A pioneer of photorealism visits North Adams


NORTH ADAMS — If you attend the April 28 artist reception for "Tom Blackwell: Motorcycles and Mannequins" at The Artist Book Foundation's Louis and Susan Meisel Gallery, don't ask the photorealist about the finer points of a Harley-Davidson or a Yamaha.

"I have never ridden a motorcycle. I know nothing about them," Blackwell told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.

Mind you, it would be fair to inquire. For nearly five decades, bikes have been a focus for the painter. They dominate the artist's 11-work show on display through June 2 at the foundation, which published a Blackwell monograph, "Tom Blackwell: The Complete Paintings, 1970-2014," in 2016. Blackwell's fascination with motorcycles is purely aesthetic.

"The interest, really, for me as a painter is [the] quality of reflected light on the chrome parts of bikes," he said.

Cultural weight plays a role, too. Plumbing fixtures or kitchenware don't have motorcycles' resonance.

"They are symbolic of speed, power, mobility, sexiness," Blackwell said.

"It's very much Americana," Leslie Pell van Breen, The Artist Book Foundation's publisher/executive director, said of the pieces at the Building 13 gallery on the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's campus.

Instead of querying the painter about compression figures and fuel ratios, then, guests at the reception next Saturday (part of a building-wide open house from 3 to 7 p.m.) would be wise to pry about photorealism's intricacies. Blackwell is one of the artistic movement's pioneers, using photographic source material to create hyper-realistic paintings. He will participate in a panel discussion at the event with Louis Meisel, who is widely considered the father of photorealism.

"In 1969, I coined the word Photorealism when an art critic demanded a name for the very precise, camera-assisted and photo-derived assembling of information for a painting. I had mounted a show at Meisel Gallery on Madison Avenue and 79th Street in New York City. The critic then wrote a commentary stating 'Meisel Gallery is showing Photorealism,'" Meisel writes in the preface to "Tom Blackwell."

Three years later, Attorney Stuart M. Speiser commissioned Meisel to form a collection of photorealists' work. Aviation was the desired focus.

"I wouldn't ask these artists to paint airplanes," Meisel, reached by phone on Tuesday, recalled saying at the time.

But many still agreed to do so. Blackwell was the first artist Meisel contacted. Blackwell had started to receive attention for motorcycle works; the jump to airplanes didn't seem too far-fetched.

"He wanted to paint how things reflected on chrome," Meisel said of Blackwell, underscoring the consistency of the artist's purpose over the years.

Blackwell painted four planes, including a depiction of an airplane motor, called "White Lightning" (1973). It ultimately traveled from Speiser's collection to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

In addition to Blackwell, Richard Estes, Chuck Close and Ralph Goings were among the 13 original photorealists, who have now had works shown in museums around the world. (Blackwell's paintings are in the Museum of Modern Art's and the Guggenheim Museum's collections, among others.)

One of Blackwell's earliest works, "Thompson Street Triumph" (1975), occupies a 51- by 66 1/4-inch plot of wall near the entrance of the North Adams gallery. Blackwell, who was born in Chicago in 1938, eventually moved to New York City's SoHo neighborhood. Walking down Thompson Street one day, he spotted a parked Triumph motorcycle, leaning on its side stand. The oil-on-canvas conveys the classic vehicle's reflective beauty.

"Here is, on the street, this ordinary thing that anybody would walk by and not give it a second thought. But if you really stopped and looked at it, it was quite amazing," Blackwell recalled.

"Rhinebeck Red, East Market Street" (2017) is at the other end of gallery. It's a new work, the only one in the show that hasn't made its way to a museum, yet. The artist hasn't scaled back as he's aged — the 59-by-80-inch oil-on-canvas has room to both highlight a parked red bike and capture a tree-lined street in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where Blackwell now lives.

"It's just a very picturesque small town. Rhinebeck's known for its charm and historical interest and all that. It's a really, all-American, Norman Rockwell sort of town," Blackwell said.

He was returning from an art supply store when he came upon this particular bike.

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"And I said, `Wow, look at that.' The bike was incredible to begin with, but the setting, that bucolic country setting, just really kind of set the scene," the artist recalled.

As the exhibit's title conveys, the show isn't just an homage to Blackwell's motorcycle paintings. Reflected storefronts have also been central to Blackwell's work, starting with "Main Street (Keene, NH)" in the mid-1970s.

"This is dealing with the kind of spatial and reflective issues that I'm interested in," Blackwell recalled thinking when examining that painting's source material.

He cited "GM Showroom" (1975) as a "breakthrough" in his reflected storefront works. A car is rotating inside, while a romantic reflection of Central Park is visible in the window.

"My paintings are all about odd juxtapositions and strange contrasts, and anomalies in a way," he said.

Neither of the afore-mentioned storefront paintings is in the show, but they inspired a later focus on mannequins, which is represented at the gallery.

"I painted a number of the mannequin paintings. In fact, I wish I had more of them in the show because it emphasizes the bikes, which, I don't disavow the bikes, but I think if they had more mannequin paintings, for me, my painterly issues would be clearer," he said.

The largest such work, "Sequined Mannequins" (1985), portrays a Bergdorf Goodman storefont. A mannequin is inside, and since the shop is on a corner, the viewer can see a passerby peering in from around the bend.

"It's quite a complex situation. You're both seeing something in the interior, a reflection and all the way through to the other window, which shows pedestrians walking by," Blackwell said.

Before he paints, Blackwell takes a variety of photographs of his source material from different positions. He likes shooting from a low angle, "slightly below what you would see if you were just walking by," he said.

He calls it "a bug's-eye view."

"It dramatizes the compositions," he said.

Though he's constantly taking photographs, he doesn't think he should be associated with the profession.

"I'm someone who's not a photographer at all," he said. "I'm someone who's visually engaged at all times."


What: "Tom Blackwell: Motorcycles and Mannequins"

When: Artist reception Saturday, April 28 from 3-5:30 p.m. Exhibit up through June 2; viewing hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and Saturdays by appointment

Where: Louis and Susan Meisel Gallery at The Artist Book Foundation, Building 13 (second floor), 1327 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

Admission: Free

Information: 413-398-5600; artistbkfoundation.org

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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