PRINT May 1963

Rico Lebrun, An Interview

Q: I want to talk to you about how you feel living here—why did you come back from Italy this last trip? How did you feel in Yale? Why are you here and do you feel part of the California scene?

Lebrun: Things were difficult at Yale—too much snow, and too much Josef Albers. To have him a visiting critic in my classes turned out to be an unfair situation of which I had not been warned when I accepted the assignment, mostly because of the havoc it raised with the pupils. Surprisingly enough for a man of such aloof ideas in painting, on this particular occasion he behaved like a general in the Prussian army. After that, Italy looked good, even though for a while I felt like a stranger. I had left Italy in 1930; think of what happened between 1930 and 1959! But when I came back here I realized that this is the place for me, mostly because of the people who are part of my life, my friends. And then, I think that this area is getting more and more self-sufficient, and growing artistically at the same time. That is to say that in our world, the world of art, the place is producing many remarkable personalities.

Q: Well, you lived in New York and taught at the Art Student’s League. Weren’t you happy working there?

Lebrun: First of all that was a long time ago. Secondly, for some temperaments it might ultimately be good in the sense that if you are a joiner and are with the right crowd, and also have the talent and the intelligence, some qualities, which might be lost otherwise, would come to light more easily, and develop and improve the personality. The alliance and the friendship between de Kooning and Gorky was of tremendous value to de Kooning and I am sure that in a big place like New York they could have well passed unnoticed to each other except for a chance meeting. People of their persuasion were few and far between at that time. But in the long run I feel certain that for other temperaments, for a guy like me, for instance, it wouldn’t have been fruitful at all.

Q: Didn’t you feel that this was like a desert so many years ago when you came here?

Lebrun: Yes, but for me New York at that time was also a desert, and I wanted a change. The few painters I would see now and then at the League, Kuniyoshi, Alexander Brook and a few others, were not of real interest to me as artists.

Q: Many people feel, and I am sure it is true, that you have probably exerted more influence on the art of the West Coast than any other man in our times.

Lebrun: When you are the object of such a situation it is hard to assess things personally. On the visible evidence, yes, there has been a certain kind of imagery engendered by my being here. Some changes took place in the work of already promising painters around me, and of course I was also doing a great deal of teaching. William Brice, Howard Warshaw, Robert Chuey, Donald Stocks, Irving Silvey, were, and some still are, producing remarkable imagery with the human figure. Since these younger men have been with the figure all the time, modestly but with enormous valor, it has been their historical hard luck not to be hailed as having “returned to the figure.” They were, as I said, there, all the time. There seems to be a reluctance to mention them on the part of critics outside of California. However, I feel that this is a question of time. In my opinion their merits would amply justify sustained national recognition. Quite a few people already know about this; I mean people with some importance in the art world.

Q: Your influence here has made a lot of people aware of the fact that the figure can become a certain image with a special kind of power. I am talking now about your particular handwriting in figure imagery, which is well known and adapted by many. This may not even be a compliment. You may not like the idea that there may be thousands of little Rico Lebruns all over the place.

Lebrun: I am of course no more responsible for that than, say, Clyfford Still was for the avalanche of bright splashy nothings that deluged the Bay Area because of his having been there. There, as well as here, a few who had enough stamina and character of their own, worked their way through the embarrassing stage of imitation and came out as much better painters at the other end.

Q: I wonder if we aren’t placing too much emphasis on “The Figure as Art.” Just for the sake of discussion, do you think that the figure has anything more to do with art than an apple?

Lebrun: Whose figure and whose apple? A figure by Tintoretto and an apple by Cézanne? They are both visionaries; they are both about splendor. It isn’t right to say that Cézanne had more integrity because he was more “loyal” to his sensation. So was Tintoretto; his sensations were of another dimension. To me there is as much rapture and greatness in what Cézanne did to a painted apple as in what Tintoretto did to the body of Christ in the Crucifixion. Just as much. But not more. It has been the intellectual pose of our time, the contriteness of children who want to expiate past sins, to say that a little corner of Cézanne’s Bathers had more meaning than the Paradise of Tintoretto. That’s bombast in reverse.

Q: You have said that you are a loner. Is it possible that the imagery of, let us say, Diebenkorn, comes out of more recent kinds of influences that are hot, and that your ideas have grown more out of the Renaissance?

