Appreciation: Rico Lebrun (1900-1964)


Genesis, 1960, Polyvinyl acetate paint on gypsum plaster
29′ x 25′ Frary Hall, Pomona College
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston
Photo: courtesy Pomona College

We open square windows in rooms to look out upon the world. My windows are shaped by the irregular techtonics of dream and pain.–Rico Lebrun, 1958
Powerful, dark expositions of humanity are both the trademark and legacy of Italian immigrant artist Rico Lebrun. Steeped in traditional religious iconography, created with a rich earthy palette rendered through a lens of Cubo-Abstract Expressionism, Lebrun’s paintings and sculptures offer up a darker–and often overlooked–side to the “California Light” tradition of art practice. This sensibility has earned the artist labels ranging from humanist to theatrical, and currently “Abject Expressionist” by guest curator Michael Duncan of the exhibition “LA RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Although Lebrun’s story was in many ways eclipsed by the rising narrative of Pop, Finish Fetish and Ferus, his inclusion in a spectrum of PST exhibitions re-establishes the power of his work for today’s viewers. Among the earlier artists active in the nascent Southern California art world evoked by the Getty’s initiative, Lebrun’s story runs a different course than many of the later heroes of the SoCal scene.

Rico Lebrun was born at the turn of the 20th century in Naples, Italy, where he lived until his early twenties. Growing up in a city that had once been under Spanish rule for over a century, Lebrun’s art reveals the dual influence of Spanish artists, notably Goya and the later Picasso, and the grand themes and dramatic compositions of earlier Italian masters. Largely self-taught, Lebrun’s first formal art training began after his years of military service during his late teens in the Italian army during WWI, at the Naples Academy of Beaux Arts. Soon after, Lebrun became a designer for a stained glass factory in Naples, which led to his immigration to the States in 1924, for a one-year contract at the Springfield, Illinois branch of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.

When the contract expired, the young artist left for New York–Lebrun was still over a decade away from making his journey to the West Coast–where he found employment as a commercial artist and illustrator for several years for publications including Vogue and The New Yorker. He returned to Italy on several occasions in the early thirties, where he studied with the Italian painter Galimberti, and became engrossed with the murals of Michelangelo and Luca Signorelli (c. 1445-1523)–who left a markedly visible influence on Lebrun’s career. As Southern California art curator and critic Jules Langsner wrote in 1950, “Lebrun frankly considers himself a Baroque artist.” Lebrun returned to New York in 1936, where he began a short stint teaching at the Art Student League, received a commission to paint a mural at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum with Lewis Rubenstein (a work which was painted over shortly thereafter), and received subsequent Guggenheim grants in ’36 and ’37.

The thick, heavy figures of Lebrun have a weighty presence, earthbound with an almost gravitational pull; the artist’s own life stands in stark contrast, and is marked by an equal propensity for a change of address. In 1938, after disputes on his then-current project with the WPA, and divorce from his first wife–Lebrun journeyed across the States to settle in Los Angeles, via Santa Barbara.

Southern California was not widely considered as having a flourishing art scene in the years leading up to the Second World War; even the current Pacific Standard Time series takes a decidedly postwar assessment of the region. The West Coast was, however, known for its preponderance of art schools. The Chouinard Art Institute, founded in 1921 in Los Angeles, was among the earliest institutions on the West Coast. Lebrun accepted a teaching position at the school, where he met Elaine Leonard, who would become the artist’s second wife until her untimely death in the 1940s. Chouinard also led the artist to teach animation at Walt Disney Studios, most notably for the 1942 classic, “Bambi.”

Lebrun spent much of the mid-’40s working on the Crucifixion series, producing over 200 works in preparation of the final work, which were on exhibition both at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the De Young in San Francisco. The culmination of these preparations, now housed at Syracuse University, is a monumental triptych depicting the deposition from the cross. Full of allegory and symbolism, the work captures the dramatic lighting of Rembrandt’s somber etching Three Crosses (1653), the stark figures of Michelangelo’s sepia-toned drawing of the same subject, with the more prevalent influence of Picasso’s Guernica (1937).

By this time, Lebrun was well established, with a reputation that reached far beyond the West Coast. A decade after his Crucifixion, Lebrun took on the horror and tragedy of the Holocaust in a body of work collectively known as the Buchenwald series (1955-58) inspired, in part, by the devastating photographs he had seen of the concentration camps. Equally compelling as Goya’s searing Disasters of War, Lebrun portrayed the human form as fragmented bones, sinew and flesh, in shades of blackened grays and brown, as if in attempt to excavate the humanity lost during war.

Lebrun’s teaching career was an essential component of his legacy. In addition to the Students League and Chouinard, he taught in New Orleans and Colorado in the 1940s, at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel in the ’50s, and was a master instructor at Jepson Art Institute, where he befriended Howard Warshaw and his students included the likes of Robert Irwin and John Baldessari. He later taught at Yale in 1958, before returning for a yearlong artist residency in his native country.

When Lebrun returned to the West Coast in 1960, he was invited by then-professor and art critic Peter Selz to create a mural at Pomona College. In close proximity to Jose Clemente Orozco’s fiery Prometheus, undoubtedly an influence on the later artist, Lebrun also took on “creation” as the central theme of his work. Genesis, the only surviving mural by the artist, combines the stories from the book of Genesis to depict the birth, expulsion, original sin and redemption of mankind built around the central figure of Noah. Selz later described the mural of Lebrun’s stated goal as “transforming the ancient myth into contemporary form,” and recalled his invitation to the artist as “the most important thing I did at Pomona.”

In the later years of Lebrun’s life, he also began to experiment with sculpture. The interweaving delicate lines of his drawings transformed into carved incisions; the bulky, fragmented, and often headless, figures become mottled forms. Yet, however abstract, they retain a profound sense of humanity. For Lebrun, abstraction and fragmentation remained avenues to elevate the human form. In 1964, the prolific artist’s prolific career and ceaseless travels were cut short when artist became ill and died from cancer.

In 2000, art critic Roberta Carasso wrote of Lebrun, “The thread that binds all of Lebrun’s art is his deep love for humanity, which is never romantic or sentimental… Lebrun portrayed the outer body as an expression of humankind’s inner life.” Though written in reference to Lebrun’s Carnal Relations series inspired by literary sources including Dante’s Divine Comedy and works by Marquis de Sade, they apply as well to the rest of his work. Today, decades after their creation, Lebrun’s harrowed figures remain raw, at times distressing, and viscerally powerful.

reports page photo
Rico Lebrun in his studio, 1962
Photo: Richard Fish, courtesy of the artist’s estate and Koplin Del Rio