BERWICK — Offers like this do not often come to painters like Richard Brown Lethem.
Lethem has been a dedicated painter for 50 years, the last 20 of which he spent in Maine. He’s enjoyed success and won the admiration of art-world observers, curators and collectors.
But a barn full of work at his home in Berwick, amassed over all those decades, suggests that Lethem’s success extends only so far. When he dies, he knows all too well that his grown children will inherit not only his legacy, but untold unsold paintings.
That’s why he was so pleased when Ron Crusan, director of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, offered a solo show during the height of the summer season. It’s recognition for a job well done and a reward for Lethem’s continued pursuit of his artistic agenda.
“Figure <–> Abstraction” features a dozen or so large-scale acrylic and oil paintings, as well as a single wooden sculpture, that Lethem has made since he began coming to Maine in 1991. They represent the concentrated effort of an artist who has remained steadfast in his vision, unwavering in his discipline as a painter and committed to the anti-war, pro-environmental beliefs that surface in his work.
Lethem is hardly an unknown painter. He has shown his paintings in galleries and group museum exhibitions from California to his native Midwest to Maine, in urban centers and rural outposts. But it’s been a long time since he’s shown so many paintings with deeply personal meaning so close to his home.
The exhibition is on view through August in the museum’s main gallery. Lethem will attend an opening reception on July 12 and give a gallery talk on July 15.
The title refers to Lethem’s emphatic belief that no matter how abstract a painting may appear, it is inherently rooted in human perceptions and actions. The figure cannot be teased out of it.
The double arrow in the title is a mathematical symbol used to indicate that one side of an equation is true if and only if the other side also is true. One cannot exist without the other.
That’s how Lethem approaches his work. He makes abstract paintings that are based on color and lines, and he populates them with what museum director Ron Crusan calls “fractured human forms.” His paintings are not just about color and our response to it but also about gestural, figurative content.
He was influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, but not at the cost of the human figure. A half-century of dedicated painting has enabled Lethem to deftly synthesize those styles to create a body of work that is unique in contemporary art, Crusan said.
Lethem’s work is full of narratives if a viewer takes the time to look, observe and interpret. “Pit and Parade,” a large, rectangular acrylic on canvas painting from 2003, presents viewers with two human figures wrestling, one with a hand on the other’s throat. Lethem places them at the bottom of his canvas, in a bubble of brown and gray paint. Above them, on a separate plane of blood red, a horse moves forward, its head down, in an apparent struggle with its female handler. A mysterious hatted human figure lurks in the background.
What’s going on here? Why are they fighting? Why is the horse working so hard? Is he trying to break free? The answers matter less than the mood and feel that Lethem conjures: struggle, conflict, chaos. There’s dust in the air and blood on the tracks.
Another, “Anchor Knot,” is his homage to Marsden Hartley, a modernist painter from Maine. It evokes Hartley’s color preferences and style, and the nautical title suggests Hartley’s native Maine. It’s not about interpreting Hartley, but about creating a Hartley mood.
While Crusan retained the curatorial right to arrange the show at his discretion, he ceded all choices about what to include in the exhibition to Lethem. Delighted with the opportunity to show so many of his paintings at once, Lethem was limited only by the physical boundaries of the museum’s main gallery.
“I can pull paintings out in my barn and show them to people who are interested,” Lethem, 81, said during an interview at his home last week. “But showing it in a museum is something else. It’s what we all hope for.”
Maine is full of what the art world refers to as mature painters, men and women who have spent their professional lives making pictures that express their beliefs, observations and hopes. Some are recognized, but most work in relative anonymity.
They come to Maine for myriad reasons. They know they will find a friendly work environment where they will not be harshly judged for a life in the arts. They know they will have the chance to connect with curators who will take the time to get to know their work. And they can find quiet places to accomplish their work and maybe plant a garden and develop a community of friends.
BARN AS METAPHOR
Lethem came up from Brooklyn as a seasonal resident in 1991 and moved here full time in 1994, when he took a teaching position at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham.
He bought a 19th-century farmhouse in Berwick, mostly because it had not one, but two barns that allowed him multiple studios and room to explore his ideas.
The barns could be a metaphor for Lethem’s life. When he lived in New York, he worked as a carpenter. He was raising a family, and had to work for a living so he repaired and renovated brownstones. That appealed to him on a few levels. He liked the work and appreciated the structure of a home – one wall supporting a ceiling, supporting a wall above it, etc.
