The American Society of Classical Realism
A Legacy of Preserving and Promoting the Fine Craft of Picture Making
by Stephen Gjertson
This is adapted from an article published in the Winter 2006 issue of the Classical Realism Newsletter.
For centuries, the broad objectives of Western European art have been clear: skillful workmanship, fine drawing, balanced composition, the sensitive representation of the visible world and the passion to depict physical beauty—both real and ideal. These traditions were firmly rooted in a world-view that gave them meaning and value. The art and craft of picture making was passed from master to pupil, with each successive generation perpetuating these traditions or adding to the existing store of knowledge and thereby enriching the common artistic vocabulary. Pupils (in other cultures as well) humbly recognized their ignorance and ineptitude and respected the expertise of the masters under whom they studied. The pupil’s portion was to imitate the master. Personal innovation or expression was not the goal. If these came, they were the natural result of thoroughly mastering one’s craft. The essential matters of style and method and training the eye and the hand could be imparted to the pupil only by the master, through practical exercise, constructive criticism, constant correction and demonstration. The goal was to master the skills necessary to achieve artistic excellence according to the established standards of the profession at any given time.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, attitudes toward these traditions began to change as the world-view gradually shifted toward an emphasis on the importance of the individual. The necessity of mastering the skills of the artist’s profession within an artistic tradition changed to the necessity of expressing one’s self. By mid 20th century, the artist was no longer a craftsman providing a service but a visionary providing enlightenment. The master, more than likely inept according to artistic standards of only a century ago, was now an instructor who no longer imparted the skills of the craft but gave pep talks on self-expression and vague artistic theory, punctuated with dire warnings of the danger of being like anyone else. The pupils were no longer humble apprentices but egocentric geniuses who must, at any cost, be true to themselves and “do their own thing.” This point-of-view was promoted and perpetuated by an intellectual system that sought to discredit and destroy the foundations of Western thought and an art world that sought to express its freedom from these foundations in innumerable outrageous and offensive ways. There were no longer masters and pupils. Without a body of knowledge to impart or learn all were masters. Art ceased to be a profession with specific standards and became a morass of confused individuals endlessly striving to express themselves and gain recognition. Instructors, whose goal was to inculcate theory rather than to impart practical knowledge or skills, taught art classes.
R. H. Ives Gammell
Existing quietly alongside this maelstrom of Modernist relativism were artists for whom the great traditions of Western art provided a vital and cogent means of expression. R. H. Ives Gammell was one of them. R. H. Ives Gammell studied with William Sargeant Kendall from 1908 to 1911 and with William McGregor Paxton from 1928 to 1930. He also took instruction from Philip Leslie Hale, Charles Hawthorne and in Europe. For more than fifty years Mr. Gammell taught in his private atelier in the Fenway Studios in Boston and summers in Williamstown and Providence, Massachusetts. Though trained in part by Paxton, a quintessential impressionist, Gammell’s major interest and effort was in the area of decorative imaginative subjects drawn from ancient history, Greek mythology, ancient and modern literature and religion, contemporary history and psychology, primarily that of C. G. Jung.
Gammell was a man of intense conviction, total dedication to his art and immense learning. He knew more about the art of Western painting than most artists of his time. Freed by family circumstance from the need to earn a living with his art, he was able to create a sometimes eccentric, yet highly original body of work. Unlike the artists of the Boston School, Gammell’s art dealt with the profoundest of human concerns—mankind’s constant preoccupation with the enigma of its condition and position in the cosmos, and with the mystery of the relation of our mind and imagination to powers and forces beyond us. The work that most personally expressed his own visionary experience and that represented twenty years of actual work and over forty years of contemplation, was his epic twenty-three painting sequence The Hound of Heaven, based on the poem by Francis Thompson. The greater part of Gammell’s work was considered bizarre and out of fashion by most of the art world during his maturity. He was also a prolific author. His writings are of critical importance to understanding the historical development of painting in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the impact of Modernism on this development. His principal book in this regard is Twilight of Painting, published in 1946.
Richard F. Lack
Richard Lack was one of the most versatile and influential pupils of R. H. Ives Gammell. His artistic training began at the Minneapolis School of Art, but his interest in the classical traditions soon led him to the atelier of Gammell, with whom he studied for five years in the Fenway Studios in Boston from 1950 to 1956. This training was interrupted for two years of service in the U.S. Army. In 1955 he traveled to Europe on a scholarship to study the Old Masters, particularly Peter Paul Rubens, whose work has greatly influenced him both in style and method. In 1957 he returned to Minneapolis with his wife, Katherine, bought a house and built a studio designed to simulate the lighting conditions recommended in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. There he began to paint a variety of work: still life, portrait, genre, landscape and imaginative paintings based on myth, history and the psychology of C. G. Jung.
