December 2006


Muddying the Waters of Classical Realism

by Louis Torres

In the quarter century since the term Classical Realism was coined by the painter-teacher Richard Lack, few writers have bothered to take note of the movement it refers to or any of the key painters associated with it. In the past few months, however, it has been much on the mind of one critic, James Panero, managing editor of The New Criterion; has been cited in a review by another, Maureen Mullarkey of the New York Sun; and has been alluded to by a third, Roger Kimball, co-editor and publisher of The New Criterion. All in connection with one Classical Realist painter, Jacob Collins, whose work was recently shown at Hirschl & Modern in New York. Remarkably, neither Panero nor Mullarkey has a clear understanding either of the movement or of how Collins fits into its brief history. Yet this does not deter them from writing about both with seeming authority. Kimball, on the other hand, has the distinction of writing about Collins without ever noting his connection to the Classical Realist tradition.


"The New Old School" is how Panero characterizes Classical Realism in the title of his recent article (September 2006) on Collins in The New Criterion--a periodical that, ironically, has championed abstract painting since its founding in 1982. Panero's choice of the following epigraph (a quote from Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art) is telling in that connection:

An actual "battle of styles," as for instance between realism and abstraction, is desirable only to those who thrive on a feeling of partisanship. Both directions are valid and useful--and freedom to produce them and enjoy them should be protected as an essential liberty. There are, however, serious reasons for taking sides when one kind of art or another is dogmatically asserted to be the only funicular up Parnassus or, worse, when it is maliciously attacked by the ignorant, the frightened, the priggish, the opportunistic, the bigoted, the backward, the vulgar or the venal. Then those who love art or spiritual freedom cannot remain neutral.

If one views the battle between realism and abstract painting and sculpture as merely one of "styles," then those of us who argue that abstraction is not art must surely be viewed by Panero as among "the ignorant, the frightened, the priggish, the opportunistic, the bigoted, the backward, the vulgar or the venal." What he fails to grasp, however, is that something much more fundamental than style is at issue in the battle (nor is it fair to imply that attacking abstract work means wishing to deny anyone the freedom to produce and enjoy it).

Panero invokes "Classical Realism" no fewer than thirteen times in his article, conveying the impression that he is quite familiar with the movement. Yet he begins by erroneously referring to Collins as "something of [its] elder statesman." In a subsequent interview (on which, see below), he also refers to Collins as Classical Realism's "figure head." In this Age of Google, Panero could have easily learned that the movement already existed in 1989, when Collins was just finishing his formal training in painting and had not yet even had a solo exhibition. With a little extra effort, he could have traced its origins back further, to 1982, when Lack--the true "elder statesman" of the movement--first coined the term to distinguish his work and that of his students from that of other contemporary realist painters. He also could have discovered that Lack had founded the pioneering Atelier Lack in 1969, when Collins was but five years old.

Ironically, Panero cites Daniel Graves--who briefly studied at Atelier Lack and later founded the Florence Academy of Art--but nowhere mentions Lack himself. He also claims that "[i]n a matter of just ten to fifteen years, Classical Realism has positioned itself to become a serious player in the future of art." Further, he suggests that the lost art of painting has been merely "gleaned" by Classical Realists "from nineteenth-century drawing courses, like the . . . cours de dessin by Charles Bargue," and by analyzing and copying the Old Masters. Thus he is unaware of the key role that R. H. Ives Gammell played in directly transmitting through his student Lack the academic painting techniques he had learned from his own teacher, William McGregor Paxton, who in turn had studied with the nineteenth-century French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Notwithstanding his epigraph's reference to realism and abstraction as simply a "battle of styles," Panero acknowledges that Classical Realism is more than a "mere style" for its proponents, that it is for many "a value system . . . border[ing] on an evangelical faith." As he further observes: "Foremost there is the belief that certain forces--modernism is among the usual suspects--have wrecked our understanding of art production as it was first conceived in the Classical period, resurrected in the Renaissance, and carried down through the academies to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." Yet his own commitment to modernism (in particular to abstract painting) prevents him from fully understanding Classical Realism. Though he begins by noting the movement's explicit rejection of modernism, he ends by claiming, in an almost conciliatory vein, that "the modernism of The New Criterion and the Beaux-Arts radicalism of the Classical Realists are responses to the same ruinous state of contemporary art."

