Stepping into the BDAC this past week was like stepping back in time. The work of Charles Keeling Lassiter feels like a transplant from nearly a half-century earlier when artists were experimenting with ideas of primitivism, tortured human forms, and crowded compositions. His works are, for the most part, colorful plays of color crisscrossed by anthropomorphic line work resembling blind contour drawings. It is difficult to distinguish distinct forms or colors, as these works convey a powerful sense of confusion or displacement. Though they are crowded and chaotic, his works are also emotive, potent, and illustrate the psyche of the time in which he worked as well as revealing some of the artist’s own personal phobias.
Though Lassiter was born in New York in 1926 and came of artistic age when Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning were the artists to emulate, he never embraced the Abstract Expressionist style, nor the Pop and Minimalist styles that followed it. After receiving a degree in sociology from Yale, Lassiter studied art education at New York University, and continued his training at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where he received a second prize in painting. His first exhibition came when he was 30, and one of his pieces was among the 150 selections (from over 5,000 entries) for an exhibition of drawing at the MoMA designed to represent the frame of mind of American youth during the time. Lassiter failed to capitalize on these early successes, however. Over time he became more and more withdrawn until, eventually, he rarely left his 42nd Street Manhattan apartment and cut off nearly all connection with the outside world, becoming a recluse.
Possibly in part because of his chronic agoraphobia, which prevented him from going out into large groups or open spaces, Lassiter’s work never became well known. It wasn’t until the later years of his life that he met Stan Kaplan, the Florida-based private collector of Lassiter’s work. Of his interactions with Lassiter, Kaplan explains: “I met Charles Lassiter through a German friend who moved back to Germany shortly after the introduction. I was a financial advisor at the time and the initial goal was to get Charles’ finances and will in order.” By the time Kaplan befriended the artist, his New York apartment was trashed: paint covered the wood floors and the bathtub while stacks of finished and unfinished works were piled underneath his bed, and the whole place was in general disrepair. Feeling both a desire to help and an intense curiosity in the work, Kaplan aided Lassiter with keeping his apartment in order, and in return received several of Lassiter’s artworks. After Lassiter’s death in 2005, Kaplan became increasingly interested in sharing his artwork with the world.
Often when artists are gripped firmly by their fears, we look for these influences in their artwork, and it’s not hard to see in Lassiter’s crowded compositions the fear that took over his life: the feeling of being overwhelmed by human forms, the need to stay in spaces that are close, familiar, and safe. Though his compositions are closed and compressed, they are anything but intimate or comfortable. In “Close People” (1982) a group of shapes move in circular patterns as if in a dance. They are horse-like as well as human, their fat legs and stretched bodies like Minoan vase painting. The strange, twisted, circus-like ring of figures is seen from an aerial perspective, a viewpoint that appears in several of Lassiter’s works — perhaps because, confined to his apartment, that is how he saw the outside world.
Though a recluse, Lassiter did not work in total isolation. His work is often compared to Paul Klee for his color schemes and geometric figures, and before he became a complete recluse the well-to-do Lassiter was a frequent visitor to Klee’s Swiss homeland and certainly could have been exposed to his works. Likewise, his drawing style and composition can be compared to other Europeans like Ernst Kirchner or Wassily Kandinsky in the fascinating, musical movement of Lassiter’s pen. Documents also suggest that Lassiter was influenced by later European artistic trends like Art Brut and CoBrA, movements inspired by the drawings of children, the mentally ill, African, and Asian art. Both movements were rooted in the Surrealist principle of “automatism,” an artistic technique where the artist relinquishes control of their body in the making of the art, allowing their unconscious mind to take over. This technique heavily influenced the development of the Abstract Expressionists, but in Europe artists like Karel Appel and Jean Dubuffet took the idea in a different direction, creating works in a “primitive” childlike style believed to show a deeper level of psychological reality.
We often talk of art history in terms of a straight line, each movement leading inexorably to the next; but the truth is often more varied. While Lassiter ignored the Ab Ex, Pop and Minimalist art being produced all around his midtown apartment, his paintings tapped into a tradition of European representation through automatic processes and introspection that is deep, powerful, and indescribably somber. Though he was alone in his life, in his art he found a kinship with artists across an ocean.
Charles Keeling Lassiter: Outsider Looking Inward, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through June 22.
Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.