When I reviewed the gallery’s new acquisitions and saw James Lechay’s Untitled (Still Life), I thought to myself: “what a bold statement!” It’s a fair-sized painting—32 by 28 inches—and consists of a limited number of shapes grouped together in such a way as to suggest a bouquet of flowers in a vase (the artist injecting a whimsical note into the composition by eliminating the stems of the blossoms). Painted in a rich gold, edged by areas of raw canvas and set against a brown background, this is not just a semi-abstract still life; to me, it also represents a dynamic interplay of negative and positive space that invites further contemplation on the part of the viewer—as I stood back from the piece, the configuration of shapes took on other thematic possibilities, including that of an animal’s paw print; I just couldn’t stop looking.
I think that James Lechay would have been pleased with my response to his painting, in which form and color take precedence over subject matter. An independent-minded artist who came to maturity during the 1940s and ’50s, Lechay rejected Social Realism and Abstract Expressionism in favor of his own aesthetic agenda, developing a style that involved the use of reductive shapes, arbitrary hues and sketchy brushwork which he combined with a concern for referencing nature; as the critic Howard Devree observed in the New York Times (8 March 1942), he “worked through abstraction as such and learned to apply abstract principles to representational ends.” How did Lechay arrive at this approach? For one, he looked to the example of Milton Avery (1885-1965), the so-called “American Matisse” who used stylized forms, flowing lines and a lyrical palette to capture the hidden essence and universal meaning of his motif. In a 1994 interview (Iowa Review, Winter 1995), Lechay also acknowledged that Max Beckmann (1884-1950), the German painter who believed that “It is not the subject that matters but the translation of the subject into the abstraction of the surface by means of paintings,” was also a vital source for his artistic outlook. Melding these sources with his inner feelings and his desire to create work that was highly individualistic (he referred to it as “abstract impressionism”––see Ann Wilson Lloyd, James Lechay, 1997), Lechay created still lifes, cityscapes, landscapes and figural works that brought him considerable recognition in the art circles of his day. Painted in 1994, when he was living in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Untitled (Still Life) is an excellent example of Lechay’s late work, when his penchant for simplicity intensified and his brushwork roughened, while his enduring devotion to color continued to guide his vision.