The Journeys of John Laub (1947-2005): Fire Island and Beyond
April 8 – August 13, 2017
Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia
John Laub was a representational painter whose work had significant success during his lifetime and at a time of movements in art hostile to the representational depiction of the real.
Born in Philadelphia and trained both there and in New York, Laub moved permanently to New York in 1984.
A gay man, Laub came face to face with the immense crisis of AIDS: the suffering of thousands and thousands of men (primarily men); the wasting deaths; the evil of an official propaganda which justified the death-bearing delay of significant help to a community seen as marginal, superfluous, immoral.
John Laub threw himself into the large work of the gay community to counter this.
Throughout, John Laub worked. Outside. Face to face with the subjects of his art.
These he represented with vivifying colour, some on a large scale and all with bold, strenuous, and disciplined brushwork.
The maturity of his discipline can be seen in at least two ways.
1. Master colorist that he was, and a sensualist also, John Laub nevertheless restricted his colours to six:
Rose madder deep
Cadmium yellow light
Courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia
2. The second and telling evidence of his mature discipline is his use of yellow. The artist does not use yellow on every canvas. Where he does, the use is very skilled.
As we know, yellow is the first colour the human eye sees.
In most of these works, the artist uses yellow sparingly and as a means of leading the viewer’s eyes from one point to another in the canvas so that the whole canvas is absorbed both bit by bit and, finally, as a mellifluous, coherent whole.
Dickie Dog’s canines are yellow, too, in one painting. Not mellifluous but all of a piece with the excitable canine behavior which is the subject of that painting!
I love the guidance of this yellow.
Its effect is to allow you to absorb the subject matter as though you are a part of it.
And am grateful because a roomful of Laubs can leave you overwhelmed with our sensational world to which you have not been paying such life-enhancing attention!
Last Morning Party, 1998, oil on linen
This is a painting where yellow is, however, in its full glory.
The Woodmere’s note for this painting is that John Laub worked for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a New York based organization providing health care services for people with AIDS. He also volunteered his service as a graphic designer and many posters for the annual Morning Party fundraiser for GMHC were his work.
This fund raiser was held on the beach at Fire Island.
This is the artist’s community. It is depicted in a field of yellow. All eyes are turned to the dazzling pavilion. So are ours.
Even here, where our eye might be overwhelmed, we are guided.
The artist’s luminescent green-yellow and yellow-cream flags take us around the back edge of the beach and down the left diagonal yellow edge opposite the pavilion.
And so we take in the whole scene not only in its flamboyant busyness but also in its compact coherence.
Here we have in front of us in one painting what seem to me to be the senses of John Laub’s life.
He created a space – in the real world and in his representation of the real world – for liveliness, sensuality, an open-ended absorption of the real as it presents itself, for focus, colour, discipline, for welcome and safe harbour, and for altruistic effort. Despite and because of the world as he knew it.
Aren’t these the instructive senses of John Laub’s life worked on one wonderful canvas after another?
And, undoubtedly, working still in the memory of all those who knew him and his work?
In us too, perhaps, now?
Last Morning Party and details, 1998, oil on linen
Inside Sumner’s Garden, 1996, oil on linen
In the canvas of Sumner’s garden, the luscious blue water in the foreground with its imperious dark blue arrows pointing upwards and outwards competes for our attention with the mottled yellow-greens of the surrounding ferns.
Until the eye is drawn inexorably through the yellow-greens of the mid-picture ferns to the spotted masses of outright yellow at the top of the painting.
To be drawn sideways across the deepest part of the woods.
And downwards again……….until you have taken in the whole canvas in its mass of lively and lush detail!
Inside Sumner’s Garden and details, 1996, oil on linen
Chairs in the Cutting Garden, 1994, serigraph
The pale cream yellow of the path leads you almost to the chair at the back. But not quite because more insistent than the chair are the flowers – yellow flowers – in the center right and extreme right, waiting to be cut.
Yellow-orange takes your eye up the vertical spine of a short tree with yellow flowers on the extreme right hand of the painting to the edge of the picture frame. And outside it.
From which heady place your eye is drawn across the top of the picture to the extreme left of the painting.
Down to the pots perched on the garden’s enclosure. They bear yellow-orange flowers. Down the yellow spotted vine. And finally to the yellow intermittencies showing up at the bottom left of the painting.
Here you are at the path at which you started.
And it has all been a delicious flutter through the organized intensity of a cutting garden in bloom!
Chairs in the Cutting Garden and details, 1994, serigraph
Villefranche and details, 1995, oil on linen
Grand Canyon and details, 1988, oil on pastel
Morning Fog, 1995, oil on linen
Path From the Carrington House, 1996, oil on linen
Autos Along Ocean Drive and details, 1995
Tahiti Garden and details, 1999, oil on linen
A yellow beacon of a double-chambered heart of iris radiating light.
Big Boat in Harbor and details, 1992, oil on linen
Flowers, “100 Million in Sales Party at Serono, 1997, oil on linen
A necklace of bright yellow to take our eyes across the crown of this painting and down to the tablecloth and oranges.
The story of this painting, (in the catalogue of this exhibition on Woodmere’s website) is another example of the sense that the artist made of his life and work.
Woods Behind The Cabin and detail, 2002, oil on linen
Central Park, 1985, oil on canvas
Tuileries Café and details, 1998, oil on linen
Boats By The Dock in the Harbor, 1992, silkscreen
Fall, Willow Brook and details, 1997, oil on linen
Fire Island Pines Harbor At Night and details, oil on linen, 1987
Night comforted and made inviting, exciting by a judicious use of yellow and orange.
Self-Portrait, Frontal View, 1979, oil on linen. A triptych.
Fire Island Pines Deck on the Bay, 1987, oil on linen
Yellow in a cool lap across this pool.
And, if you prefer, you can loiter on the near deck with the yellow and orange of the flowers and look at the pool in the direction of the yellow slats of the deck.
The yellow which outlines the far sea horizon will raise and rest your eyes just below the clouds!
Good Hope Plantation and details, 1994, oil on linen
Table Tops and details, 1991, oil on linen
Dickie Dog and details, 1990, oil on linen