at Salander O’Reilly
This broad yet intimate retrospective of Lennart Anderson’s paintings span the last forty years of painting, and their subject matter includes ambitious figure works, nudes, portraits, and still lifes painted throughout his career. Anderson has been described alternately as a realist, or as a classicist, and he is a formalist in the best sense of the word. He is an artist who traverses the canvas like a map, one who calculates the relationships that potentially reside at any place and moment.
Anderson came to New York from Detroit in the 1950s, and moving to the Lower East Side, lived in a loft building around 10th Street, alongside the older avant garde artists, bums, employment agencies, and bars that peppered the streets. His early works include large tableaux, multi-figured compositions of streets and people. In these paintings, narrative conflict is often condensed into a pivotal moment within the planarity of an architectural setting, or the cause of action takes place off stage, so that the impact of these works, rather than residing on the emotional empathy of the viewer, take place through the pleasures offered by their organization. With the integrity of a perfectionist, Anderson creates concise designs of buildings, streets, and stairways, with color that is as cool as their geometries are concise. Where Anderson’s viewpoint is often associated with Poussin, he shared with Philip Guston a preoccupation with Piero Della Francesca and Morandi, both of whom created monumental tableau-like compositions.
In mid-career still lifes, Anderson painted objects often associated with bourgeois comfort, like clay jars, cloth, egg cartons, hats, and shells. In an unusual approach to this genre, he organized these works in relationships of depth, conveying a feeling of pared down purity. Savoring pictorial problems, the artist creates musical compositions in color, tone, and rhythm that, at one point, quote de Kooning’s use of the central circular opening in "Still Life with Earthenware Vessel."
So what is surprising perhaps is his transition, in later works, to a more dense and painterly approach, where Anderson drops the tableau format and moves in closer to his objects, leaving behind the cool chromatic range in favor of warmer earth colors. What is found in these works is a concern, previously unexplored, for life’s delicacy in the face of mortality. Like earlier works, these are made as "a series of numerous calculations," but now moments of lyricism often occur in conjunction with discomforting revelations, as in "Admiration," where a wooden artist’s model gazes in close proximity at his muse, or "Salami on a red Plastic Dish with Potato and Radishes," a haunting work as accurate as it is elusive.
His later portraits also convey the elusive qualities of rendered flesh and its reflected surfaces. Gone is the self conscious attitude of a detached observer, while measured attention is given to the space between, behind, and in front of the suspended heads of men and women, whose slightly open mouths and bright eyes reveal an emotion of anticipation that is heightened by the presence of their weighted heads in the midst of the airy background.
Anderson’s "Idyll III (in progress)" is his most self-consciously ambitious work and draws from many historical sources. In a world where the universality of the human form has become trivialized to a greater or lesser degree, Anderson heroically wants to retrieve it. Groups of couples dance and commune with a light-hearted joy, free from life’s burdens. The male nudes combine a graceful virility and balance in contrast to the female figures who, with their sweetly knowing and sparrow like faces, convey a wholesome innocence rather than an unselfconscious sensuality. In this garden, moments of tenderness and camaraderie prevail, and the sense one comes away with from this work is of Anderson’s knowledge. His "Apollo and the Three Graces" is more libidinal in emotional tenor, and fancifully, yet darkly, portrays human nature’s mischievousness, for in this narrative Apollo is as vulnerable as the mortal Actaeon, caught off guard through his intrusion into the Graces’ provocatively displayed privacy, as he steps up the hill into their domain, holding his lyre like a guilty tool. Anderson’s quest to reinvigorate the classical tradition is invested here with our modern appreciation of contradictions.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.