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 Jack Beal  (1931 - 2013)

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Lived/Active: New York/Illinois      Known for: social realism, nudes, still life and murals

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Jack Beal
An example of work by Jack Beal
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist.

Jack Beal, Optimistic New Realist Painter, Dies at 82
Published: September 7, 2013
Jack Beal, whose pensive nudes, densely detailed still lifes and earnest public murals depicting ancient myths and modern life helped define the New Realism of the 1960s and ’70s, a school of figurative painting notable for being unfashionable at the time, died on Aug. 29 in Oneonta, N.Y. He was 82.

The cause was kidney failure, said his wife, the artist Sondra Freckelton.

Mr. Beal was part of a group of young American artists who rejected the psychologically driven Abstract Expressionist movement of the postwar era in favor of art based on commonly recognizable things and experiences. The new wave included Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, who leavened their work with postmodernist humor, and others like Philip Pearlstein, Alfred Leslie and Mr. Beal, whose work was more traditional but no less ambitious.

Mr. Beal was known for minutely detailed portraits, landscapes, still lifes and narrative works, like “The History of Labor,” a series of four murals he painted from 1974 to 1977 for the Labor Department’s headquarters in Washington. Their populist optimism earned Mr. Beal a dubious distinction.

The murals established Mr. Beal “as the most important Social Realist to have emerge in American painting since the 1930s,” wrote Hilton Kramer, the art critic for The New York Times. “Given the generally low esteem — a disfavor bordering at times on contempt — that the Social Realist impulse has suffered in recent decades, this is not a position likely to be a cause of envy.”

But the work was good, Mr. Kramer declared in a review in 1977. “The murals abound in visual incident, dramatic shifts of space and light and an unflagging energy,” he wrote, describing crowded scenes of neighbors helping neighbors, social workers rescuing children from factory jobs, scientists toiling side by side with laborers for the good of all. The overall effect, he said, was “breathtaking.”

Mr. Beal seemed not to care if his work was considered corny. “I think that what we have to try to do is to make beautiful paintings about life as we live it,” he said in a 1979 interview. Paintings, he said, “could lead people in a better direction.”

Walter Henry Beal Jr. was born on June 25, 1931, in Richmond, Va. His father, a factory worker, was also known as Jack. His mother was the former Marion Watkins. An only and often sickly child, young Jack took to drawing early and developed his interest while studying biology and anatomy at the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary, now known as Old Dominion University. Before earning a degree, he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied with Kathleen Blackshear and was influenced by the work of Arshile Gorky, he told interviewers.

The school was where he met Ms. Freckelton, a fellow student. They married in 1955 and moved to New York City in 1957, then to a farm upstate in Oneonta in the 1970s.

Mr. Beal’s paintings have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Virginia Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery. They can also be seen in the subway.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Beal was one of several artists, along with Lichtenstein, Jacob Lawrence and Toby Buonagurio, commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to produce works for the subway system. He decided on two 7-by-20-foot glass tile mosaic panels portraying the Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess who spends half the year above ground and half in the underworld.

The first panel to be completed, titled “The Return of Spring,” was installed on the mezzanine of the subway station complex under Times Square three days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (The second panel, The Onset of Winter, went up in 2005.) The Return of Spring shows Persephone emerging from a subway exit to buy flowers at a Korean greengrocer’s stall.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An abstract expressionist and figurative painter, Jack Beal was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1931.  As a young child he was often ill with ear infections and to take his mind off the pain his mother encouraged him to draw.  Although his drawing talent set him apart from his peers, Beal might never have become an artist if a professor at the College of William and Mary had not changed his life by telling him to leave school and go to The Art Institute of Chicago.  Beal followed this advice, studying for three years at The School of the Art Institute, where he learned to paint in the Abstract Expressionist style.

Eventually Beal began to move toward figuration in his work and is now considered "a realist's realist." "The trouble is," he says, "I have never been able to achieve the level of naturalism I would like."

His heroes in the realm of realism are the 17th-century Dutch painters. "They seem to have painted just as naturally as we eat or drink. There is a quality of believability in those paintings." Beal also greatly admires Renaissance art.

Beal taught at Cooper Union for a semester and quit.  He also taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, but he disliked both experiences.  He and his wife have, in a sense, opened an art institute of their own.  They have no children but "plenty of surrogate sons and daughters" in the promising young realist artists they take in and teach, both at their New York studio and at their upstate farm in Oneonta, New York.

