by Gary B. Christensen
“When you’re young get your ideas down on paper. Write them down, draw them or make thumbnail sketches, and keep them.
“When you’re young the ideas come freely and rapidly but you don’t have the skills necessary to execute them. When you’re older and the ideas don’t come so easily you’ll have the abilities to execute the ones you had when you were young.”1
Gammell also quoted Degas, “It is not difficult to get life into a six hour study. The difficulty is to retain it there in sixty. The secret lies in following the counsels which the masters gave us through their pictures while we do something different from what they did.”2
As you will come to see Richard Lack followed both dictums religiously and quite successfully.
The Function of Lack’s Drawings
The only works Lack considered finished were his paintings, whether in oil, pastel or watercolor, and his etchings. We may admire the brilliance of his color studies (Fig. 17) and his mastery of the figure (Fig. 1) displayed in numerous studies and drawings, or the plethora of ideas he explored, these works, in and of themselves, were never intended as an end product, they were preparations for a finished work.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t want them to be viewed or collected. He sold numerous studies primarily to his students and in a few cases, collectors. In fact Lack specifically wanted his catalogue to feature his studies for his imaginative paintings and it does. He understood the value of this body of work and wanted it to be seen in context and to be valued for what they are.
In this section, Studies: The Work Behind the Works of Richard F. Lack the focus is on his drawings and oil sketches for specific paintings. In truth “The Work Behind the Works” actually encompasses his entire body of work executed over a lifetime. The early drawings of his youth, his training with Gammell, his exploration of the “world of ideas” and the large body of drawings, sketches and studies, all are the building blocks for his finished works. The Catalogue attests to this fact. Our focus in this section narrows this down so we may scrutinize the works that he would say are his crown jewels – the imaginative paintings. This article condenses it further by focusing on one specific work, Orestes and the Furies.
Another factor to consider is the span of time much this work covers for each painting. The early imaginative works, Perseus and Andromeda, Meda and Metamorphosis of the Gods, it was a minimum of several years. In his later imaginative paintings, Day of Wrath, Mandala, Silver Apples of the Moon, Golden Apples of the Sun, the Journey into the Unconscious series, and Orestes and the Furies, it spanned decades. Painting these great works took the time required to execute them properly, as well as creating the time to be able to devote to them: after all, Lack had to balance the time devoted to running his atelier and painting works that would generate an income with the time required to paint his true passion. While most would say Lack displayed a great deal of patience he would and did take offense at this notion. On one occasion I mentioned to him a comment made by a past student (who hadn’t complete Lack’s atelier program) about this very topic. When asked by me why he didn’t complete the program his response was, “I don’t have the patience to paint that way.” With a stern look of scorn Lack said, “Patience? Patience has nothing to do with my work. It’s the correct way to paint!”
Needless to say, Lack also valued drawings of the masters and he studied them religiously. He made numerous copies of them and read scholarly books published about them. In preparation for catalogue and this article I had the privilege of reading them as well. His favorite masters was Rubens and Lack owned a two-volume set devoted to his drawings, Rubens Selected Drawings, Vol. 1 & 2, Julius S. Held, Phaidon Publishers, London, 1959. Coming in a close second is Rembrandt. Lack also owned a two-volume set of his drawings, Drawings of Rembrandt, Vol. 1 & 2, Seymore Slive, Dover Publications, NY, 1964 (Fig. 3).
While pouring over the incredible volume of drawings and studies executed by Lack I found it helpful to group them into categories. At first there were several categories of drawings that I later distilled into three: Conceptual (the world of ideas), Developmental (focus on composition) and Finished (the final studies). Lack’s studies represent the finished painting they were intended for however, it’s important to see them in the context of their origin.
Reviewing the drawings of these two great masters was enlightening. Many of their conceptual drawings were as abbreviated, sketchy and “crude” as the ones executed by Lack (Figs. 2 – 5). Unless one was intimately familiar with their work a person would be hard pressed to correctly identify the name any of the three artists of these drawings. The focus was to get their “ideas down on paper” while they were fresh in their mind. And, as crude as these drawings are the composition, gestures and other aspects of the conceptualization are present, perhaps only discernable to the artist’s eye. Lack’s concepts of this type are numerous. Many of these conceptual drawings are paired up with finished paintings and provide an intimate glimpse into the creative process Lack employed. Many more were only taken to the “developmental” stage having never been brought beyond that point. And some were never taken beyond the “conceptual” stage.
