Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Lennart Anderson’s Poetic Vision Rewards in SUMA Retrospective

Lennart Anderson, “St. Mark’s Place,” 1969–1976, oil on canvas, 93 13/16 x 74 1/8 in. Purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and an anonymous donor, 1977.25. Estate of Lennart Anderson ©

It’s all Hegel’s fault. Abetted, in his time, by Clement Greenberg. It’s this idea that history is working along a single path, towards some specific end. (You could blame the early Christians as well). It’s the type of myopic concept that, in the art world, gets us talking about the death of figuration, or abstraction, or any other art form. These styles, or methods, may disappear from our line of sight, but more often than not artists of talent and vision continue working in them, to be rediscovered (or neglected still, as the case may be) by later generations. Lennart Anderson is one of these artists. Because he was a figurative painter with one eye fixed on the rearview mirror, working during the onward push of abstract expressionism and the explosion of Pop, the rush of art history passed him by. The current retrospective of his work at the Southern Utah Museum of Art (SUMA) argues it is time to take another look.

Born in 1928, Anderson began his career when abstraction was taking over the art world to the exclusion of almost everything else. (The artists themselves did not always see the figurative/abstract divide: in fact, like Fairfield Porter, another figurative painter of the time, Anderson was friends with artists of the New York School.) Though he never attained the notoriety of his nonobjective contemporaries, Anderson’s career was not unsuccessful. He taught at several Ivy league universities as well as at Brooklyn College and Pratt Institute. He won a Rome Prize, in 1958, and his works are included in the collections of the Hirshhorn, Whitney and Cleveland Museums of Art, among others. Undeterred by prevailing trends, throughout his career he unapologetically pursued his personal vision, rooted principally in the human figure. The SUMA exhibition is a retrospective, a version of a show that opened at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture in the fall of 2021, and features works from the span of his career, including still lifes, landscapes and portraits.

His most impressive canvases are those populated by individuals, often friends, family members, or ordinary people encountered in his daily life. Through his painterly technique, he elevates these individuals to the realm of iconography, investing them with a dignified stature that transcends the limitations of the quotidian. When they are at their best, his portraits go beyond mere representation, delving into the individuality and inner lives of his sitters. He skillfully captures their facial expressions, body language, and even subtle nuances of gesture, allowing us to glean a wealth of information about their personalities, emotions, and experiences. There is a sense of vulnerability and introspection in these works.

Lennart Anderson, “Still Life with Expresso Maker,” oil on canvas, 91×78 in.

This overall sense, is achieved, in part, by Anderson’s soft, diffused light, which lends a sense of mystery to his canvases, whatever the motif, and invites the eye to linger and be absorbed by the paint. He does something with his midtones that bathes the paintings in light rather than contrasts: as if he had forgotten Caravaggio had ever held a brush or photography had been invented. His style is heir to a French tradition that stretches from Bonnard to Chardin. By carefully observing how light interacts with surfaces, Anderson is able to convincingly render the play of light and shadow, resulting in a heightened sense of volume and solidity. We see this especially in the still lifes, works that glimmer with light anchored in a solid sense, with nothing brash. In works like “Still Life with Espresso Maker,” Anderson’s brushwork is both precise and expressive, evoking a tactile quality that draws the viewer into the very fabric of the painted surface. In his landscapes, the subjects are so diffused by humidity that they almost become color field paintings.

Most remarkable, though, are Anderson’s groups scenes, where he is able to capture a sense of narrative within the stillness of the moment. Light falls upon the figures, illuminating their forms and casting gentle shadows that add a three-dimensional quality to the composition. Through skillful handling of color, Anderson conveys the mood and ambiance of the scene, whether it be a warm and convivial gathering or a more contemplative and introspective moment. But the paintings are not just all light and mood. They are masterfully composed and executed, offering a captivating window into the dynamics of human relationships and the intricate interplay between individuals. In works that remind one of early Renaissance compositions, Anderson expertly navigates the complexities of depicting multiple figures, each with their own unique presence and narrative. Whether it’s a gathering of friends, a family reunion, or an accident seen on a street corner, Anderson captures the inherent tensions and interactions that arise within social settings.

Lennart Anderson, “Street Scene,” 1961, oil on canvas, collection of BNY Mellon.

Anderson was by no means alone in pursuing the figure in a time when, at least the history books tell us, the world had given itself over to abstraction. Balthus, from an earlier generation, continued making work and garnering attention during Anderson’s career: His “The Street,” from 1933, seems like a precursor for Anderson’s multi-figure street scenes. Paula Rego, Richard Diebenkorn, and Lucian Freud were all Anderson’s contemporaries. Each pursued a unique style, rooted in centuries old traditions. Anderson’s work lacks the type of flash — Freud’s brushwork, Rego’s sexuality — that might attract notice in a world hunger for novelty, but it is precisely his timelessness, his solidity, the interior calm and exterior mystery of his paintings that deserve a prolonged look in Cedar City.


Lennart Anderson: A Retrospective, Southern Utah Museum of Art, Cedar City, through Sep. 23

2 replies »

  1. Another fine history of yet another brilliant painter. I can only wonder where Shawn finds them and if they’d be as exciting if he didn’t introduce them so convincingly. I’m definitely keeping this one, and I want Rossiter’s Story of Utah Moderns on my shelf.

  2. Hi there,

    Thank you for this thoughtful review. It’s been great to share with others. One quick note of correction: Anderson received his Rome Prize in 1958.

    Thank you so much for featuring this exhibition.

    Jeanette Anderson Wallace

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.