Thursday, September 24, 2009

Richard Lack 1928 - 2009

Richard Lack, image from the Gandy gallery

On Tuesday Richard Lack died. Let me tell you a little about him and what he did. Richard Lack was from Minnesota and studied at the Minneapolis College of Art. He was interested in realist and old master painting and went to New York hoping to find instruction in that. He was unable to find what he was looking for until one day as he was copying a painting in the Met, he was approached by another young artist who told him about R.H.Ives Gammells small atelier in Boston. From 1950 until 1956 Lack (with a couple of years taken off to serve in Korea ) studied with Ives in the Fenway studios.

In 1957 Lack returned to Minnesota. I remember hearing how disappointed Gammell was that he did not stay in Boston. With (I believe) financial assistance from E.T.Greenshields and Ives Gammell Lack in 1969 opened the Atelier Lack. An atelier is a studio school based on the 19th century French methods of teaching. Both men hoped to foster a resurrection of traditional painting in America. They certainly got their moneys worth. Dozens of ateliers spread across the world have their roots in the Atelier Lack. He trained students who set up their own ateliers . There is now an international web of teaching ateliers mostly because of Richard Lack, setting up his own, in Minneapolis, of all places.

In the Atelier Lack, students were taught in the hybrid Boston school-French methods of mostly visual draftsmanship before the cast and with a focus on still life, portraits and figures. Lack took the Gammell teaching system and work ethic and made an organized "school" for painters out of it. He said " I can teach you to paint" in a time when the very idea of teaching someone to paint was in doubt. 1969 was in the time of total dominance by the Avant Garde school of thought that still runs the academic institutions, but does not have anything like the hold it once did on the larger art world. What he set out to do was intensely radical and he was treated like a pariah in the art world. But there were plenty of young students who wanted what he had. I was one.

I became aware of Richard Lack in the late sixties, I think it was just as, or just before he established his atelier. I lived eighty miles south of Minneapolis in Rochester, Minnesota. Rochester had a fine little Art Center with an exhibition space that did revolving shows. My mother took classes there studying art history in what must have been an excellent program that went on for many years. Oddly, I still remember the name of the woman who taught it, Polly Krinke. While at the Art Center my mother saw a show of the work of Richard Lack and insisted that I go see it too. I did and I guess I was impressed, but I was too young to realize what it was and I supposed that the Minneapolis College of Art (and later, design) would teach me what I needed to know. It is important to stress how totally naive, stupid and bereft of any good sense at all I was at this point.

I drifted through art school for a a year and the University art department for another, until I met a student of Richard Lack one evening in the etching labs and was very impressed with his work. I told that story here. At his suggestion I visited the Atelier Lack and signed up for an course of evening drawing classes. The Atelier Lack was up a flight of stairs in a section of Minneapolis called uptown that was full of low rise office buildings and stores from the streetcar area. Uptown was a bustling place and the quiet deliberation that went on in the studio was a big change after walking through the busy city surrounding it. I remember all these years later the layout of the Atelier.There were little individual carrels set up for each of the students to study cast drawing and still life.

He had a figure model and we surrounded her on drawing horses, those sort of bench-drawing board- easels, and he came and gave each of us individual instruction. I wish I could remember more or what he told me but I do not. I know I was encouraged to copy drawings and did quite a few, mostly Ingres. I do remember a student asking him to dissect the composition of an old master (I think Italian) painting in a book. A semicircle of us stood around him and we listened to his description of the rhythmic lines that bound the design together.

I believe I was told by a student, or more likely a monitor who oversaw the evening classes sometimes, that there was no room left in the atelier, or perhaps they didn't take me very seriously and gave me that reply. Either way I began the correspondence with Ives Gammell that would lead me to Boston and my training there. I don't remember that I took more than that one series of evening drawing class and I certainly passed unnoticed through the scene there. I have so many times like Forrest Gump been a fly on the wall in some very interesting places .

Richard Lack was himself a fine painter and did many portraits, here is one of his daughter

Richard Lack painted landscapes, still life allegorical pictures and who knows what else. He was an excellent teacher partly because he could already do most anything you wanted to learn.

In 1983 Richard Lack while organizing a show of his work and that of some students and friends coined the phrase "Classical Realism" that phrase is heard so often now, it is easy to forget it didn't always exist. Lack coined it to define what he and like minded artists were doing, and to differentiate it into a separate category from just realism, which of course, would include photo realism and Andy Warhols soup cans, popular at the time.

Lack turned the Atelier over to several of his students in 1992 due to health problems, and it became simply "The Atelier". The class I took there was well over thirty years ago and I have no idea what goes on there now. I am glad that although I never really knew Richard Lack, I had a chance to meet him and study briefly in his studio. The little atelier that Richard Lack started had a big role in the revival of interest in traditional painting and that influence is growing geometrically now.Ives Gammell never lived to see the change, but Richard Lack did. I hope he was satisfied when he died that his had been a life well lived and of service to the art that was so important to him.


Debra Norton said...

Hi Stapelton, I attended "The Atelier" from 2003-2007 and heard many stories about Mr. Lack. One that sticks in my mind is the time Mr. Lack came to the school and found a student napping on the couch when he should have been working. He just picked up the couch and threw it out the window! (I'm assuming the student wasn't on it.)