As Gammell admonished his students to “write” as well as draw their ideas, Lack did so. There are only three surviving lists, “The Planets”, “Satire on American Life” and “Illustrations – Age of Fable” for us to document. “Age of Fable” (Fig. 6) offers a great deal of insight into Lack’s imagination and intellect. In addition to the written list, Lack also executed thumbnails for 5 of the Fables (Fig. 7 & 8)
Beginning at an early age Lack was very well read. This is born out by drawings produced in his teens (Ghost Appears to Hamlet, 1947 and Arabian Knights, 1949). Besides being introduced to Shakespeare in high school and reading Arabian Knights he most likely studied Greek mythology as well, it was part of the curriculum of the day.3
Based on the list “Age of Fable”, and the subsequent drawings, studies and imaginative works representing Greek mythology, Lack also read Bulfinch’s highly acclaimed books, The Age of Fable, first published in 1855; The Age of Chivalry, first published in 1858; and The Legends of Charlemagne, first published in 1863.4 The notation at the top of the list mirrors the tittle of Bulfinch’s first book and originally was a list of woodcuts Lack intended as illustrations. Several of these concepts were developed and samples printed however they weren’t taken to a level Lack considered finished – none of the woodcut prints were ever framed. Only one item on the list became the subject of a finished painting, Perseus and Andromeda, 1965.
I have selected Orestes and the Furies (Fig. 18) to illustrate the stages leading to the finished painting. The concept sketch is a visual-shorthand of Lack’s illustration of this mythological event (Fig. 9). There must have been several thumbnail sketches he executed before settling on the one we see here, but these haven’t been found.
|In his developmental drawings Lack often explored additional approaches to illustrate his idea. The numerous drawings representing a wide variety of ways to illustrate Yeats poem, Silver Apples of the Moon, Golden Apples of the Sun† offers the best example of this. Within these drawings there are six different approaches covering a span of 6 years, from 1972 – 1978 (See Studies, page 000). Unfortunately only one of these drawings vaguely resembles the finished painting, Golden Apples of the Sun. The “missing link” or “links” representing Lack’s final choice must have been given to one of his students – a common practice of his and hopefully they will turn up one day.||
† Though I am old with wandering
And walk among long dappled grass,
He also worked out compositions, the arabesque and values, all executed in a small format no larger than 9” x 12”. The composition, arabesque and value sketches for Orestes and the Furies are excellent examples of the Conceptual and Developmental stages of this work. The composition sketch takes Lack’s original concept one-step further; It solidifies the story through the pose of the figure in the foreground as well as the figures of the hovering above (Fig. 10). The drawing of these figures is also progressing, the rendering is more accurate – emotions are beginning to appear through the posture of each figure. In Orestes, Arabesque Sketch (Fig. 11), Lack introduces a third flying figure to the right and behind the two hovering figures and the landscape setting. The arabesque of the flying figures is worked out with attention paid to how the flowing drapery will be used to solve this important aspect of the drawing.
Last in the series of sketches is Value Sketch, Orestes and the Furies (Fig. 12). The spotting and interplay of light, medium and dark values are worked out to ensure they reinforce the composition and provide visual interest. The third flying figure has moved to the foreground, a significant improvement to the composition and the visual “story”. The crows in the sky add depth and a haunting atmosphere to the event depicted.
Lack describes the importance of the composition sketch in his article Notes on an Atelier Program,5 “Painters have traditionally used compositional sketches in the following way: first as an aid in finishing their pictures, second as an initial statement to crystallize their pictorial ideas, third as a guide for assistants, and fourth as a presentation to a client.”6 and “[Value drawings address] the distribution of dark and light masses and to see how [to] create attractively balanced arabesques. In the hands of a master these arabesques give the composition both variety and unity regardless of the subject depicted or the naturalism of the form used.”7
Lack’s conceptual and developmental sketches for Orestes and the Furies follow these steps precisely.
The “Finished” drawings or studies Lack executed begin with figure drawings from the model. It wasn’t unusual for there to be more than one figure drawing of the same pose, in fact, this was the norm. Each one he executed provided the means to work out important gestures as well as subtleties of expression or a turn of the head, torso or hand.
