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Richard F. Lack: A Legacy Remembered

A tribute given by Stephen Gjertson at the memorial for Richard Lack, November 1, 2009.

The Italian Hat, 1955. Oil on canvas, 24 x 19. Lack family collection.

I have been asked to share a few words on behalf of those who benefited from the public legacy of Richard Lack, a legacy that he shared with us through his art, his teaching and his influence. But before I begin, I would like to thank his wife, Katherine, whose sympathetic partnership with Richard made everything that he accomplished for the rest of us possible. She encouraged him, gave him invaluable advice on his art, and kept Atelier Lack running smoothly and efficiently, even during hard times.

Richard Lack made a crucial – an indispensable – difference in the lives of many people. On learning of Richard’s death, the response from those of us who had the good fortune to study with him for a prolonged period was almost unanimous: without him we wouldn’t be artists or, if we were, we wouldn’t be doing as good work. Many of us had attended art schools or universities where we had been frustrated and discouraged. Finding Richard Lack, and being admitted into his atelier, was one of the most significant and life-changing events in our lives and it laid the foundation for our careers as professional painters.

Evening; Jet Trails, 1963. Oil on canvas, 24 x 36. Collection of Diane Israel.

Richard Lack established Atelier Lack in 1969 because he was grateful for the education that he had received from Ives Gammell in the early 1950s and he wanted to give other young people a similar opportunity. He realized that any trade, any art form, will die out in one generation if it isn’t passed on to the next. He also realized the obvious fact that those who taught had to be able to do what they taught and that their teaching would only rise to the level of their own ability. In this we were extremely blessed. Richard Lack worked in every major genre and medium in Western art: still life, portrait, indoor and outdoor genre, landscape, and imaginative figure painting.

He worked in oil, pastel, chalk, charcoal, pencil, watercolor, etching and aqua-tint. He experimented with mediums and methods and made his own frames, from raw molding to gilding and finishing. The wonder, however, wasn’t that he did all of this, but that he did it so well. The best work that he created in every genre and in every medium will stand favorably next to the best work of the past. That by itself is an incredible legacy of which we, his students and friends, are the beneficiaries.

Reuben Berman, M.D., 1978. Oil on canvas, 35 x 30. Berman Center for Clinical Research, Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis.

The essence of Lack’s teaching was training the student to “see”. By see, I mean the arduous process of getting the eye to perceive the shapes, values and color of nature. Technical skill develops along with the student’s ability to perceive these relationships. Richard Lack gave his students the eye to see and the technical language to render what he referred to as “the visible world”. Paul DeLorenzo, one of his first students, told me that he built his career on one practical critique from Richard Lack that opened his eyes. But training the eye is only the beginning of the artist’s education. The ultimate goal is to train artists who are able to create lasting works of art. Lack used to say that great art was like a bird with two wings. One wing was truth to nature; the other wing was composition, design and expression. If either wing was missing or weak, the bird—art—was unable to rise above the level of mediocrity. With both wings in place, art could soar into the realm of excellence.

Ray Mithun, 1982. Oil on canvas, 48 x 36. Private collection.

These artistic essentials — sophisticated seeing and harmonious design — were an indispensable part of the tradition that Richard Lack inherited from Ives Gammell and about which he was continually passionate. He often emphasized to us that ours was a “superior tradition”. He didn’t mean that in an arrogant way, or in a way that demeaned other traditions; he was simply trying to make us understand the enormous value of the artistic tradition that we inherited. I realize that I’m preaching to the choir but, briefly, this tradition was a way of seeing and rendering nature that came from 19th century France, through Jean-Léon Gérôme, and the Boston impressionists, through William McGregor Paxton. It is this dual tradition that makes it unique. It is superior because the 19th century French artists had developed the most comprehensive system for teaching drawing and form and the Boston painters had perfected the rendering of color and atmosphere to a degree seldom equaled in the history of art. The best of the Boston artists, like a few others throughout art history, practiced a way of seeing that was more than the mere perceiving and recording of unrelated detail, but rather the broad observation of the parts in relation to the whole. This sophisticated way of viewing nature sets this tradition apart from those that are overly concerned with the minute rendering of detail and little concerned with the actual color of nature.

Susanna, 1976. Oil on canvas, 76 x 38. Lack family collection.

Fundamental to the French and Boston tradition is a striving after beauty: beauty of drawing, design, color and workmanship. This distinguishes our tradition from the ugliness of much contemporary realism. In 1982, Richard Lack coined the phrase “Classical Realism” to distinguish this twofold Boston tradition from others. Passing on this artistic heritage was important to Richard Lack because it embodied the best qualities and highest standards of representational art that were nearest to our time, and it provided a foundation upon which contemporary painters could create a truly modern art. We in this room recognize the mastery and innovation of the work he created on this foundation. It is our conviction that future generations will also recognize this achievement and give him the esteem he so richly deserves.

Golden Apples of the Sun, 1987. Oil on panel, 63 x 37. Collection of Kraig and Rachael Lungstrom.

I was having lunch with Richard sometime during my final year as a student. We got to discussing students and teachers because, as students are wont to do, we had been complaining that we would rather have been studying with Gérôme or Bouguereau or Ingres rather than with him. He said that he had been in the same boat: that he would rather have studied with Rubens or Titian or Veronese than with Ives Gammell. He went on to say that most students complain about their teachers and blame them for their own shortcomings. The important thing, he said, is to do the best you can with what you get and then study the work of the masters you admire and build your art on that foundation. This is what he had tried to do and what all great artists had done.

I know that there were many times throughout the years when disasters (such as the destruction of the school by fire), various financial setbacks and problems with students discouraged Richard Lack to the point where he seriously considered closing his atelier. However, he never lost sight of his original motivation for establishing the school: to train painters to paint good pictures. His strong sense of responsibility and concern for the plight of young students such as me kept him from closing the doors until he was no longer able to teach. Robert Douglas Hunter, one of Lack’s fellow students in Boston, recently made this observation about the teaching legacy of Richard Lack:

“Many of his former pupils are mature, wonderful painters today. Of these men and women, a good number are teaching in their own ateliers throughout the world and continuing to train students in the art of painting. It is for this aspect of Dick’s career that we all owe him our deepest respect. . . . His was a life of great value.”

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