December 2006

The Legacy of Richard Lack

by Louis Torres

The revival of traditional painting skills that began in the latter part of the twentieth century is due in no small measure to the efforts of one person--painter, teacher, and author Richard Lack. In his essay "On the Training of Painters"--for which he won a 1969 Aristos Award (first published that year, the essay had been circulated privately for two years before)--Lack envisioned that the atelier system he described therein might still be viable in the contemporary world. "Historically, virtually all great painters were trained under this method or its earlier counterpart, the apprentice system," he observed. "Indeed, if Western Civilization wishes to retain the art of painting as a living part of its culture, this may be our last hope."

Two years later, Lack's conviction was put to the test when he founded the pioneering Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, offering students training in traditional methods of drawing and painting. As chronicled by an early student, Stephen Gjertson, in Richard F. Lack: An American Master, the undertaking began when Lack was asked by some of his fellow painters to teach life drawing. He rented space and began a weekly class, basing his teaching methods on principles learned from his mentor, R. H. Ives Gammell.

Incorporated as a small, nonprofit studio school in 1971, Atelier Lack offered a full-time program, as well as evening classes in painting and drawing. At first taught only by Lack himself, classes later included those taught by advanced or former students. In time the school "gained a reputation as a small island of traditional art training surrounded by a sea of hostile opinion," to quote Gjertson. Attracting students from the United States and abroad, it eventually became a model for other ateliers.

In 1982 Lack coined the term "Classical Realism" to characterize the artistic tradition represented by Gammell, himself, and their students--heirs of the Boston school, begun by such painters as William McGregor Paxton, with whom Gammell had studied, and to differentiate it from other types of realism. The term was first used that year in the title of an exhibition of work by Lack, his students, and other like-minded painters: Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century. In the exhibition's catalogue, Lack explained it why it was needed:

Any 20th century painting that suggests a recognizable object, however crudely or childishly rendered, qualifies as "realistic." Obviously, the simple word 'realism,' when applied to painting, has become so broad in its sweep and general in its application that it is no longer meaningful.

As Gjertson notes, Lack envisioned Classical Realism as

a broad artistic point of view characterized by a love for the visible world and the great traditions of Western art, including classicism, realism and impressionism. . . . It is classical because it exhibits a preference for order, beauty, harmony and completeness; it is realist because its basic vocabulary comes from the representation of nature. [For a fuller explication, see Gjertson's "Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition."]

By 1985 Atelier Lack had begun publishing Classical Realism Quarterly (CRQ), with articles written by Lack and his students, aiming to inform the public about traditional realist painting. That same year, Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School was published (see my review). Lack was its editor and contributed one of its essays, "Painting: Understanding the Craft"--he has won a second Aristos Award for that book. Four years later, Lack helped found the American Society of Classical Realism (ASCR), dedicated to preserving and furthering traditional realist work (both classical and impressionist), as well as to educating the public about it. ASCR took on the publication of CRQ, which was subsequently tranformed into the semiannual Classical Realism Journal, with Lack remaining as Editorial Advisor. His article "Bouguereau's Legacy to the Student of Painting" (originally published as "Bouguereau's Legacy" in Aristos in September 1982) appeared in its inaugural issue in the Spring of 1994. Declining health forced Lack to retire from teaching in 1992, though he would continue painting until 1999. His school--renamed The Atelier--has continued, however, under the direction of two former students.

Lack's wide-ranging influence on the revival of traditional painting has been acknowledged in no uncertain terms by Gregory Hedberg, Director of European Art for the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York City. In "A New Direction in Art Education," in the catalogue for the exhibition Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance (Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, 2006) [see our review], Hedberg--who previously had a long and distinguished career as a museum curator and then as director of the New York Academy of Art--offers this historical perspective:

Most of the artists represented in the current exhibition were trained at one of three art schools: The New York Academy of Art, The Florence Academy of Art, or the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence. . . .
[Though] based in the heart of . . . Italy, The Florence Academy of Art and the Charles H. Cecil Studios were in fact spawned in modernist America. The origins of both schools go back to 1969, when an eccentric artist and educator named Richard Lack started a new kind of art school in Minneapolis. . . . Atelier Lack was a radically new art school that attempted to revitalize art education by reintroducing rigorous training in traditional drawing and painting techniques.

In the 1970s, while Hedberg was curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he had occasion to visit Atelier Lack, during the very period that Charles H. Cecil and the founder of the Florence Academy of Art, Daniel Graves [more], were students there. (Cecil, who had studied with Ives Gammell from 1969 to 1971, trained at Atelier Lack from 1971 to 1974). In 1982, the two young artists co-founded the Cecil-Graves Studio in Florence, which later split into the separate schools cited above by Hedberg.

Hedberg also credits Atelier Lack in Minneapolis with helping to reinvigorate two much older institutions devoted to the teaching of traditional drawing and painting in New York City--the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design (both of which had been founded in the nineteenth century). Since Lack's pioneering effort in the late 1960s, moreover, new academies have been been cropping up worldwide, as indicated by the following chronological list--culled mainly by Hedberg:

Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, Old Lyme, Connecticut (1976)
Gage Academy of Art [formerly Seattle Academy of Fine Art], Seattle (1989)
Florence Academy of Art, Italy (1991)
School of Representational Art, Chicago (1991)
Charles H. Cecil Studios, Florence (1983)
Angel Academy of Art, Florence (1997)
Academy of Realist Art [formerly Angel Studios], Toronto (1997)
Bridgeview School of Fine Art, New York (2001)
Mims Studios, Southern Pines, North Carolina (2001)
Studio Escalier, Argenton-Chateau, France (2001)
Harlem Studio of Art, New York (2002)
Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art (2002)
Studio Incamminati, Philadelphia (2002)
Gottlieb Studios & Atelier, Echo Park, California (2005)
Grand Central Academy of Art, New York (2006)

Concurrently, numerous smaller ateliers have been started by individual artists--among others, Ted Seth Jacobs (Ecole Albert Defois, founded in 1987, in Les Cerqueux sous Passavant, France), Michael Aviano, and Jacob Collins (all cited by Hedberg)--including many by Lack's former students. Some painters not directly associated with Lack use terms other than Classical Realism (Jacobs, for example, refers to his work as "Restructured Realism").

Clearly, Richard Lack's hope that the atelier system of training painters might one day revitalize the art of painting "as a living part [of the culture of Western Civilization]" has begun to be realized. Critics and art historians, take note.

Note: For a comprehensive list of contemporary ateliers, academies, schools, and private instructors, see the Art Renewal Center, also A Stroke of Genius.