Sources include:
Web-site of Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Gerrit Henry in Art News, December 1984.
Additional information provided by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Jack Beal was born in 1931 in Richmond, Virginia.  He attended the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary from 1950 to 1953.  Between 1953 and 1956, he studied art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with Kathleen Blackshear.  Beal was inspired by Blackshear, who taught the discipline of art history "as art, rather than simply as art history, making us take art apart and look at its component pieces…"(1)

He studied painting with Isobel Steele MacKinnon, who was an even more important influence.  A painter of Scottish descent, MacKinnon was a student of the German Expressionist Hans Hoffmann between 1925 and 1929.  Beal's fellow students at the SAIC included Red Grooms, Richard Estes, John Chamberlain and Claes Oldenburg.

In addition to his studies at the Art Institute, Beal attended classes at the University of Chicago between 1955 and 1956.  While at the SAIC, MacKinnon and others schooled Beal and his classmates in the basics of pictorial space and other instructors taught the tenets of Abstract Expressionism.  They were encouraged to follow in the footsteps of Willem de Kooning and others, painting organically conceived, abstract compositions with passionate, lively strokes of the brush.

In 1955 Beal married fellow student and sculptor Sondra Freckelton.  The couple moved to a loft in lower Manhattan the following year where they became acquainted with members of the "New York School" of Abstract Expressionists. Beal continued to work in that style for five more years, but eventually concluded that his passion for art reached beyond abstraction.  He recently told George Adams "I didn't want to be a second or third generation anything" (2)

Beal had been exposed to the work of the Old Masters at the SAIC and always had an affinity for the work of Velásquez. (3) As he told Adams, "I asked myself: 'If you love Velásquez so much, why don't you try to paint like him, with all the complexity and passion of the masters?' I wanted to paint like Velásquez—not de Kooning-does-Velásquez—but Velásquez… Alfred Leslie once said that he wanted to put back into art everything that modernism had taken out. That was how I felt, too." (4)

By1963, Beal and a handful of his peers began to abandon Abstract Expressionism. They developed a form of realist, narrative painting unlike the representational styles previously seen in American art. They made drawings and paintings from direct observation, but remained sensitive to the organic structure of the composition, continuing to make use of the fluid brushstrokes they developed as Abstract Expressionists.  Eric Shanes notes that during this period Beal became increasingly "accurate" in his description of objects, eschewing "the somewhat expressionistic depiction of forms and subjective emotional intensity of his earlier painting…"(5)

Like other so-called "new realists," Beal gradually withdrew from applying a broad, expressive brushstroke.  The edges of the figures and objects in his paintings became more tightly defined.  He departed from the more ambiguous and complex "light" of his expressionist paintings and began rendering his forms in an uni-directional light, complimented by cast shadows.  Like the 15th-century Italian artist Masaccio, Beal's work profoundly departed from that of the previous generation by breaking away from the flatness of abstraction.  Instead, his directed light reveals the forms in his paintings more sculpturally and in three dimensions.

Beal has been awarded several major commissions during his career, including a series of four murals he completed on the history of American labor for the General Services Administration at the Department of Labor Building in Washington, D.C. These paintings portrayed what Barbara Cavaliere refers to as "monumental statements of a sweeping moral nature which have earned Beal the position of being called the most prominent Social Realist since the 1930s generation."(6)

He has been a visiting lecturer at over 100 schools, universities and museums throughout the country.  Among the many public and private collections of art that include his paintings, Jack Beal's work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and Museum of Modern Art.

1. Jack Beal, from an interview quoted in Eric Shanes Jack Beal (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1993), 13.

2. George Adams, "Interview with Jack Beal," from Les Reker and George Adams, Abstract Expressionism and the New American Realism: Paintings by Jack Beal and Philip Pearlstein (Columbus, GA: Columbus Museum, 1999), 19. George Adams purchased his New York gallery and was able to retain many of the artists from Allan Frumkin.  It was in Chicago at Frumkin’s Superior Street Gallery where Beal first saw the work of many of the "first generation" Abstract Expressionists.

3. Diego Velásquez (1599-1660) was one of the great masters of the Baroque age and thought to be the finest painter Spain ever produced.  A court painter to King Philip IV, Velásquez painted large, complex, salon-style narratives with many figures, masterfully composed with brilliant color and bravura brushwork.  More a classicist than a Baroque artist, Velásquez became a model for many realist painters in subsequent years.

4. George Adams, "Interview with Jack Beal." This information is derived from Les Reker and George Adams, Abstract Expressionism and the New American Realism: Paintings by Jack Beal and Philip Pearlstein (Columbus, GA: Columbus Museum, 1999), 19. 5. Shanes, 22. 6. Barbara Cavaliere, "Jack Beal,” Contemporary Artists (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977), 75.

Submitted by the staff, Columbus Museum

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