In 1969 Lack founded Atelier Lack, Inc., a small, non-profit studio school of drawing and painting with an apprentice program based on the teaching methods of the 19th century French ateliers and the Boston impressionists. It was incorporated as a non-profit studio school in 1971. Lack’s sound training, experience with diverse painting methods and mastery of many genres of painting made him a uniquely qualified teacher. For years his atelier was the only place outside of Boston where students could be trained in that tradition.
The Boston Tradition
In 1976 Richard Lack and his colleagues at Atelier Lack formed The Twin Cities Guild of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers. The primary goal of this organization was to provide a venue for the exhibition of work by fine representational artists—primarily those who had studied with R. H. Ives Gammell and his students, and to educate the public about representational art. The Guild sponsored two major invitational exhibitions at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis in 1976 and 1977. It sponsored another smaller exhibition at the Minnetonka Center of Arts and Education in 1980.
In 1982, as an outgrowth of these exhibitions, Lack and several of his students, including Stephen Gjertson, organized a traveling exhibition of their work and that of other artists within the artistic tradition represented by Gammell, Lack and their students. The exhibition’s first venue was the Springville Museum of Art in Springville, Utah. Vern Swanson, art historian and director of the museum was sympathetic to the ideals represented by Atelier Lack. He asked Lack to coin a term that would differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition from that of other representational artists. Although he was reluctant to label this work, Lack chose the expression “Classical Realism.” The best of their work 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. This term was first used in the title of that exhibition: Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century. The show traveled to the Maryhill Museum of Art, long sympathetic to Ives Gammell and his pupils, and the Amarillo Art Center, a venue obtained by former Lack pupil, Kirk Richards.
In 1983 Janys Stubbs, a woman interested in the fine arts, saw the exhibition in Amarillo. Impressed by Stephen Gjertson’s The Recorder Lesson, she approached James Black, of Taylor Publishing Company in Dallas, with the idea for a book on the artists carrying on the Boston Tradition. Convinced of the importance of such a book, and impressed by The Recorder Lesson, (which eventually appeared on the book’s cover) he enthusiastically agreed to begin pre-production planning. Richard Lack accepted the responsibilities of editor and his wife, Katherine, agreed to design the book. It would be written by artists, each one given the freedom to write on a subject of their choice. The aggressive nature of some of the essays necessitated a title change from The Boston Painters: America’s Premier Realists—the book’s original title—to Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School, published in 1985. Several exhibitions, lectures and symposiums featuring work by living artists of the Boston School were organized around this event.
In addition to the yearly student exhibitions, the growing number of artists associated with Atelier Lack exhibited regularly at various locations in the Minneapolis, Saint Paul area. As a group, they now called themselves “classical realists.” The term, for good or ill, was becoming well known.
Richard Lack was the guiding artistic force behind the new Heritage Art Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia, which opened in 1986 and featured work by artists of the Boston School. The gallery hosted several Classical Realist Conferences. Artists of the Boston School organized exhibitions of their work at other galleries as well and the momentum slowly began to build. Several former Atelier Lack students started their own schools. The largest was Atelier LeSueur, under the direction of Atelier Lack alumnus Annette LeSueur.
Gary Christensen was a free-lance graphic designer working in Minneapolis. Like many others, he had been frustrated by the unavailability of sound training and turned to graphic design as an alternative vocation. He heard of Atelier Lack and registered for an evening drawing class. When he discovered that Atelier LeSueur was closer to his home, he began taking evening classes there. Impressed by a slide lecture on the history of the Boston School given by Annette LeSueur, he invited instructor Michael Coyle out to lunch to discuss current efforts to promote the group. He was enthusiastic about the Boston Tradition and the atelier system of training painters and wanted to help promote them to a wider audience. For more than a year he met regularly with Coyle and LeSueur. In December of 1987 they met to discuss their ideas with Richard Lack. Lack saw the need for an artist-run society with a guild of professional artists that was larger than the localized Twin Cities Guild of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers or the Guild of Boston Artists. The four met every week for several months to outline plans for such an organization.
