In his own words, "the important thing about (his) biography is that (he) moved to New York City in 1952 as a 19-year-old, and got in on the ground floor of a really important abstract expressionist movement." I might argue that all the chairs on the ground floor had already been spoken for, but Lethem was definitely in the building. In 1952 Willem de Kooning painted "Woman V," which immediately became one of the signature pieces of the AbEx movement. It was also the year Harold Rosenberg coined the term "action painting," which referred to the mounting trend among New York painters like de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Philip Guston to treat the canvas as its own painting table rather than a space in which to render a picture. Lethem exhibited widely in New York and the Midwest, lectured at Columbia University, started a family and became a public intellectual. This may have limited his impact as one of the country's great abstract painters, but it certainly didn't short him any source material.
COUNTERPOINT ‘Wink/Blue Table,’ by Richard Brown Lethem, acrylic, oil, charcoal, and paint stick on cotton, 48 by 52 inches.
Lethem's story may not be the trainhopper's yarn of a Bob Dylan or Sam Shepard, but in the slipstream of 20th-century American identities it's not far off. In his biography, you get chapters of several significant themes: the particular horrors of the segregated South, the widespread response to the New York vanguard of postwar visual-art, academia's role in Vietnam War resistance, the bottled violence of American masculinity, the weathering of tragic familial loss, a son who grows up emulating his father and adolescently spurns him before ultimately immortalizing him in an art form entirely his own, and so on. In the right light, you get those themes in his paintings, too. "For my entire life I've been trying to mine the subconscious," he explains to me in the gallery, and though it may require some mining on the part of the viewer, his new paintings add quite a lot to the story.
They're also very good. "Ground" (oil, charcoal, and paint stick on linen, 64 by 78 inches), which Lethem submits as the exhibit's centerpiece, sets the tone with a foundational bright red color field, from which he summons a grab bag of imagery derived from — again, no influence rejected — his experiences at the Berwick waste station. "Wink/Blue Table" (acrylic, oil, charcoal, and paint stick on cotton, 48 by 52 inches) complements "Ground" in gorgeous blue, a woman's face the subject of a sort of miniature gallery. "Pruner" (oil, charcoal, and paint stick on linen, 20 by 22 inches) and "Table of Contents" (acrylic, oil, and charcoal on cotton, 48 by 52 inches) function similarly; the figure in the former owes most clearly to de Kooning, while the latter might be viewed as a centerpiece of another sort.