Art In Conversation
On Larry Day
On November 7, 2021, Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia hosted a panel discussion on the exhibition Body Language: The Art of Larry Day, which was organized by Woodmere in conjunction with the Rosenwald-Wolf Galleries at University of the Arts and Arcadia Exhibitions at Arcadia University. Bill Valerio, the director of Woodmere, both moderated and participated in the discussion, together with his colleagues, Sid Sachs, the director of the galleries at UArts, and Richard Torchia, the director of the curatorial program and the galleries at Arcadia. Phong H. Bui, the publisher of the Brooklyn Rail, and Ruth Fine, the distinguished curator and widow of Larry Day, were also participants.
Bill Valerio: Welcome everyone to Woodmere and thank you for joining us. It is thrilling, as the director of the museum, to host this panel discussion, which seeks to explore the work of art that surround us, the art of Larry Day.
Woodmere is offering one portion of Body Language, which is our ambitious, three-part exhibition, which is also being offered at Arcadia Exhibitions at Arcadia University and the Rosenwald Wolf galleries at University of the Arts. Everyone, please check our websites, because while Woodmere’s installation remains on view through January 23, 2022, the other two galleries have different, sooner closing dates.
Here is the structure of our discussion today: my colleague Sid Sachs will describe the work on view in his galleries at UArts, which focuses on Larry’s successes as an Abstract Expressionist, and his career in the 1950s as an abstract painter. I will then describe the work on view here at Woodmere, the multi-figure ensemble paintings and figurative drawings from the early 1960s and onward. And finally, to complete the more expository part of our program, my colleague Richard Torchia will describe the installations he organized at Arcadia, which focuses on Larry’s urban views and cityscapes, mostly devoid of figures. Larry also began making these works in the early 1960s, and they run parallel as a preoccupation alongside the figurative works.
Then, after the three of us describe the experiences you can find in our respective galleries, Phong H. Bui will offer his commentary on Larry Day’s work; Phong is himself an artist who crosses over between figure and abstraction, and he studied at UArts and was inspired by Larry’s lectures. Our final speaker will be Ruth Fine, whose job will be to tie it all together. Ruth not only served as a distinguished curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington for many decades, but she was also married to Larry Day. She knows more about his work than anyone, and her passionate belief in the relevance of Larry’s work to current and future generations has been a key driver of our exhibition process.
Let me finally mention that the guest curator of Body Language across the three venues is David Bindman, who was the artist’s longtime friend, as well as an Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at University College London, and a Visiting Fellow at the Hutchins Center of Harvard University.
With that, I will ask you, Sid, to get us started by describing what’s wonderful about the art of Larry Day?
Sid Sachs: The work on view at the University of the Arts at the Rosenwald-Wolf gallery is mostly abstract work from the 1950s up to the early 1960s. This is a period when Larry was engaged with the New York School and Abstract-Expressionism. Here are a 1955 painting by Larry Day called Standing Angel and an earlier painting called Pink Angel by de Kooning from 1949. If you look at the two, they have figurative elements: the de Kooning is more fluid and slashing, using more of that arm than Larry. And his is more vertical. De Kooning is one of the people that slowly in the 1940s goes from completely figurative work, to more abstract work. By 1948, he’s doing black and white paintings where the figure ground relationship is really not very clear. It’s the same thing that Pollock and Gorky are doing. But by 1950, he started going back to the Women’s Series, and he’s doing figures again. So it was a big influence on people looking at Abstract Expressionism, in New York and in Philadelphia.
The other thing that I write about in the catalog is that during the 1950s the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was showing all the Abstract Expressionists in addition to people like Ruth Asawa from the west coast at their annual or biannual shows. And also in 1952, around the corner from the Museum School (Philadelphia Museum School of Art, now the University of the Arts) was a gallery called Raymond Hendler. Around the other corner was Dubin Gallery which showed Larry and also some of the Abstract Expressionists, local Abstract Expressionists. Franz Kline also taught at the Museum School. So there was this give and take.
This is a really beautiful landscape, Landscape for St. John of the Cross, (1955). It shows that even if Day was influenced by Abstract Expressionism, he’s still looking at the true landscape. He’s still embodying the landscape, the landscape that you could walk through, with the sky and the ground and trees and cliffs and things of that nature.
