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 Leo Revi  (1943 - )

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: landscape and still life painting

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Biography from Stillwell House Fine Art and Antiques:
Leo Revi (b. 1943, New York City)

Schools:
Cooper Union B.F.A., 1964
Music and Art High School, NYC, 1960
Museum of Modern Art Children's Classes, 1950's

Exhibited:
"Out Here", Peter Marcelle Gallery, June, 2007
"Interiors" East End Arts Council, July, 2007
Stony Brook Museum, "The Little Continent of L.I." 2005
Guild Hall, East Hampton, "Hampton's Gardens" 2004
Canio's, Sag Harbor, "Small is Beautiful" 2003
Solar Gallery, East Hampton, "Artistas Viajeros" 2002
Lizan Tops Gallery, East Hampton, "L.I. Landscapes" 2001
Stony Brook Museum, "Ron Pisano Memorial" 2001
Water Mill Museum, "East End Landscapes" 2001
Marine Museum, Amagansett, "Baymen Paintings" 1996-2003
Wright Gallery, Cape Porpoise, Maine, 2007
Les Pierre Antiques, New York City 1975-2009
Islip Art Museum, "Box Works" 1998
Gallery East, East Hampton 1976 – 1999
Ashawagh Hall, "Springs Invitational" 1980-2009
Long Island Museum at Stony Brook, "Eye of the Storm" 2008

Publications:
Hamptons Gardens, by John Esten, Rizzoli, 2004
Long Island Landscape Paintings of the 20th Century by Ronald Pisano, Little Brown, 1990
Country Living Magazine, Cover, October, 1989

Museums:
Guild Hall Museum Permanent Collection
Stony Brook Museum of American Art Permanent Collection

Leo Revi
Painting the Familiar
By Robert Long

Barns, boats, and vegetable stands.  The Big Duck.  Even if you've ventured only as far as five miles east of Riverhead, you'll be able to identify several of Leo Revi's favorite subjects, though the farther you go, the more you'll feel at home in his paintings.

Familiar things take on very specific life in his pictures, whose warm palette and patchy brushwork give even pickup trucks hauling dories along the Amagansett beach a timeless air.  His work has antecedents in French Impressionism, but to say that he's riding anyone else's coattails is to miss what makes his pictures special.

Mr. Revi sees everyday things just a bit differently than we do.  This may mean that he shows us a barn half-hidden by a tree rather than painting it dead-on, or that the Big Duck is seen from such an angle that it takes on a slightly malevolent air.  

The fact that he paints beautifully means the pictures are beautiful to look at, but what makes them first rate is their air of inevitability.  You feel you're seeing that barn or vegetable stand for the first time, and that there could be no other way to see it.  This quality sets him apart from the run of landscape painters.

Art as Career

Mr. Revi first visited East Hampton on the weekend after Labor Day, 1968.  "It was very romantic, and it was nice and quiet," he said.  "And I looked around and said to myself, 'There's something very seductive out here and I think I should find out what it is and paint it.'"

It wasn't long before he and his companion, the writer Jess Gregg, found themselves living in a rented house on the Circle for part of each year.  Losing his job as an assistant art editor for a magazine publisher was a big factor in the decision to move.  "When I got fired from my job, I thought, 'Okay, I've been given my freedom now.  Let me see if I can just paint and make any money at it.'"

He has managed to make a career of art.  Regarding advice for younger artists, though, he said firmly by jokingly, "Don't do it!  It's a very hard life.  The art market can be very slow, and sometimes it's slower than others.  But painting is the greatest high.  I was never tempted to do drugs or anything like that, because I knew that if I could just paint, I would be the happiest, most satisfied person."

Mr. Revi spends summers in a shingled house on the outskirts of the village and winters in Florida, where Mr. Gregg has family.  Before moving to the South Fork he painted "still lifes and flowers, and when I had vacations I'd go to Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to visit Mayan ruins and paint.  I was a big Mayaphile."

He found his signature subjects in East Hampton.  "What I first liked were the big elms making canopies over the streets," he said.  "And of course I knew that Childe Hassam and Winslow Homer had found things to paint here- the beaches, dunes, windmills.  I was attracted to architecture, too, because there you have light falling on a surface, and that's what you paint."

For many years he worked outdoors, carrying an easel and paints with him on treks into the countryside.  "I think of that as my apprenticeship period.  Once I knew how to work outside, I found I could translate that to the studio.  You can get a plain air feeling in a painting when you're working in a room."  He dates that discovery to 1976.

"One day I saw a dory on the beach that had been painted with the stars and stripes, to celebrate the bicentennial, and I thought it was wonderful.  I made a quick pencil sketch, then jumped on my bicycle and ran home and painted it.  When it was shown, somebody bought it immediately, and there was a lot of enthusiasm over the painting.  So I thought, 'I have to figure out a way to do more of these!'"  The series of dory pictures that resulted are among his best-known images.

"When you work outdoors, what you're looking at is always changing.  You have far more control in the studio.  And I can work at 11 at night if I want to."  Mr. Revi's "studio" is actually a tiny upstairs bathroom- in fact, he prefers working on the floor.  A canvas, a small palette, a few rubes of paint, and brushes were arranged there in a space no more than a few feet in either direction; a bedroom adjacent to the bathroom was stacked with canvases.