Panero thereby appears to assume that anyone who opposes postmodernism must be an ally in the defense of modernism. In so doing, he fails to recognize that Classical Realists tend to view modernism--presumably including "the modernism of The New Criterion"--as not merely one among the forces that undermined traditional art in the twentieth century but as a primary cause of that lamentable outcome. (I should point out that "contemporary art," as that term is properly understood, includes contemporary abstract painting.) Though to my knowledge Lack has never explicitly referred to "abstract art," he argues in "On the Training of Painters" (1967) that such modernist genres as "minimal art" (in effect, a form of abstraction) were in part to blame for the loss of traditional painting skills in the twentieth century. Similarly, in an essay in Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School (1985), which Lack edited, Stephen Gjertson--a leading Classical Realist who was one of Lack's students in the early 1970s--cites the "absurdity and destructiveness of Modernism," naming among the culprits the abstract painters Jackson Pollock [detail], Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Motherwell.

After the publication of "The New Old School," but prior to Collins's solo exhibition in October, Panero posted on Armavirumque, the weblog of The New Criterion, a "crackling but engaging telephone interview" that he had had in August with Collins, "one of the most articulate artists out there today" ("The Jacob Collins Interview, September 6). Here was a chance to address some of the issues given short shrift in the article. At the start, the reader learns that Collins refers to his style of painting as "traditional realist"--"or maybe Classical Realist, which is an interesting label that was coined about thirty-five years ago," he adds. As I've noted, however, the term was not coined until 1982. Collins's mistaken chronology escapes Panero's notice, of course, and both critic and painter proceed to engage in serious conversation about a topic they know too little about.

The interview is largely a disappointment. Among the nonsensical questions Panero asks Collins are these: "How does your art relate to the tradition of modernism [abstract painting]?" Collins replies, in part, that he is "fond of the modernists' idea of the art object as a powerful thing." "Does your art relate at all to postmodernism?"--as if it might. Not surprisingly Collins answers, albeit in a roundabout way, that No, it does not. Finally, Panero asks: "Are you part of a movement?" To which Collins of course replies: "I would say yes. . . ." (Panero seems to have forgotten that Collins previously indicated that he regarded himself as a Classical Realist.)


Maureen Mullarkey's remarks on Classical Realism appear in an ostensible review of the Collins exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Modern--published in the New York Sun as part of a longer piece entitled "Nothing Left to Hide." While I agree with her initial observation that "what matters most [in a work of art] is the sensibility that informs [technical] expertise, the motive sustaining the method," and with her judgment concerning the respective merits of Collins's paintings--the portraits in the show were indeed superior to the nudes--I find the mean-spirited tone and ill-informed content of her other remarks (which is to say, most of them) offensive as criticism. I indicated as much in a letter to the Sun (published under the heading "Nothing Left to Hide" on November 8, along with a black and white photograph of Collins's Young Woman in Bed). Following is the full text of the letter (which, I stress--for reasons that will become clear below--is posted exactly as it appeared in print, except for the links of course):

In a recent review of exhibitions featuring the nude figure [Arts & Letters, "Nothing Left To Hide," October 12, 2006], Maureen Mullarkey writes that "the nude exposes both its creator and the culture of its time." A critic's response to the nude, I would add, exposes the critic.
Most of Ms. Mullarkey's remarks regarding painter Jacob Collins's Classical Realist nudes at Hirschl & Adler Modern are petty and sarcastic. She writes that two of the paintings are "McNudes for the carriage trade . . . fastidious erotica to go with the Jado bidet and high thread-count linens from Yves Delorme"; that "good living and good nipples are the classic combo" in another work; and so on.
Further, Ms. Mullarkey refers to Mr. Collins as "an enthusiastic evangelist for a secular revival that preaches the gospel of traditional art practices [known] as Classical Realism"--which, she asserts, "contains neither classicism nor realism as Courbet understood it." In this respect, she is woefully misinformed.
The term "Classical Realism" was coined in 1982 by the elder statesman of the movement, Richard Lack--who founded the pioneering Atelier Lack in 1969. As Stephen Gjertson, an early student there, has written, Classical Realism was conceived 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."
Finally, there is Ms. Mullarkey's snide claim that Classical Realism is "as much a marketing phenomenon as Thomas Kinkade's Paintings of Light [more]" She evidently does not distinguish between art and pseudo-art. She also falsely implies that Classical Realists have seen such dollars as generated by the Kinkade factory. Some I know, in fact, eke out a meager existence, while striving to create meaningful work.

