Tom Blackwell, pioneering Photorealist painter, dies at 82

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Tom Blackwell, pioneering Photorealist painter, dies at 82
Portrait of Tom in Studio working on "Swiss Miss". Photographed by Tess Steinkolk.

NEW YORK, NY.- Thomas "Tom" Leo Blackwell, a founding artist of the Photorealist movement whose iconic paintings of motorcycles and city storefronts revived the New York art scene’s interest in realism, died on April 8 in a hospital near his home in Rhinebeck, NY. He was 82.

His death on Wednesday was confirmed by his wife, Linda Chase. The cause was complications from the coronavirus.

For more than a half-century, Tom Blackwell has been regarded as one of the original pioneers and innovators in Photorealist painting. Self-taught, he was one of the first artists in the late 60s to fully immerse himself in a style that was initially dubbed “New Realism.” By the early 70s, Blackwell’s iconic large-scale paintings of highly chromed motorcycles and car engines put him at the forefront and propelled his success as a Photorealist, garnering praise from curators and collectors.

A master colorist, Blackwell’s interest in the reflectivity of artificial surfaces, as well as the juxtaposition between light and shadow, were continual inspirations for his work. Using photographs as his source material, Blackwell’s imagery evolved to eventually include motorcycles in situ, airplanes, and storefront windows, which explored the interplay between store-window displays and reflections that captured urban street-life.

Photography leant itself perfectly to the translation of visual information from eye to hand to canvas, allowing Blackwell to recreate cinematic stills of fleeting moments. He became a founding member of a group of New York realist painters, who are known as the Photorealists. Painting in the highly detailed style of Photorealism provided him the opportunity to explore “the complex visual experience of the contemporary world, the complexities of the light, the shadings of color, tonality and spatial relationships.”

American curators were quick to embrace Blackwell’s Americana subject matter in this newly emerging Photorealist style. In 1972, Orphan Annie, a work from his early Rod and Cycle series, was included in the Whitney Annual. And during the 70s, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum acquired Blackwell’s work for their permanent collections in rapid succession. In the decades since, Blackwell’s paintings have been acquired by dozens of museums and institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Parrish Art Museum, the Speed Art Museum, amongst others.

Tom Blackwell was born in Chicago on March 9, 1938. Although from a disadvantaged background, for a short time in his early childhood Blackwell was enrolled in the Ffoulkes School, whose teaching models were a precursor to the Montessori approach. It was there that his artistic proclivities were recognized, greatly encouraged and rewarded. A seminal point in Tom’s life was a trip at age 11 to see the van Gogh exhibit the Art Institute of Chicago. Blackwell later stated that he was thrilled by the work and the story of van Gogh’s life—“seeing that show…that was when I realized that there was such a thing as being an artist, that it could be a life’s work, and I knew that’s what I was going to be.”

In high school, his family moved to Incline, California, outside of Yosemite National Park. It was here that Blackwell first began to sell small watercolors, scenes inspired by the park’s majestic landscape. Ansel Adams ran a gallery/art supply store in the valley at that time and the photographer became an inspiration and supporter of the young artist’s work.

At 17, Tom enlisted in the Navy. He hoped to attend art school on the G.I. bill. However, the benefits of the G.I. bill were rescinded for veterans who did not serve during war time, so his hopes were never realized. Thereafter, he moved to Laguna Beach, where he became an active and noted member of the Laguna art colony. His abstract expressionist work showed early promise and was featured in solo shows in several West Coast galleries and museums. He lived for a time in Los Angeles and San Francisco and then later in Woodstock, New York.

In the late 60s, he moved to New York City, where he began to explore the media-derived representational imagery that the Pop artists were employing. He met his future wife, author Linda Chase, and they married in 1969. Drawn to the newly emerging SoHo arts district, they purchased an abandoned factory space and converted it into a sprawling loft where they lived with Linda’s daughter Leila. That same year, Blackwell’s Pop-inspired painting “Gook”, which was a reaction to the horrors of the Vietnam War, was included in “Human Concern Personal Torment” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

By the 70s, Blackwell’s unabashed embrace of the realism and the photographic source was both modern and radical, and it was an approach he shared with several other artists who came of age in the late 60s, including California artists Ralph Goings, Robert Bechtle, and Richard McLean, and several New York painters, including Chuck Close and fellow Chicago native Richard Estes. This new style was coined “Photorealism” by art dealer Louis Meisel.

Blackwell’s work was represented in New York by the O.K. Harris Gallery, the Bernard Danenberg Galleries, the Sydney Janis Gallery, Allan Stone Gallery, Carlo Lamagna Gallery and the Louis K. Meisel Gallery.

In 1976, Blackwell joined Louis K. Meisel Gallery, who still represents his work today. “The year he joined my gallery,” Meisel recalls, “he painted the landmark Jaffrey. In this composition, he painted a classic Blackwell motorcycle in front of a small-town store window, beautifully combining what are the two most important themes of his work. It is not often that an artist has a major and key work acquired by arguably the most important museum in the world—the Museum of Modern Art. Since that time, we have shared many wonderful years working together; Blackwell was always a leader of the Photorealist movement, right up through the digital age.”

Blackwell pursued Photorealism throughout the entirety of his career. In the late 80s and early 90s, he also produced a body of work that he called Montage Paintings which featured combined photo-derived images that explored urban and rural contrasts and issues of art-making, which were the subject of several solo museum shows. During this period, Blackwell also taught in the Masters Program of the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1985-1989, and was an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College, Keene State University, New Hampshire and the University of Arizona.

In recent years, numerous Photorealist exhibitions have celebrated Blackwell’s contributions to the movement and to the art world at large, at venues that have included the Deutsche Guggenheim (2009), the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (2013), the New Orleans Museum of Art (2014-15), the Musée d’Ixelles (2016), and the Parrish Art Museum (2017-2018). And in 2016, The Artist Book Foundation published a volume on the artist, Tom Blackwell: The Complete Paintings 1970-2014.

Blackwell viewed the Photorealist style as a vehicle that prompted his audience to look beyond the surface of the composition and of reality itself. “I love the way these images caught by the photograph confound your visual expectations,” he has said. “The way the outside world intrudes or gets invited in by the re­flections, whether it’s a chrome hubcap, a rearview mirror or a plate glass window.”

As Carter Ratcliff adeptly discusses in his essay about the artist, “[m]any have noted the reflectiveness of the chrome and the sheets of plate glass that appear in so many of Blackwell’s paintings. The reflective surfaces “expand the space depicted to include things actually outside the scene encompassed by the canvas.” Ratcliff comments on the quiet brilliance of Blackwell’s brushwork and goes on to say: “With the unflagging responsiveness of his eye and painterly touch, Blackwell reveals what he calls ‘the ineffable in the commonplace.’”

He is survived by his wife, Linda Chase, his step-daughter, Leila Knox, his brothers Patrick and James and his sister Janet.

For more information about the life and career of Tom Blackwell, please visit Louis K. Meisel Gallery's tribute to the artist via this link.

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