Louis Finkelstein (who taught at the Museum School) wrote a really important essay about Abstract Impressionism. He was looking at people like Philip Guston who had these shimmering all-over fields of paint. They were influenced by Monet’s water lilies which were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, which didn’t have any horizon line, and were just fields of color. But Finkelstein also includes figurative painters in the sense that Larry was figurative in this period. People like Nell Blaine. Abstract Impressionism was a kind of catch all phrase but I think it’s really appropriate to lump Larry Day and Guston together in that category, as opposed to expressionism, because I don’t think Larry was actually an expressionist personality.
Bill Valerio: When I arrived at Woodmere eleven years ago, the first painting by Larry Day that I came to know was a work in our collection called The Poker Game (1970), which was hanging in a staff member’s office. As something of a traditionalist in my sensibility when it comes to art, I immediately loved the fact that Larry was an artist who was not ashamed to show off his virtuosity. One of the great draftsmen I have ever come across, Larry brought a powerful skill in the manipulation of line to all his work, a linear-based sensibility that interacts with an exquisite subtlety and richness in his handling of color, a dynamic sense of composition, and a “touch” in applying paint that is uniquely thin and dry. The figurative ensembles like The Poker Game are as grounded in Larry’s sense of line as are his many portrait drawings, which are as quirky and stylized as those of Ingres. The expressive power of line is also a defining element in the abstract paintings that Sid just described.
Woodmere is a museum dedicated to the artists of Philadelphia, and Larry Day is an artist to whom we are very much dedicated for his contributions to the conversations in the arts in our city. But beyond that, his work is part of a paradigm shift in Western culture that happened in his time: post modernism, and this is writ large in terms of an encompassing shift across Western culture in all forms of philosophy, art, film, architecture, and everything else. In the visual arts and in painting in particular, Postmodernism underlies a shift from abstraction to figuration and narrative, much of it with an “everyday” dimension. Think about Pop Art and Photorealism, but also about Robert Venturi, the Philadelphia architect, and his seminal contribution to Postmodernism, Learning from Las Vegas. Larry was involved in this same process of rethinking what art can be, grounding it in the subjects that belong to everyday experience, or at least to his everyday experience as a teaching artist in Philadelphia at a moment when Modernism and Abstract Expressionism has somewhat emptied itself, in many people’s eyes. Which is not to say that abstraction doesn’t continue in lots of wonderful and valid directions, it certainly does. But Larry is part of a major arc of rethinking that brings figurative art and representation back to center stage.
Larry is an artist who behaves like an art historian. Consider his first figurative painting After Jan Steen (1962). It’s a gestural abstract painting on a large scale that takes as it’s starting point a little Baroque painting by Jan Steen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, maybe 24 by 18 inches. I love the fact that he’s still working like an abstract painter, but he’s drawn to the many complicated relationships between the space and the figures in the Dutch painting, and he makes it monumental.
Day’s interest in art history goes to a lot of interesting places, and, as my friend, the art historian Patricia Likos Ricci pointed out, Larry was specifically drawn to Mannerism. It wasn’t popular in 1960s, but Larry immersed himself in Mannerism deeply. His late drawings are built on an intertwined complexity of figures that bring us to a kind of surrealism that is uniquely his own. It has to do with sexuality and gender, as for example in Hercules Dressed as a Woman (1990), which is a drawing after the Italian Mannerist artist Primaticcio, Larry’s “take” on a lost mural that’s preserved in the form of a print that he somehow got his hands on.
I love an artist whose ideas evolve and change with time, and I take enormous pleasure as a museum director and a museum goer in following Larry’s interest in art history. He found an early statement of synthesis in a work called Narrative: To the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti (1967). Giovannetti was a somewhat obscure 14th century Italian painter of the Siennese school who left Italy and became famous for his work in Avignon, hired by the Pope to make murals in the Papal Palace there; the building appears schematically and obliquely in the background of Larry’s painting. Giovannetti’s own work, it’s been noted, is composed in vignettes of abstract architectural spaces in which various narratives take place. Many of them are the violent stories of saints, with beheadings and the like, that express the violence of Giovannetti’s own times. Larry takes that to his own place, and here, in the Giovanetti painting, he addresses the violence of America in the 1960s in a uniquely cool, questioning, and cerebral way. At the center of Larry’s narrative is a figure being dragged away by two figures, who could be government officials. We don’t really know who they are, and the viewer is left to figure out the narrative. You’ve got the hip motorcycle riders, on the left of the painting, the older tourists at right, and the well-dressed gentleman at center, who seems very much in charge and official. Another figure, one wearing a red suit, stares out at the viewer, asking us to contemplate the relationship of all these figures to the violent event at the center of the painting. But this is 1967. And the point, I think, is that the ’60s were an era of change and unrest, including terrible assassinations in American culture. Larry Day’s work keeps pace with the events of his time, but the way he gets there is through a complicated immersion and referencing of the art of the past.
