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Reworking a Portrait of the Artist

Painter Rico Lebrun a brooding figure? Not so, say a book and show. For starters, he was quite a writer.

April 22, 2001|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman is a San Diego art writer and critic

Rico Lebrun is a familiar name in Los Angeles, where he lived and taught, painted and sculpted in the decades preceding his death in 1964, but his legacy is hard to pin down. David Lebrun, Rico's son, and James Renner, an artist living in San Diego, co-editors of a recently released book on the artist, both sense a disparity between the power of Lebrun's work and the amorphous quality of his influence. He's been misunderstood, David Lebrun contends. He's underrated, says Renner.

Their efforts, including "In the Meridian of the Heart: Selected Letters of Rico Lebrun," which was released by publisher David Godine last fall, should help rectify the situation. The book's focus on the artist's final decade and a half is echoed in a show of late drawings and paintings that opened Saturday at West Hollywood's Koplin Gallery, which represents Lebrun's estate.

If the vigor and complexity of Lebrun's work open some eyes among the book's audience, his writing is sure to drop some jaws. He wrote prolifically, continually, and had an unusually vivid grasp of English, which he taught himself when he immigrated to New York from Naples, Italy, in his 20s.

"He was one of those people who studied the dictionary and read great literature, great 19th century literature-a lot of it," explains David Lebrun, surrounded by his father's drawings at the gallery. "Among his favorite writers in English were Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville. So he was acquiring this incredible, rich vocabulary not usual for the 20th century. You see a passage of his prose and it's very distinctive, immediately recognizable."

In "In the Meridian of the Heart," letters to his wife and friends include ample hints of Lebrun's savory style: "I would like someday to be bitten by the fangs of a drawing, a raging mad drawing, so mad that when they try to frame it they all get bitten and drop it like a dog with rabies."

Writing, for him, was warming up, another form of drawing, a way to exercise the muscles of vision and perception. He'd wake at 4 in the morning, his son recounts, and start writing while his coffee brewed.

"Some of the pieces he wrote were descriptions of what he'd see in the morning-the paper towel roll, the coffeepot, poetry taking off from where he [was]. Sometimes he would write lists of colors or lists of textures. Sometimes he would be working out anger at other artists or at critics who had marginalized him."

Because he dwelt long and hard in his art on the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, Lebrun was assumed to be a dark, brooding figure, a characterization that David Lebrun scoffs at and that the artist's own vibrant and often humorous letters defy. His mode of approaching the figure, through fragmentation, abstraction, repetition and multiple viewpoints, also led to his being miscast.

"There was a tendency among writers to put him in opposition to Abstract Expressionists," David Lebrun says. "It was an oversimplification that drove Rico nuts, because in many ways he was very close to Abstract Expressionism. It bothered him that people would constantly refer to him as somebody who was a protester against man's inhumanity to man, that he was a social artist. That was more of a byproduct. His real battle was with the paint and the image." That intensely personal reckoning with form struck a chord in Renner, who discovered Lebrun after dropping out of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in the late 1970s. He had been captivated by a Lebrun drawing in a book and sought out more, finally finding-through the machinations of fate, as he describes it-a rare copy of a 1961 book combining the artist's drawings and autobiographical text.

"I fell in love not only with his work but his writing," Renner remembers. "He was able to express himself so fluently, with his use of metaphor and analogy, imagery and drama. He was able to pull it off in such a way that seemed very honest to me at the time. It was something that I really needed as a young art student, to find somebody with passion and a certainty about what he was about."

After years of pursuing more information about Lebrun, spending time with his widow, Constance, and tracking down many previously undiscovered letters, Renner, in collaboration with David Lebrun, put together "In the Meridian of the Heart." What emerges from the 14-year sequence of letters is a picture of Lebrun as intensely driven, passionate and affectionate. He's not the tragic figure he's been made out to be, but he always struggled to push himself into new territory, says David.

"He put huge demands on himself, and was very seldom satisfied with his own work. It bothered him when people put aside big ambitions and stopped failing in a big way. That was his battle."

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