The American Society of Classical Realism
In 1988, after almost a year of meetings, Gary Christensen, Michael Coyle, Annette LeSueur and Richard Lack founded The American Society of Classical Realism. It was incorporated under the laws of Minnesota as a non-profit educational corporation on January 7, 1989 with the founding members, including Lack’s wife, Katherine, as its first Board of Directors and Gary Christensen as the founding president. Its by-laws were adapted from those of the Guild of Boston Artists. It was a professional, artist-run organization devoted to the preservation and promotion of traditional realism and impressionism. The goals of the ASCR were broad and lofty and included, among other things, education, exhibitions, publications and scholarships.
The founders established the ASCR to encourage and promote those individuals whose works were “true to the Classical Realist tradition.” It began with artists from the Boston School, those within the tradition of R. H. Ives Gammell, Richard Lack and their students—artist friends and colleagues with whom Lack had worked for years. The ASCR was a logical extension of the previous efforts to organize these artists into a cohesive body to exhibit their work and promote their ideals. It provided a practical organization through which they could focus and channel their effort. If the organization succeeded, they hoped to expand to include artists from other traditions whose work fell under the broad definition of classical realism.
The guiding forces behind the ASCR were Richard Lack and Gary Christensen, who had years of experience in advertising. Lack provided the practical guidance and artistic expertise; Christensen provided everything else. Lack’s advice was to keep the organization small. Art was an elitist profession, and art by representational artists was, at least at the time, appreciated by a very small percent of those who were interested in art. Lack felt that it was his job to keep the ASCR firmly grounded in present reality. Christensen, on the other hand, was a visionary and thought on a grander scale. He envisioned a large organization, upwards of 20,000 members, with publications and programs geared toward meeting the varied needs of its many members. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he had the business skills and professional connections to actually get things done. He put together all of the organization’s printed material, newsletters and annual reports. He also produced the final six issues of the Classical Realism Quarterly and all of the issues of the Classical Realism Journal. He took care of the countless details necessary to keep the ASCR running efficiently. Gary Christensen was the practical glue that kept the organization together. Without his committed and constant involvement the organization would have collapsed in short order. Richard Lack and Stephen Gjertson continued to act as editorial advisers to the publications. Gjertson (one of the early vice-presidents) wrote and designed occasional articles for the Journal. He undertook the practical responsibilities of running the Guild: writing correspondence, tabulating the information, ballots and voting for new members. He also organized the exhibitions and wrote, edited, designed and supervised the production of exhibition materials and catalogs. In 1998 he assumed editorial responsibility for the newsletters from Gary Christensen.
The ASCR Guild of Artists
The professional heart of the ASCR was its Guild of Artists, called the academy in the original by-laws. According to the by-laws, the Guild members controlled the ASCR. They voted on all ASCR issues, elected the five members of the Board of Directors and were the only ones who could vote to change or modify the by-laws or policy. The founding members of the Guild were Richard Lack, Don Koestner and Stephen Gjertson. They determined the structure of the Guild, the requirements for Guild membership and elected the initial Guild members, which included Allan Banks, Gary Hoffmann, Robert Douglas Hunter and Richard W. Whitney. Kirk Richards was the only artist voted into full Guild membership by the original Guild members. The initial structure had four membership levels: full and associate guild members, general artist members and Emeritus members. In 1998 they reorganized and restructured the Guild, dropping the general artist category and combining the full and associate membership into simply Guild membership. There were eventually seventeen Guild members: Allan Banks, Peter Bougie, Michael Chelich, James Childs, Paul DeLorenzo, Stephen Gjertson, Lindesay Harkness, Gary D. Hoffmann, Robert Douglas Hunter (Emeritus), Don Koestner (Emeritus), Richard F. Lack (Emeritus), Steven J. Levin, Brian Lewis, Kirk Richards, Carl Samson, Anthony Watkins and Richard W. Whitney.
Exhibitions were an integral part of the stated purpose of The American Society of Classical Realism. During the first years of the ASCR Gary Christensen began to organize an international exhibition that would travel from the Soviet Union to China and then Paris. We had developed plans for an exchange exhibition with the Soviet Artists Union in Leningrad and were working with staff in the Louvre, but lack of funding eventually made such an exhibition impossible. From the outset, our ambitions and goals were far in access of our means. Since most of the artists lived and worked in Minnesota, the ASCR focused at first on exhibitions in this area. In the summer of 1989 Stephen Gjertson, Richard Lack and Gary Christensen organized Freedom’s Light. Trammell Crow, a company that built luxury office buildings, provided the space—the rotunda of the new Carlson Center in Minnetonka, Minnesota. It was a large, impressive exhibition featuring the work of over a dozen artists. The show was allied with The Friendship Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, in support of the current demonstrations for democracy by Chinese students.