One of the most perplexing works of art by Larry Day, is Changes (1982) in which Day appears as the artist at an easel drawing a nude model who sits before him. A student is standing next to him: a young woman with shoulder length brown hair next to him at the easel. They’re in a fictional room with a gigantic version of an Italian Mannerist painting by Pontormo behind them. In the space just beyond the seated nude model, there appears another painting, a work of art by the northern Mannerist painter Joachim Wtewael, Judgment of Paris. A large nude Venus from within the painting stares out, and although she’s a depiction within the fiction of the painting, the godess plays a significant role in addressing the viewer. In Larry’s description of the painting, he said, the Pontormo represents my father, who was Italian, and the Wtewael represents my mother, who was of Northern European descent. And here I am at the easel. And next to him is a student, someone who represents a younger generation. On one level, it’s about generations. Larry’s voice as an artist also lives through the work of his students. And Changes is the title—I have to ask what these changes are. Are these the changes that happen generationally from artists to artists, from teachers to students? The changes that happen in the evolution of the arts? The changes happening in the relationships between men and women? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but one of the great things about Larry’s work is that there’s no easy explanation for any of his paintings.
In Woodmere’s installation, the painting Changes (1982) ended up next to the Partial Portrait (1976-70), which is a depiction of Ruth Fine. It shows Ruth, unsmiling and mask-like, sitting in a gigantic chair in a beautiful floral robe, staring out at the viewer. The figure’s leg emerges provocatively from the robe. Thanks to T.J. Clarke’s writing on Manet and the work of many other art historians, we have become attuned to the power dynamics associated with “the gaze” in art. Who is privileged to gaze onto whom? What does that mean in terms of the relationship between the characters within the fiction of a painting and the experience of its viewers? In Changes, Larry depicts many gazes, including that of himself as the authoritative male-teacher-artist looking onto the objectified female nude model. But it’s more complex than that because the gaze of the depicted artist interacts with the gaze of the young woman student and with that of Venus, who addresses the viewer in a direct, playful manner. There is also an interplay between these elements and the large vertical chasm of dark space in the center of the picture. When I come to the portrait of Ruth, I feel somehow, it’s not a portrait of Ruth at all, or at least, as suggested by the title, only a partial portrait. But then, what is it? In the end, Larry is asking us to contemplate what the figure represents, not as a portrait or likeness, but as a gazing cipher, looking out at us, implicating us, and positioning us in a complicated conversation with a figure who is at least partially a portrait of the artist’s beloved. This idea of “partial” is a big element in what needs to be considered in so many of Larry’s works.
Richard Torchia: I am very inspired by Day’s Partial Portrait. I’m interested in the gaze that is directed from the viewer to the work and would like to read this quote from Larry about his site paintings.
It’s a totally different activity for me than the figure paintings, which is another kind of thing. In the site paintings, it’s like every part of it is in some way directed to the viewer, in terms of creating an entity of some sort that illuminates. In the figure paintings, every part of it is directed within itself, and illuminating that which is occurring there. In the figure paintings, I think of myself more as a voyeur or a witness. Where in the site paintings, I think of myself as a participant.
The exciting thing about the works that we’re showing in Absent Presence at Arcadia is the way they engage the audience in a performative way. They spotlight the activity of looking. At Arcadia we have three different galleries that are dedicated to three separate but related themes—one is dedicated to Day’s site paintings without people, and these are large-scale cityscapes and views of observed and imagined architectural spaces. Another gallery explores drawings of these architectural subjects, and a third gallery is focused on Day’s printmaking, which is almost a separate exhibition; the works here are mostly early figurative subjects from the 1950s, of the sort that Sid has described for us.
