Lennart Anderson at Salander-OReilly
High Gifts and Creative Intuition
Rarely does an artist justify the view that the act of painting
is serious and grave; that it is laden with consequence and
that it involves so much more than the artists own person.
Lennart Anderson is one such painter.
His current exhibition at Salander-OReilly
is a museum-quality gem. Paintings on view span over four decades
of a working life spent in obedience to the dictum that high
art is difficult to achieve. Henry James was blunt about it.
"The gift of art is given to a few." It has been given
to Lennart Anderson in full measure. And he continues to repay
A simple female nude, painted over two years beginning in 1962,
is all the evidence needed to understand why the nude, in certain
hands, is an exalted form. Andersons figure stands on
one foot, the other raised and resting on the edge of a bed
behind her. The womans features are uniquely identifiable.
We would recognize her passing in the hall. But the pose! It
recalls at once a Venus rising and Maillols canonical
Ile de France.
In one version of Maillols life-sized bronzeheel
of the back foot raisedthe arms are truncated at their
sockets. Anderson achieves a similar effect by clothing his
nude in a body-length blue-grey robe that, hanging from the
shoulders, drapes behind her to accentuate the cylinder of her
torso. The ensemble is played against a muted red wall that
nods toward the frescoes of Pompeii and the intimacies of their
"Idyll III" (in progress),
Andersons street scenes from the 50s, 60s
and 70s, with their soundless anxieties and high keyed
color schemes, appear even more contemporary now than when they
were made. In a post 9/11 world, the crisis on viewunspecified,
unresolvedstrikes us as prescient. The polar opposite
of unmodern. Daily life is ever precarious, vulnerable. For
a brief time, that ancient truism was unwisely dismissed, an
unpleasantness tucked under the cushions of affluence and ostensible
calm. Not any more.
In a new century, we look at these choreographies of hazard
with a certain astonishment. Of course! How could anyone have
missed it? Who could fail to recognize the looming veracity
of that unease, the subtle sense of endangerment, uncertainty?
Even in a scene as ordered and outwardly benign as St. Marks
Place, 1970-76, something dodgy in the glances of the figures--toward
and away from one anothercontradicts the clarity and logic
of the composition. Lessons in formal pictorial design, learned
from Poussin, are used to set off, even mock, modernitys
sense of itself.
And the surfaces of these paintings! Day trippers will respond
to the subject. Lovers of painting, amateurs in the root sense,
will see through to the stuff it is made of. As they should.
This unearthly skin, butter smooth and dense, links Anderson
to the great moderns, Manet and Degas. Such signature caress,
a perfect marriage between the act of drawing and the substance
of paint, is rare among the modernists. (DeKooning was capable
of it but abandoned it after the 1940s. Gorky brought
it to the double portraits of himself and his mother, in the
1920s and 30s.) The very fabric of the paint itself
is elegiac, a poignant reminder of the qualities of feeling
lost to alla prima painting and the taste for
Alla prima provides a stage for the mystique of brush
strokes and evident gesture, devices for calling attention to
artist within the work. It is a kind of stagecraft. Anderson,
by contrast, is a reticent man. His techniques are true to the
meditative bent that drew him to painting in the first place.
Two portraits of Andersons wife, painted nearly twenty
years apart, are included here. The magisterial, full length
Portrait of Barbara S. (1976), borrowed from the Pennsylvania
Academy of Fine Arts, orchestrates unexpected relations and
nimble observations. Barbara is seated three-quarters sideways,
her face turned straight to the viewer. Hands folded, spine
straight, head erectbraced by the verticle corner of a
wallshe is an image of aristocratic composure. Florentine
in its coloring, classical in economy of statement, the painting
is, nonetheless, a distillation of the modern temper.
