Having His Day
EXHIBIT: "A Lucien Day Retrospective," oils and watercolors. Helen Day Art Center, Stowe. Through April 2.
ARTWORK: "In Chelsea New York" by Lucien Day
"We are not alone in attempting to resuscitate meaning," artist Lucien Day wrote back in 1970. That line, lifted from a promotional piece for the Green Mountain Gallery he founded in New York City, no doubt referred to the realistic approach exhibited by Day and his fellow gallery artists. In the face of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and numerous other 20th-century movements that paralleled Day's 65-year career in art, he never wavered from his exacting approach.
At the SoHo gallery he directed from 1968 to 1979, Day provided "a lively forum and intellectual center for contemporary painters with realist tendencies," says Mickey Myers, executive director of the Helen Day Art Center. That Stowe gallery is currently honoring him with a retrospective of his enchanting and occasionally brilliant work, produced in Vermont and New York City between 1950 and 1998.
A Connecticut native born in 1916, Day graduated from Yale in 1939 -- he was the "Class Poet" -- then studied painting at the Cran-brook Academy of Art in Michigan. Through visits to An American Place -- the New York gallery operated by photographer Alfred Stieglitz from 1929 to 1946 -- he became familiar with such influential artists as John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth.
After serving in the Army during World War II, on the Pentagon's China Desk, Day made a home in Craftsbury, and began a long dual existence in small-town Vermont and New York City. His first substantial exhibition was at the Fleming Museum in 1949.
Among Day's earliest pieces in the current HDAC exhibit are watercolor depictions of two Vermont towns, Hardwick and Albany, from the early 1950s. In contrast to fellow Vermont artist Francis Colburn -- only nine years his senior -- Day was clearly influenced by modernists of the Stieglitz Circle rather than social realism. Day's 1965 oil "Tamaracks" has open, lacy brushwork akin to that in Marin's landscapes of the Adirondacks. But more importantly, the painting exemplifies a "search for form" that is pervasive in Day's works. It's as if he approached each picture plane without the slightest preconceived idea.
Day's views of New York architecture are similarly unbiased, as seen in the vertical watercolor diptych "Trade Center Towers Under Construction" from 1972 and 1987's "Carnegie Hall."
During the 1970s and 1980s, Day experimented with shaped canvasses and original approaches to perspective. "Early Snow" is a watercolor mounted on wood; its seemingly organic curvature adds dimensionality to the wintry landscape. Two oils in the show have two paneled, flat surfaces that meet at acute angles, creating "folded" effects and jarring perspective. Day features Vermont and New York City, respectively, in the pieces "Fall" and "Folded Third Avenue." Though he was enamored of city and country, however, Day did not try to portray both environments simultaneously in his artwork. An artist of two worlds, his views of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and the Big Apple are equally fresh.
In addition to land- and cityscapes, the HDAC retrospective includes many portraits in watercolor and oil. "In Chelsea New York" is the blurred portrait of a woman breast-feeding her baby, wearing a somewhat anxious expression. A large-scale painting entitled "Aloneness" has three figures walking without seeming to engage each other; surrounded by the pale negative space of sandy ground and washed-blue sky, they seem to float. Day's approach to painting humans is complex; his figurative works are less descriptive likenesses than poetic sketches searching for inner details.
Enhancing the retrospective are works by some of Day's colleagues from the defunct Green Mountain Gallery -- Rudy Burckhardt, Lois Dodd, Margaret Grimes and Marjorie Kramer -- as well as pieces by Fairfield Porter, Rackstraw Downes, Alex Katz and Sam Thurston. Their works illustrate common aesthetic sensibilities. Vermonter Thurston's "Pot with Blue Trees" is a rectangular vessel with brushwork that shares Day's painterly veracity; a bowl attributed to Margaret Grimes has a spatial curvature akin to Day's watercolor-on-shaped-wood, "Early Snow."
Since 1992, the Vermont Arts Council has been granting annual "lifetime achievement in the arts" awards to the state's most accomplished cultural figures. Eighty-eight-year-old Lucien Day, who still lives in Craftsbury, should be the next recipient.