Unfortunately, the original version of Mullarkey's remarks about Collins and Classical Realism (which were appended to a much longer review of Why the Nude? Contemporary Approaches, an exhibition at the Art Students League in New York City) may soon be accessible only to the Sun's electronic subscribers. An edited version of "Nothing Left to Hide" is posted on Mullarkey's website, however, where she informs readers: "This review appeared first in The New York Sun, October 12, 2006." Not quite. It all depends on what the meaning of "this review" is. For most readers "this review" means this review (verbatim). For Mullarkey it means, in effect, this review, selectively edited. In her zeal to discredit Collins and besmirch the entire Classical Realism movement in painting (about which she seems to know next to nothing), she altered her remarks so that the review on her website differs in a few significant respects from that published in the Sun. I note the main discrepancies below.

In Mullarkey's original, Collins is "an enthusiastic evangelist for a secular revival that preaches the gospel of traditional art practices" and is known as "Classical Realism." In her revision, he becomes the "Ralph Reed" of that "secular revival," who "evangelizes for something dubbed Classical Realism." In another instance, Mullarkey's original declares that Classical Realism "promises deliverance from modernism and restoration of art as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. (Pius IX might sympathize.)" In her edited version, the tasteless parenthetical reference to the Pope has simply been deleted. Poof!--it never was.

Finally, there is the puzzling revision of this line from the original review: "An initial publicist's blurb took care to note that the artist 'resides in an Upper East Side carriage house.'" True, he does, but it is irrelevant, and a poor substitute for substantive criticism. In any case, why change it to read: "The publicist's blurb took care to note that the artist 'resides in an upper East Side Manhattan carriage house'"--and thereby imply that the publicist wrote only one blurb and not two? However trivial such changes might seem, they further belie Mullarkey's implication that the reviews posted on her website are simply reprints of her originals. Integrity in such matters is not a trivial thing.

In any case, readers may be interested to know that while Mullarkey does not like Collins's nudes with sheets, she does admire those by Eve Mansdorf--one of the "gifted artists whose work I know and love," she says--as in Folding Sheets [JCPenney's perhaps--most assuredly not those by Yves Delorme]. Mullarkey's own modest nudes (for she is herself a painter) strike various poses, mostly standing, in sparse rooms. No sheets.


The exhibition catalogue for Jacob Collins: Figures carries an essay by Roger Kimball, who does not so much muddy the waters of Classical Realism as ignore it altogether. That Kimball was selected to write the essay in the first place is surprising, for until recently neither he nor anyone else at The New Criterion has shown any interest in the movement or in any of the painters associated with it.

In "Bright Spots: The Harlem Studio of Art," an Armavirumque entry last April, Kimball reports that the night before he had attended the annual party of that estimable studio (cited in "The Legacy of Richard Lack")--which, he says, he had not previously heard of. Asked to say "a few words" about his recent book The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, he decided instead to "offer a few reflections about . . . what has happened to the contemporary art scene," since so many artists were present. His Armavirumque posting includes a "digest" of his lengthy extemporaneous remarks.

By way of introduction, Kimball praises the Harlem Studio for offering students "something almost unheard of today," the sort of training that was once common but that, "for at least the last five or six decades, [has] gone the way of good manners and other accoutrements of civilization." The studio, he adds, has "begun to attract a number of talented students and artists interested in continuing rather then destroying the tradition of our artistic heritage." Midway in his remarks about "the contemporary art scene" Kimball cites the Harlem Studio's motto, a quote from Leonardo on the importance of technique in art. In his final paragraph, he again briefly mentions the studio:

The serious art of today . . . takes place . . . out of the limelight--at The Harlem Studio, for example. This is because real art tends to involve not the latest thing, but permanent things. . . . [T]he future of our artistic culture is not in the hands of today's taste makers, but . . . [of] artists like those who congregate around the Harlem Studio and other such outposts of civilization.

Attending a party at a small Classical Realist atelier which he had not previously known about, offering "a few reflections" there commending it, and briefly praising online the "rigorous training" provided there--such appears to have been the sum total of Kimball's engagement with the Classical Realist movement prior to his writing the essay for the Collins catalogue. Whereas Panero cannot invoke Classical Realism often enough, however, Kimball never uses the term. Instead, he vaguely alludes to the movement, predicting in his essay that the later years of the twentieth century and the early years of this one will some day be viewed as having "marked an important turning point in American art . . . that climacteric when the recovery of American art, inaugurated some decade or two earlier, finally began to take root and became recognized for what it was: a counter-revolution in taste and sensibility."

