If you drew a line down the exact middle of Lennart Anderson’s 1961 Street Scene, a large oil painting of twelve figures arranged on an urban sidewalk, that meridian would intersect two crucial elements of the picture. The first, at the top of the painting, is the center of a double door, part wood, part glass, that’s just been opened by a young girl in a blue dress who bursts onto the scene from behind. The second, near the bottom of the picture, is the corner of a small blue wagon that’s just lost a wheel and is in the process of toppling over. Nearer to us than any other object, this wagon facilitates our own entry into the picture, pointing the eye up and to the right. As our eye tracks that line of movement, we land upon the emotional core of the narrative image: a child who’s splayed out in apparent agony and injury in the lap of a woman. These two figures, the child and the woman, sit still on the ground, but the ten or so other figures around them swirl about and gesticulate in histrionic alarm.
Street Scene is among the standouts of a small retrospective of Anderson’s painting now on view (through November 28) at the New York Studio School.1 There’s a lot to say about this painting, which, like most of Anderson’s art, wears its references to tradition on its sleeve. Just glancing at the picture induces thoughts on a whole lineage of Western painting: Pompeian frescoes; Piero della Francesca’s Arrezo murals; Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (ca. 1628, Musée Condé) or his Abduction of the Sabine Women (1633–34, Metropolitan Museum of Art); Degas’ Young Spartans Exercising (ca. 1860, National Gallery, London); Philip Guston’s urban street scenes from the 1940s. Like many of these precedents, Anderson’s art knocks you over the head with its formal detachment and synthetic artificiality. How did that careening wagon, a symbol that suggests urban calamity and chaos, end up at the exact middle of the canvas? It beggars belief.
Oh, but we’re looking at a painting, not real life. That’s an idea that’s usually easy enough to adjust to—no one questions the contrived quality of a formal abstraction. But Anderson’s visual language, which combines this artificiality with sensitive and perceptual mimesis, makes it strange. Looking over Anderson’s intricately rendered planes of forms and his nuanced distinctions of tone and color, a half-whisper of a feeling that this whole theatrical endeavor was once genuinely observed—somehow, some way—never quite leaves our minds.
Born in Detroit in 1928, Lennart Anderson attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then Cranbrook Academy of Art before moving to New York, where he remained until his death in 2015. At Cranbrook, Abstract Expressionism was the ascendent fashion, but when he got to New York he studied under Edwin Dickinson, which seems to have confirmed his allegiance to rigorous observation, with which he engaged for the rest of his life. “Lennart Anderson: A Retrospective,” curated by Graham Nickson and Rachel Rickert, the first major exhibition since his death, celebrates a painter whose commitment to craft, virtuosic eye, and considerable intellect allowed him to synthesize those observations into complex and alluring pictures.
The exhibition includes over thirty paintings that span from 1951, when Anderson was just twenty-three years old, to 2015, the year he died at eighty-seven, after having suffered from worsening glaucoma for over a decade. Yet despite these six-plus decades of work, time stands still in Anderson’s painterly world. There’s an almost absurd constancy to his long-minded vision. To cite only the most obvious example, an Idyll from 2012 uses several of the same figures, seen from the same perspective, placed at the same scale, that can be found in a Bachannal of 1956.
There are several other Street Scenes, a subject which seems to have occupied Anderson throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In Accident (Street Scene) (1955–57), there’s a similar frieze-like frontality to the structure, and again, a bounded dynamism within its rigid organization. Hilton Kramer, a champion of Anderson throughout his long career, once referred to the artist’s “pictorial machinery.” Like an uber-efficient steam engine, these compositions smolder with potential energy, letting nothing escape, putting every inch of the canvas to productive use. In this sense Anderson again recalls Poussin, himself often thought of as a cold, disinterested, aloof painter, but whose intellectual compositions really crackle with “the inner fire of a devil,” as a contemporary in Rome once said of the emerging French master.
One of the more immediate qualities of Anderson’s figures is the way their faces seem to recede in space and fade into their heads, as if their tonal contrast has been deliberately muffled. Perhaps this is done so that the faces’ detailing, which already holds strong psychological attraction, doesn’t bog down the picture’s overall visual structure. Indeed, Anderson often referred to his portraits as “heads,” emphasizing the uniqueness of the larger form and how it sits in space, rather than the sitter’s emotive quality or personal likeness.
Nevertheless (or perhaps consequently), the “heads” can lean uncanny and strange in themselves. In Portrait of Mrs. Suzy Peterson (1959), owned by the Whitney Museum, the sitter is all but decapitated by the sharp horizontal that begins with the sofa behind her and merges into her own slightly rumpled white collar. This uncomfortably placed line thus visually separates the head (perched atop an achingly long neck) from the large zones of color—rust oranges, cool grays, deep blues—that make up the rest of the picture. Anderson’s Portrait of Henry Kowert (1955–58), meanwhile, has almost no neck at all. The head of this middle-aged man—seated, blue shirted, strumming a C-7 chord on an acoustic guitar—seems to shrink into his body. Here, too, Anderson enlivens the dark gray wall of the interior’s background with horizontals and verticals placed at satisfying intervals—classicizing recapitulations of the canvas’s implied grid that counterpoise the organic curves and contours of the figure and his guitar.
From start to finish, Anderson seems to have been enthralled by the challenge of putting a figure into a rectangle. Explaining his interest in realism and observation during interviews and lectures, Anderson sometimes invoked Robert Frost’s defense of poetic form: “I would just as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” Holding yourself to a given structure and engaging in the formal problems of painting, in other words, is what gives the whole endeavor its freedom and joy.
Yet although these paintings are unabashedly beautiful objects—and beautiful in a traditional, even pre-modern way—they communicate something much different and far more unsettling than rote academicism. Somehow, despite the pictures’ tenacious commitment to classical structure, they tend to remain collections of subtly perceived fragments, moments that never quite cohere into a satisfied unity. If Anderson’s breezy landscapes and his virtuoso portrait studies sometimes seem to lack the urgency of the narratives and the more anthropomorphic still lifes, perhaps it’s because they also lack that sense of troubling, that awareness of the mystery that underlies true classical form.