Order, Poise and Delight: Lennart Anderson, 1928 to 2015
Lennart Anderson was a rarity; a painter seriously concerned with long continuities in picture-making who evaded the sentimentality and complacency of pieties about tradition. He was also among the finest observation-based representational painters of his generation with ferocious, annihilating standards of achievement. His reverence for Giotto and Piero, Titian and Poussin, Chardin, Ingres, Corot and Degas tended to render all other painting slightly suspect although a space was reserved in his personal canon for Edwin Dickinson, Morandi, and DeKooning.
Anderson was part of a generation of figurative painters associated with signature images. Think of the nudes of Philip Pearlstein, Neil Welliver’s Maine landscapes, the large portraits of Alex Katz and William Bailey’s metaphysical still lifes. Anderson created intense essays in each of these genre categories, but more or less avoided a characteristic image unless, perhaps, it was the intimate still life of fruit and a few domestic objects. His exploration of figure composition, the still life, portrait and nude generated powerful images which mark the span of his creative life. The large urban friezes, the Roman street scene and St. Mark’s Place, stand comparison, to my mind, with Poussin and Piero. Nudes from the 1960’s, like the one held in the Brooklyn Museum, synthesize Ingres, Degas and DeKooning in their intensity of drawing and color to produce an erotic frankness unique within the moralized constraint of American painting. Portraits throughout his career, from that of Ruben Eshkanian to Barbara S., are superb likenesses folded into taut, concise pictorial spaces, which makes Holbein fraternal with Gorky. Anderson’s ability to dissolve historical space through the energy of his pictorial synthesis of the sensual energy expressed in his temperament and identifications might be the center of his achievement and his legacy to future painters.
Anderson’s work is contemporary, but always quietly against the grain. We live in a time of polarized choices and strategic eclecticism. You can find fans as an intransigent absolutist or as a clever negotiator of the prevailing winds of taste. Anderson had neither possibility in his character. Instead, his achievement was founded on the rigors of work always in the service of the eccentric needs of the imagination. Perhaps this quality is best seen in his relationship to observational painting. The laboratory for Anderson’s unique visual poetry was painting the still life from direct observation. So fanatic about tonal unity and so scrupulous about the motif’s measurable relationships that he would move the setup’s objects if he felt the visual life of the picture required it, Anderson, nevertheless, arrived at a shimmering feeling for tactile presence, much like a dream of light and air. Observation in his paintings becomes a way of embracing something loved in the world, but it was also a threshold to an emotion a little farther off: a song about order, poise, and delight.
Although the best paintings are summit achievements in their form, Anderson’s work functions as both a destination and a door. Certainly for painters of my generation the discovery of his pictures came as a completely unexpected recognition of visual eloquence and surprise which seemed impossible faced with the thudding literalness of contemporary practice. The foil dome of Jiffy-Pop and the ruddy, inexhaustible head of Barbara S. were epiphanies enough to reset the course of the painters he influenced.
Anderson would have none of this effusiveness, as I learned when I tried to write about his work. His pronouncements were reticent, self-effacing and laconic, but they were wonderful clues about how to found a painting life and make contact with the profound challenges in earlier painting. Two bits of advice linger in memory: “Paint the place, not the thing” and “Be as alert to the similarities in a motif as to the apparent differences.” This last thought not only illuminates the quality of flow in his paintings, but also Anderson’s example in the creation of a usable past.
DAVID COHEN adds: I should just like to add a word to Scott Noel’s handsome tribute to his fellow painter in acknowledgement of the quiet heroism of Lennart Anderson’s last decade and half of painting in defiance of macular degeneration. As he was also living during this period on “borrowed time,” with a cancer deemed incurable, it seems reasonable to talk about these paintings as being executed with borrowed light. And they do have a quirky luminosity of their own.
His efforts were by no means confined to the lovingly and obsessively reworked portraits of a circle of favorite women sitters, pictures with an inadvertent expressionism that recalls the hollowed out features of the self-portraitist Helene Schjerfbeck – but also extended to compositionally and physically ambitious quasi-mythological scenes, undefined allegories in the Golden Age genre with multiple figures in verdant glades. The key to these late large acrylics (a medium he chose for what he felt to be its fresco-like properties) was a talismanic early composition, Golden Age 1, 1956, a bacchanal of loosely blocked out figures in a frieze-like procession which he is reported to have packed into his luggage whenever traveling.
The ethereal and abbreviated nature of these figures is not curious in itself, despite the consummate observational realism evident in contemporaneous works: the picture is a sketch, and the figures are types not individuals. In fact, the reductive nature of the figures can be compared with the quasi abstraction of his realist peers at this time, such as Lois Dodd (a close friend, he kept paintings by her in his studio to the end) or Alex Katz. The picture also feels close to oil sketches by Degas or Puvis and thus evocative of an epoch to which he increasingly felt more attached than to his own times. And yet this at once dissipated and essentializing quality seems eerily prophetic of a late style brought on by diminished – and correspondingly increased appetite for – vision.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article identified the artist as a Philadelphian. He was in fact born in Detroit.