under George Ortman). He earned an associates degree from Cass Technical School in Detroit apparently intending to follow his father into the auto industry. Instead, he got a scholarship to go to the Chicago Art Institute where he graduated in 1950. Lennart Anderson was a creature of art schools spending time at the American Academy in Rome, and studying with Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students' League in New York.
Anderson had a long career as a painting teacher at places like Pratt, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, and most notably at Brooklyn College where he taught painting for 30 years.
Lennart Anderson's portraits are not the most dramatic or psychologically revealing. There is none of that dramatic tenebrism that we see in the portraits of Rembrandt or Eakins. Alternatively, there is none of that clinical coldness of Lucien Freud's portraits. They are sympathetic portraits of friends and associates. His portraits are very beautifully painted taking Piero della Francesca and Degas as his inspirations.
While this portrait from the 1970s is very ambitious and recalls the very harmonious and integrated paintings of Piero della Francesca, most of Anderson's other portraits are much closer in form and spirit to the portraits of Degas.
This one I think is particularly beautifully colored with those small areas of bright red on the collar brightening up the whole painting. The painting throughout is rich and superb with a judicious sense of editing detail, concentrating on on that which is most essential to somehow bringing this man to life when we look at his portrait.
Portrait of Edwin Vasquez, 1991
Lennart Anderson rarely ventured into narrative and allegorical painting, and I think his efforts in those areas are a mixed success.
This painting recalls the street scenes of Balthus from the 1920s and 30s, only without the perversity and not quite so deliberately wooden. Anderson went back to Balthus' original sources of inspiration, Piero della Francesco's frescos of the Story of the Cross in Arezzo, especially the battle scenes. While I can understand the appeal of Piero's battle paintings to modern audiences -- the sequences of form and color for example -- to my eye they are Piero's weakest works; the aesthetic decisions confuse rather than clarify the action in the painting, and its meaning. Some critics describe Piero's battles as having a solemn sacramental quality. To me, they just look wooden.
Anderson's painting of a small childhood accident on a New York sidewalk is an admirable painting in so many respects; the beautifully composed figure groups, the splendid harmonization of opposing colors, and the sharp clear forms. However, it seems to me that the incident that we see is only a pretext for taking on Balthus and Piero. Nothing is at stake in the action in this painting, and no meaning is revealed or implied. The action becomes a pretext for the painting instead of its source. Instead of the narrative generating form, it is only something to hang form on.
Anderson's most ambitious paintings are a series of three that he titled Idyll that he worked on throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They were inspired by a sketch that he made of a picnic that he observed in Central Park in the 1950s, and then turned into something like a bacchanal. What he really wanted to do was to do his own version of some paintings that he loved all his life; Raphael's Galataea, Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne in London, and Titian's Bacchanal of the Andrians in the Prado in Madrid. He decided to paint these in acrylic paint, not oil. He believed that plastic acrylic paint might be more amenable to constant and drastic revision, and that it might have the lightness of fresco painting.
While these are paintings of human action, he wanted to avoid specific narrative or allegorical content. He wrote in 1983:
I started the first picture by reversing the sketch, hoping that new material would naturally occur. The second painting was taken directly from the sketch, and the third (still being worked on) was based on a combination of the first two paintings with some new ideas. I finally settled on Idylls as a title for these pictures.
This freed them from any iconographic responsibilities that attach to Bacchanal or Arcadia. I had included a little toy steamboat in the original sketch to deliberately frustrate any attempt to place this scene in ancient times. Titian did a similar thing when he included women in contemporary dress in The Andrians.
Matisse comes to mind when thinking of more recent attempts at such a subject. His Lux, Calme et Volupté has no overt contemporary clues. Style alone makes it clear it is a modern picture. I conceived of these pictures as passive decorations—pictures that stay on the wall and seduce only if one is of a mind to be seduced. I like to think of them shaded by some loggia near a swimming pool with wet pavement, plants, and sunlight.
I've spent a lot of time in my studio trying to paint some of my favorite paintings again for myself, especially works by Poussin. I put so much work into them, and in the end, I've never exhibited any of them and probably never will. I'm never happy with them. What seems like such a compelling idea always turns out coming up way too short. Unlike Anderson, I'm not that worried about narrative or allegorical content in my paintings. I'm fortunate to be living and working at a time when those things are no longer taboo. Anderson is trying in these paintings to bring a challenging classical concept into a modern context; the human figure in landscape, with all of those very durable associations of human desire in harmony with the natural order, the myth of Arcadia whose visual expression extends from ancient Hellenistic sculptures to Roman frescoes to Renaissance Venice to the paintings of Matisse in the 20th century. Anderson was trying to do something similar to Matisse, only without the very modern reductivism.