Beginning with the first figure study (Fig. 13.) Lack establishes specific aspects to the pose of Orestes. It isn’t a highly finished drawing however it’s obvious the figure is accurate to the model. The emotion of the figure is established with the defensive posture of the body, the expression on his face and the gesture of his right hand. The outstretched left hand offers a counter thrust toward the Furies, an attempt to exert some control over his apparent fate.
In the second figure study (Fig. 15) Lack begins to make adjustments to the pose, the right leg has been straightened out thereby accentuating the position of the left leg on top and the resulting tension expressed. The torso has is rotated toward the Furies and the left arm has been straightened thereby increasing the defiance Orestes is demonstrating. The head has been turned slightly, the right hand now has a new attribute, there is a rendering of the left foot and overall, the drawing is in a more finished state.
At some point, I believe after the second figure study (Fig. 14), Lack considered an entirely different pose for Orestes (Fig. 1) however it was rejected. It’s a beautifully executed figure drawing but the pose is one of complete submission and was rejected for the original pose.
These drawings are followed by Lack’s studies of the Furies (Fig. 15). He also took the opportunity to utilize the extra space on the study to experiment with the gesture of the left arm and hand, the gesture of the right hand and the expression of Orestes.
The next is Color Study, Male Figure and Hand, Orestes and the Furies (Fig. 16). The pose of the figure, the gesture of the hands and the expression on the face of Orestes has been finalized. The color study of the central figure is it’s final preparation for the painting. This is followed by the color study Color Studies, Trial by Fire (left, 1995) Orestes and the Furies (right, 1990) (Fig. 17). Note how Lack utilized the space for a study he completed in 1995 on the same canvas, a common practice he employed.
The last step in the process is a color study of the entire work (Fig. 17). All aspects of the composition, the figures, the drapery, arabesque, environment, values and color harmony, are worked out in preparation for the painting itself.
Orestes and the FuriesTo fully appreciate the painting (Fig. 18) one must become familiar with the myth story it depicts:
Orestes, in Greek mythology, was the son of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae (or Argos), and his wife, Clytemnestra. According to Homer, Orestes was away when his father returned from Troy to meet his death at the hands of Aegisthus, his wife’s lover. On reaching manhood, Orestes avenged his father by killing Aegisthus and his mother, Clytemnestra.
Orestes was a small child at the time of Agamemnon’s murder and was smuggled to safety by his nurse, Clytemnestra who had been warned of impending retribution by a dream. For the crime of matricide Orestes was haunted by the Furies and couldn’t escape their wrath. In Aeschylus’ dramatic trilogy the Oresteia, Orestes acted in accordance with Apollo’s commands; he posed as a stranger with tidings of his own death, and, after killing his mother, he sought refuge from the Furies at Delphi. Prompted again by Apollo, he went to Athens and pleaded his case before the Areopagus.† The jury divided equally, Athena gave her deciding vote for acquittal. The Furies were appeased by being made into a cult in which they were called Eumenides or Kindly Ones.
The painting depicts Orestes being haunted by the Furies. From a Jungian perspective, Orestes was coming to grips with his anima*, as much as he felt justified in killing his mother he is plagued with guilt.
As is the case with the works of every artist, to one degree or another, the subject matter is autobiographical. Orestes was followed by his Imaginative painting, Haunted Road (1994), which can also be examined from this same perspective. I leave it to the reader to ponder the meaning they may reveal about Lack and his focus on his own “descent into the unconscious.”
† Areopagus is the composite form of the Greek name Areios Pagos, translated “Ares Rock”. It is northwest of the Acropolis in Athens.
* The anima is a feminine image in the male psyche and the animus is a male image in the female psyche. The anima/animus represents the “true self” rather than the image we present to others and serves as the primary source of communication with the collective unconscious. Kendra Cherry, Jung’s Archetypes. Reference: http://psychology.about.com
When discussing traditional painting, referred to as Classical Realism by Lack,8 and his students (and
now a term used throughout the art world in America and Europe), the topic of traditional versus modern
inevitably comes up. Within that context, work that is described as original is portrayed by Modernists
as being solidly in their camp, while in their view traditional painting is anything but original. This
couldn’t be further from the truth.