That "recovery of American art" will of course be due largely to the Classical Realist movement, whose history (as I have briefly outlined here and elsewhere) goes back considerably further than "some decade or two earlier." Kimball notes that Collins is one of "a small but growing band of artists who are revolutionizing art by reinvigorating and reinhabiting the aesthetic canons and plastic techniques pioneered in the Renaissance and promulgated in the studios of the Beaux Arts [masters]." Many, like Collins, are "energetic teachers," he observes. Yet he appears to know nothing of the seminal role played by Gammell and Lack in these developments.

As the sole essay in the catalogue for a small gallery exhibition, Kimball's piece does not offer the sort of scholarly exegesis that one might find in a catalogue for a major retrospective. Instead, it is mainly a critical appreciation of the artist and his work. Thus Kimball observes, for example, that Collins demonstrates "extraordinary skill" in such works such as Gun (2003), Hyena (2004), and Flag (2004). They are, in his words,

pregnant not simply with the transforming artistry of figurative exactitude but also that eldritch quality that belongs to the visually iconic: this flag, this gun, this furry remainder of animal ferocity partake of both a throat-catching specificity and a mysterious universality. Collins' consummate skill at modeling assures the first; his canny (uncanny?) deployment of lighting effects underwrites the latter.

A bit much, I would say. According to Kimball, however, a "similar dialectic" informs the new work in the exhibition. Unmade Bed (2005--see a related earlier work) is a "bravura performance . . . a tour de force as full of personality as the most lovingly rendered face." Perhaps a case can be made for Unmade Bed as a technical tour de force. But to suggest that a bed, made or unmade, can have personality rivaling the psychological complexity of a "lovingly rendered" human face is surely belied by another work in the exhibition, Carolina (2006)--not to mention by this portrait [more], for example. (Carolina, by the way, was undoubtedly the best work in the exhibition. That Collins is a very fine portraitist indeed is evidenced by it and by other portraits, such as Gerard [more].)

Further, Kimball makes much of the observation, by the writer of the catalogue essay for Collins's first exhibition at Hirsch & Adler Modern in 2004, that "under 'Education' [in his curriculum vitae] the artist gave pride of place to 'museum copying.'" He comments:

That's the second item, after place and date of birth, in Collins' curriculum vitae: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre, Prado, Uffizi. These were Collins' schools. In a way, that says it all. In one of his gnomic apothegms, the Greek sage Heraclitus said that the way forward is the way back.

Of course museum copying directly follows Collins's place and date of birth on the c.v., but only because "Education," the section following "Born," is arranged chronologically. As documented there, his period of such copying was in fact followed by several years of formal training--at the New York Studio School, the New York Academy of Art, and the Art Students League (also in New York). Incredibly, Kimball appears ignorant of this crucial phase of Collins's education. Ironically, the entire c.v. is printed on the last page of the catalogue in which his essay appears. An earlier version is posted on the web page for Collins's 2004 exhibition. Did Kimball not read it before writing his essay?

Finally, Kimball lavishes praise on the full-length nudes that so offended Mullarkey. In his view,

Pictures like Santiago and Sheila . . . and Anna and Arturo [see previous link] . . . are remarkable not only for the[ir] technical facility and intimacy, but also, curiously, for their reticence and emotional reserve. Santiago's self-absorbed gaze endows this moment of repose with a carapace of privacy that the viewer is invited to contemplate, but not to penetrate. Once again, Collins' management of light invests a quiet domestic interlude with currents of visual drama.

As I suggest in my brief review of the Collins exhibition, what Kimball regards as a "quiet domestic interlude" seems rather a study of models posed in a studio. I find it difficult to think of Santiago as the central figure in a drama, even in a domestic interlude. As for his gaze, "self-absorbed" it is not. He seems merely to be staring into space. Anna and Arturo, too, while technically dazzling, seems artificially staged. Collins's lovely reclining female nudes, Young Woman in Bed and Anna, are in their simplicity far more believable.

If Mullarkey's review of the Collins exhibition is mean-spirited in its extreme negativity, Kimball's essay at times verges on panegyric. Collins is indeed a gifted and courageous painter, but he would be better served by informed, measured appreciation than by the hyperbolic praise that Kimball showers upon him.

Informed critical literature on Classical Realism has been lamentably scant. What a shame that the three critics cited above did nothing to change that.