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Richard Lack (1928-2009): A Reminiscence

by Stephen Gjertson. Written on the occasion of Richard Lack’s 80th birthday.

Richard Lack in his studio, c. 1971.

It’s difficult to say anything about Richard Lack that I have not already stated in his biography or the essays on my student years and the ateliers of Gammell and Lack. I was one of the students in his first cohesive group—that is, the first group of students who studied with him for an extended period. In my case, from 1971-1975. Like so many of the students who came after us, we came to Mr. Lack from bitter and adverse experiences in colleges, universities and art schools; in some cases, from bad experiences with Ives Gammell himself. Ours was an experimental group, on which Mr. Lack was testing the method of study he learned from Gammell. In a sense, we also tested him: his patience and endurance with a group of frustrated students who already had definite views about art and the direction we wanted to take in our future careers. Nevertheless, we were all grateful to have found him, and without his instruction our work would now be amateurish and crude. He was always the consummate professional and treated us with respect, unless we acted in outlandish and rebellious ways. Then he would give us his advice and let us make our own decisions—unfortunately, more often than not, to our detriment.

The Concert, 1961. Oil on panel, 21 x 19. Maryhill Museum of Fine Arts, Goldendale, Washington.

In the thirty-five years since I left his atelier, I taught with him for sixteen years, exhibited with him in thirty shows and worked with him on the Classical Realism Quarterly, Journal and Newsletters. We helped organize the Twin Cities Guild of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers and were founding members of The ASCR Guild of Artists. I worked with him and Katherine both professionally and personally. I considered him my friend and colleague, as well as my former master. The more I reflect on the state of representational art during the second half of the last century, as well as its present state, the greater my opinion becomes of Richard Lack’s artistic achievement. The breadth and mastery of his work grows ever more clear. He was a great master, let no one doubt that. He was a master of every genre in which he worked, and he worked in all of the major genres of Western European art: still life, landscape, portrait, interior and exterior genre, and imaginative figure painting. He worked in oil, chalk, charcoal, pencil, pastel, watercolor and printmaking. From the beginning of his professional career, his work exhibited a breadth of vision and a thorough mastery and love of the painter’s art and craft. His best work in every genre compares favorably with similar work by the great masters of past centuries, not only in craft, for that can be learned by many talented students, but in artistry as well, and that is learned and applied by precious few.

During his career Lack was an outspoken defender of traditional art and sometimes a vitriolic critic of entrenched Modernism, a fact that caused many critics to hate him and to derogatively label his students “Lackies.” For good or ill, he reluctantly coined the term “classical realism” to differentiate the heirs of the Boston tradition from those in other traditions, and it has now passed into general use in reference to contemporary artists whose work stems from the Western tradition. If history is just, it will see Richard Lack as a dedicated husband and father, an exceptional artist, an influential teacher and writer, a generous friend, a champion of the art we all love, and a good man. That, at least, is how I see him.

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