Modernist tradition is focused on the premise that for a work to be great it must be original in everyway and that originality often, but not always, begins with expressing a point of view that included “shock, angst or politics.”9 It is assumed that to be successful this focus must, at all costs, avoid artistic tradition. Of course this assumption is ridiculous, yet Lack’s instruction and pursuit of his life’s work occurred during the height of Modernism and these prevailing attitudes. Lack’s students were referred to as “Lack’s Lackey’s” in the Minneapolis arts press.9 He was not only ignored by the Minneapolis Art Institute he, his work and his students were the subject of scorn. This has begun to come to a complete reversal within some circles.
In an article by Dr. Gregory Hedberg, curator of the exhibition Realism Revisited: The Florence Academy of Art, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York City, he writes:
”In the 1970s as Curator of Painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I had occasion to visit [Atelier Lack] and to observe the students. Carefully drawing plaster casts and nude models, they appeared to be even more reactionary than the photo realists who were in vogue at the time. Back then it seemed ironic that this bustling atelier was taking root not far from the cutting-edge Walker Art Center and in the heart of perhaps the most avidly modernist city in America in terms of art and architecture. Donning my modernist hat, I naively suggested to some of these young artists that they might visit the Walker Art Center, whereupon they retorted that they have been weaned on the Walker! They had also experienced the leveling of almost the entire old part of their city to make way for dozens of new, avant-garde buildings. The more we spoke, the more my image of them as provincial reactionary’s crumbled. It was one of those students, Daniel Graves, who later founded The Florence Academy of Art.”10
In 1987 Dr. Hedberg became the first professional director of The New York Academy of Art and in doing so accomplished a complete about-face from his earlier modernist point of view.
“One immersed in the New York art world as head of ‘Warhol’s Academy,’ (upon his death The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts awarded its very first grant to The New York Academy of Art) I soon realized that there were two camps when it came to art education. The larger group hardly thought about it, and when they did, they assumed that young artists all over the country learned traditional painting and drawing skills, then rejected such training, moved to New York, and became “avant-garde.” The second group was aware of the fact that such training no longer existed in art schools and considered it to be a good thing, as such training was possibly detrimental, and certainly passé.”11
One could say that the visceral reaction that Lack and Classical Realism received over the years is primarily due to the fact that the modernists are intimidated by the observable skill Lack and his students demonstrate in their faithful representation of nature. Simply stated, they don’t know how to draw!
In his book Rubens Drawings, Julian Held comments:
“It is admittedly difficult for people who have come to equate traditional art with poor, or at least with dull art, to do full justice to an artist for whom there was no greater goal that to continue tradition.
“Rubens was such an artist. Perhaps it would be more adequate a statement if we were to say that he carried on two traditions, the heritage of Flanders remained strong in his art to the very end. But is certain that he himself preferred to think he was the heir to a longer and greater tradition reaching across the great masters of the Renaissance back to the culture of the Ancients. His real teachers were [sic] Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael and Giulio Romano, Titian and Tintoretto.”12
Substitute “Flanders” with “the Boston School” and add Rubens and Rembrandt to the list of Old Masters he considered his true teachers and this quote would apply precisely to Richard Lack. Like Rubens, Lack saw the Old Masters as his real teachers. He studied them relentlessly and at times struggled to discern their “language” of painting. His use of the bistre technique and Venetian method of painting came from this research.
I had a conversation with Lack about his research in this regard. He shared with this with me, “Much of the language of painting used by the Old Masters has been lost. What was common for every student to acquire up through the early 20th century at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Julian Academy no longer exists. For example, they would be locked in a studio guarded by an upper classman for 24 hours. When they emerged they presented a large finished painting, often 8’ x 5’ or larger depicting some moment in history for their graduation. This would have to be Prix de Rome quality work to be considered acceptable. There are other painters “tricks” that were handed down to them that remain a mystery to us today and are lost forever. For example there are certain whites the masters used with special characteristics that appear in their works that can’t be replicated with the pigments we have today.
“And, they were able to paint very large paintings with complex compositions, for example charging cavalries.
Not only could they execute these larger than life size, they were able to finish them relatively quickly. Based on what we know about how they utilized students to work on their paintings, and the means they used to blow up and transfer drawings onto canvas, we can speculate how they were able to accomplish these grand works. But we don’t know exactly how they were able to execute them with so much life in them – no one has ever attempted it today using what we understand about their methods. The list goes on and on. When you consider the monumental volume of finished work the Old Masters completed, and the quality of their work displayed upon graduating from their training, it boggles the mind.”13
In many ways it seems Lack aspired to become a peer of the masters of the past as well as having them be his teachers. At the very least he demonstrated he had the confidence required to aspire to this lofty goal. He never made a direct statement to this effect, he was far to humble. In fact, he compared his work to theirs and knew when he hit the mark as well as missed it.