The other day I was looking at a photograph of the opening reception of the exhibition, and it was the presence of so many people populating the gallery with the cityscapes that caught my attention. The photo demonstrated how Larry’s site paintings—especially when so many are hung together as they are at Arcadia—paradoxically create a space that can be activated by the figures who are viewers in a way that suggests a performance enabled by the installation. That Larry’s cityscapes are consistently rendered as if from a similar distance and scale helps supports this possibility.
There’s a beautiful reference in the catalogue that I want to explore a little bit. There is a painting from 1480 attributed to Fra Carnevale called The Ideal City. I was struck by the symmetry, the Albertian, almost utopian view of an idealized, urban setting. And there are a few figures there you can see, but they’re very small. There’s a feeling of perfection in the geometry and the tonality of the work. And what makes Larry’s work possibly ironic is that he’s borrowing from that idea of a “perfect city view.” When he chooses sites, here for example a view of Philadelphia famous Waterworks (which themselves express the aspirations of another era to urban utopia) he offers a totally unexpected view of this iconic location in Philadelphia. What I find interesting is the way that the view is obstructed or occluded by columns in the foreground that seem part of the viewer’s space. These columns don’t belong to the traditional, fictional illusion of the painting as a window onto a spatial reality or an ideal. Larry’s composition accounts for more, and in my mind, it has everything to do with the viewer.
In another work, Lancaster (c. 1982) Day captures this view of a building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with a telephone pole at the right which seems to be not only an abstract element, but again, belongs to the viewer’s space, activating the process of looking at those houses on the street. And this idea of looking from one space to another comes up in connection to Robert Smithson and his phrase “ruins in reverse.” Here’s a little bit from his essay The Monuments of Passaic. Smithson writes, “this is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin,’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built, but rather rise into ruin before they are built.” This idea applies to a several works by Larry, such as Yard II (c. 1975) also on view at Arcadia, that depict derelict spaces and banal areas you would find in the left-out corners of the city or suburbs. As a curator I’m interested in finding new ideas or trajectories for this body of work and the idea of these strange, but provocative spaces.
Larry Day was also fascinated by construction sites. Three Worlds (1989) is a painting I’ve always found beautiful, partly because of how its cutaway view exposes portions of the urban environment that are usually concealed. It’s an ideal city, on the one hand, but on the other, it’s difficult for the viewer to find an objective position in relation to what’s shown. The thing I most enjoy about this painting is what appears to be a still life at its center, a random grouping that suggest reclining figures but are also abstract—an arrangement that makes me think of Joel Shapiro or minimalist sculpture.
There’s a lot of detail in Day’s paintings, which brings up another comment that I wanted to read from John Hollander, who wrote the following about these works,
Such an allegory of painting can explain how in Day’s urban landscapes, presence and relative closeness or distance can have at the very simplest an inverse, and more frequently a dialectical relation. Space is explored as the object of desire. These buildings are nude figures in their way, not lolling about but in as much of an Arcadian light as we have available.
Some of the drawings in the show have a certain authority to them, but they’re also unfinished and exude the feeling of works that are in process, almost as if they are themselves construction sites. I admire the drawings in our show because they are such an investigation of graphite as a medium and of paper, not only as a support, but as a material that can transfer the texture of surfaces.
A final, quick thought I would like to share is that many of Day’s site paintings remind me of Eugène Atget’s proto-Surrealist photographs of pre-modern Paris. There is a feeling of vacancy from the absence of people in both their work, and the silence of Atget’s photography permeates Larry’s paintings in the Arcadia show.
Phong H. Bui: What really strikes me is the first painting, from 1956 called Journey. That’s telling you quite a bit about what the young Larry Day had in mind: What does that mean? The journey. So what you see here is essentially a journey unfolding over the decades of his life, from different permutations and experiences, which is very interesting because just a few months before the pandemic, I had this long interview with David Lynch, published in the Rail’s December 2020 issue. And in talking to Lynch, who had gone to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and lived in Philadelphia for five years, I learned that he had studied with a lot of figurative artists who I came to know partly from my time as a student at the Philadelphia College of Art, now called University of the Arts. I took a watercolor class with Eileen Goodman, herself an amazing artist, and also the one-time spouse of Sidney Goodman, who was one of the prominent painters of the figurative tradition here, along with many artists who were part of a community of voices, including Larry Day himself, but also Hobson Pittman, Elizabeth Osborn, of course Ben Kamihira and others.
