In the summer of 1989, I came across a black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Larry Day in a recent issue of Artforum. Entitled “The Red Building” it depicted a section of one of Philadelphia’s blandly vintage neighborhoods. The reviewer, Eileen Neff, described the eight paintings included in Day’s solo exhibition as making up a “variety of architectural exteriors,” having “uniformly thin paint” and a “stage-like presence.” I didn’t know the picture in the photograph. I did know the artist and his previous work.
I hadn’t thought of Larry Day or his work very much in the previous fifteen years. This innocuous streetscape in the reproduction was airily peaceful, classicized; Arcadian, even. The workaday Philadelphia I had known might look that way to someone who had served in Iwo Jima (I knew he did, getting through the pauses in battle reading The Magic Mountain). It was evidence of what Day wrote in one of his notebooks: “How we dreamed of the ordinary as ideal when we were in the army.”
I met him in the mid-1970s at what was then called Philadelphia College of Art. Most of the painting classes were in the painting annex at 309 South Broad Street on the second floor of a building that also had Gamble and Huff recording studios upstairs. I remember sharing the elevator with some seriously duded-up performers. Extravagantly customized limousines were often double-parked out front. When I looked online for that address it was a construction site for condominiums.
Across Broad Street was the main building, a John Haviland Neo-Classical portico attached to a Victorian brick addition by Frank Furness with a courtyard where I had once walked in on Furness’s former student, the architect Louis Kahn, giving a talk. Seeing the building again a few years ago, I was taken by the fineness of the Haviland structure. Delicately positioned windows set within the wide walls. The fat columns incongruous but somehow correct.
Larry had depicted the building’s more mundane flanks in a number of his paintings, avoiding the emblematic front face. But I am sure he admired the Haviland façade, as he was preoccupied with proportion. What he valued in Mondrian, he once told me, was the beauty of the tension between the perpendicular bands and the flat planes.
Entering the painting studios, one found Mr. Day slouching in a folding chair, imperturbable, holding a pencil next to his head. He was long-legged, wore a mustache and horn-rimmed glasses and a tie and jacket among proto-punk, glitter queen and crunchy hippie painting students. His persona, that of a phlegmatic intellectual professor, was habitually misjudged as being intimidatingly smart and censorious. But soon most found him unusually open and accepting, and an encyclopedia of information and analysis of anything that was in the cultural canon and a lot that was not. And he could be very funny. And kind.
I had him twice for seminar and for a year in studio. We sat in this large room populated by dirty and barely functioning easels and talked. Our conversation moved directionless in the longeurs of the afternoon. I remember him describing evenings at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, about how the Holocaust had changed the way that humans understood themselves, how when you watch westerns on television with people from Texas they don’t comment on how well the actors act but on how well they ride. I was enough of a reader, moviegoer, and jazz enthusiast (Philadelphia in the seventies was full of all kinds of great music) that I could follow his thoughts and sometimes added something. His specialty was his ability to illustrate verbally the interpolation of film to music to painting and to literature, demonstrating how they inform one another. One example: in the introduction to his book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom describes standing in front of Titian’s Flaying of Marsayas (ca. 15700 “with the painter Larry Day” who comments, “Doesn’t it remind you of the final scene in Lear?”
He had known many of the Abstract Expressionists in New York and had once made an attempt, through the efforts of Franz Kline, who had taught in Philadelphia and had been a colleague, to exhibit there. An experience he found disappointing. When I told him I was moving to New York, he said, ruefully, “Well, you have got to be pretty tough.”
By that time he had settled comfortably into the role of a provincial academic, or at least that is how I saw him, and perhaps it’s why I didn’t keep up with him for too long after I left school. I was restless to get out of there, to New York, where it was really happening. He once had an exhibition at the very uninteresting Pierce Junior College, just nearby PCA. I had no idea why he would agree to put his paintings there. Its events gallery had had no standing as a place to exhibit, even in Philadelphia. I had gone early to the opening. It was mostly populated by what I saw as good, plain people, probably parents of some of the enrolled students. I met him coming in on my way out, saying that he will most likely be bored. The next time I saw him, I asked about his opening. He said everyone was polite and curious. Some wondered, cautiously approaching him, if he might have been an engineer or architect before he was a painter. He found it all quite charming. It was an indication of his intellectual and artistic self-sufficiency that I came to admire later.
Looking at the reproduction brought back something that had been working on me unconsciously. Neff’s observation of the works’ “stage-like presences” described my own ideas about painting at that time, but what it delivered, through this remembrance of his work, was the calm assurance that came with visiting a place I knew. I had been very confused about what I was doing. Here, then, I had touched ground. It legitimatized him and, by turn, me. Maybe it was because he had gotten an Artforum review. (Painters aren’t necessarily moved by noble aspirations.) As Larry wrote elsewhere in his notes, “Trends, fads, cultural pressures, social pressures, are not peripheral to art but the lifeblood of art—the organizing principle.”
