The Woodmere Art Museum is the last of three Philadelphia institutions — two colleges and the museum — to participate in “Body Language: The Art of Larry Day,” a large retrospective of the painter’s work marking the centenary year of his birth, 2021.
Shows of Day’s paintings and drawings have already ended at Arcadia University and the University of the Arts, and while a gallery show of 20 Day works is still up at the Gross McCleaf Gallery on South 16th Street. It closes Jan. 29.
Day lived virtually his entire life in Philadelphia — painting and also teaching here, first at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, now the University of the Arts, and then at the University of Pennsylvania. As a teacher, Day mentored generations of artists who have served as powerful forces in maintaining the region’s strong figurative ties.
Day began his career in the 1950s working with abstraction. A decade later he had turned to representation, becoming known as “the dean of Philadelphia artists.”
But not of all of Day’s students formally took his class. Take artist Peter Paone, now 85, born in Philadelphia and raised here, just like Larry Day.
Paone, who has taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (an immediate predecessor of UArts) and then, beginning in 1978, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is arguably the inheritor of Day’s mantle as dean of Philadelphia artists, and knew Day as mentor and friend for more than 40 years.
Sporting a sturdy cane, herringbone jacket, black, narrow-brimmed fedora, and red bandanna, Paone entered the Woodmere exhibition the other day and anchored himself before Day’s Narrative: To the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti, a large 1967 canvas in the first gallery.
Gazing on this single piece — one of 73 at Woodmere — Paone demonstrated how one work of art can multiply until it is possible to evoke a life of art through an encounter with a single painting.
“Day was my painting instructor for four years,” said Paone. “But I never took his class because I refused to go to a class and be one of 16 people who painted the same painting. And I don’t want to paint somebody else’s setup. Plus the fact at that time [the school] was dominated by the abstract expressionists. Every faculty member, including Larry, was an abstract expressionist. And they were bringing them in by the trainload — Larry Finkelstein, Motherwell, Klein. It just went on and on.”
Indeed, Day who became known for his groups of figures and architectural compositions, first made his mark as an abstract expressionist, building his canvases with blocks of color.
“Larry was giving critiques,” said Paone. “So I sat in on his critique. And I liked what he was doing. He never talked about something was wrong with the head, the arm was too long, the color didn’t work. He always talked in terms of historical references, and also why you painted this picture. What is your point here? And I like that thinking; he was allowing the student to think. After two or three weeks, I switched from fine art to art education. But I still needed a painting credit. So I went to Larry and I said, ‘Mr. Day, if you allow me to take your class, I promise never to come.’ He said, ‘OK.’ …
“And then one afternoon at 4:30 there’s a knock on my studio door at 10th and Spruce. I open the door and it was Larry and he said ‘I’ve come to see what you’re doing. I give him a lot of credit because this is his time. He stayed for two hours. What we did is we just talked, and he looked at all the paintings.
“And he did this once a month. He came to my studio for three years. And he always stayed a long time. We drank a lot of coffee. And we just talked. We talked about art and artists, we never talked about anything personal. So that was my involvement in the beginning of my career with Larry.”
Looking up at the Memory of Matteo Giovannetti, now directly on the wall in front of him, a mysterious canvas with a group of bikers, some tourists, two besuited men hauling off a third man deposition-like, a Sienese-style town on the horizon, Paone said, “Larry was a classical painter.”
“I was a romantic painter,” Paone said.
He gestured at Matteo Giovannetti. “This is highly structured, which is the classical point of view. … It’s all built from top to bottom, side to side, there’s no depth of field, there’s no foreground, middle ground, background. And they’re all set up. And that also allows you to work from photographs. But that was a Philadelphia thing, you know, starting with Eakins …
“And when you work from photographs, the mentality is a collage mentality. It’s a question of assemblage. And so, that kind of classicism, if you look at all these paintings, they’re all vertical and horizontal lines, and they’re very shallow. Larry was a modernist. The difference between modernism and traditional painting is that traditional paintings are composed, modernism is designed. These are designed from top to bottom, side to side; traditional paintings [contain] the illusion of depth. There’s no depth here, it’s very shallow …
“And the other thing about it is that he had a real fascination with Matisse. Matisse was one of his real gods. I had no use for Matisse — because they were just colored turpentine. That’s Larry’s surfaces. Larry’s are not painterly surfaces. That comes out of Matisse.
“I’ll tell you the story about Matisse and Larry. I haven’t ever told this to anybody. When I was exploring my class with Larry, he decided to take a class to the University of Pennsylvania Museum to draw Egyptian art. And I asked him if I could come along, because I had never been there. … I was standing and I was working and there was a girl on the bench next to me. He was talking to her.
“We heard footsteps, someone coming at a very fast clip, somebody that knew Larry, and he said, ‘Larry, Matisse died. He died this morning.’ This is 1954. The air went out of Larry’s lungs. He put his head down, and he walked out of the gallery. We didn’t see him again. He went home. And that’s how it affected him. I didn’t understand that. Ten years later. 1964. I was teaching at Pratt Institute, I had a drawing class and chairman Fritz Eichenberg came in. And he said to me, ‘Peter, Braque died. He just died.’ The air went out of my lungs, and … and the whole episode with Larry came back to me. Wow.”