Field Studies: Lance Richbourg's Baseball paintings hit home | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Field Studies: Lance Richbourg's Baseball paintings hit home


Published September 4, 2002 at 1:00 a.m.

"Hank Aaron," 1988, oil on paper, by Lance Richbourg
  • "Hank Aaron," 1988, oil on paper, by Lance Richbourg

Some people’s careers are predestined by the type of work their parents did; others remain unmolded by the models that Mom and Dad constructed. Without a doubt, Lance Richbourg belongs in the former category. The St. Michael’s College art professor and “painter laureate of baseball” was powerfully influenced by both his parents. His mother, a high school teacher and amateur artist, encouraged him to draw and paint, while his father, a Major League ballplayer in the 1920s and ’30s, provided the subject matter and the psychological sway that have defined Richbourg’s career as a painter.

The sepia hue that seems to suffuse many of Richbourg’s baseball paintings appears particularly pronounced these days. Even when his subjects are contemporary stars, Richbourg manages to transport viewers back to a semi-imaginary Golden Age of Baseball — a time when sluggers got dosed on booze, not steroids, and when franchises were run like plantations and only the umpires ever called strikes.

Now 63 and with two grown sons of his own, Richbourg is old enough to recall that era first-hand. He also had plenty of indirect experience, through his father, of the days of Ruth and Hornsby.

The artist’s own life began to take shape on a cattle ranch in northwest Florida near the Alabama border. Richbourg’s 17 years there left their mark on the cadence and inflection of his speech. Even after a quarter-century in Vermont, it’s immediately obvious he’s from away — away down South in Dixie.

Richbourg returned to that sandy ranch in Crestview, Florida, in the early 1970s after earning an art degree from UCLA and making his professional debut at a Hollywood gallery. His father had earlier returned to Crestview after his baseball career.

“Those were a good three years to spend working with my father, but it was just so isolated there,” Richbourg recalls. He’d given ranching a fair try and had learned it was not for him.

He decided instead to combine teaching with painting. New England seemed both charming and exotic, so he sent off job applications to several schools in the region, including a small Catholic college in northern Vermont. After an interview at St. Michael’s College, he stopped in Manhattan to shop around a sampling of his paintings. The O.K. Harris Gallery, a pioneer in Soho, was among his first contacts in the New York art world. There, Richbourg found the outlet that would exhibit his work for the next 25 years.

This month, in something of a triumphant return to the art world, Richbourg will have 18 new pieces hanging on Harris’ walls from Sept. 14 until Oct. 19. It’s his first show since winning a life-or-death battle with bladder cancer.

The paintings are still all about baseball, but to viewers accustomed to Richbourg’s gauzy watercolors, some of these recent works may look unexpectedly sharp and luminous. In a few cases, he has turned to a new medium, acrylic, to convey a familiar message. In other paintings done in oil or watercolor, Richbourg’s imagery seems more about pure form than literal substance. As a varied and vigorous body of work, the Harris show should deepen appreciation of the artist’s achievement both as an essayist of Americana and a poet of athleticism.

The new stylistic directions of Richbourg’s art may or may not be the result of his confrontation with cancer. The artist says he experienced no particular epiphanies while wrestling with the disease, and he looks back on “the adventure” with considerable sangfroid. All during the sequence of sudden diagnosis, surgery and extended recovery, “I never had the sense I was going to die,” Richbourg says.

One big change that did occur, however, was a loss of dread. “I’m not afraid of cancer anymore,” he announces matter-of-factly.

The struggle did sap his strength — to the point where Richbourg now wonders whether he’ll have sufficient energy to resume teaching after a two-year hiatus. But he’s determined to try. Richbourg enjoys the classroom enough to bypass this opportunity to retire, even though he views it as an ancillary occupation. “I see myself as a painter; I never think of myself primarily as a teacher. There’s not the necessity in teaching for me that there is in painting.”

Richbourg teaches for a very practical reason as well, he says: He’s unable to earn a living solely as an artist. Though his major paintings are priced in the $6000 to $8000 range in New York, they sell for considerably less in Vermont.

Some of Richbourg’s colleagues and students make no distinction between his two professions.

“I would say he’s always teaching,” comments Amy Werbel, an associate professor in the St. Michael’s art department. “Lance teaches through example. His studio is in the building where he teaches, so students coming in and out are constantly seeing him work. It’s an amazing example of an artist’s creative process.”

As is the case with almost everyone who knows Richbourg, Werbel regards him as a genuinely warm-hearted human being. Indeed, not many artists of his level of ability remain so self-effacing and considerate of others.

