The New York School surfaces in Vermont
“I paint the way I do because I can keep on putting more and more things in – like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas of space. It doesn’t matter if it differs from mine, as long as it comes from the painting, which has its own integrity and intensity.” Willem de Kooning
Harry A. Rich may have been channeling Willem de Kooning when he created the more than two-dozen large, expressive canvases for his current solo exhibit at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery, or he may not. A notable alumnus of the New York School and one of The Irascibles who featured largely in the seismic shift that changed the international art scene in the middle of the last century, de Kooning is reputed to have famously said: “Not even for a million dollars would I paint a tree.”
Stereotypes are often miscast but they exist in the art world as they do everywhere else in life. Mention the term “Vermont art” in conversation and it often evokes images of cows and barns and bucolic landscapes. All of these done well have their own artistic merits; they present a tranquil, picturesque, orderly world comfortably captured within a frame.
Not so with the paintings of Harry A. Rich. They do not follow that form. He is a painter (he prefers ‘painter’ as opposed to ‘artist’) who has lived in Vermont for twenty years, but he is not a “Vermont painter” in the sense of the commonplace view. As a young art student in New York in the 1950s, Rich moved in the same circles as de Kooning and his peers. And in spite of the advertised theme of his current solo exhibit (The Vermont years so far…), art comes from within so only the creator of a piece can speak to its inspiration. The art then speaks for itself.
So I’ll leave the classification and categorization of his work up to the art experts, but one thing is certain however. Unless you create it in your mind’s eye, you won’t find a representational or figural tree, cow or barn in Rich’s paintings.
Even to a casual observer, his canvases are instantly recognizable as unique. They dominate the wall space. The colours are intense; they seem to generate their own luminosity. And if you stand in front of one for any length of time and concentrate you will begin to see art within art within art, the visual equivalent of exploring a rabbit hole.
Anyone attempting to fit the man himself into any singular category as either a painter/artist or a human being would be setting out on a fool’s errand, one probably unachievable.
I interviewed Harry Rich recently near where he lives in Sandgate, Vermont as he was in the final stages of preparation for the major three-month solo exhibit in the Montpelier gallery. And anyone attempting to fit the man himself into any singular category as either a painter/artist or a human being would be setting out on a fool’s errand, one probably unachievable.
Now in his eighth decade, Harry A. Rich is fiercely his own person; a one-off original in the iconoclastic mold. He is a large-framed, robust man who looks to be in excellent health. He has a powerful grip. To shake his hand is to grasp onto the elemental. He guards his privacy closely, however when he opens up he is a person of strong opinions, often contrarian, but these are usually impishly couched with a twinkling eye, so as not to give offense.
In the past, he has spoken of his admiration of a diverse cross section of painters whose styles differ widely. They include Richard Diebenkorn, Lousia Matthíasdóttir and Norman Rockwell. And even though he is widely acknowledged in his field as a Grandmaster of canvas, he is not only modest but self-deprecating about his work; a personal trait that stands out starkly as refreshing in today’s wallow of rampant narcissism and self-promotion.
All the paths one might follow into his life lead back to the art itself, which, in its entirety, spans more than a half century and defies offhand classification.
All the paths one might follow into his life lead back to the art itself, which, in its entirety, spans more than a half century and defies offhand classification. And the twenty-five paintings now showing at the Supreme Court Gallery are but a small cross-section of his life’s work.
Harry Rich has genealogical connections to one of the founders of Vermont, but that is where the state’s influence on his œuvre stops, by his own explanation. Just a short conversation with him will tell you that his work is creative output that can’t be bundled into any one geographic box regardless of how it might be packaged up for public display.
The paintings in this solo show speak to that nonconformity. They take the viewer galloping off visually into all corners of the imagination. He is emphatic about their origins, as painting coming from within the self.
