Art Works Blog

Father's Day

Goodbye Lola, Goodbye by Alfred Landesman. Photo courtesy of Rocco Landesman

My father, Fred Landesman, was the most original and affecting painter who ever lived. I know that's a sweeping statement and there are probably some who would disagree. What about---you can add your own candidate here---Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso? Some might suggest that since I'm talking about my father, my view is not objective. People are free to have their opinions. They can disagree. But they would be wrong.

When, for the last time, I walk out of my office at the National Endowment for the Arts, in the historic Old Post Office, there will be parts of my job that I'll miss and, yes, parts that I won't. But I know that my biggest regret will be not being able to spend any more days in the office itself, the physical space. It's a big, corner office with very high ceilings, beautiful moldings and details, and lots of daylight. On the large walls, which are painted a merlot color, hang six "Alfred Landesman" paintings, the majority of his output. For the first, and probably last time in my life, I have found a suitable gallery for this collection, a single room of sufficient size and scale to exhibit these masterworks properly. I love showing them to visitors; I love to just sit at my desk surrounded by them. For me, every day is Father's Day.

The doubters that remain---haven't we settled this?---might reasonably ask, "If this artist is as great as you claim, why have we never heard of him? Why is he nowhere referenced in art history books? Why, when we Google him, does it come up, ‘no result found?’” I'm glad you asked.

The lone survivor of my father's generation---his two brothers, sister, and their spouses---is Ellie Landesman, who was married to his brother Gene, an inventor and businessman. The three brothers were business partners in St. Louis, but in their spare time pursued their idiosyncratic interests. What follows is an excerpt from Ellie's memoir:

“Fred was born in 1915, the oldest son and...head of the family, especially in business matters. An artist even in his early years. Extremely talented. He studied color, mixing paints and making formulas for 20 years. Once he showed me his file drawers containing hundreds of samples. He resisted having shows. He had many offers from galleries but always said no. He didn't even want most people to see his work. Finally, he agreed to have a one-man show in a prestigious New York gallery and it sold out completely. Then Fred spent a lot of time trying to buy back what he had sold.”

Alfred Landesman's Goodbye Lola, Goodbye installed in the chairman's office at the NEA.  Photo by Virginia Bledsoe

He was devastated to suddenly find himself no longer in possession of his life's work. He had never painted to make money, so to exchange his most personal expressions for a check seemed, understandably, absurd. Writers always have their work with them, accessible at all times. Painters have their work in their studio. Then it goes to a gallery, and when it's sold, it's gone. Maybe they can visit it someday, somewhere. Maybe not. There is one Alfred Landesman painting still at large, we think in England. All the others my brothers and I have back.

The world is roughly divided into two groups of people: those who care deeply about what others think of them, and those that pretend not to. Fred Landesman was the only person I ever knew who didn't fit into either category. The most self-contained of men, he was nonetheless neither unfriendly nor solitary: though he had few, if any "friends" in the usual meaning of that term, he loved women (especially, but not exclusively, my mother) and his four boys. But approval? Validation? Acceptance? Those notions were alien to him. Didn't interest him. Not even slightly. The greatest gift he gave to me and my brothers, greater than the paintings he left us, was the exemplary message that someone could, in fact, live a life on his own terms, impervious to convention, to any received system of values or behavior. His two great interests were art (both aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, and its creation) and the nuances and interplay of human emotions. When not conducting the necessary activities of earning a living, he spent countless hours in his studio wrestling with the ever elusive vicissitudes of perception and emotional response. He filled index cards with cryptic questions and hypotheses. He never attended a college or an art school but he was a philosopher and an artist. The idea of pursuing a degree and the certification conferred by it never occurred to him.

The paintings, in one sense, are the physicalization of his inquiries, his speculations on the mysteries of passion and mortality (and never, of course, one without the other!). His work is sui generis; he belonged to no "school" or tradition. When he had the show in New York, he was reviewed as a surrealist, a term he disdained. To him, the surrealists were cold and bloodless, devoid of genuine emotion. If he had been forced to categorize himself---he never really had to---I think he would have called himself a romanticist. Romanticist, I would say, with a strong infusion of the macabre. The eternal theme: love and death.

Untitled work by Alfred Landesman. Image courtesy of Rocco Landesman

For me, his work is remarkable not only for its haunting, romantic content, but also its narrative power. My sensibility is literary---my wife Debby would say literal---and I love art that tells a story. Shakespeare's history plays, country music, even Norman Rockwell. Fred's paintings locate a discreet moment of emotional inflection in a bigger storyline. And because the paintings have this literary quality, they can, more successfully than most, be described.

For example, Signs Painted Here. (Most have titles and he did his own, very original framing.) What you see first seems to be a wistful assortment of "after the ball" objets d'art. A dance card. A long-stemmed rose. A red velvet scarf. A holiday ornament globe. A collage, beautiful, and a little sad, arranged with brilliant artistry in front of a rich, darkly mottled background. Look a little closer and you notice that it's a shop window. One of the most extraordinary shop windows you'll ever see. Then you notice the block lettering on the window, fading away, but still clearly visible: “SIGNS PAINTED HERE.”

In another, an ornate, colorful Victrola with an oversized megaphone occupies the lower right of a large canvas. A record is playing on it, sending a song into the vast eternity of the rest of the painting, which I would describe as a deep, textured darkness. Again, a title: Goodbye Lola, Goodbye.

Name plate for The Light in a Painting Stays Lit a Long, Long Time by Alfred Landesman. Image courtesy of Rocco Landesman

A woman's beautiful, disintegrating face, rendered with eggshells on a gold leaf background (The Light in a Painting Stays Lit a Long, Long Time.). A vase filled with colorless flowers, in the middle of which stands a single, luminous red rose. A lone box car, with what might be circus decorations, stranded on a track that seems to stretch endlessly in either direction (Saturday/Sunday). And so on. The image is always romantic. And always ephemeral. In another moment, maybe in that instant when Saturday becomes Sunday, it will be gone.

Fred Landesman died in 1977, when he was 63 and I was 30. Debby and my three sons never knew him. Inevitably, with each passing year, he is less present in my life. But while I'm still in my office at 12th and Pennsylvania, I look at these paintings, and think of him once a day. But, to borrow from the Connie Smith song, that's "Just once a day. Every day. All day long."

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