Lucien B. Day Artist known for paintings of New England landscapes and New York City skyscrapers.
BY MARC AWODEY
Having His Day
(published 02.23.05 SEVEN DAYS)
ARTWORK: "In Chelsea New York" by Lucien Day
"We are not alone in attempting to resuscitate meaning," artist Lucien Day wrote back in 1970. That line, lifted from a promotional piece for the Green Mountain Gallery he founded in New York City, no doubt referred to the realistic approach exhibited by Day and his fellow gallery artists. In the face of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and numerous other 20th-century movements that paralleled Day's 65-year career in art, he never wavered from his exacting approach.
At the SoHo gallery he directed from 1968 to 1979, Day provided "a lively forum and intellectual center for contemporary painters with realist tendencies," says Mickey Myers, executive director of the Helen Day Art Center. That Stowe gallery is currently honoring him with a retrospective of his enchanting and occasionally brilliant work, produced in Vermont and New York City between 1950 and 1998.
A Connecticut native born in 1916, Day graduated from Yale in 1939 -- he was the "Class Poet" -- then studied painting at the Cran-brook Academy of Art in Michigan. Through visits to An American Place -- the New York gallery operated by photographer Alfred Stieglitz from 1929 to 1946 -- he became familiar with such influential artists as John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth.
After serving in the Army during World War II, on the Pentagon's China Desk, Day made a home in Craftsbury, and began a long dual existence in small-town Vermont and New York City. His first substantial exhibition was at the Fleming Museum in 1949.
Among Day's earliest pieces in the current HDAC exhibit are watercolor depictions of two Vermont towns, Hardwick and Albany, from the early 1950s. In contrast to fellow Vermont artist Francis Colburn -- only nine years his senior -- Day was clearly influenced by modernists of the Stieglitz Circle rather than social realism. Day's 1965 oil "Tamaracks" has open, lacy brushwork akin to that in Marin's landscapes of the Adirondacks. But more importantly, the painting exemplifies a "search for form" that is pervasive in Day's works. It's as if he approached each picture plane without the slightest preconceived idea.
Day's views of New York architecture are similarly unbiased, as seen in the vertical watercolor diptych "Trade Center Towers Under Construction" from 1972 and 1987's "Carnegie Hall."
During the 1970s and 1980s, Day experimented with shaped canvasses and original approaches to perspective. "Early Snow" is a watercolor mounted on wood; its seemingly organic curvature adds dimensionality to the wintry landscape. Two oils in the show have two paneled, flat surfaces that meet at acute angles, creating "folded" effects and jarring perspective. Day features Vermont and New York City, respectively, in the pieces "Fall" and "Folded Third Avenue." Though he was enamored of city and country, however, Day did not try to portray both environments simultaneously in his artwork. An artist of two worlds, his views of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and the Big Apple are equally fresh.
In addition to land- and cityscapes, the HDAC retrospective includes many portraits in watercolor and oil. "In Chelsea New York" is the blurred portrait of a woman breast-feeding her baby, wearing a somewhat anxious expression. A large-scale painting entitled "Aloneness" has three figures walking without seeming to engage each other; surrounded by the pale negative space of sandy ground and washed-blue sky, they seem to float. Day's approach to painting humans is complex; his figurative works are less descriptive likenesses than poetic sketches searching for inner details.
Enhancing the retrospective are works by some of Day's colleagues from the defunct Green Mountain Gallery -- Rudy Burckhardt, Lois Dodd, Margaret Grimes and Marjorie Kramer -- as well as pieces by Fairfield Porter, Rackstraw Downes, Alex Katz and Sam Thurston. Their works illustrate common aesthetic sensibilities. Vermonter Thurston's "Pot with Blue Trees" is a rectangular vessel with brushwork that shares Day's painterly veracity; a bowl attributed to Margaret Grimes has a spatial curvature akin to Day's watercolor-on-shaped-wood, "Early Snow."
Since 1992, the Vermont Arts Council has been granting annual "lifetime achievement in the arts" awards to the state's most accomplished cultural figures. Eighty-eight-year-old Lucien Day, who still lives in Craftsbury, should be the next recipient.
January 21, 2005 TIMES ARGUS
By Anne Galloway Times Argus Staff
At a time when the art world was mesmerized by the mind-bending Abstract Expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, a young Vermont transplant embarked on a contrarian-style artistic career.