“The work that I’ve done here, except for certain little things that have crept into the work, is what I would have done wherever I was. The qualifying, umbrella part of this is that it happened while we were in Vermont, for twenty years. It would have happened in Connecticut, or wherever we were, with a few little exceptions. And they’re not easy to articulate. By me, anyway. Other people will say differently maybe. For example, the lead painting, which is the theme painting, that’s the big painting that appears on the card and appears several other places is called: A busy day in Sandgate. Now obviously if I didn’t live in Sandgate, there wouldn’t be that title, but it would be basically the same painting (here, he laughs). It might have been a busy day in Colebrook, Connecticut, or whatever.”
At this juncture, Harry’s wife, Mallory Bratton Rich, who was present at the interview and is also a well-known painter, made a point about influence.
“May I interject? Two things. You became interested when you were living in Vermont, in the evolution of the state, of the physical landscape. In other words you’ve done a series of paintings on the glaciers, and what the glaciers created on the landscape. That’s one. Another is the influence of the mountains. And the fact that we are away from the city and the sky. The night sky particularly, is so apparent here. The stars. The atmosphere at night. It’s very, very different at night in Vermont from what it was in Connecticut. Even though we were in a rural area of Connecticut. That has had a real influence on your paintings. You’ve done a number of paintings that are directly taken from the mountains and the night sky, in Vermont.”
“All that’s true,” Harry said. “But, I would have done the same thing, just differently, wherever I was. And maybe I would have let something influence me. But influence is not a seminal part of this.”
Mallory wouldn’t let him off the hook.
“It could be though,” she said. “You could say that the paintings that exist have been partially influenced by your living in Vermont.”
““Yes,” he said. “But the concept that the locale is germane to what you do, that’s kind of an abstract idea. That’s what I do.”
She then posited that if they had been living in Connecticut, the paintings for the current solo show: “……would have been a whole different series of paintings.”
“True. I don’t dispute that at all,” he said. “But I like to see it as an abstraction, that whole concept as an abstraction, not as a specific thing. That Vermont trees changed the subject of my painting. I just don’t want, don’t like, to think about that.”
When it comes to painting and painters, and his place within their milieu, he has a deep well of knowledge and is fixed and firm in his judgment. This is grounded in not only his strong creative force but his formal art education and training at New York’s Pratt Institute. At one point during the interview I agreed with a comment that had been made about his work; that it could easily find a place in the revamped Biennale de Paris. He was quick to rebut this notion in no uncertain terms.
“Well no,” he said with emphasis. “Because what they are doing there is postmodernism. And I have no interest in postmodernism.”
Independent of mind and spirit that he is, Harry A. Rich clearly chafes when his art and technique is pushed and pulled and tugged and dissected by others to conform to a particular classification. There is no doubt that he would much prefer to leave the categorizing to someone else, because when I asked him about where he thought his work might fit on the spectrum of fine art he searched his mind for a bit before answering.
“Universal modernism,” he finally said. But when he spoke about his own work, there was an overall impatience with following that line of thinking.
“It is far from old-school modernism, however, as Rich’s journey into abstraction reveals his own stylistically fluid, fresh, and vibrant use of color and dimension.”
However the social psychology of the art world relies heavily on sorting the paintings into classifications of styles. A description of Harry Rich’s current solo exhibit advertised by the current Supreme Court Gallery says of his work: “It is far from old-school modernism, however, as Rich’s journey into abstraction reveals his own stylistically fluid, fresh, and vibrant use of color and dimension.”
In a separate interview with the curator of the Montpelier gallery, Justice Marilyn Skoglund, I asked her about the Rich exhibit, and how his paintings fit into her choice for a one-person show.
“I go around to a lot of galleries and openings, you know, in Stowe and Rutland and Brattleboro and all those places and I write down the names of artists that I like, whose work I find significant. There’s elegance and exuberance in some of the paintings and then a restrained subtlety in others and his use of colour is just, it’s vibrant, and it’s also, he’s got so many approaches to it, in his paintings.”
As to influences, although Harry A. Rich is definitely not a person to follow a herd, he does acknowledge the impact the group of artists who stood fine art on its head more than a half-century ago, had upon his own work. His formative years as a teenage art student were often spent in their company.
“Because if I have a positioning line, which I wouldn’t want to have, it would be that my paintings are grandchildren of The New York School. So that suggests that I think highly of the New York School.”
