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Ironic Realism: The Larry Day Retrospective in Philadelphia

Unlike most realists, who celebrate the world’s material presence, Larry Day seems as concerned to capture palpable absence in his work: something unseen, yet powerfully implicit. His mature paintings and drawings expressed his singular ascetic reserve,  a sensibility that managed to juggle American precisionism and pittura metafisica. In such subjects as a quotidian back-alley, a charades party, a poker game there is an awareness that transcends the everyday in suspended moments of painterly reflection.

Day, who died in 1998 in his late seventies, was a doyen of the Philadelphia scene. A great conversationalist with a strong capacity for sustaining friendships, he was a beloved teacher, mentor and friend to more than four decades of artists. A selection of his astute, subtle writings on art is included in the catalogue of this three-venue retrospective of nearly 150 works, guest curated by David Bindman. Divided by theme between the institutions, the exhibition spans the 1950s to the 1990s with cityscapes at Arcadia University, figure compositions at the Woodmere Art Museum and abstract works at the University of the Arts, where Day taught for many years. Cumulatively, the exhibition explicates his dialogue with art past and present.

UArts presents Day’s Abstract-Impressionist work from the 1950s and early ‘60s when he was very much part of the social world of the New York School. The theatrical “bowing” of Ab-Ex painting was replaced in Day’s work by a deft, subtle pizzicato of interlocking color passages suggestive of foliage—as in Abstraction, (1958)—possessing a contemplative emotive presence. In a parallel body of abstract paintings Day’s work in this era employed a syntax derived from Willem de Kooning in 1949-50. The standout in this idiom is Landscape for St. John of the Cross, (1955).

Such works established his initial reputation, but by 1962 he was dissatisfied with what he was doing and began defining a post-abstract realism. This was not an abandonment of modernism, but an embrace of its contradictions. In the Arcadia show, Absent Presence, we see Day extending and deepening his interest in structural invention in the interplay of buildings in a back alley or a construction site, which could provoke a reverie of a miniature universe. This could be a view of an ideal city, but at other times Day could evoke a melancholy, nihilistic vision, as in Zone, (1976). There are affinities here to Mario Sironi’s paintings of desolate cityscapes and the Neo-Realist films of Antonioni. Through a surprising fusion of opposites, Day came into his own, rejecting expressionism and adopting something of Charles Sheeler’s emotionally cool, linear style. In these austere, unpopulated spaces, Day creates a poetry of the anti-poetic.

According to David Bindman’s catalogue essay, Nan Rosenthal, late curator at the Met, characterized Day’s work as “ironic realism,” the validity of which Day himself accepted. But what does it mean to call realism “ironic”? Realists coming of age since the advent of abstraction such as Lucian Freud or Philip Pearlstein work directly from life to avoid stylistic mannerisms, to create an authentic unity of experience out of the complexity of perceptual painting. By contrast, Day felt that such a funneled vision purity was insufficient to express the fragmentation of modern consciousness. He wanted his contemplative life as a painter to encompass all his interests, whether in philosophy, literature, or the traditions of European art. His process was to work toward pictorial wholeness without jettisoning the insights of fragmentation; a synthetic process akin, in actuality, to collage: teasing out an idea through drawings, partly done from life, or from photographs of friends, past art, and images in magazines. In this way, Day exercised his amused and sardonic sensibility to reveal our awkward moments of self consciousness and the contradictory aspects of our cultural beliefs, both enduring and moribund.

This new style was the result of a search for what really mattered to the artist. In wartime service he had faced death repeatedly during the invasion of Iwo Jima and came to realize that “Some of the things that move us most are the things we take for granted. How we dreamed of the ordinary as ideal, when we were in the army.”

A narrative of everyday life became his pictorial domain, but not in any literal sense. It was actually the planarity of late Cubism that led Day to his love of Renaissance frescoes. He exchanged thickly built paint surfaces for thin coats that affirm the flatness of the canvas. I believe that as he examined frescoes, with their often missing al secco paint layers and seriously damaged areas that reveal the drawing in sinopia, beneath, he found metaphors for the evanescence of awareness or limitations of memory.

Like R.B. Kitaj, Day incorporated images from advertising, photography, cinema, and snapshots of himself and friends, sources he used to droll effect. By contrasting our consumer culture to the culture of other times he revealed both a sense of continuity and the pastness of the past.

Narrative: To the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti, (1967), named for the painter of frescoes at the Palace of Popes in Avignon, is presented as a medieval mural –  yet it feels as much like an homage to Antonioni’s early films, contrasting post-war architecture and an ancient fortress in an otherwise barren landscape. Hipsters mingle with businessmen and middle-class tourists while the totality of the scene remains ambiguous. We are not in a traditional narrative but in a tableau of signs reflecting the artist’s consciousness of a turbulent period.

In paintings like Group, (1967) Day evidently believed that get-togethers could reveal inner states that lie beneath social masks. Day appears twice in this studio setting, I would contend, seated at the center in profile, pausing during a portrait-drawing session of friends and family, and again standing at the far left, head bent in contemplation. Here the use of degrees of unfinish suggests two contradictory states: those who are absent in their presence and those who are present by their absence. Like an emblem in a Hogarth painting, the unpainted canvas framing Day’s seated profile depicts young artist friends Natalie Charkow and Mitzi Melnicoff. Adding to this fictional melding of characters is the image of the film actress Monica Vitti, one of Day’s great infatuations.

Changes, (1982) presents an idealized, Platonic type of the nude. In the background we see images by two mannerist masters, Rosso Fiorentino and Joachim Wtewael. These original works are small, and yet they loom oversized in Day’s representation of them.  Day and an observing female student are separated by a large dark space from the naked model on the right, seeming to capture the gulf between the European past and a deflated, realist, American present.

Similarly, in Day by Day, (1991), from near the end of his life, he presents a room split by a receding diagonal ledge, dividing past from present as much as left from right. On the left, Day presents himself drawing alone, framed by a pale cityscape into which his presence begins to merge, suggesting  awareness of life’s transience, while on the right a mischievous youthful self contemplates a life of the imagination.

Throughout his life Day drew constantly and copiously. In his last years, his creativity bloomed in inventive drawing sequences. As Day turned from the marvelous Tempi Del Giorno drawings, 1992-93, he moved from an interest in himself to a meditation on the mythopoeic aspects of the physical and imaginative world. In the Caprice series, (1997), and the final Elegies (Homage to Rilke), (1997)  the art past is always present and melded into our daily lives.

Day wrote in one of his notebook jottings, that “to examine an object or an event, one, of course, also examines oneself.” An autobiographical reflex allowed Day to create a psychic landscape of outer forms that express self-awareness. In this ongoing pandemic, many people are re-examining their values and ambitions. This three-venue exhibition offers us the gift of one who was there before us, illuminating an examined life that evolves before our eyes. Day’s work invites us to resist fixed ideas and accept the ambiguous and challenging complexity of being alive.

Slideshow

Slideshow Thumbnails
Group, 64 1/4" x 79"

Group

64 1/4" x 79"

Oil On Canvas

Changes, 54" x 66"

Changes

54" x 66"

Oil On Canvas

Narrative: To the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti, 65 1/2" x 76 3/8" 

Narrative: To the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti

65 1/2" x 76 3/8" 

Oil On Canvas

Group, 64 1/4" x 79"

Group

64 1/4" x 79"

Oil On Canvas

Changes, 54" x 66"

Changes

54" x 66"

Oil On Canvas

Narrative: To the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti, 65 1/2" x 76 3/8" 

Narrative: To the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti

65 1/2" x 76 3/8" 

Oil On Canvas