What I was thinking, talking to David Lynch, was how he often credits Philadelphia for being the city that shaped his early formation, his vision, which is very dark. Whatever is lurking underneath the surface. I asked him about American gothic literature, Melville, Hawthorne, but particularly Edgar Allan Poe, who lived here. And it’s interesting, he kind of said to me, that he didn’t spend much time reading about American Gothic literature, but he certainly was aware of where Edgar Allan Poe lived, which is on I think, North 7th Street, which is where the Poe historic site and museum is today.
So it’s interesting in talking about that dark sensibility which pervades his work but why am I telling you this? Because I’m trying to understand the context where Larry Day belongs, or at least somewhat, in the middle of the mix of that generation. It’s very interesting to see that journey, how it started, and how Larry sustained the journey. To me that is so compelling, because as I have gone through some drawings, it’s clear that Larry loves Poussin, and it’s interesting he made drawings after Poussin, a lot of compositions based on Poussin, the stability he found there, but Poussin, as we remember, was an artist with one foot in Italy, and the other foot is in Northern Europe, even though he’s born French.
If you look at the drawing that is part of The Venus Society: An Entertainment in Eight Episodes, called The Struggle for the Uncommitted (ca. 1967). That says a lot about Larry Day. Three scenes: in the middle, you see the family, the very proper merry family, and on the left, is youth being courted in a very proper way. You know, teenagers! On the right they’re having some kind of sexual rapport. There’s a certain condition of morality that is being brought in the work and questioned. But then, as a whole, there’s a certain perpetual commitment to serene humanism. And I think this is why he also loved art history, particularly Piero della Francesca.
To me, the way that Larry read Piero was as much for Piero as it was for himself. And I think that substitution for Piero—serene humanist, the aura and pathos—is to me Larry Day acting as mediator of his self: one is Larry Day the melancholic, and the other is Larry Day the artist who loves reverie. I’m interested in both conditions, because melancholic suggests that you are removed from reality. You look at yourself detached from your emotional rapport with yourself and the world. Whereas the latter be in reverie, meaning you wait to play until a certain moment of epiphany come upon you. And then you paint or you write.
Ruth Fine: The main overview that interests me is that everybody is grasping the complexity of Larry’s work, the range of emotions and the integration of abstraction and representation; that the abstractions have strong representational elements, and the representational work is strongly abstract.
And what also came up is the issue of Cezanne and open spaces and “unfinishedness.” My pet nickname for the show is "Finished Enough," because I think one of the things about Larry in his visual language and in his written language, he says as much as he thinks he needs to say to make the point he’s trying to make, or to make the points he’s trying to make because I don’t think he’s ever trying to make one point. And I think Phong’s picking up on the idea of “the journey” is just brilliant.
I love that you started with that notion because I think, certainly the journey is what it was always about for Larry. He was always about asking questions. I don’t even know that he believed in answers. I don’t think he ever believed in one answer for anything. I think he always believed that any question had multiple answers, any way of starting had multiple ways of finishing.
There have been about 30 oral histories made during the course of this exhibition, and what comes across in virtually all of them, and not only those with his students, is that Larry taught people to think. And that’s how they think of him, as someone who taught them how to think, not what to do. He was never one to tell anyone what to do.
And of course, I met Larry first as a student. And, you know, absolutely, you could spend two hours talking about your work with him, and walk away with ideas about what you should read, and what you should look at, and what you should think about, and where you should go in the city, and which museums were most important, and yet not have a clue as to what Larry thought about the work. The last thing he wanted was to assemble a group of followers. He was never anyone that would say, “well, you put a little red here or you put a little red there, you do this.” This is not what he was about at all.
I brought with me something that was written by Armand Mednick for Larry’s 70th birthday. It was a kind of tribute to him. I’m just going to read part of it. Armand says, “these are things that come to my mind when I think about you: the painter’s painter, the artist’s artist, the gambler’s gambler, the flayer of Philistine influence in all fields, especially aesthetics, the calm bastion of moderation and sanity in a barbaric world.” (This was written 1991, not 2021.) “The consummate curmudgeon, the supreme authority on rules in games, especially our poker game, the critic of the core and breeches, a resource person, for many people, on many subjects, the master of the subtle nod for greetings or approval.”
I think that really says a lot about what Larry Day was about.