? is for Lance Richbourg

by John FitzGibbon
from California A-Z and Return
The Butler Institute of American Art
Youngstown, Ohio. 1990

There is no question about Lance. He’s unquestionably Lance. The question was how to get your attention on the question, and the question is: How come no one seems to know about the other Los Angeles?

How come people seem to know about Bob Irwin?
And not Chas Garabedian?
How come people seem to know about Ed Moses?
And not Ed Carrillo?
Craig Kauffman?
And not Lance Richbourg?
How come people seem to know about Ed Ruscha?
And not Max Hendler?
How come people seem to know about Billy Al Bengston?
And not Anthony Berlant?

Over the past 30 years I’ve gotten around the country just enough to be pretty sure that nothing’s changed. Everyone still looks to New York. The average sharp docent in Des Moines or Atlanta has very little awareness of California art or Texas Art or Chicago. A friend of ours, wife of a classmate, long time docent at the Carnegie gave me an informed disquisition on how she contrasted Anselm Kiefer with Robert Ryman for visitors to the Museum. She had never heard of Ruscha, or in fact any of the LOS ANGELES and it was pointless even to mention Garabedian or Richbourg or Berlant members of the OTHER LOS ANGELES even though these artists have galleries in New York that can barely keep their paintings in stock. I’m not talking about a popularity contest. It’s a question of awareness. At home, in Northern California, the “How Come” painters are known almost to the exclusion of the “And Nots”. In Los Angeles itself, among the art crowd, it’s practically the same-though Chas and Tony do have big followings, finally. In 1988 at the trendy cafe across from the L.A. Louver gallery the first 1,000 diners to order the swordfish meuniere as their entree were carefully polled. The results: 873.36 of them had heard of Billy Al Bengston. And 2.0 had heard of Ed Carrillo, even though Ed had been showing steadily across the street. One point five of the 2.0 people was me, by the way, the other .5 was some art trader that Eduardo had turned in for cutting cutting petroglyphs off rock faces down in Baja California in the desert behind San Ignacio where Carrillo has a place.

Of course one reason more attention has come to the LOS ANGELES artists other than the OTHER LOS ANGELES is that much of their art has simply taken whatever New York was serving up and returned serve with a little glamour on the ball. This especially applies to the sculpture contingent, artists like Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, John McCracken and Dewain Valentine who polished up the dull inert platonic solids of the minimalists and gave them back all gleaming bright and sometimes transparent. Their activity became identified with LOS ANGELES at a time when Lance Richbourg’s paintings were still working their way through the cowboy and pyerate movies which had dominated his imaginative growing up. Your typical Richbourg cowboy travesty proved a little harder to subsume under the notion of modernist progression. You could have read a Richbourg Mad Dog Pye-rate painting as a sure sign that Modernism was on the other slide. Thousands didn’t bother to. Richbourg didn’t suffer from over exposure.

The OTHER LOS ANGELES people, university educated, mostly at UCLA, had a lot of art history to work through. Whereas the LOS ANGELES contingent were many of them trained as commercial artists and went mostly to art school. Having less than zero art history to encumber them, they just sliced it thin from the top. Meanwhile Carrillo and Garabedian grappled with the Quattrocento, which interested them, and Lance Richbourg landed, eventually, on Eakin’s square. Richbourg adapts Eakins’ numinous chiaroscuro to his own less crepuscular ends. Eakins’ means to suggest by it the moral dereliction of the Brown Decades, the oppressive climate of ignorance and censorship in which he struggled to breathe. Richbourg uses a warmer, brighter, rather more “upbeat” surround: our example is more chiaro than oscuro. Richbourg’s surround is at the service of his nostalgia: it’s content is memory. Rumination. Part of the nostalgia is for Eakins’ and his art-which in turn is grounded in Rembrandt, an artist undeservedly obscured in the latter part of his career. So lance throws a grappling hook back to Eakins’ who looks back to the Dutch painter. It’s a gestalt.

Thomas Eakins’ athletic pictures were produced in a context of Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” Competition would reveal the best; and he was entered in the field. The trope goes to art, not to sports. In Salutat the dignity and fitness of the young boxer are contrasted
to the dark mass of spectators; his social betters, they are vulgar and ugly, come to have a good time watching two young men take punishment they themselves couldn’t stand up to for 30 seconds. Eakins’ was declared the winner in his heat but not his lifetime.

Lance Richbourg’s sport paintings are produced in a time of depleted heroism and devalued loyalty. Today’s thousand dollar an hour athletes are not his subjects. He works from old news photos of champions of an earlier age. The low resolution of these wire service photos invited Lance to indulge his natural painterliness. His approach to watercolor is forthright in its additive buildup in successive slathering washes of color over color.
A quasi-opacity, a filmy opacity, if there is such a thing, is the result: he looks to find an equivalent for the granulated light impasto of his paintings in oil. He’s cropped the Dizzy Dean composition both to monumentalize the figure and to uncover the perfect interplay of horizontal and vertical balances which are going to result in the strikeout pitch. It takes a minute to realize that the painting is as exquisite as a Degas.

Lance Richbourg Sr. was a major league baseball player. Lance has a box of clippings, and frequently the father, sliding into a base or tagging an opponent out, has been the subject of the son’s art. Richbourg’s paintings not only deal, like Eakins’, with having a skill, an art, which you perform for the entertainment of others; they have the further function of honoring the father.

Lance and I have always been drawn together as a matter of that ole personal chemistry; we got along great from the beginning, which was down in Mexico, hace muchos anos. An extra factor, though, is my Dad was also an athlete. He put himself through Med School (it took him 5 years) by playing football. My father was quarterback on the Packers during their N.F.L. ascendancy at the end of the 20’s under Curley Lambeau’s regime. He was a fine player. From my box of clippings I chose not an action photo, but a publicity shot which appeared in the Des Moines Register in the mid 20’s during my Dad’s college days. It seems the Follies were in town so the feature editor sent a cameraman and the gorgeous Follies star out to the stadium for what wasn’t yet called a photo opportunity. The handsome backfield star was called over and after it came out that my Dad also did punting it was decided to let the Follies beauty do her over the head 1-2-3 kick. In the clipping, brown with age, my father is still standing there at ease arm akimbo on his jersey taking in the great legs of this great looking girl. They are two beautiful young people, with not a care in the world.

Lance has been working on this painting for a little while now but hasn’t brought it around yet. It should be a good one!

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