Later that fall, the ASCR sponsored Classical Realism and New American Impressionism: On the Cutting Edge of Post Modern Art, an exhibition, seminar and symposium at Gabberts Art Gallery in Minneapolis. In April of 1990 they teamed with the Red Wing Arts Association to present the exhibition and seminar, Classical Realism: A Tradition Continues. In October, 1990 they sponsored another fall salon with lectures and symposiums at Gabberts Art Gallery. Featured speakers and panelists at these exhibitions included Peter Bougie, Lisa Bormann, Gary Christensen, Stephen Gjertson, Annette LeSueur, Dr. Barbara Long (collector and president of Atelier Lack’s Board of Directors) and Dale Redpath. In October of 1991, aided by Cyd Wicker, the ASCR sponsored the inaugural Fine Art Fall Exhibit at the new LeCuyer Gallery in Minneapolis.
The first opportunity for an ASCR exhibition outside of Minnesota came in May of 1992 at the Heritage Art Gallery. The gallery had hosted two previous Salons by artists of the Boston School, beginning with an inaugural exhibition associated with Realism in Revolution. It now hosted an event sponsored by the ASCR, Living Art, Living Artists: Is Tradition Dead?, the third classical realism conference, symposium and salon. Speakers included James Cooper and Frederic Hart.
In 1994 the ASCR sponsored an exhibition at the Guild of Boston Artists that traveled to the Uihlein-Peters Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1996 the ASCR helped to produce the catalog for Beauty: A Rebirth of Relevance, a major exhibition by Guild artists Richard Lack, Don Koestner, Stephen Gjertson and Kirk Richards held at the Newington-Cropsey Foundation Gallery of Art in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. In 1998 it collaborated with the California Art Club to organize a significant exhibition entitled East Coast Ideals, West Coast Concepts. It traveled from the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, California to the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and the Springville Museum of Art in Springville, Utah. Reaction to the work was positive and enthusiastic.
The Newington-Cropsey Foundation hosted an ASCR Guild of Artists exhibition in 2001. The Centerpieces of the show were Richard Lack’s Triptych and Monolith by Michael Chelich. In 2002 Tree’s Place Gallery in Orleans, Massachusetts hosted our final exhibition: The ASCR Guild: Recent Works. The ASCR invested only $15,000 in these exhibitions. The museums and galleries that hosted the shows covered the majority of the expense — well in excess of $400,000. We are indebted to them for their generosity.
In 1985 Daan Hoekstra, one of Lack’s students, suggested starting a small periodical written by professional artists to educate and inform the public about traditional realism. Lack had long recognized the need for such a publication. In the spring of 1985, with Hoekstra as editor, Atelier Lack began publishing a small black and white periodical, the Classical Realism Quarterly. Most of the publication’s staff and writers were artists or students associated with Atelier Lack or their artist colleagues in Boston. The eighth issue established the format. Hoekstra continued as editor through July 1987 when Kurt Anderson took over the job. Anderson continued in this capacity for four years, developing the acerbic editorial content (initiating the humorous and witty “Current Wisdom” page), writing articles and developing the graphic design. In 1991 the ASCR officially assumed publication of the Classical Realism Quarterly from Atelier Lack. When Anderson left in 1992 Gary Christensen stepped in as editor. By 1993, after four issues with a color cover (kept alive, in part, by the R. H. Ives Gammell Studio Trust), funding deficits and increasing stress on the small staff necessitated its cessation. After twenty-five issues, the Classical Realism Quarterly passed into history.
Through the generosity of Frederick C. Ross and Sorell Ridge Conserves, and the incessant labor of a dedicated editorial staff, the Classical Realism Journal rose from the CRQ’s ashes. Writer, collector and long-time friend of Stephen Gjertson, Rebecca Anderson (Swanson), joined the staff as editor and brought a high level of expertise and sophistication to the new publication. The ASCR published the first issue, dedicated to the art of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, in 1993. The time and expense needed to produce the Journal necessitated a bi-annual rather than quarterly magazine. After three years Rebecca Swanson shared editorial responsibilities with Peter Bougie. In the spring of 1998 Bougie assumed the role of editor. In 2003 personal obligations required him to step down. The ASCR was unable to find a person to fill the position. Without an editor it could not survive and, after fifteen issues, the Classical Realism Journal ceased publication.
