Lennart Anderson, Painter Who Put Modern Twist on the Masters, Dies at 87

October 21, 2015

By WILLIAM GRIMES
October 20, 2015

Lennart Anderson, one of the most prominent and admired painters to translate figurative art into a modern idiom, died on Thursday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 87.

The cause was prostate cancer, his daughter Jeanette Wallace said.

Mr. Anderson brought a deep understanding of masters like Piero della Francesca, Velázquez, Poussin and Degas to his still lifes, portraits, landscapes and streetscapes, while applying a modern twist that lifted them from the common run of academic realism.

The Chardinesqe “Still Life With Corn Popper, Salt Shaker and Buns,” one of his best-known paintings, from the early 1990s, presents the viewer with an array of humble objects on a kitchen table that includes — like a gate-crasher at a private affair — a Jiffy Pop pan with its tinfoil cover fully puffed out.

His streetscapes likewise conveyed the still timelessness of a classical tableau by Piero while addressing contemporary subject matter, a fusion that often drew comparisons to the Polish-born French artist Balthus. His “Street Scene,” from the early ’60s, depicts a child’s sidewalk accident, with adults racing to the scene, gesticulating wildly, and a young girl bursting through the front door of an apartment building, her mouth frozen in a horrified O.

For a generation of figurative artists, many of whom studied with him atBrooklyn College, Mr. Anderson, a master colorist whose surfaces displayed a virtuosic touch, was an inspirational figure: an artist working outside the dominant trends in contemporary art, steadfast in his allegiance to his chosen masters.

Reviewing Mr. Anderson’s “Idylls,” an ambitious series of tableaus that he worked on for decades, Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Observer in 2001, “In a saner art world than ours, museums would be vying for the honor of mounting a major retrospective of Mr. Anderson’s work, but that is not something likely to happen anytime soon.”

Anders Lennart Anderson was born on Aug. 22, 1928, in Detroit, where his father worked as a patternmaker for Ford. Two drawings, he once said, made a deep impression on him as a child: one by his father, of a worker chained to his workbench, the other by his mother, who, to amuse him and his brother, copied the figure of Johnnie Walker from a whisky ad in the newspaper.

Itching to make art, he nagged his father to buy him a set of oil paints. He began drawing and painting from the model at an early age at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the school of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts.

“Anything that was painted interested me,” he said in an interview with the art historian Jennifer Samet in 2002. “It could be the stupidest calendar art. If it was put down with paint, I would cross the street to see it.”

After graduating from Cass Technical School, whose commercial-art program funneled students into Detroit’s auto plants, Mr. Anderson won a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1950.

At the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Mich., where he earned a master’s degree in fine art in 1952, he fancied himself an Expressionist in the vein of Oskar Kokoschka. “I painted horrendous subjects — dead babies, trash heaps, prostitutes,” he told Ms. Samet.

The fever quickly passed. He turned to portraits, still lifes and street scenes, adhering to a cool, restrained palette. His color warmed up considerably in the three years he spent at the American Academy in Romebeginning in the late 1950s. A few years before Rome, he had moved to New York, where he studied briefly with Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students League.

Mr. Anderson was given a solo show in 1962 at the cooperative Tanager Gallery on 10th Street in Manhattan, a hopping-off point for many young artists at the time, usually Abstract Expressionist painters. Reviewing his work at the Graham Gallery, on Madison Avenue, for The New York Times a year later, John Canaday noted Mr. Anderson’s “intense reserve,” a quality that put him at odds with most of his abstractionist contemporaries, and praised him as “a young painter who engages himself with the stiffest of competition, the competition of the past, and gives every promise of being able to meet it.”

In 1974, Mr. Anderson’s gallery, Davis and Long (now Davis and Langdale), mounted a retrospective of his work. Three years later he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1992 he was given his first big museum show, at the Delaware Art Museum.

He taught at several schools, including Pratt Institute, the Art Students League, Yale, Princeton and Columbia. But he was most closely associated with Brooklyn College, where he taught from 1974 to 2004.

In the early 2000s, after Mr. Anderson began experiencing macular degeneration of his eyes, he could paint only with extreme difficulty.

In addition to his daughter Jeanette, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce: a daughter, Eliza Anderson, and a son, Orrin. Other survivors include a brother, Sigfrid, and three grandchildren. His second wife, Barbara Stenglein-Anderson, died in 2002.

For many years, beginning in the late 1970s, Mr. Anderson labored over three large-scale acrylic paintings he called “Idylls.” Influenced by Poussin, they depicted scenes of pastoral bliss, with maidens and garlanded youths dancing to the strains of a guitar.

“The idyll should never go out of style,” he told Newsweek in 1982. “The further we are from an Arcadian scene, the more meaningful it is and we should find ways to paint it.

Besides, the subject is not just classical. It is air, flesh and sky, and all the great art of the past which had those things in it.” The paintings, endlessly revised, were always referred to as works in progress.

Like so many of his paintings, they were assertively unfashionable and almost emblematic of his semi-outsider status. Reflecting on New York in the 1950s in an interview with the website paintingpercerptions.com in 2013, Mr. Anderson recalled living on the same block with artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

“They are history, but I’m not history,” he said. “It’s just the way I am. I’m not unfriendly, but I feel like I’ve always been hunkered down, you know? I’ve got something I want to do, or try to do, and am working to get by.”

Originally published by The New York Times