Richbourg has had an enormous impact on some of his students. Randy Gaetano, for example, was so eager a protégé that he took courses with Richbourg throughout his six-year stint at St. Mike’s. “We had to invent a few of them,” says Gaetano, who is now himself an artist in Burlington.

Candor and courage are Richbourg’s hallmarks as an instructor, Gaetano says. “He’s really honest, unafraid, daring. Lance will take something you’ve been working on that’s not very good and he’ll say, ‘Let’s fuck this painting up.’ He’ll paint all over it and then work with you in building it up again.”

Some students, however, find Richbourg’s brand of pedagogy both intimidating and confusing, Gaetano adds. “One day he’ll tell you a piece needs more detail, and the next day he’ll say ‘less detail.’ He’ll suggest adding color and then he’ll say there shouldn’t be so much color.”

As in Zen, the master’s contradictions are meant to lead novices to enlightenment. “When he sees you’re getting too confused, he’ll pull back and guide you directly. Lance forces you to figure out what’s best for you,” Gaetano says.

For his own work, Richbourg finds inspiration and validation in the art of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). The technical virtuosity of that great American Realist is much in evidence in an Eakins survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that will close the day after Richbourg’s O.K. Harris show opens. Richbourg has seen the Eakins exhibit four times, in New York and at previous venues.

The two painters have much in common, observes Werbel, who happens to be an Eakins scholar. Both are superb draughtsmen, and each is “trying to capture celebrated moments in American culture,” often through depictions of athletic prowess. There’s even an early baseball scene by Eakins in the Met show.

Richbourg says he admires Eakins’ “irascible integrity” and the “antimodernism” that he practiced in his art throughout the Age of Impressionism, and during the still more radical years of experimentation that would follow. As with Eakins, Rich-bourg’s insistence on applying classical principles and on using traditional techniques of representation have left him out of sync with the trends of his era. But both artists had the self-confidence to paint “against the grain.”

Eakins, it turns out, shared something else important with Richbourg. Recent research has revealed the great extent to which Eakins relied on photographs in composing his paintings. Richbourg, too, paints almost exclusively from photographs of his subjects rather than from life — which is supposed to be the way real artists work.

“Working from photos always seemed to me to be a cheap trick,” Richbourg confesses. “I never did not feel guilty about it. But it still seemed to be the only way of getting at what I wanted to express.” And what, exactly, is that? Richbourg can’t verbalize the ineffable something at the core of his art.

He’s also not able — or willing — to talk much about how his father’s baseball career established the theme that would dominate his art. While acknowledging that Lance Richbourg, Sr. was “very important” in his life and work, the son says his relationship with his father “is not anything I’ve ever discussed with my shrink.”

However, Richbourg, Jr. does reveal that a long-cherished photograph of his father sliding into home eventually led him to a turning point in his art. The image in the photo — of the sliding player framed by the umpire about to make the call and the on-deck batter jumping excitedly into the air — “reminded me of a Greek frieze,” Richbourg says. “There was something really classical about it.” His first baseball-centered show went up in New York in 1976, a year after his dad had died loading cattle at age 77.

Significantly, Richbourg never actually saw his father play professional ball. The elder man had finished his eight years in the Big Leagues and a subsequent stint in the Minors by the time his only son was born in 1938. That chronology may partly account for the aura of fable and mystery with which all of Richbourg’s baseball paintings are imbued.

The sublime portrayals of his father in action are no more wistful than Richbourg’s depictions of today’s superstars, for his father was one fine ballplayer. A career .308 hitter, he was the starting rightfielder for the Boston Braves from 1927 until 1931. The elder Richbourg was originally signed as a member of the New York Giants organization by none other than manager John McGraw, a Hall of Famer known as “Little Napoleon.” And Richbourg, Sr. was later traded for Casey Stengel, who would become the prune-faced guru of the great Yankee teams of the ’50s.

The balletic movements captured in many of Richbourg’s baseball tableaux have an authenticity and an elegance appreciated even by those who can’t distinguish a triple from a triple play.

“Lance’s paintings totally transcend their subject matter,” says Pat Parsons, a Burlington-based art dealer who has sold several of his works. “I’m not a big baseball fan, but it’s obvious to me that there’s nothing limited or specialized about Lance’s treatment of that subject.”

Aesthetically, Parsons is especially impressed by Richbourg’s handling of watercolors. “It’s masterful,” she says. “We usually think of watercolor as a soft and not gutsy medium, but Lance uses it in a very gutsy, masculine way. It’s a good combination of yin and yang.”

