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"It's a matter of religion to paint; to keep on painting is the main thing." —David Byrd, 2012
How often in any art dealer's career does one get offered the chance to work with a mature artist of significant vision who's had no influence from the market on his work?
In April we will show such an artist, a discovery of a significant and, as yet, unseen talent. David Byrd is an 87 year old painter and sculptor who has been making paintings and sculptures in rural NY for the last 65 years. He has never shown his art in a gallery; he has not had any exposure to the market until now. He is a trained artist, a bit of a loner, but not an outsider. Byrd currently lives and works in upstate NY in a great deal of solitude and devotion to his vision. His contact with the art of our time happens with occasional forays into NY or Boston to see notable exhibitions by artists he admires, through subscription to art magazines, and the purchase of art books.
I was introduced to Byrd by his neighbor and fellow artist Jody Isaacson, an artist represented by my gallery when we opened in 1983. (We will show Isaacson's work again next year.)
Isaacson sensed by the arrangement of work in his yard that another artist was living on her road and she sought to meet him. Upon their eventual introduction, she encouraged Byrd to show her his work. She related to me how moving she found the experience of seeing a life's work, complete and untouched.
In his modest home, built mostly by the artist's hands, Isaacson was astonished to see an entire history of this artist unfold in the 400 some paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures. I felt the same wonderment walking into his home for the first time myself a few weeks ago.
Byrd was born in 1926, Springfield, Illinois. His father left the home when he was a child. His mother was forced by economic circumstances to abandon Byrd and his five siblings to foster homes. Over four years the children were in three foster family homes. Several paintings, done from memory, document this period of upheaval in his life.
In 1942, his mother gathered her children back to her but could barely support them while working as a ticket seller at a movie theater. Byrd's mother encouraged him to find suitable employment, rather than pursue his artistic side. In 1945 Byrd joined the Merchant Marines and traveled through Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia before being drafted in to the US Army, as an artillerist. During wartime, Byrd filled sketchbooks with maritime themes and portraits of his fellow sailors and officers.
After the war ended he studied briefly, through the G. I. Bill, at the Dolphin School of Art in Philadelphia, and then at the Ozenfant School of Fine Arts, on the Lower East Side of New York City, gaining basic painting experience, rendering skills, and live model drawing. (Amédée Ozenfant was a Parisian painter, influenced by Paul Signac and Le Corbusier, and immigrated to US in 1938.)
Through the 1950s, Byrd lived in various places in NY, working at Coney Island, and at various odd jobs. Many of his genre scene paintings are from this period of listlessness. In 1958, he accepted employment as an orderly in the psychiatric ward at the Veteran's Administration Medical Hospital, Montrose, NY.
For the next 30 years, Byrd worked with doctors and nurses in care of the patients whose damage resulted from WW II, the Korean War, and the entirety of the Viet Nam War. This experience provided him with his defining body of paintings related to the patients and their individual behaviors, general routines, and distinct personalities. His daily commute to work provided him with views of bridges, waterways, mountains, and the regional landmarks of filing stations, cafes, shopping centers, and individual characters he noticed repeatedly along the way.
In 1988, Byrd retired from the hospital and moved to Sidney Center, buying a piece of land where he built his permanent home. For four years, Byrd lived in a small hunter's shack while he built the stone foundation for his home.
Most of the home and studio he built himself, relying on contractors for some framing and sheetrock work. Some of the architectural details of the home were salvaged from abandoned homes Byrd had scavenged from the previous areas in which he had lived.
Byrd was also an active bottle collector, attending auctions and shows, and trading and dealing his collection for the pleasure of it.
Between 1992 and 2012, Byrd devoted himself to painting, from memory, the places, people and situations he had seen in his previous lives. Sometimes working from small sketches, Byrd captured a great deal of his experience in figural and landscape paintings. Byrd has a subdued palette, a minimal paint surface, and a very striking sense of composition. He pays great attention to the inter-relationship between space and shape, revealing a wondrous push and pull to the negative and positive space in his work.
According to Byrd, "Painting is all about observation and experience. You have to see the details and have a general idea of the picture from your own experience."
During the last 20 years, Byrd also began a series of wood sculptures, sometimes combining found objects, sometimes carving large blocks of wood into life size figures.
Though Byrd did not become a disciple of Ozenfant, one can sense the formality of Ozenfant in Byrd's love of the arrangement of objects on a plane, and in his sophisticated color relationships in evoking them. Byrd was also aware of other artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, George Tooker, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, and the French painters Georges Seurat and Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola).
It is striking to me that, while not ignorant of recent art history, nor of the canon of 20th century artists, Byrd's work is entirely self-possessed and unique in its vision and scope. Byrd's work is anachronistic in that he has remained true to the period of his formation as an artist. One senses the concerns of the artists of the 1930s and 1940s, of social realism, and of genre painting.
Here is that great anomaly in the art world: a fully formed artist, with a tremendous history of painting, but untouched by the commercial world. I feel as if I have been handed a wonderful opportunity and a substantial obligation to place this artist into the history of 20th century art.
Our exhibition in April will occupy the entire first floor of the gallery and will include nearly 100 of his oil paintings on canvas, works on paper, and found and carved wood sculpture. We will separate the work by subject and format within four separate galleries. The front main space will show the largest works of about 3 x 4 feet to 4 x 5 feet. The second and third spaces will reveal his smaller canvases and works on paper, including a series of boxing drawings from the late 1940s. The fourth gallery will show the institutional paintings, often drawn as sketches, and then reworked to be complete, and very moving, paintings detailing the lives of the patients under his care.