A letter went out to him, then a second, which he responded to. Soon after, at his invitation, I took the Amtrak to Washington, then the DC Metro to Takoma Park. He had retired and was living with Ruth Fine, a friend he had married, an artist, writer, curator and his former student. He picked me up at the station, and we rode over a good many speed bumps and returned to their circa 1920s bungalow. We had a good many martinis. I was put up for the night. In the course of the evening's conversation, I had the oddest feeling that I was talking to someone whose thinking was unusually close to mine. It took me a while to realize that I was talking to the person that had formed my thinking. I had adapted some of his manner as well. I looked at his new work, buildings, construction sites, marginal areas of the city, all of them quietly grand. At that moment, what I was doing was very close to this. I had developed a preoccupation with the work of John Cheever, Alfred Hitchcock, and Edward Hopper. One of my first art writings was a paper examining the overlaps among these three: voyeurism, observation, mise en scène. This combo is also a way to look at Larry’s work: The exultant suburbanism of Cheever is a strong element, especially in the early figuration, like Poker Game (1970) or Conversation Piece I (1973–74). (Though perhaps Day’s work is closer to the pagan tableaux of Iris Murdoch. I remember on that first visit, he had just discovered Murdoch’s protégé, A. S. Byatt, and was busy devouring her books.) As is the intimate stillness of Hopper in Suburban Landscape (1976) and Hitchcock’s intense interrogation of the visible, as in Aquarium (1977). Another note observes that “The plain is hard to see when you focus, concentrate on it, what you see is your concentration.”
Another trinity for me of that time, though unrelated to one another, was the work of Charles Laughton, William Eggleston and most especially, Stephen Sondheim. Their appeal was in my perception of them as artists that had pushed their chosen form to its boundaries. I used to tell people that I thought Eggleston was the greatest living painter. Laughton as the most precisely audacious actor. It surprised me to discover on that visit the enthusiasm we shared for Sondheim. But it made sense. The amazing thing about Sondheim was that one detected an unusual mind and sensibility working inside such a suspiciously unsubtle genre as the Broadway musical. It made what Sondheim did thrillingly odd. There was a lightness to wanting to make art that way, similar to Larry’s admiration for Lester Young, (his trinity was Young, T.S. Eliot and Balthus) whose music whisked along the surface with the gentlest verve. My selection of these particular artists as exemplars came, I suspect, from his lessons, delivered in such an offhand manner that I didn’t know that they were lessons at all. For example, he would observe how certain actors could remain within their roles with a relaxed confidence such that one’s attention was never diverted from the narrative. These weren’t simple artistic preferences, attitudes, but something moral. The point, as I understand it, was about not about the content or subject so much as how one went about making one’s work that was important.
There was another trip to Takoma Park the following year. I had made my first trip to Southeast Asia in the interim. I projected my slides of Thailand and Indonesia for them, taken of painted plaster temples, polychromed dancing nymphs and collapsed stupas. Larry was quick to point out all kinds of variations and improvisations invented by common hands in the folksier minor sites I was drawn to. That second visit to Ruth and Larry was overshadowed by the grim build-up to the First Gulf War. It was also the time of the big Titian show at the National Gallery that Larry must have gone to see with Harold Bloom. I first saw the Flaying of Marsayas at that time. We played a very inside baseball parlor game that had to do with our choice of the best paintings in certain museums.
I called him a few times in the following years. He had returned to Philadelphia. He told me he was working on the Elegies (Homage to Rilke) series. Then he was gone in the first part of 1998. That summer I was in the same studio he had had, Cheney, when a resident at MacDowell. I don’t think I had mentioned when we had last spoken that I had become an abstract painter. I had just painted myself there, but I had my reasons, too. Representation had simply become, it seemed to me, a melancholy activity. The work I have done since that change, and since around 2000, is what I consider the work I was meant to do. We had our own ideas about abstraction. When I was a student he thought the best abstract painters at that time were Diebenkorn and Noland. We differed considerably on Newman and Ryman. And then later for me there was Blinky Palermo, whose work was a watershed and changed everything. I don’t think I understood abstraction except intellectually until I started making it myself. Palermo was also a signal to go out and look at what the world looked like. It freed me from painting culture, per se.
