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Larry Day in The Brooklyn Rail: Review of Body Language at Woodmere Art Museum

Body Language: The Art of Larry Day celebrates the centenary year of Larry Day (1921–98), a visual maestro and brooding intellectual figure in post-war American art. Curated by British art historian David Bindman, the show is at a trio of Philadelphia sites: at Woodmere Art Museum Silent Conversations is comprised of Day’s figurative work, including an overview of works on paper; Absent Presence at Arcadia University shows architectural landscapes on canvas and paper and a selection of prints; and at University of the Arts Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, Nature Abstracted reveals the artist’s earliest ventures into abstraction. Spanning nearly five decades, the exhibition marks the most comprehensive retrospective to date of Day’s capacious and affective artistic praxis.

A pensive Larry Day was eager to find his place in the post-WWII American art scene after returning from military service. Nature Abstracted at University of the Arts acutely situates the young artist in this 1950–60s moment. Consider Untitled, painted circa 1960. A consummate confrontation in paint, Day’s scumbled marks appear to emerge from an epidermal cauldron inside the frame. The scratchy mauve squares nested at center emit some ellipsis of stitched force that layers throughout the composition; teal blues, pastel greys and forest greens blossom around the central shapes. Amidst the palimpsest patchwork of painterly action in Day’s all-over picture, the gravitas of his early practice takes shape.

With emotive gestural nods to de Kooning and Gorky, Cezanne and Matisse, the work on display at U Arts helps scrape bare a seminal vernacular for Day’s critical thinking in images: issues of containment and spatiality (volumetrics), fragmentation, camouflage, and the recursive impossibility of optical embodiment percolate the surface. “Prolific artists have few central ideas,” wrote Day in an excerpt from one of his many notebooks. In this sentiment and these early pictures, we begin to learn the artist’s deep commitments to a canonical history of Western art.

Reflecting on Poussin’s The Triumph of Neptune (1634)—at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—Day wrote “desire is art’s elegy.” He goes on to describe “painting as a fiction … eminently conscious of self.” A medium, process, and myth, over time painting internally “distances itself from the world” and seems to “[become] most about itself.” Alongside this keen sense of auto-generative aesthetic life, viewers chronologically encounter Silent Conversations next at Woodmere. Here, Day’s lifelong mark-making practice takes flight as the epic proportion of his oeuvre coagulate into (un)finished form. Two pictures tell this story: the painting After Jan Steen (1962), and a deliberative preliminary sketch for Poker Game (1970).

With After Jan Steen, Day severs his commitments to abstraction. In its place, his slabby application of paint dissolves figurative subject matter; painting becomes a spatial container bleeding with quasi-delineated forms of architectural order: arms melodramatically cross, reach and hug; heads tilt, stare, and nod with nearness; and faintly registered faces act in erasure. Day’s cyclonic picture transforms the 17th-century Dutch domain of raucous domestic genre into a more vividly staid encounter with modern life. Although Day’s ongoing concerns of scale and compression, form and frontality remain central, the trajectory of content shifts and pauses.

Nearly 10 years hence, Day created Poker Game and at Woodmere we are privy to see no less than five focused iterations of this motif. With a meticulous constellation of characters and Day’s masterly graphite lines, this version of card players briefly coheres under a holographic diamond of implied motion. Chiaroscuro lines cross the table as a version of the artist himself seems to stand peculiarly turned aside in profile: with hands at waist level and signature glasses dimly rendered, this spectral figure observes the intimate sphere of masculine play. Here we see a reimagining of Cézanne’s card-playing melodrama and phenomenological absorption as Day draws to life this 1960s atmospheric parlor scene: the uncanny confines of a boundless proscenium without walls lingers at center. While perhaps too-often fixatedly diagrammatic, in Larry Day’s best pictures his poetic propensities toward order and harmony, painterly containment and clarity subside. Rather, his subjects—peoples and buildings, spaces and myth—eerily refuse stillness in their own smoky shadows.

Whereas the gamut of Day’s pictures is on display at the Woodmere, the intimacy of Absent Presence at Arcadia offers an experience of quietude: niche buildings, solitary landscapes and dilapidated quotidian sites unveil the artist’s lyrical eros across built spaces. Zone (1976) is archetypal. In this atomized and sequestered stage of beautifully thinning paint, Day constructs a supernatural universe of Platonic geometry in cinematic fragments.

A personalized interior capsule of the world, Zone discloses a behind-the-scenes architectural view of the real in miniaturized close-up. Similar in ways to a different haunted landscape (Suburban Landscape [1976], not pictured), this pre-Gregory Crewdson version of Crewdson’s photography-to-come breathes in its own camouflage clay skin. Inside Day’s exaggerated cosmos, minutely structural lines converge as colors block space and a menacing amber sky above buzzes; obfuscation, closure, and incompleteness visually eddy outside the edges of this purportedly closed world: a red façade in light at left and shadowed cement building at right bookmark the scene, while the liquid pale grey of a wall at center appears to mesmerically disappear within itself.

I conclude by returning to Woodmere and a series entitled “Elegies (Homage to Rilke)” (1997) that Day created at the end of his life’s battle with cancer. Most acutely, I’m struck here with Day’s ability to sublimely surrender his ink lines, gently releasing the pen’s steadfast grip between his own hand. While the masterly draftsmanship of these works on paper is unwaveringly consummate, there is a special sense of levitating grace in these final works. Call it a pagan poesis, in this penultimate elegy to Rilke the pages of ruin unfold inward: history and myth, man and beast, disintegrate into cavernous horizontal planes deep beneath the vast roof of an elastic cream sky. Imbued with a centrifugal energy that pulses across the frame, this outward-reaching series of drawings exceeds Day’s often obsessive tendencies toward containment, and instead intimate domains of encounter are rendered as whimsically limitless. “The will of the painter might only be the will of painting exerting its pressure in secret consort.” Himself a poet in paint—both a liquid philosopher and vigilantly committed practitioner of art history—the narrative trajectories and cerebral sentiments of Day’s humble graphic projects teach contemporary viewers to rest in witnessing and watching; to learn in being and letting go.