While I admire the ambition of these paintings, and see a lot of fine work in them, I think they fall short because they don't go quite as far as either Titian or Matisse in taking their imagery out of the realm of the literal. Like an even more literal-minded artist, Thomas Eakins in his Arcadia painting, you can just see the life studies that went into the painting, only adding to the sense of make-believe in the picture instead of making us believe in the Arcadia that is the subject of this picture.
This is why I so admire both Baroque art and the movies. As one movie critic once said, if you are too busy admiring the camera angles, lighting, and editing then it's probably not a good movie. The art in a really good movie should be invisible until after the fact, that you should be so swept up in the imaginative world a movie creates that you forget all about the art that went into the making it. That's the aesthetic of 17th century art at its best, but it is not a modern painting aesthetic. Since at least Cezanne, we are conditioned to admire the art of a painting first and only later (if at all) enter the imagined world that it creates.
Anderson's best work was probably in his still lives where the great 18th century master of still life Chardin remained his abiding inspiration. I love and admire these without reservation. They are incredibly beautiful examples of Anderson's best painting.
Chardin's still lives were about the 18th century Parisian middle class and about middle class virtues. Anderson seems to have understood that, and very wryly brings that idea into the 20th century. What could be more late 20th century middle class American than Jiffy Pop popcorn? Artifacts very specific to the American middle class in the last half of the 20th century find their way into his still lives; paper plates, plastic containers, plastic Fiesta ware, etc. The disposable consumer culture finds its way into Anderson's work just as surely as it does in Pop Art. Pop Art proclaimed the replacement of High Culture with commercial culture. Jasper Johns made that explicit with his famous bronze beer cans. Anderson simply incorporated it into his formally very traditional still lives as basic facts of the life he painted (and that he lived). The fact that Jiffy Pop is so superbly painted in this picture is just as witty and light hearted a folding of popular culture into "high art" as anything the Pop Artists did.
Anderson's later still lives had that luminosity, that grainy sense of hard-won form forged out of light from the shadows that is what is best in Chardin's work. Anderson gives his still lives his own sense of humor and sensuality; the luscious scarlet reds, that incredible pickled olive resting on the heel of the salami.
As splendid as Anderson's paintings are, his most widespread and durable legacy will be in education. That strand of figurative painting in American art that began with Robert Henri at the beginning of the 20th century and continued through Edwin Dickinson in the middle of that century had a minimal impact on modern painting. It continues to have a huge impact on the teaching of painting (including my teaching). That tradition of educators emphasized alla prima technique -- painting directly from the subject with only the most minimal reliance on drawing. Form is shaped directly out of the relationships between color and light, not through contour. Hawthorne on Painting, a book composed from student notes of the lectures of the early 20th century painter Charles Webster Hawthorne (a teacher of both Dickinson and Norman Rockwell) was a kind of bible for Anderson and for some of my own painting professors, a literary touchstone for that very painterly approach that was central to my education as a painter, and plays a big role in my own work. Anderson took the basic principles of that tradition and brought them into modernity.
My one criticism of that tradition is that it minimizes narrative. That is probably less a legacy of Henri or Dickinson or Hawthorne than of Anderson himself. As formally conservative as he was, Anderson was fully within that modern project to collapse the distinction between content and form; the content is the form and the form is the content. To me, it is no accident that his best paintings are still lives, and that his best portraits are basically still lives about people. These are paintings that do not need any narrative or content to work as paintings, and they work beautifully.
And yet, figurative art began in ancient times and began again with Giotto for the express purpose of narration, to tell stories and to make them as vividly real as possible. Telling a story in a single image, or even a host of images, is not as straightforward a business as the art critics and professors of the mid 20th century assumed when they dismissed the enterprise all together. Now that modernist aesthetic has lost a lot of its dominance in this new century, there is a host of inspirations available to painters who want to tell stories again from Renaissance fresco cycles to movies to comic books to video games to whatever technology will create. Anderson himself, almost against his will, played a large role in making narrative art viable again. He restored to figurative painting both formal discipline and the magical sheer pleasure of conjuring an image on a flat surface out of lights and colors.
As far as I'm concerned, Lennart Anderson is up there with the American greats who strode the line between real and abstract; artists like DeKooning, Diebenkorn, and Edward Hopper. He made the case that figurative art is just as viable now at the other side of modernism as it ever was. Generations to come will continue to find much to admire, enjoy, and learn from his work.
May he rest in peace.