Lennart Anderson’s Blindness and Vision

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As I was scheduled to be on a Zoom panel about the artist, I gave myself a lot of time to look at the exhibition Lennart Anderson: A Retrospective, at the NYSS Gallery (October 18-November 28, 2021). As I said on the panel, I felt like an interloper. I did not know  Anderson. I never met him or heard him speak. Moreover, I came to his work late. 

Many of the paintings in the exhibition were new to me. However, I had seen the painting “Still Life with Lion Head Mask and Spider Plant” (2006), and I was pulled toward it when I realized it was in the room. In an interview with Anderson, who had macular degeneration and was legally blind, A’Dora Phillips asked: 

Up to when you lost central vision, you painted detailed still lifes from direct observation, along with figures and portraits. In the first few years after your eyes went, you did a few more still lifes of a lion’s mask, and they are entirely different from what preceded them. Did you have to modify your painting process significantly to complete your lion’s mask paintings? Did you work from direct observation, as you typically had?

This is Anderson’s answer:

I did three paintings of the lion’s mask. I painted it once with a tiger plant and once with an artichoke up in Maine the summer after my eyes went. In fact, I took the mask with me to Maine precisely to paint it, since it’s nice to know what you’re going to do, instead of hanging around and worrying about it. The third painting, the one with the simple head on it, I did later, in my Park Slope studio.

Lennart Anderson, “Still Life with Lion Head Mask and Spider Plant” (2006) (image courtesy Leigh Morse Fine Arts/ Estate of Lennart Anderson)

I had seen and written about two of the lion-mask paintings before, “Lion Head and Artichoke” (2004; also known as “Lion Head and Artichoke”), which was not in the exhibition, and “Lion Mask” (2007), but until this show I had not thought about them within the context of still life, a genre that Anderson worked in throughout his life. (“Lion Head and Artichoke” is currently on view in Lennart Anderson (1928–2015): Paintings and Drawings at Leigh Morse Fine Arts.)

A selection of Anderson’s still lifes containing one or both of the last “Lion Mask” paintings and chronologically arranged would add up to a diary of sight, of the world growing darker and closing in on him. As an observational painter who closely scrutinized his subject, even as he fictionalized it, Anderson was interested in the interplay between reality and artifice. This reciprocity is what transports his still life paintings into a realm of exquisite particularities, especially when it comes to color, light, and texture. 

One of Anderson’s great works, “Still Life with Red Potatoes, Yams, Onion and Strainer” (1990), is in the exhibition. This is a nuanced tonal painting that seems to have been generated by the things in it and the environment: red potatoes, yams, and an onion on a wooden table against a wide-plank wood wall. What makes this painting special is the strainer, which is set at a diagonal, with the red potatoes and one yam on the left and a yam and onion on the right. The strainer helps us see the painting, as it demarcates where the table, on which it sits, ends and the wall begins. Its porous mesh is a tour-de-force of painting in service of the painting, intended to pull the viewer into a believable space. With nothing working in counterpoint, the potatoes would become boulders sitting on an earthy brown plain. 

Lennart Anderson, “Still Life with Red Potatoes, Yams, Onion and Strainer” (1990), oil on canvaswith frame: 25 1/4 × 31 1/2 in. Delaware Art Museum, F. V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 1990.

More than a decade earlier, in “Still Life with Kettle” (1977), Anderson juxtaposed a table with dark green legs against a green wall with red and yellow trim. The tabletop is unpainted and floats within the green space, rendered as a narrow, tilting plane on which we see an empty cruet and salt shaker in front of a shiny metal teapot with faceted sides. The transparent cruet calls further attention to the teapot’s metallic surface. While I don’t want to overdramatize Anderson’s diminishing viewpoint, I cannot help but think about it when I look at “Lettuce #3” (1995), which focuses on a single head of green lettuce against a thinly painted, brushy mustard brown ground. 

I was also reminded that Anderson studied with Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978), who was one of John Ashbery’s favorite painters. In the summer of 1912, Dickinson went to Provincetown to study with Charles W. Hawthorne, an underrated realist painter. As cited in the catalogue Edwin Dickinson in Provincetown, 1912 – 1937 (2007), Dickinson credited Hawthorne with teaching him “that plane relationships (i.e., subtly shifting tonalities) are more representable through comparative value than through implications of contour.” 