Lebrun: You are creating a vulnerable situation with that question, and I don’t know for whom. Does it mean that if you use data of recent vintage you are artistically more significant, and that, consequently, the further back you go in your affiliations with the past the less authentic you are? And as for being much alone, I take you to mean solitary because people accept more readily that special touch which is called contemporary. I don’t believe any of this is true; it is in fact disproved by evidence. I am serving a needed contemporary function when I resist the facile surface handling, broad and fluid and synthetic, which plagues so much of contemporary painting, camouflages so many mediocrities. My function as a contemporary is to be anti-ersatz. On the other hand, Diebenkorn as an artist surpasses by sheer talent what you called the hotter or more recent kind of influence, while I, in my own way, can give the more “remote” influences a hell of a run for their money. There are times when the poor old dear influences are being kicked around so hard that they wish to God they had never been called in to help!

Q: The point isn’t really whether a Lebrun figure is as much a work of art or more a work of art than a Diebenkorn figure, but the fact that you are both very powerful and dynamic artists, affirming your own unique significances. What interests me here is the significance the figure really holds for you—since, obviously you are very preoccupied with it and its symbolism.

Lebrun: That is really very hard to say without its sounding like a defense or a program. But, anyway, I feel that we all have inherent in us the capacity for free assembly, free association of ideas, daydreaming without the impediments of reality. But I am also convinced that past a certain point the ample and vague gestures, the impressive but vacuous swirls of, say, action painting, are so ample that they lose identity of meaning. So the big gesture deteriorates into congenital idiocy for lack of support from other parts of the body and of the mind. It is like the uncriticizable and unassailable smile of the mentally retarded. This kind of world promises so much, and all with the same high sounding introduction to its prospective wonders, that I have time and again endorsed it as a temporary gesture of liberation. You can whistle in the dark—we all know that—when you are lost—but you can also whistle in the light tonalities and you are just as lost. However, I become really interested when the meaty and surgical brush stroke stops playing the silly symphonies of phony continuums and hits something—in my case, preferably, the body, the figure. The figure then becomes a sum total of urgent demands and how you permit the continuous flow of execution, the tissue of the painting itself to coincide and service those demands, in other words to reveal the figure, is up to you.

Q: Do you equate “realism” with some kind of figure imagery?

Lebrun: Realism? Why should figure and realism be synonymous? No, I am implying only that the figure as a subject has an undeniable authenticity because we are physically and actually one and the same with it. I even believe that if I had to paint a landscape—a thing I propose to do in the near future—I would do best if I kept in mind or felt with my senses the organic relationships between the structure of rocks, trees and river, and the entity of the human body which is also forest, river and mountain.

Q: Then you are really painting, I mean this in the broadest sense, the same figure over and over.

Lebrun: That is right. But Jackson Pollock, supposedly completely “delivered” from the figure, also kept doing the same thing over and over again, because the anatomical limitations dictated the very gestures of himself as a man painting a picture. A horse trampling all over his canvas and rolling on it would create an entirely different map; but it would be a map of a quadruped and also always the same.

Q: It is almost like a medieval religious mystic who has an obsession to concretize a spiritual yearning.

Lebrun: Possibly; at least, as you express it, it makes good literature. But in actual fact, this yearning is no guarantee for revelations, and it can lead, because of its exalted character, to pathetic pretense or at least to what I call the impressive ersatz, the vivid nonsense. For example, in the world of drawing, and by this I mean generally in the world of form, Picasso has pleased himself by sensationally dislodging features of, say, a head, so that a certain kind of animation was achieved. You know—the eyes on the same side of the face. Those are kindergarten demonstrations of what drawing can do, but not of what the figure is. Such subterfuges, to be clear, do nothing but illustrate one more side, one more profile, as insufficient as the single profile against which Picasso rebelled. Velasquez, carefully keeping the eyes and other features breathtakingly where they belonged, changes the usual into the hallucinatory. Likewise in sculpture the simplifications of Brancusi and Arp seem enormously sophisticated and imbued with high intelligence until one has a chance to examine carefully, beside them, a fragment of Praxiteles. Then one realizes that the Greek notion of compounded, multiple profiles was and is the acme of intellectual sophistication; an art which was not paying for the sins of the past with penitential measures; not against anything, but for the production of some terrestrial objects in stone which are no more streamlined than a planet is. Greek sculpture breaks up like grapes when it falls to the ground; it is then that the fragments reveal their affinity with the earth—they become anonymous and they still reflect the love lavished on them when they were whole.