Richbourg’s baseball opus is focused on “the eternal ephemeral,” art dealer Barry Neuman writes in the catalogue accompanying the artist’s 1999 retrospective at Ohio’s Butler Institute of American Art. It was also Neuman who termed Richbourg the “painter laureate of baseball.”

That description is entirely apt, many will agree, but a few may dispute Neuman’s linked assertion that “there is nothing romantic, sentimental or fetishistic about [Richbourg’s] work.” To some eyes, his depictions of iconic sluggers in full throttle may appear a bit gushy. A case in point is Richbourg’s recent rendering of the home-run hitter with the improbably apt name of Hermon Killebrew. Maybe the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins strongman really did look so utterly God-like in mid-swing, but it’s more likely that this pose is a trifle idealized.

Still, no discerning critic will confuse Richbourg’s aesthetically rigorous compositions with the worshipful sporting-world set-pieces that Leroy Nieman has long produced — for prices far in excess of what Richbourg can fetch.

At the same time, it seems fair to pose the possibility that baseball has confined, as well as defined, Richbourg as an artist.

Writing in the retrospective’s catalogue, Butler director Louis Zona notes, “An ongoing, self-imposed challenge for the artist has been his near-exclusive utilization of the theme of baseball as subject. Part of that challenge is of course the ever-constant concern that so popular a subject immediately casts a non-serious light on his work.”

Zona goes on to argue that Richbourg’s talent refutes any such denigration and overcomes all limitation. The reproductions in the Butler catalogue confirm that judgment. Some of those paintings are simply superb works of art.

It’s also untrue that Richbourg has painted nothing but baseball scenes for the past 25 years. He did a series of caricatures of The Beatles for She Loves You, a 1997 book by Burlington writer Elaine Segal. Richbourg also painted a series of “Mad Dogs” that is wildly unlike his baseball oeuvre. Richbourg’s ballplayers may seem to stroll down an American dream-path, but his snarling Hell-hounds have come bounding out of some nasty nightmare.

Richbourg’s early career was also varied enough to include an additional baseball inspiration. He created caricatured heads of politicians that were then affixed to drawings of the bodies of baseball players. The clever idea was to reprint the politicians’ voting records on the reverse side of the images, à la baseball cards.

“That got me interested in the look of baseball players,” Richbourg explains.

During his first years as an artist, Richbourg composed Pop Art paintings of cowboys. He also executed several commissioned portraits, which were “always very frank and always done from life,” he says. Perhaps most intriguingly, Richbourg’s first New York show in the mid-’70s included a depiction of a public hanging along with three baseball scenes.

Executions had taken place decades earlier on a gallows erected on the Courthouse Square of Florida town where Richbourg’s family lived. He painted two of them from photos in a manner he describes as realistic but not excessively gory. Not surprisingly, this subject matter caused some consternation for the gallery owner, but the hanging piece exhibited at Harris did find a buyer — a woman from Tennessee, Richbourg recalls.

So fearless an imagination, coupled with such consummate skill, might have given the world a host of works more provocative than anything in his baseball league. It still might: Richbourg is nowhere near ready to put down his brush.

But even if it hasn’t afforded him a liveable income, baseball has been very good to Lance Richbourg. And he in turn has shown baseball to be a métier worthy of his talent. Richbourg has not been content to paint stock images; instead, he challenges himself by shifting the methods and media through which he evokes the sport and its metaphors.

“I don’t think he’s limited at all,” says Janie Cohen, curator of UVM’s Fleming Museum of Art, which owns one of the “Mad Dog” paintings. Cohen observes, however, that “Lance’s good fortune of having a strong gallery career may have influenced his decisions along the way.” Baseball art has proved a comfortable niche, in other words, and may thus have dissauded the artist from moving into other fields.

What he’s produced has clearly satisfied a specific demand in segments of the art world. In addition to pieces purchased by the Butler and by a few other museums and corporations, Richbourg’s work has been added to some business and private collections in Vermont. As Cohen puts it, “He’s not a secret here.”

But Richbourg’s audience does reside mainly beyond the Green Mountains. Even a set of T-shirts bearing his baseball scenes sold better in Japan than in Vermont, reports Wayne Turiansky, whose Burlington store, Amalgamated Culture Works, produced the shirts in the ’90s.

Memo to the Fleming: It would be nice if Vermonters got a first-hand chance to come to their own conclusions about the work of an artist who is, indisputably, one of the state’s greatest painters. Wouldn’t Richbourg’s 65th birthday be a fitting occasion for an in-state retrospective?