Lucien Day, 88, is a serious artist with all the right intellectual connections, who wasn't swayed by any of the popular art movements of his lifetime. He began painting expressionistic interpretations of landscapes, people and cityscapes in the 1940s and '50s. As the Pop Art movement gripped the nation in the 1960s and '70s, Day opened a gallery in New York City to showcase works by other American realists, and he continued his own investigation of objectified perspective in his realistic depictions of the World Trade Center towers, portraits of family and friends and interpretative paintings of woodland scenes from his home in Craftsbury. As installations and post-modernism took hold in the 1980s and 90s, his work became even more his exacting, as he pursued a scientific approach to replicating what the eye sees.
And though Day himself is, in spite of his popularity with collectors (he's sold more than 80 percent of his work), a relative unknown, he associated with compatriots in the American realism movement who did become famous, namely Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Rudy Burkhardt and Rackstraw Downes.
The Helen Day Art Center tracks the trajectory of Day's 65-year career in a retrospective of his work. The exhibit is presented chronologically and includes memorabilia and family portraits. The Helen Day show also includes a smattering of works by Porter, Katz, Burkhardt and Downes. These thoughtful touches help the viewer understand Day's evolution as an artist, from his days at Yale and Cranbrook Academy, and the context in which he saw his own work.
Day's paintings reflect his dual existence as a New York City gallery owner and northern Vermont hermit. For decades, Day divided his time between the Big Apple and the town of Craftsbury. The more than 20 paintings at the Helen Day are almost evenly split between these rural and urban "scapes." But no matter where Day was at any given time, he brought to bear his poetic sensibility on what his friend, artist Sam Thurston, dubbed the "non-heroic everyday," that is to say, sights an average person would walk by without a second glance: a scrubby woodland thicket, a row of bland office buildings, a lone pine tree, construction sites.
It's this sort of ordinary subject matter that Day made his own through the use of large exuberant brushstrokes and unique perspectives, subtle depiction of forms and, in his watercolors, the patient revelation of white space.
In Day's paintings, buildings lean this way and that (sometimes forward and backward), facial features come to light through the blank whiteness of the paper and a few big swabs of color outline a hillside.
"Lucian Day: A Retrospective" starts with works from the 1950s and takes the viewer on a journey through the '70s, 80s and 90s. Interspersed throughout are insightful pieces by Day's friends and colleagues: a portrait of Day by Lois Dodd rendered in fluorescent orange, yellow, gray and brown, two shorts by avant garde filmmaker Burkhardt, a Porter townscape and a panoramic painting of a scrap steel dump by Downes.
In his early landscape, "Green Hillside with Snow," Day makes the viewer feel as though the viewer is at once above this dark fir thicket and inside it. The painting is dazzlingly detailed and yet unfussy. It gives you the feeling you're getting an impossible, bird's eye view of a secret nesting spot.
His vertical watercolor diptych, "Trade Towers Center Under Construction" from 1972, is a dizzying portrait of the partially completed skyscrapers. The two sections of the structures are painted at slightly different angles so that the top half appears to be tipping backward. Day gets it all in here: the façade of a Beaux Arts structure in the foreground, the bird-like construction cranes at on the top floor.
Day gives the same care to his more than a dozen portraits of family and friends. In a series of untitled watercolors of young girls, the faces are made up of large, energetic brush strokes and important features are merely alluded to through subtle use of white space. He lets the viewer fill in the blanks, and the effect is marvelous.
In his later years, Day became obsessed with creating paintings that objectified perspective, rather than flattening it into one continuous whole. He wanted to show how the eye and the mind break up an image into component parts. The eye sees a skyscraper, for example, from at least two different perspectives – straight on and then from a neck-craning angle. Day, in a break from tradition, started presenting his cityscapes and landscapes on sinuous curves and in "folds" to replicate the experience of seeing. He adhered his paintings to a plywood curve, or painted diptychs on wooden panels that he would then mount together at conjoining angles.
In "Folded Third Avenue," for example, Day's fairly conventional oil painting of a city block, the verticality of the image is broken up into two parts, and the sections are joined together at the center, so that the painting's top and bottom edges point out at the viewer in a V-shape. The perspective is as strange and new as looking at a skyscraper for the first time: There is a momentary sense of nauseating vertigo.
And that is perhaps Day's legacy. While Day shows us subjects that couldn't be more ordinary, he forces us to see them as if for the first time.
