November 2007


A Painter Responds

To the Editors:

I want to offer some thoughts about "Painting the Nude," Louis Torres's review of my recent show, as well as about his article "Muddying the Waters of Classical Realism," in your December 2006 issue. First, I appreciate his appraisal of my work. Although I am not sure I agree with all of it, it is meaningful to me that he is really looking and that he is for the most part engaging the work in the spirit it was made. When he likes my Carolina and explains why, I am proud because he, as a sensitive person, is connecting to it as a real work of art. That is rare in a critic. When he dismisses my double figure compositions as "staged," however, I would ask whether he is bringing a "slice of life" realist prejudice to his viewing experience. It was only when naturalism crushed classical idealism at the end of the nineteenth century that a work's being "staged" became such a bad thing. Certainly Poussin's work is staged by our modern standards, as are many paintings by Prud'hon and David. The gestural and psychological lassitude we moderns demand in our figurative art is not a universal truth. It is the residue of the rout of the classicists. (Leave it to an artist to spin everything in his own favor!)

I also want to say a little about the term Classical Realism [discussed in "Muddying the Waters"], which has taken on a certain currency recently. I tend to use it with some diffidence. Since I always associated it with Richard Lack and his students (with whom I am not directly connected), I didn't apply it to my own work. In the past few years, however, many people have referred to me as a Classical Realist. At first, I would balk and explain that Classical Realism, while similar to my approach, differs in certain respects. But after a while it seemed as good a label as any other. I like the way it brings together the diametric opposites of the nineteenth-century Parisian art world--classicism and realism. I admire both schools, which should never have been in opposition in the first place. The term Classical Realism reunites what I view as the powerful twin engines of the classical tradition [see Mr. Collins's "Reflections on 'Classical Realism'" in this issue]. If it were to become the label for the movement I am in, I would not complain. But if I found out that Richard Lack and his group didn't want artists not assocated with them using the term, I would respect that.

Though I never studied with Mr. Lack, or with any of his associates, I have admired them all for years and am friends with many of their former students. In addition, many of my students have had training in the Gammell-Lack tradition. It is mainly through them that I have learned what I know about it. Although I differ from that tradition on some points, I recognize the real contribution that these two painter-teachers have made and that their students are still making. I would point out, though, that they are not the only route back to the old knowledge. Frank Vincent Dumond [more] was a huge figure at the Art Students League from 1893 until the early 1950s. My teacher, Ted Jacobs [more] [more] [more], was his monitor. Until the 1980s Pietro Annigoni was still casting his influence on artists who are significant now. There are many others who have quietly and patiently studied and taught traditional drawing and painting throughout the twentieth century. If we are to accept that the label of Classical Realist is applicable beyond the Lack circle, then we must look to the larger group of noble souls who have kept the various parts of this tradition alive.

Mr. Torres points to my error in suggesting that the term Classical Realist was coined about thirty-five years ago. He is right--it had really been coined twenty-four years ago. But as you know, the movement it refers to had begun earlier, with the founding of Atelier Lack in 1969. Thirteen years after the movement began, it was named. In my telephone interview with James Panero, I was aiming to convey how old the movement was, trying to be reasonably accurate without being pedantic. The broad picture I drew for him was fairly accurate, and should not be discredited because I did not know that the name was applied only after the movement was in full swing. Contrary to Mr. Torres's claim, therefore, I do know what am talking about and am reasonably qualified to talk about it. I have commented on this matter at some length because I try to be thoughtful about labels and careful about how I explain what I am doing and how it fits into the larger culture.

Let me add, in closing, that I enjoy reading Aristos, and all of the articles I find there.

Jacob Collins
New York City

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Note: All links were added by the editors.

Louis Torres replies:

In briefly commenting on Jacob Collins's exhibition of nude figures at Hirschl & Adler Modern last October (see "Painting the Nude"), I began by referring to him as a painter who had "attained a mastery of the human form uncommon for his generation." I also wondered what he might have achieved had he concentrated on fewer works than the nine paintings he had completed in the preceding nine months--presumably expressly for that show. My criticism of his two double-figure works, Anna and Arturo and Santiago and Sheila, should be understood in that context. In regarding them as "staged," I pointed to the fact that their setting and lighting were scarcely differentiated from each other (or from other paintings in the exhibition). I noted, in particular, that they lacked the "psychological credibility" of smaller works, such as his Carolina. In observing that the double figures resembled models in a studio more than people in "real-life contexts," I was therefore not reflecting a "'slice of life' realist prejudice," but rather expressing a preference for (and implicitly urging Collins to strive for) greater individuality and depth of conception.

Since I cited Andrew Wyeth in my review, let me point to three nudes by him (single-figure works) to illustrate what I mean: Barracoon [more] (c.1976), Overflow (1978), and Day Dream (1980). In each of these, Wyeth created a distinctive setting for the figure's nudity that contributes to the psychological impact of the whole. Yet none suggests a banal "slice-of-life" realism.

Regarding my "Muddying the Waters of Classical Realism," Mr. Collins's clarification of his relationship to, and knowledge about, the Classical Realism movement in painting is much appreciated--as is his reference to key figures who, like R. H. Ives Gammel and Richard Lack, kept the broad tradition of traditional drawing and painting alive in the twentieth century. My criticism was based solely on the account offered by James Panero in his article "The New Old School," and on his telephone interview with Mr. Collins. My impression of his ignorance was therefore due mainly to Mr. Panero's own lack of knowledge regarding the movement, and to the resulting flaws in the two pieces in question.