The surface of the canvas in progress was meticulously divided into small squares by a grid of fine threads; it's Mr. Revi system for keeping the image's proportions accurate when he's working from a photograph.

"I work small because my house is so small and I have a storage problem.  I think the biggest paintings I've done are about 30 by 40 inches.  Bigger canvases would make me feel so burdened," he said, noting that we are accustomed to looking at over sized paintings in part because of "the age of the corporate collector who needed something huge to fill the lobby of the bank, or the office building they owned.  People forget that the average Monet is about 24 by 30 inches.  Vermeer's 'The Lace Maker' is about 7 by 8 inches.  Albert Pinkham Ryder painted on cigar box lids."

Monet Mesmerizes

There was never a question that Mr. Revi would become a painter.  His interest goes back as far as he can remember.  He grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, and his mother took him to children's art classes at the Museum of Modern Art when he was 7.

"We used to make collages out of pine cones, feathers, and colored cellophane," he said, laughing.  "It was very bizarre, not really my thing."

At the museum, he said, "I saw these big canvases that were nothing but color and light.  I didn't know what they were but they had a profound effect on me.  I knew they were very special; they made me feel as if I were in the water or looking through a curtain of leaves.  A few years later I realized that they were Monet's 'Water Lilies.'  They just dazzled my eyes."

By the time he was 11 or 12, Mr. Revi was taking the long bus ride downtown each weekend.  "I'd visit the Met, then walk down Madison Avenue and go into all the galleries.  And I was constantly reading art books, looking into pictures.  I still do that; before I go to sleep at night I look at art books, auction catalogs.  I'm always looking, and analyzing what I'm looking at."

"One time when I was a kid I came out of the Met and got on the bus to go home.  I'd been looking at Signac, and noticing how he painted in dots- not really dots, more like little bricks of color.  I was staring out at Central Park as we rode past and I remember wondering how I would paint it.  It was as if a curtain had been lifted.  I was making the connection between what you see and what you put on canvas to make other people see the same thing."

Mr. Revi assigned himself the task of trying to copy one master's painting a week, spreading a plastic tablecloth over his bed for a work surface.  "My uncle have me a stack of 16-by-20-inch cardboards and I worked on those.  They had a nice absorbency.  Toulouse-Lautrec worked on cardboard.  So did Picasso in the 'blue' period.  Utrillo, Vuillard.  If you put a nice frame around it, what does it matter?"

"Today I like working on raw wood, if I can get something like the bottom of a drawer from an old bureau.  It has a great feeling when you run the brush over it."

Likes The Classics

After graduating from Music and Art High School he attended Cooper Union; it was 1960, and Pop Art was in the air, Abstract Expressionism having slid into a trough after its first big swell of notoriety.  

"I looked at Pop Art but it didn't allow me in.  I reacted against it rather than with it.  I remember admiring Larry Rivers because I could see that he could really draw.  He wasn't trying to pull any crap," Mr. Revi said.  "Bob Dash was doing nice work then, too.  And I started to like Fairfield Porter in the '60s because he was one of the few representational painters around.  But I always got a bigger charge out of what you might call antique paintings."

His taste has remained consistent over the years.  "Vermeer and Velasquez are at the top of the pile.  They are sublime artists.  Then we go to the Impressionists- Monet, Degas.  My favorite painter is Mary Cassatt; she makes me feel love.  I love Bonnard, Vuillard, Homer."

"I don't pay much attention to contemporary art.  If it doesn't speak to me, why bother?  Why bother with the second-rate when you can have the best?  I've got my own row to hoe, and I go to see what will inspire me.  I went into New York last week and had a sensational visit with Mr. Gauguin," he said, laughing.

Like A Sphinx

Mr. Revi and Saul Steinberg may be the only two contemporary artist of note to have made portraits of the Big Duck.  Mr. Revi has painted several versions.  "What it is with the duck is that it's so bizarre.  And because it's so bizarre I want to make it believable, and investigate it from every angle.  It's like a sphinx.  And so many people relate to it, because it's been a landmark for so many years.  And they may remember stopping there years ago to buy eggs, or barbecued duck to take home for dinner."

A selection of Mr. Revi's paintings, perhaps including a duck or two, will be on view at the Roger's Memorial Library in Southampton in August.  Though he shows regularly in galleries and museums, he hasn't had a dealer on the East End since Gallery East shut its doors a few years ago.  That is one reason why he's painting a bit less frequently these days.

"If I'm not painting, I'm thinking about it, and nagging myself to work.  But without a regular venue... well, I can't just clog up my house with work I can't show.  At Gallery East, I knew I'd need at least 17 new paintings for my show each summer."

"But I take longer to paint now than I used to because I take longer to contemplate them, to consider what I'm going to do next.  When I was younger, I used to just nail them, go from one painting to another.  Now I'm more demanding of myself.  But it's okay to slow down.  I expect to be painting until the day before I die.  I've already done 3,000 paintings and have sold 1,000.  That's more than poor Gauguin managed."

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