ARTnews by Lawrence Campbell
...His urban tower pictures are tours de force. In them he undertakes something most painters would have avoided the depiction of a skyscraper from top to bottom ina a single view. in life this is only possible by an uncouscious floux of several distinct images. Day's solution has been to modify the shape of the upper part of the painting itself, so that it, rather than the image literally shoots into perspective. The results are remarkable: the visual splendor and scale of New York are transported into the gallery- the sparkling lights, the shadowy interiors, the frozen brillienace - making it into a kind of modern Venice on the Hudson.
artsmagazine by Laura Sue Schwartz
New York is vertical space, a vertical place-which may be obvious to the pint of being forgotten by those who live here, or overwhelming to the point of being dismissed by thouse who visit. Space is not wide, but stacked;movement flows around, but vision is drawn upwards. To "see" the city is to get above it, to absorb itsvertical panorama and learn and relation to "u". Lucien Day has painted New York with regard to this very element of vision. His paintings go up like the New Yorrk landscape...painted with an atmospheric lightness that prevails over a potential to be imposing...
Art New Engand
Lucien Day Point of View by Hearne Pardee Aug/Sept 2000
Some artists approach the world by rooting themselves in a place. One thinks of Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico or John Maring in Maine, places that provided them self-definition and stability. In the same way, Lucien Day has centered himself in Vermont. Although he has lived in New York and started a gallery there, he did so on his own terms, grounded in the perspective of his rural community and its New England values.
Point of view, in the strong sense of being rooted somewhere, is also of central concern to Day's art and essential to its particular sort of objectivity. Objects before they are paintings, his watercolors mounted on curved surfaces combine the verticality and delicate calligraphy of Chinese hangings scrolls with a Western concern for visual truth. Day likes to compare him self to a scientist in his preoccupation with sight, but perhaps it's more appropriate to place him in the tradition of New England philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau, who sought a common foundation for science and art through direct contact with nature.
Day was raised in Hartford, Connecticut, where independents like Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives supported their artistic careers, and his New England upbringing included prep school at Choate and a BA from Yale. At Choate, he recalls a visit form Gertrude Stein, "who talked most of one afternoon to the whole school, all boys. She wore bedroom slippers, we were mesmerized." But school included no specific training in art, and Day considers time spent tinkering with model boats and airplanes his apprenticeship for painting.
Day also remembers his father, an art enthusiast, taking him to a show of John Marin's work at Alfred Stieglitz's American Place Gallery. There, he was introduced both to Marin's paintings of mountains and to Stieglitz himself: "The old man grew a lot of hair out of his ears, and he treated me elegantly. " This larger-than-life encounter implanted in Day a lifelong involvement with Marin's work, inspiring an interest in watercolor and in lofty mountains and buildings. Stieglitz, too, no doubt inspired Day in his ambition to establish a gallery.
After an effort at law school, some study of painting at Cranbrook Academy, and a stint in the army, Day settled in 1946 in ...Vermont. In the 1950's he began to make prolonged visits to New York, through which he established a dialogue in painting between the mountainous landscape of Vermont and the cityscape of Manhattan. He recalls these early years as "lonely and terrifying." He did, however, show his watercolors at the Passedoit Gallery on 57th Street, and, perhaps more importantly, establish a close relationship with painter and critic Fairfield Porter. Porter, in turn introduced him to Rudy Burkhardt, Edwin Denby, and Alex Katz, other artists whose interest in realism ran against the prevailing abstract expressionist tide.
It was Day's pursuit of this community of artists that eventually led to the founding of the Green Mountain Gallery in 1968: At its original West Village location, Day exhibited a group of artists that resembled Stieglitz's in its diversity, including painters like realist Lois Dodd and abstractionist Ed Dugmore. Their works favored local subjects, treated with inventive, vernacular styles, responsive both to intimacy of place and to vastness of scale. Day approached New York much as he did Craftsbury (Vermont), not as part of the international art market, but as a potential community for those with common interests. On these terms the gallery succeeded, although it never made money, and it became a co-op, the Blue Mountain Gallery, in 1980.