“When I was young and in New York City, the painters that I admired, there was only, at the most, maybe two-hundred. It was a very small community.”
His teachers at Pratt included James Brooks, Adolph Gottlieb and Jack Tworkov who all became associated with The New York School…
His teachers at Pratt included James Brooks, Adolph Gottlieb and Jack Tworkov who all became associated with The New York School and two of whom (Brooks and Gottlieb) signed the notorious open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that marked them as instigators and leaders of an entirely new art movement. Tworkov shared studio space with de Kooning. He left Pratt to become head of the MFA painting program at Yale University.
When Harry Rich speaks of his time as an impressionable young art student in that milieu, it is with the intensity of first love. Listening to him describe it, I almost became nostalgic for a time that I never knew but wished I could have been there to share the experience.
“I just happened to come up out of the subway in 1951 at the absolute high, most important point in the history of New York City art, and as it turned out, world art.”
“There’s been equally explosive times…there’s been in Paris…and recently in China…and Germany…in Berlin…but this was a really, really special time because American buyers, collectors were still going to Europe because they didn’t believe that American artists were good enough if they wanted to buy something. That all blew up during the late forties, the fifties and the first few years of the sixties. And I was in the middle of that.”
“Guys like de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. I was with them. I was just young and naïve and shy and stupid. I found out where they hung out, and I hung out there. The Cedar Bar and Tavern, Max’s Kansas City, the Tenth Street galleries, and began to go to openings, see these guys. I didn’t get friendly with them. I was too young, and they were too drunk, I mean this was a wild, drunken period, and perfectly accepted, because it was part of the rebellion.”
“And a couple of people who came over because of the war. Yves Tanguy, the surrealist, and the Bauhaus guys, Hans Hofmann, all those people.”
Harry Rich also studied design at Pratt, and for many years made his living in commercial art design, but right from his days as a young art student, his heart always turned to painting.
“What I cared about was what was going on in lower Manhattan on the east side. It was just a bunch of rebels, who had finally said ‘f- -k it’ we cannot make a living here, collectors won’t buy our stuff, they go to Europe or they go to London, or somewhere to buy art, so we’re going to do just what we want to do, because we’re starving anyway. And they were literally starving. And I identified with this group. Bill de Kooning, and his wife Elaine, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Jackson Pollock and his brother Sandy, and his other brother Charles. And Lee Krasner, who was Jackson Pollock’s wife.”
He chuckled when he spoke about the freewheeling attitude that the Manhattan rebels had about their work back then.
“There was a saying among the painters; if somebody sold a painting, that was suspect. There must be something wrong with it. Because you didn’t dig deep enough inside yourself.”
“And Joan Mitchell, who was one of the other few women to break through. There’s a wonderful quote….at the height of her career, about 1955, she said screw this, I’m going to Europe and live in France for the rest of my life because it’s all getting too commercial. We’re starting to make money. There was a saying among the painters; if somebody sold a painting, that was suspect. There must be something wrong with it. Because you didn’t dig deep enough inside yourself.”
In 2015, a de Kooning painting, Interchange, sold for $300 million to a hedge fund billionaire. In 2016, another de Kooning, Untitled XXV was sold at Christie’s auction in New York for $66.3 million.
Harry A. Rich’s paintings haven’t reached the stratospheric market levels of a de Kooning but they are priced for serious collectors. They hang on university, museum and foundation walls and in corporate board rooms and private collections.
There’s even a Canadian connection. One of his canvasses, Ode to Neibuhr, was selected for the cover image of: The Doctrine of Humanity in the Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by Kenneth Morris Hamilton, a book published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in Waterloo, Ontario.
But for Harry A. Rich, by his own words, his creativity, his output, is not about the geography. It’s only ever about the art.
“It’s deeply felt. And that’s where you want to go, making deeply personal paintings. You want to get through all the, not superficial, but the outer layers of yourself. You want to get inside. That’s what I am trying to do, and I would have done that anywhere.”
Harry A. Rich’s solo exhibition opened at Vermont’s Supreme Court Gallery on July 2nd, 2018 and will hang for public viewing until September 28th. REG
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