Lennart Anderson, “View of Detroit River” (1953), oil on canvas, 10 x 14 inches. Collection of the Estate.

One could draw a line of thinking and seeing from Hawthorne to Dickinson to Anderson. It is a lineage that the art world seldom acknowledges, as if we must always break away from the past in order to move on. And yet this latter way of looking at art seems to me just as tiresome as those who are nostalgic for the past. Those who believe in the new are not any more right than those who put their faith in tradition. 

Two of Dickinson’s greatest attributes were that he was unpredictable and ambitious. He did drawings, premier coup paintings, symbolic paintings he labored over for years, and imagined scenes of polar expeditions. When he got obsessed with the Civil War, he did a number of self-portraits in which he is wearing a Union soldier’s uniform. When the curator and art historian Katharine Kuh asked Dickinson about the curious painting “Self-Portrait in Uniform” (1942), he answered: “I’ve had a number of hobbies; one was the Civil War. For about nine years I was particularly interested in that subject and the portrait comes from that time.” The artist found no other justification necessary, and we should take him at his word.

The art world does not respect independent artists, especially if they have not made it big in the marketplace, but it loves the conformist who achieves a breakthrough. With Anderson it was the two still life paintings, “Lion Head and Artichoke” and “Lion Mask,” that made me aware that I ought to take a longer and deeper look at his oeuvre. I knew this moment was going to come, as a few years earlier I had seen a portrait by him and was struck by his tender attention to the subject, how calm she seemed to be. That apparent rapport and the resulting painting, with its tonalities, got my attention. 

Lennart Anderson, “Lettuce #3” (1995), oil on board, 10 3⁄4 x 13 in. Private Collection.

As with “Lettuce #3,” Anderson has moved in close, but in “Lion Mask” the autumnal light is dissolving the mask. In “Lion Head and Artichoke,” the mask and vegetable are resting on a table, which is hinted at by the paint but never crystallizes into an image, never becomes palpable. Across the bottom edge, a thinly applied band of olive green holds up what I take to be the table. The orange and brown mask lies face up next to the green artichoke, which functions like an arrow, pointing the viewer toward the painting’s coppery ground, which can be read as a wall or as atmospheric space, or — as can only happen in a painting — both. Form and dissipation meet along the edges of one another. 

Closer to the viewer, and the picture plane, the thick stem and glaucous green leaves are clearly defined, while the rest of the plant is rendered simultaneously planar and vaporous. In the tightly circumscribed space of the picture plane, the artist subtly registers this short span of distance with a shift from articulated form to smudges of paint. Anderson knows this is his future. A deeply passionate reader, he surely knew that the leaves’ chalky green color (or what the Greeks called glaukos) would have been associated with a diseased eye (or glaucoma). The juxtaposition of the lion mask with an eyehole and the artichoke is not arbitrary. 

In his last still life, “Lion Mask,” after which Anderson knew he would take leave of this kind of looking, he returned to the subject of the mask, but moved in closer, as its upturned face takes up much of the painting’s space. No longer able to back away from his subject and see it from a distance, the artist concentrates all his attention on this forlorn thing, which seems to have only one fang and one eye.

Lennart Anderson, “Lion Head and Artichoke” (2004) (image courtesy Leigh Morse Fine Arts/ Estate of Lennart Anderson)

In “Lion Mask,” the ground and mane are dark brown, with blacks and grays mixed in. It is nearly impossible to fix where the mane ends and the darkness begins. Night is falling. “Lion Mask” is a farewell painting. Rimmed in gray, the mask’s black eyehole, its empty round space, hovers just above the center of the painting, like a bottomless well drinking up whatever light remains. The lion’s open mouth, revealing its single fang, makes the powerful creature seem old and even pathetic, while the eyehole conveys a feeling of apprehension and surrender. This is a portrait of our future more than it is a self-portrait of the artist. 

Staring up into the dark vastness, which evokes the night sky, the mask reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s powerful injunction, “Do not go gentle into good night.” Anderson neither went gently nor raged. He kept painting, even when he was legally blind. He wanted to see as far as he could into the darkness. 

Lennart Anderson: A Retrospective continues at NYSS Gallery (8 West Eighth Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through November 28. The exhibition was curated by Graham Nickson and Rachel Rickert in collaboration with the artist’s estate.

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