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Painter Vreelandt B. Lyman was a young man during the Depression. It was a time when the federal Work Projects Administration, better-known as the WPA, was paying artists to execute murals in government buildings. WPA even offered modest stipends to easel painters. (The idea was not only to enhance the grim environment but get a few more people off the bread lines as well.)

Lyman, from a prominent Buffalo family, more or less observed this turbulent scene from the outside. He studied at the Boston Museum School and, back home, worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps at Fort Niagara.

Judging from this retrospective of 62 works, Lyman readily absorbed and adapted many of the stylistic ideas that came out of the murals and paintings of that bleak period just before World War II. During Lyman's life modernism had not yet taken hold of American art. It was a time when various realist styles -- often with expressionistic overtones -- dominated. Lyman developed his own slant, adding at times "Byzantine" elements to expressive figures.

Lyman never lived to see his talent fulfilled. As a private in the U.S. Army stationed in India in 1946, he died in the streets of Calcutta in the aftermath of a civil conflict. He was not yet 34 years old. In 1947 the then Albright Art Gallery mounted a memorial exhibition of his work.

Lyman had at least a brief interest in modern abstraction, as shown by the carefully composed "Composition on the Spiral" of 1938, and later he would incorporate varying modern influences. In India he painted "Tea Shop on Rashberhari Avenue" (1945) with a hint of the linear freedom of Raoul Dufy. "Man in a Blue Turban," painted the same year, resonates with an echo of Matisse's masterful coupling of modernist ideas with classic Indian styles. Meanwhile, "Three Men," also from 1945, looks to the German expressionists for inspiration.

During the few years in India Lyman seems to have consciously tried to work away from what was a more distinctive American style. In India he became the more detached observer, producing portraits of workers and a number of dignitaries. Other works seem to strive for the grand serenity of the Indian miniature or royal portrait.

His earlier work has some of the tension of the better murals of the '30s. It is his better work because it is more personalized, seeming to grow directly from the artist's life.

These portraits and landscapes with figures were characterized by carefully worked tempera surfaces and an active, wiry line that could energize an entire picture. Two of the best are "Man With Yellow Hat (Self-Portrait)" (1940) and the ambitious "Artist's Wife Flying Kites in Landscape" (1939). Even in its restored state (it suffered heat damage at one point) the self-portrait, with its interrupting abstract angles and oddly foreshortened pipe jutting from the artist's stern mouth, is a compelling image. It effectively plays on the abstractive power of the Byzantine icon.

The kite-flying picture is probably his best single work. The eye is carried effortlessly across twisted ribbons of form that move from the tense woman's figure in the foreground to the discreetly undulating hills beyond. Lyman by then had a fine command of tempera, which allowed him to gave his surfaces a rich linear treatment that could hold immense detail without burying the overall structure of the painting. Everything is skillfully held in check, making the painting seem to rumble with an unnamed subterranean emotion.

There are many highlights in the rest of the show -- a number of relaxed, painterly landscapes, for instance -- and his portrait pencil drawings can be impressive, as in his "Dark Helen" and "Portrait of the Artist's Wife (Helen)," both from 1940. But many tossed-off sketches, gesture studies of animals and the incidental cabinetry are, at best, of only passing interest. Their number being so great in the total show, they can only dilute the overall impact.

One understands why a curator wants to get out into the world an art that has been hidden from view so long. But sometimes a retrospective doesn't best represent an artist. This, I think, is the case with Lyman. I counted maybe 25 or 30 fully resolved works that would impressively represent the artist's various styles. I suggest that this more concentrated view would have drawn a much better portrait of this worthy artist.

Vreelandt B. Lyman:
50 Years Later

A retrospective exhibition of a Buffalo artist who lived from 1912 to 1946. Curated by Richard Hamilton Stamps.

At Waligur-Doering Gallery, 213 Main St., Hamburg (648-7802), through Aug. 20.

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