New York

John Lees

Claude Lantier, a fictional painter, fated to never complete a work, whom Émile Zola depicts in his novel l’Oeuvre (1886), has long been assumed to be based on Cézanne, a characterization that led to an irreparable break between the supreme artist of the modern era and the great realist writer who was Cézanne’s closest boyhood friend and earliest champion. One cannot help but remember this painful fait divers now that John Lees, one of the grandest eccentrics of modern American painting, is at last having a show.

Lees, both as painter and draftsman, has ever been unable—is doubtless unwilling—to finish a work. This dilatoriness has fostered a curious underground celebrity that has percolated for years, longer even than it takes this veteran figure not to bring a work to completion. Among the strange details of Lees’s practice is the inscription of a marginal or dorsal record of dates that clock when the work began, when it was put aside, and when it was taken up again. Such marginalia indicate years of painting and revision, of time taken neither to finish nor quite abandon a work (both options, it seems, that Lees could never exercise).

Two things occur while working over such extended time frames: With regard to painterly concerns, Lees’s minute, hesitant, incremental strokes of color are scraped down and rebuilt, developing inconclusive crusts of pigment that protrude off the surface to produce a kind of calloused quasi-relief. In his drawings, Lees reverses the additive processes of pen and pencil through insistent erasure, obliterating the paper’s surface often down to the fiber—erasure as the very mirror of drawing. Such increments and decrements underscore the sheer materiality of Lees’s work, leading to the false hope that white crusts of paint will convey a sense of luminosity despite all the tinted roseate blush. Still, several white paintings are touching affairs recalling the staggered spatial registers of Chinese sumi ink landscapes of the Sung and Ming dynasties. Far stronger is the impression that the memory of a print by Dutch Golden Age artist Hercules Seghers may underlie Lees’s work; or, more markedly, the influence of James Ensor, though the maelstrom studies of Leonardo certainly come to mind as well, as do the tousled treetops of Fragonard’s drawings executed at the Villa d’Este.

You would think, from such classy references, that Lees’s subject matter is reverential of high art. Quite the contrary; Lees is a baggy-pants, falling-down clown. He shares with R. Crumb a weakness for self-deprecating, sad-sack porn. Lees frets over Hollywood minutiae—the arcana of film noir, say—the kind of reclusive overspecialization typical of the obsessive personality. For example, he bestows upon Ann Savage—a tough cookie of ’40s cheapies—the kind of cultish adoration with which Joseph Cornell enshrines better-known movie stars such as Lauren Bacall.

Instead of finding the essential contour of his esoteric images—the ambition of artists who work from the approximate to the specific—Lees’s painting bogs him down. He moves, as it were, from the general to the general despite the tortuous route. (This is far less true of his extraordinarily sensitive drawings.) Lees’s heads—those of his wife, Ruth, say, or of a Dick Tracy–like private eye, or of Porky Pig—are spiritually closer, in their static formality, to the Faiyum portrait or Byzantine icon than to the representational traditions of Florentine disegno. Suggesting the unearthed shards of a lost Pompeian fresco, Lees’s betimes comedic and eloquent works sound elegiac, even tragic notes. This stick-in-the-mud sticks in the mind.

Robert Pincus-Witten