The Journal was the lifeline of the ASCR, connecting the membership to the ideals and goals that it preserved and promoted. The ASCR put most of its energy and resources into this publication. We published it for ten years on a very limited budget, often going to press with only half of the revenue necessary to cover the cost. We consequently paid our printing bill over time, which caused us a great deal of stress. The ASCR made every effort to use its membership dollars wisely. Sam Siegel, our printing purchaser, saw that we got the most value for our money. The staff labored for many thousands of hours without remuneration. We believe that the result was worth the effort. The Journal provided a unique service to our members and, we hope, had a positive effect on our culture. Through it we were able to reach out to a community of artists and art lovers. Since then, we continued to do this through our expanded Classical Realism Newsletter which was written, edited and designed by Stephen Gjertson and produced by Gary Christensen.
During its seventeen year history the ASCR published five exhibition catalogs and three books (Richard F. Lack: An American Master, Timeless Treasure: The Art of Stephen Gjertson and On the Training of Painters, funding supplied by outside sources), six issues of the Classical Realism Quarterly, fifteen issues of the Classical Realism Journal, sixteen annual reports and eighteen newsletters.
In 1998 the ASCR received a $25,000 donation to create an endowment fund to provide scholarships to needy students attending a qualified atelier. From 1999 to the fall of 2001 the ASCR awarded scholarships to five students. They suffered a substantial loss to their student scholarship investment portfolio following 9/11 and were subsequently unable to award scholarships.
When the ASCR assumed the responsibility for publishing the Classical Realism Quarterly, the four hundred subscribers automatically became the first members of the Society. New members would receive the quarterly as part of their membership. Until sometime later, subscribers to the publications did not need to be ASCR members. Membership grew slowly. To be truly viable we needed 2,000 members. For years the ASCR consistently averaged 1,000 members—never enough to do more than survive. Our membership reached its highest point, about 1600 members, in the mid 1990s. During the ASCR’s seventeen years, over 10,000 people have been members or subscribers to the Classical Realism Journal and/or the Classical Realism Quarterly. We have had members in Austria, Canada, England, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Russia, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, as well as every state in the United States. We tried to increase our membership to a level that would have provided fundamental financial viability and security but continually fell short. Although we endeavored to be more inclusive, many people perceived our association with the Boston School as elitist and snobbish, a perception we were never been able to change. Some also thought our Guild of Artists was too exclusive, and many artist members dropped out when they realized that there was little or no opportunity to exhibit or be featured in our publications. ASCR membership slowly decreased. After the cessation of the Journal, memberships dropped significantly. By the fall of 2004 the organization had come full circle. Our membership was back to about four hundred.
The ASCR Staff
Getting by with a Little Help from our Friends
The ASCR began in Minneapolis and a small group of committed people from there kept it alive. Richard Lack, Gary Christensen, Stephen Gjertson and Journal editors Kurt Anderson, Rebecca Swanson and Peter Bougie did most of the work. They met regularly to discuss the Journal and ASCR policy. Writers for the Journal came from the colleagues, friends, students and professional contacts of these people. Additional help came from Katherine Lack, Steven Levin, Cyd Wicker, office manager Brian Lewis, printing purchaser Sam Siegel, accountant Thomas Schramer and many others, who helped with the Journal and served on various committees. A core of highly qualified contributors consistently supported the ASCR and wrote fine articles: Gerald M. Ackerman, Vern Swanson, PH.D., Glenn Terry and Kathryn Manzo. For their momentous effort our editors received a token stipend, but the majority of our staff and writers received no compensation for their work.
In 1997 after nine years as founding president of the ASCR, Gary Christensen stepped down to assume the role of executive administrator and publisher and let an artist be president. The Guild elected Allan Banks to take his place. Allan brought his own enthusiasm to the Society and helped present it to the public through the eyes of an artist. When he resigned as president of the ASCR in August 2003, Stephen Gjertson offered to step into the position if Kirk Richards would accept the vice-presidential nomination and act as exhibition chair. Richards accepted and the Guild voted them into office. They hoped to revitalize and enlarge the Guild of Artists, find more opportunities to exhibit and expand the newsletter for our remaining members. After two years of hard work, declining membership and dwindling resources they realized that this was an impossible goal. The ASCR had finally finished the race that it had been running for seventeen years—exhausted from the exertion, but content with a race well run. None of this would have been possible without the generous support of our many members, donors and benefactors throughout the years. A heartfelt thanks to each of you.
We owe a special debt of gratitude to Frederick C. Ross, whose consistent and generous support helped to fund the initial issues of the Classical Realism Journal, kept its head above water during tough times, paid for our advertising brochures and gave a major contribution toward this, our final, triple-issue ASCR Newsletter. He enabled our publications to begin, continue and end well.
The complete history of the ASCR is written in the pages of its annual reports and newsletters.