In its matter-of-factness, Day's work follows very much its own course. It reflects most strongly the generous influence of Porter, who encouraged free thinking and making connections between science and art. It steers clear of both tightly rendered realism and expressionist brushwork, even that of some of the Stieglitz group to whom Day seems close. For example, Day's large painting of 1961, Looking Down From Jay Peak, with its accumulation of small touches of color, resembles Marsden Hartley's treatment is more physical. John Marin's brushstrokes, too, are broader and more exuberant. Day's painterly calligraphy is more akin to handwriting. Closely attentive, it doesn't point to itself, but provides and informal connective tissue for his images; it's where his lofty spaces meet the earth. Day's work, it's of the clear, objective kind, more in line with Martin Johnson Heade than with Thomas Cole. His delight in painting comes through the play of light over surfaces, like the glass and steel of the World Trade Center.
Day once remarked that the tromp3-l'oeil effects of Harnett were disturbing to him because they made him mistrust reality. When he began to work from slides, therefore, it was not with any interest in photo-realism but because slides enabled him to make ambivalence, concerned over losing direct contact with the richness of his subject. After discussions with Fairfield Porter, however, he concluded that no sacrifice was of his own pleasure in drawing from direct observation. His willingness to accept this loss of objectifying his vision, he accepts the fact that he himself should move out of the way.
The camera helps distance him, to keep him at one remove form sensual contact with nature. His stance is aloof. Day attributes to Marin's influence his discovery that mountains could be heads, hips, or breasts-that sensuousness could be safely projected into those vast, distant forms. Hartley, a lonely figure, also writes of a union of intimacy with remoteness in a poem about finding mother-love in the granite of his native state. The harshness of his paintings reflects this struggle imposed by puritanical inhibitions. But Day doesn't attempt to merge with his subjects. His own mother died when, and he records an early memory of struggling with the elderly aunt who raised him, who was trying to force him to eat. His aloofness in painting seems consistent with this effort to establish control by abstaining, by finding sustenance in in the abstractions of science. Some loosening of this stance is evident in Day's recent works in oil, where an expressionist spirit seems to have surfaced with a more relaxed enjoyment of paint itself.
In the 1970's, though, Day progressively focused on the process of vision, to the exclusion of self-expression. He wanted his paintings to become something like cameras in themselves, mechanisms for displaying the world to the viewer. To this end he developed his first paintings on curves, composed of two views of the same vertical motif, set one above the other to create and extended visual field-"to give a new space for the subject," as he puts it. To record the full height of a group of trees, for example, he took two slides, one at ground level, the second with he camber tilted upwards. He observed that the distortion of the tilted view could be resolved if it was angled forward in relation to the lower one, and that the illusion of straightness was enhanced if the surface were curved. The boxes on which his watercolors are mounted thus create a continuos transition from ground level into the upper "stories" of trees or skyscrapers. Day creates not a window onto nature but a special sort of viewing, apparatus for these extremely vertical subjects.
Day's earliest boxes were six-feet tall and stood on the floor; only gradually did he come to compress their format and create boxes mounted on the wall. In these days of digital technology, animation, and virtual reality, his efforts to improve the spatial illusions of painting seem quaint; their commonsense practicality recalls the simplicity of his New England lifestyle, rooted in nineteenth-century positivism. Ironically, though, his pursuit of an enlarged space leads not to our magical absorption into his paintings, into landscape as a spectacle, but to our awareness of them as strange, ungainly objects.
By calling attention to their own three-dimensional form these handmade contraptions parallel the efforts of Day's more well-known contemporaries in the 1960's, such as as Donald Judd, to establish paintings as objects. Like Judd's "specific objects," Day's boxes are resolutely grounded in the condition of things. In a wonder photograph, one Day's large boxes with a New York watercolor has been set in a wintry Vermont landscape. Its scale and stance suggest a human presence-one can't help but see in it an image of Day himself. Like a stubborn individual, it relates to the Vermont environment but remains resistant, irreducible to it. The buildings echo the verticals of the trees, like columns of a cathedral, as though to make a place for the city in this natural context. It points hopefully to some human resolution of the perennial conflict of nature with technology.
Burlington VERMONT TIMES
Mickey Myers: a career exploring the richest forms of human expression
By Dan Wolfe March 2, 2005
.....You take for example the exhibit we’ve having right now – a retrospective of the work of Lucien Day, an American Realist who lives in Craftsbury, and who for 50 years was, and still in some ways is, among the pivotal characters in American art – just down the road in Craftsbury! It was one thing, inviting Lucien to exhibit at HDAC. It was quite another when all these artists – these famous New York artists - started appearing out of the woodwork to pay homage to him. They wanted to be a part of his retrospective because of his importance in their lives..... Mickey Myers