New York

Lawrence Vail

Noah Goldowsky Gallery

My suspicion is that the more firmly entrenched our nationalist myth becomes—Abstract Expressionism as the protean style of new art—the more will grow in stature those figures who presently fill in the swells and hollows of the petites histoires. In this connection, the new positioning of Lawrence Vail (1891–1968) is exemplary. Still known by an audience of aficionados, Vail’s work is now being considered in terms isolated from the piquant details of his biography. 

For the most part, Vail’s interest has been tied to our curiosity with the Surrealist roots of Abstract Expressionism—not so much because these roots in Vail’s case provide important formal clues to the morphology of Abstract Expressionism, but because they tie into our fascination with private history. After all, Vail was twice husband—to Peggy Guggenheim and Kay Boyle—and four times father. Perhaps the most famous child being Pegeen—Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter—about whom an elaborate tragic narrative, culminating in suicide, still circulates. 

Throwing off the illustrational academic ism of his painter father, the saloniste Eugene Lawrence Vail, meant that the son adopted Surrealism, the most seemingly outrageous social and artistic cause of the period between the two wars. Surrealism afforded Vail the syntax—stream of consciousness automatism—by which his artistic composition (even as sculpture) could be liberated from an essentially frontal predisposition to become that of the actual macrocosmic allover. In particular terms, neither lbram Lassaw, for example, nor Jackson Pollock himself, for that matter, is thinkable without the work of Lawrence Vail—at least insofar as a theory of Vail’s work embodies stellar and galactic structural models. Vail’s sculpture remains ambiguous because at this moment the theory of Abstract Expression ism is of a greater critical acuity than I expect would be congenial to the artist, at least in my recollection of him in his last years. 

Lawrence Vail equated personal liberty with absence of theory, the hallmark of all Expressionist sensibility. His work, therefore, was, to his mind, largely a function of the startling juxtapositions of organic and mechanical detritus brought together in ironic celebration of life and the rejection of culture, but in equal resistance to ideology. 

This aspect satisfies at least one element of an argument favoring something essentially American in him. To Vail’s work accrues those special areas of the American experience characterized not by technological savoir faire, but by the journeyman traditions of the folk artist and the tinkerer. In this light alone, Lawrence Vail’s work is no more or less interesting but equally American as, say, the shell crafter, the beadworker, and the raffia master. It is a stream of consciousness crafts rendered fascinating by its unanticipated Archimboldo-like juxtapositions and configurations. From this aspect of the work—an aspect central to Surrealist structure of an automatic strain—the image of Vail as the dissipated and aged expatriate naïf will be transformed into the heroic savant, the revolutionary as ideologue. Neither is probably true. 

Robert Pincus-Witten