Lack always said he wanted his work to speak for them selves and they do. While he at times lamented the fact that he was overlooked by the art world and never achieved the recognition he thought he deserved in his lifetime, he also stated that any broad recognition he did acheive wouldn’t be realized until 50 years after he was gone.
Lack’s work was grounded in his intellect. All of his works demonstrate this, with his imaginative works, both mythological and rooted in Jungian psychology, underlining this fact. He paid homage to his “teachers” visible in numerous works: Vermeer in The Birthday Gift, Paxton in Girl in Blue, Homage to Paxton, Whistler in Reading, Rembrandt in The Jack-o-Lantern (Fig. 19 and Fig. 20), Rubens in Study of a Baby, Nativity – the list doesn’t end there and is extensive. Many of his homages are subtle and had to be ferreted out. Their discovery has been and continues to be a treasure hunt.
While Richard Lack never received the acclaim that was his due when he was alive it is my hope his Catalogue Raisonné will provide the means for it to occur sooner then the fifty years he predicted. And when it does I’m hopeful he will find he finally arrived in the Pantheon of the Masters he greatly admired and who profoundly influenced his work.
1 R. H. Ives Gammell conversation with James Childs, 1977
2 R. H. Ives Gammell, The Shop Talk of Edgar Degas, University Press, Boston, MA, 1961, pg. 36.
3 Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Little Brown and Company, NY, 1942.
4 Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch’s Mythology, Barn’s & Noble, 2006: A compilation of his three books: The Age of Fables, first published in 1855; The Age of Chivalry, first published in 1858; and The Legends of Charlemagne, first published in 1863; All three were published by Review of Reviews company, New York, NY in 1913. This book is still considered one of the definitive resources for fables and mythology. Lack read them. He references Bulfinch’s book The Age of Fables as a notation on a series of mythological thumbnail concepts “List of Illustrations, Age of Fables.”
5 Richard Lack, Notes on an Atelier Program, On the Training of Painters, 8th Edition, The Atelier, Minneapolis, MN, 2009, Composition, pg. 51.
6 Richard Lack, Notes on an Atelier Program, On the Training of Painters, 8th Edition, The Atelier, Minneapolis, MN, 2009, Composition, pg. 48.
7 Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch’s Mythology, Barn’s & Noble, 2006: The Age of Fables: Orestes pp. 219-220.
8 Richard Lack, Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, UT, 1982. Exhibition catalog.
9 Artpaper, 1988, Minneapolis, MN, November, “Dispatches”: Frank d’ Adedesa. Classical Realists Appeal for Respect, Recognition, Synopsis: Heated debate concerning Classical Realists exhibit at the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program sponsored and hosted by the Minneapolis Museum of Arts, Lack misquoted, realists artists at November meeting almost won a majority of curatorial panel members who determine exhibitions in the program, record attendance – double previous turnout, heated debate.
Artpaper, 1988, Minneapolis, MN, December, “News in Brief”: Neal Cuthbert, About the Results of This Year’s MAEP Meeting, Synopsis: Coverage of the MAEP November elections for a new Board of Directors. Classical Realists miss control of the curatorial panel by one vote, “Because of last year’s quiet attempt by artists affiliated with the Atelier Lack School of Classical Realism to capture control of the curatorial panel, this year’s attendees came not only organized but in record numbers.” Description of how the panel works, comments about how the meeting proceeded.
10 & 11 Dr. Gregroy Hedberg, A New Direction in Art Education: The Florence Academy of Art, Andy Warhol and a New Aesthetic Movement, “Realism Revisited: The Florence Academy of Art”, Hirschel & Adler Galleries, New York, NY, 2013. Exhibition brochure and accompanied article.
12 Julian S. Held, Rubens Selected Drawings, Vol. 1, Phaidon Publishers, London, England, 1959. Introduction, Section II, Types and Techniques of Rubens Drawings: The Function of Drawings, pg. 18.
13 Gary Christensen, taped conversation with Richard Lack, 1996.