The Atelier is still run by the two students he turned it over to,(Dale Redpath and Cyd Wicker) and I think they've done an excellent job of continuing in his footsteps. (Well, except for the couch throwing part.) I'm grateful for the four years I was able to spend there.

I came across your blog several months ago and have been a daily reader since. So much of what you have to say ties in with what I learned at The Atelier. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Philip Koch said...

Much of what Stapleton experienced as a student at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and then the U. of MN (do I have the schools' names right?) back 4 decades ago sounds familiar to me. I ran into mostly the same all-avant garde-all- the-time attitudes as an undergrad at Oberlin College. It was my good fortune to be able to go to the Art Students League of New York in the summers (thanks for the $ mom and dad!) to draw and paint directly from the model. At Oberlin back then, you were just told figure drawing "had already been done" so it wasn't necessary.

There were pockets in the universities even back then though that were unusual in that they were open to traditional perceptual realist painting and drawing. I heard Indiana University was one such place (Brooklyn College, or was it Queens College?, was rumored to be another). Anyway I went to Indiana U. for grad school and found most if not all the instructors very supportive of my efforts to paint plein air landscapes. Guess i was just lucky to land in a patch of fertile soil. From what I can tell, some other schools that kept traditional drawing alive and well back in those days were the Maryland Institute College of Art and the good old Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There must have been at least a few others as well.

These days I think there are more universities with at least some faculty interested in working with students who want to explore the grand tradition of realist painting. Boston U. comes to mind. Admittedly it is a bit bewildering teaching drawing in any college today. At MICA I teach drawing from still life set ups while next door in a basic design class Freshmen students are doing performance art ( one such piece I walked in on consisted of a student ceremoniously serving tea and cookies they had baked to the entire class (hope they were tasty).

Robert J. Simone said...

...naive, stupid and bereft of any good sense.

Nice phraseology! Great combination of adjectives!

And I never heard of Lack, so thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

When I was 10 years old, my mother discovered some filthy pictures I had drawn (Catholic school-girl's curiosity) and immediately signed me up for art lessons at Mr. Lack's school. I was too young and naive to be awestruck by him, and while of course, he was not my teacher, he always smiled at me and said hello. I used to wander into his space uninvited and chat him up, and he was always lovely to me. Not talkative, (but compared to me not many people are) but always very warm and encouraging.

I continued on in night classes and eventually became a student at Annette's atelier (where he also had a studio) and as I learned more, well, then I knew enough to be awestruck.

But I've always heard the stories of how intimidating he was, and that was not my experience. Maybe meeting him at such a young age set the tone.

Thanks for the post...Mr. Lack's great, great contribution cannot be underestimated.

Judy P. said...

hello Stapleton- even a newbie like me has certainly read about Richard Lack's influence here in St.Paul, MN; nice post about him.
I visited the Mpls. College of Art and Design one day last year with a friend. Maybe it was because of the section, or the day I visited, but I too felt that anything goes avant-garde permeated. Lots of flat, manga type of stuff; not the place to ask about a modeling or atmospheric problem, that's for sure.

willek said...

I had not heard of him, I'm embarrassesd to say and I enjoy seeing your common connection to Ives G.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are welcome. I have so much Rockport influence that a lot of the old Boston school is hidden beneath it in my work.Please E mail me and tell me what you are doing with the art education you received there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I wonder how those freshmen process the difference between the performance art and your class. The first day at art school we filled our classroom with inflated garbage bags! I thoink looking back that it was a waste of my time . I lost a year when I could have been studying art.


Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.It is funny how compartmentalized the painting world is. In some circles his is a name to conjure with, and in others he is unknown. We are all fragmented. Perhaps the net will change that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You and I both have the youthful filthy pictures in our background. I think it is a constant.However as you moved on to draw horses, I drew hot rods. Like Big Daddy Ed Roth.
Would you e-mail me and tell me what you have done with your atelier training. I say e mail me because it doesn't put you on the spot, but if you like you can do it in the comments.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think if they had brought Richard Lack in to that school and let him set the curriculum, most of their student body would have left,. Most of them had no idea of the level of work required to paint well.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Part of why I wrote the obit is to make sure you all know about him. He falls somewhere on the list of things I think a painter should know. That is of course the purpose of this blog.

billspaintingmn said...

I'm saddend to hear Richard Lack
passed away.
I was fortunate to have met him
and his wife Cathrine in 2002.
I was invited to his home, and
was impressed with his studio.
He signed his book for me, and I
purchased some of his art.
His paintings hang in my home. Always an insiration.

Nora said...

I have been taking drawing and painting classes at the Atelier for about 4 or 5 years. Before that I never did any drawing and it has been a revelation to find that it can be taught.

At least 20 years ago I attended a class in the same building as Atelier Lack and I always remembered peaking in the door to see what they were doing.

I know someone who graduated from MCAD and he can neither paint nor draw worth a nickel.

Jennifer Travis-McIlroy said...

I took classes as a high school student from Annette Leseuer Hathaway at Atelier Lack, Uptown Minneapolis. I learned pen& ink watercolor illustration, charcoal & oil still life and figure drawing, weekends, evening week nights. The environment was inspiring and fulfilling-she was a patient & gifted teacher who gave freely of her knowledge and the rigor was stimulating. There was a massive allegorical painting done by Lack at the end of the hall entry that was an example of the ultimate to attain. One day we were invited to Richard Lack's home. I still vividly recall the impact of seeing his richly painted portraits densely hung on the most expansive interior wall.