New York

Jack Beal, Envy, Self-Portrait with Hat, 1977, oil on canvas, 26 x 22".

Jack Beal, Envy, Self-Portrait with Hat, 1977, oil on canvas, 26 x 22".

Jack Beal

Jack Beal, Envy, Self-Portrait with Hat, 1977, oil on canvas, 26 x 22".

“Imitation is natural to man from childhood,” Aristotle wrote in Poetics, which is why it is “natural for all to delight in works of imitation.” This remains true even for objects that are “painful to see,” such as “the forms . . . of the lowest animals and of dead bodies.” There are no dead bodies in Jack Beal’s imitations—unless one counts the memento-mori skull in Self-Portrait with Anatomy No. 3, 1986–87—but there is an animal, if not the lowest, in Still Life with Cat, 1999. Indeed, the subjects of most of Beal’s paintings are conventionally delightful, such as the flowers in Still-Life with Anemones, 1962; Self-Portrait with Daffodils, 1982; and Self-Portrait with Rudbeckias and Daylilies, 1998, among others. This show—a memorial exhibition following the artist’s death this past September at the age of eighty-two—included a total of twenty-one oil works produced from 1962 through 2011.

Beal’s paintings deal with what Erich Auerbach, in his influential 1953 study, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, called “the peace of daily life,” the world of “domestic realism”—that is, a seamless everydayness, a sort of insularity, a hermeticism that precludes, even denies, tragedy. In Still Life with Girl, 1966, and Sondra on Chair, 1968, the human figures are as much domestic objects as the chairs in which they rest. Stillness pervades Beal’s world, which seems at everlasting peace with itself, even when it is wetly painted—that is, when it has assimilated Abstract Expressionism—or when it suggests the influence of hard-edge painting. However stubbornly and fastidiously realistic Beal’s work seems to have been, he was clearly aware of the artistic developments going on around him. That he was adds spice to his realism, a modest intensity to the overall stillness.

Is Beal’s world really so untroubled and free of subjective feelings? The artist once lived in New York, where he helped found the New York Academy of Art in 1982, but moved to the country, perhaps because he felt his realism had no place in the art world, perhaps to escape the city’s frenetic pace—which is slowed down in The Return of Spring, 1997, a study for a mosaic for the Times Square subway station. (It was installed after 9/11; its stately figures contrast with the actual crowds that rush through the station.) But Beal’s retreat to nature was incomplete, because, as his many self-portraits show, he always had to deal with his own all-too-human nature. Envy, Self-Portrait with Hat, 1977, is the giveaway work, an insightful self-portrait that is a psychological masterpiece. Beal gazes outward, his visage filling the canvas and forcing itself upon us. His face rests on his right hand in the classic attitude of melancholy—and perplexity—a pose traceable to Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514.

Whom did Beal envy, even though he was surrounded by the blessings of nature? Was he envious of other artists, especially trendier ones? Or was his envy based on something deeper, something darker? In many cases, realistic art is made less in an effort to understand the appearance of a perceived object than to discover its meaning. Realizing his own envy, Beal here suggested its inescapable reality.

Donald Kuspit