At night and when he had time, he did his art. After moving to Maine, he was able to concentrate on art solely. The barns represent both the freedom he found in Maine, as well as his appreciation for architecture, structure and form.
In what he calls his stable barn, he has a large studio with paintings finished and in progress. Currently, he’s working out ideas for paintings to include in a group show this fall about coyotes at the University of New England in Portland.
Here, he keeps a desk and chair, as well as files of paperwork and information about his career. This is where the business of art gets done, both its creation and its documentation.
The studio suggests that Lethem is both productive and organized. It is a busy place, but not cluttered.
Upstairs is another studio, and in another part of the smaller barn Lethem keeps a shop stocked with hardware and materials that he uses for sculpture, collage and assembling his works.
Lethem uses the larger barn for storage. Its lofts are full of decades of paintings, many of them large – 5, 6, 7 feet tall and just as wide. Fresh air moves through the open doors. The first thing one sees upon entering is a power lawnmower, parked by the open doors. It feels miniature in the scale of the barn itself.
In addition to planting beautiful perennial gardens that make his weathered old home inviting and warm, he found a community of friends who shared his Quaker beliefs and a political agenda that has grown increasingly anti-war and pacifist.
Crusan has long admired Lethem’s colorful, abstracted images of human figures embroiled in various states of conflict – with themselves, with others and with the world around them. Crusan did not offer this show as a favor for a friend. He offered it because he believes Lethem’s work is important and deserves to be seen.
“He is somebody who has been painting for 50 years,” Crusan said. “For us as a museum, it’s important to show accomplished living Maine artists. He has proven himself as an accomplished colorist whose work is full of gesture and emotion. This is a nod to a local artist who should have national status.”
Crusan scheduled the Lethem show in tandem with a group of black-and-white photographs by Alexandra de Steiguer, who has spent the past 17 winters as a caretaker on Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, off the Maine-New Hampshire coast. Also on view are sketches and watercolors by Andrew Wyeth, from the private collection of Linda Bean.
It may appear that Lethem’s paintings, so full of jumbled lines and loopy blocks of color, have little in common with Wyeth or de Steiguer, but Crusan suggested that visitors will find close connections among the diverse bodies of work. Each artist makes work based on emotional responses, he said. The outcome of the work is different, but the motive of each artist is the same.
Lethem was born in Missouri and studied at the Kansas City Art Institute. He moved to New York to study at Columbia, then served in the military. He returned to New York in 1954, and five years later received a Fulbright Fellowship, which took him to Paris and the museums of Europe.
When he was younger, his paintings evoked his deeply held anti-war sentiment, which was seeded when he served during the Korean War and took root a decade later when America went to war in the jungles of Vietnam. He was stationed across the American South, and did not see action in Korea.
His early paintings reflected conflict among men, or as he puts it, “Human figures confronted by ideas.”
And then he moved to Maine.
CONCERN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Here, his paintings became less about the conflict among men and more about his regard and concern for the environment. He’s never been interested in pretty pictures.
“I believe art should deal with serious issues,” he said.
Both as a teacher and as an artist, he has mentored many painters. Among them is the landscape painter Rachael Eastman, who talks to Lethem about art and ideas. She calls him “an authentic human being, and a wonderful, lyrical painter.”
She used the phrase “belief in action” to describe him.
“He was extraordinary and kind to me, fueling a lot of thought for me in formal terms, but also for many others over the years in terms of his life itself, challenging us to tie our lives and experiences more seamlessly to our art.”
While Lethem allows himself the luxury of reflection on his life and career, he is very much looking forward. He is thinking about what it means to be an artist in the early 21st century, his responsibilities as an artist and how he wants the next phase of his life and career to play out.
He’s proud of what he has done as an artist and as a father. He helped raise three kids, two sons and a daughter. All are making their lives in the arts. One is a graphic designer, another works in Spain as a writer and translator. Another son is the writer Jonathan Lethem, who lives part of the year in Maine.
Based solely on the kids he has raised, Lethem knows he’s helped make the world a better place.
He hopes his art will do the same thing.
Age has not dulled his idealism.
He is not naive – he’s been around long enough to know better – but he hopes that America will see its way forward by investing in the arts. It bothers him about the money we spend on war and how little we spend on the arts.
One of his ardent hopes is that with our military commitment winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. will re-invest in the arts, much as it did during the mid-20th century. He sees an opportunity for the arts and humanities that hasn’t existed in decades, which could be accomplished with a shift in resources and priorities.
“We’re at a pivotal moment in our history,” he said.