It takes what it wants from the simple, severe pictorial structure
of the classical mode but spurns the grand style. Costume and
surroundings are devoid of class insignia. The figure sits on
a painted kitchen chair. She is barefoot in a simple skirt and
sweat shirt and wears no jewelry. The room is barren of reference
to anything but the life of the mind: a book on a dresser top,
a small plaster reproduction of a classical figure, Andersons
own paint sketches on the wall. In witty substitution for the
gilded mirror, Regency mantel, or ornate tapestry of court portraiture,
a simple radiator locks the figure to the background. Without
good heating, the arts are hard to maintain.
The emotional impact of the painting owes everything to Andersons
modesty in front of his subject. The dignity and authority of
the portrait are the womans own. So too is the pensive
intensity of the smaller, later and more intimate portrait of
Barbara. The painting brings us close-up to a dark head against
a dark background, shoulders swaddled in broody purple. In psychological
depth, it is a descendant of Degas studies for his portrait
of Laura Bellelli. It stands in witness to the weight of a lived
life on a sensitive and beautiful woman.
Anderson remains a still life painter of extraordinary power.
It is safe to say that his generationhe is 74has
produced none finer. In his hands, the things of the tablean
egg-carton, a salt shaker, a plastic basket of strawberries,
a jumble of cloths and crockeryassume a grandeur we had
missed before seeing them through his eyes. He makes of them
what Velasquez didnot decorative items but sacramental
ones, ordinary things elevated by their service to life.
Still lifes on show here range from the 70s to the present.
Over the years, limpid arrangements, attentive to geometry and
the demands of design, have gradually yielded to something more
closely related to Horaces phrase ut pictura poesis.
The wording suggests the close coupling of painting and poetry.
Only that the poetry is lyric, rather than heroic or dramatic.
Here, salami and an olive on a plastic plate are incandescent
with loveliness. There, so much depends on a cardboard carton
and the desolation of a fallen mannequin. [Anyone who loves
these mannequin paintings, should search out Pietro Annigonis
treatment of the motif.]
I do not propose that Anderson is a religious man. Only that
he brings a revelatory imagination to bear on the world he treats
in his painting. Much as we admire the rigor and wit of his
compositions, in the end, we are moved by the numinous quality
of the quotidian things within them.
Perhaps that is why the Arcadian themes, which have preoccupied
him for many years, are less satisfying. Ravishing to look at,
inventive and technically magnificent , they seem somehow out
of tune with the character of his own talent. There is a counter-intuitive
stress, originating with the subject matter, that contradicts
Andersons splendid capacity for abstraction.
He has a genius for abstracting from the specific. (Go back
to Nude, 1962-62, and notice the handling of frontal
nudity. Its discretion owes itself precisely to his gracious
ability to edit without idealizing.) These idylls, even if we
could assent to them intellectually, require the artist to reverse
gear by specifying the abstract. It is an about-face that gainsays
the ground of his achievement.
An argument can be made that Anderson is exploring an encore
to what Degas attempted in Young Spartans, begun in 1860
and reworked until 1880. But Degas offered the work as history
painting, not as flight from history. Moreover, he suppressed
the quasi-literary conceits of his theme, concentrating on the
faces and bodies of ordinary Parisian street kids in combative
Andersons idylls intend a pastoral, ultimately ahistorical
significance. Retreat from history is a kind of despair. It
is impelled by refusal to find meaning in it. Utopia, after
all, is nowhere.
But grace, Georges Bernanos reminded us, is everywhere. Great
art reveals it: in a grain of sand, the turn of a head or the
bent bristles of an old scrub brush. From an artist who stands
alone in creating Eden on a table top, the idylls are disconcerting.
It is useful to keep in mind that the essence of Andersons
classicism resides in his empathy, not in technical eloquencethough
that he has in abundancenor in the game of classical allusion.
Empathy is of greater rarity than virtuosity and more humane.
His classicism is achieved by profound sympathy with the physical
worlds capacity for beauty, occasional nobility. No canon
of forms and motifs, no codex of rules, can substitute for that
gracious and tender assent to earthly potential that touches
Andersons work. Therein lies the genius that can not be
Maureen Mullarkey © 2002