Q: Love? Isn’t is true that you butcher the figure, you drastically fragment it sometimes?

Lebrun: To make it whole, to make it full, to make it “hang together” when it doesn’t come to me that way, when my time doesn’t give it to me that way, would be untrue and in a way it would be dishonoring it. I am contemporary exactly in this sense; that, having the gift and the means to mend, simplify the image, to give it a reassuring face, I refuse to do so in the face of the social evidence. The evidence is not what the “school of arts,” but what the world does to the image of man. When I drew, in my early years, the so-called neo-baroque figures, all I had to do was to sit down and whistle and the drawings would appear on the page. I wasn’t talking about any human condition then; I was talking about an acceptable aspect of the art of drawing; I was versatile, and it was easy. But nowadays I find that the geography of the figure has separations and interruptions which cannot be glossed over by swift brush stroke or a connecting line. And in that, you see, is the quarrel with the very family of masters I had adopted for my own in my early years. They sang it so pure and so loud and so round that I had to oppose my own halt, my own shocked hesitation against their notion of the figure which was pure and without idiosyncrasies. In an enormous way, perhaps, the same thing happened to Rembrandt when he began to observe the idiosyncrasies of the human body as a revelation of drama. But in my own slow way I am after giving shape to a bloody and bony parcel bearing the imprint of trouble because, as I execute, I am doubting the very destiny of that image as I do the very destiny of man. In a world that has rendered it featureless how can I invent the features? I come to an approximation, or to a sum total of approximation; anatomical movement has disappeared, but there is I think a mobility of a new kind of form that is happening.

Q: When you reach for your dark, for your black crayon, or black paint—there is this great feeling for black in your work—the Caravaggio or Zurburan black, or whatever one might call it—how does your need for color manifest itself?

Lebrun: If I started singing the praise of black I would certainly sound superstitious to you. But I adore black which contains all color, and dislike painted things which are sky-color, flesh color and candy-color. But do you seriously think Dufy or Matisse superior to the black Goyas, or the sedate, pearly Velasquez? For that matter, in our time, Kline managed a quality of affirmation in his black which very few contemporary colorists can rival. Anyhow, the color I do use (when I do), is inside, body color, color inside the fruit, color before the “plain air” bleaches it out. I admit, this is for me very hard to handle, possibly because I keep demanding of it an authenticity which is anti-decoration—it keeps getting darker through the overlapping of many intensities, and it gets into black because I have a lot of sight in the dark. But all these things spoken out away from the work sound portentous, where within the framework of the studio, they seem very logical. And to go back to the question of color, deep, or black, or high keyed, I shall ask you an operatic question. Are tenors the only legitimate singers in the world? Or is a good basso necessary now and then? Occasionally, of course, one gets curious about the kind of role one is playing and the kind of function one is serving. I can only repeat what I frequently say to my friends when they ask me why I put in such long work days at my studio. My answer is that someone has to be there in case something happens. Someone has to take care of a particular corner on the work bench, and I think I know best the corner for which I am responsible. No one else but I could possibly be there doing it. And of course it isn’t always free from a feeling of isolation.

In view of the fact that hundreds of artists, young and old, but particularly the “vanguard,” are being systematically destroyed by being patronized, the notion of being ignored and being left alone sounds almost cozy. Yes, think of the spiritual devastation of a Pop Art boy setting out to Inflict a Mortal Wound on Mother Art and Society, by showing that Existence is Tragi-Comic, and being instead promptly accepted, deprived of the fun of shooting it out with the mob—his only alternative is to run on to something else, or perish by acknowledgement.

Q: Turning to your sculpture, do you consciously translate your drawings into sculpture or did you suddenly feel a need to work in volume?

Lebrun: I got to the stage where even the most developed drawing was not enough. I would push into the paper, scrape down, add sections of collage—but it did not seem to be responding to a new need I had. It is only very recently that I put in some serious sessions in sculpture. It has all taken place very recently, and I am very anxious to overcome the initial technical impediments which are not many and not of a very complex nature so as to be able to get to the point where I ask sculpture to show me some new possibilities, a new part of myself which I had never paid much attention to. Unless it does that, I am not really interested in translating some already existing drawings into bronze. What for? The best part of this whole game is after all the amount of vigor you bring in tackling your whole self and bringing it down to a thumping fall if that is in the cards. Getting up again is usually a wonderful excuse to start things all over as if nothing had happened before, not even your own “reputation,” not even your own “importance.”