In this regard, I came to the Larry Day retrospective, Body Language: The Art of Larry Day (now at The David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana from Feb. 24 through May 21, 2022. Previously across Arcadia University, University of the Arts and Woodmere Art Museum this past fall and was covered in the Rail.) with my desire to see it most likely about having yet another look at myself, this time in full acknowledgment that Larry Day had been my first and most important mentor. On a Saturday this past fall, I was accompanied by Ruth Fine. We first went to the galleries at the University of the Arts, (formerly PCA) that had his early abstractions entitled Nature Abstracted. The drawings demonstrated that his apparent consummate skill and confidence as a draftsman was there from the start. You felt that he could do anything. The paintings gradually developed away from a de Kooning-esque milkiness and scrappy angst into the identifiable Day touch, featherlight and impassive. His color, in his later abstractions, including one I remember well that was not in the exhibition, if I can risk a contradiction, I would call wonderfully unremarkable, running mostly from very pale to pastel. It’s as if the paintings were saying, “Well, one can be pleasant going about this. It doesn’t have to be all be existentialist drama.” A variation on Matisse’s “comfortable armchair.” Larry’s touch, it seems to me, was also about looking at his touch and also looking at what touch was. The later abstractions refused to perform, so one might think that they were without subject, the brushstrokes don’t differentiate themselves, they only interrelate, and modulate across the surface like in a Cézanne.
I remember him talking about his decision to return to figuration as based within his perception of what the current art historical moment demanded, but it seems to me his vast literary erudition sent him there as much as in his desire to make visual art. Like modernist masterpieces in literature, his paintings became thickly allusive. When I was in school many of the new figurative group of painters came through as guest speakers, all acknowledging Larry: Jack Beal, Gabriel Laderman, William Bailey and Leland Bell, among others. They represented a cult that saw an alternative view of modernism centered on Giacometti, Derain and Balthus. Day seemed to be a charter member of this seemingly neoconservative association and his long involvement with the problem of groups of figures in a composition was very much in evidence in the selection of figural paintings at the Woodmere museum, Silent Conversations. I knew this work well, but not the elegy series, an extensive group of ink on paper tableaux, set amid a much-peopled landscape seemingly post-havoc; varied, a costumed pageant roaming from the present through the history of the European easel painting and engraving, with nods to Hogarth and Bruegel, among others, with some architecture from his paintings returning to the background. I even recognized a building in my old Brooklyn neighborhood that was in a photograph I had given him on that first return visit.
From the early figuration to the last, most of the bodies maintained a frontal orientation. In the final works, a rhythm between the all the elements is created by his carefully inked lines, but it seems to me his early quasi-narrative paintings were quite deliberately static. Where his contemporary compatriots of this genre were updating representation with all the dynamic devices that came with Modernism and the photograph—cropping, closeups, diagonal compositions-Day chose to evoke the pictorial inventions of the early Renaissance specifically in order to be anachronistic, locating his painting right at this historical pivot point, at the beginning of naturalistic representation. It was his painting ground zero, and a comment on the early mechanics of representation. Something that he obviously loved, but was also ambivalent about. He once observed that de Kooning thrived in a kind of chaos because “he couldn’t finish a painting.” Day’s unfinished works, such as Heidelberg Park (1972) occupy similar territory, and again, they differ from his contemporary figurative colleagues in his unwillingness to capitulate to this normative form in its entirety.
And then there was the un-peopled landscapes and cityscapes, interestingly, at Arcadia University, entitled Absent Presence. One might call them Les Grands Quotidiens or even The Arcadian Days. Unfinishedness here was depicted. Almost every motif was of a site either under construction, partially dismantled, or contained hints of debris and neglect. One constant was Day’s characteristically thin paint application, as Neff mentions in her review.
There was a panel on the Larry Day retrospective exhibitions I was invited to participate in, and was happy to do so. It took place in early January, and previous to that date he was much on my mind. I thought of the many vacant architectural intervals he favored while visiting Vincenza and spending time among the works of Palladio. When the time came to be on the panel, I surprised myself with how much I could recall of my time with him. But I was still pretty unsure of exactly what the work meant to me in the present. Since then, I’ve reached clearer conclusions, particularly that I understand his work as being about examining the painting as a form. In the catalog of the exhibition, he is quoted as liking the idea of “the canvas being part of the physical property, rather than paint.” When you look at the breadth of his work, from beginning to end, there is no artistic facture, no rhetorical signature of paint handling. He was at pains to keep this aspect of authorship at bay. One thinks of Barthes’s “Death of the Author” and the Minimalist’s desire to evoke a neutral viewing situation. Perhaps closer to this impulse was his hero T.S. Eliot’s idea of art as an escape from emotion, from personality. No wonder Day was pleased by the non-cognoscenti at Pierce College taking him for a former engineer, his work had successfully avoided having an artistic “personality.” What I think I have gotten from him, then, is a desire for a detached attitude and the placement of value on the physical property of the painting. What remained from my experience of the retrospective was the overt literalism of his paintings. The obviousness of their being drawn with pencil and colored with paint with an extremely skilled but almost schoolboy plainness. His work troubles any room it’s in because it cannot be easily understood. He passes the test described by T.J. Clark, that a modern painting, if it’s good, exists as a problem for the space around it. It indicts its surroundings.
Avoiding the pressure cooker of the New York art world, living and depicting aspects of a genteel existence, did not make him a genteel painter. His work was decidedly anti-bourgeois. Take a look at all the rhetorical personality, artistic facture and painterly excess making the big money these days, and you will see what I mean.