It's the muggiest of Friday summer afternoons but the temperature inside the relentlessly white-walled Anderson Gallery is like an ice box.
Just beyond the lobby a meticulous installation painstakingly takes shape. The gallery director, Ashley Kistler, confers with Michael Lease and Michael Van Stavern, the exhibitions manager and student assistant respectively, as they recreate — reverently almost — the interior artist studio of the late Richard Carlyon (1930-2006).
Using a ruler for accuracy and dozens of photographs as reference points the Anderson staff has placed Carlyon's countless tubes of paint, meticulously cleaned brushes, assorted ephemera (what are those plastic Batman masks doing there?) and hundreds of recordings — a collection ranging from Aretha Franklin to Pet Shop Boys to Bobby Short — on shelves and in spaces approximating the artist's meticulous West Broad Street loft work space.
In other rooms throughout the gallery, drawings, paintings and prints will be hung chronologically, from his earliest collages to later works that included ink-on-parchment plottings of Martha Graham's choreography. “I am interested in how dance infiltrated everything he did,” Kistler says as she contemplates the unusual one-man show that will be held in three venues in addition to the Anderson.
“Richard Carlyon: A Retrospective” opens simultaneously Friday, Sept. 11, at the Anderson, at 1708, a gallery Carlyon helped found, at the Visual Arts Center and at the Reynolds Gallery, which presented the last show of his career. This collaboration, rare even in a city where visual arts organizations are mutually supportive, is shaping up to be far more than a penetrating and exhaustive look at one artist. It's a celebration and an extended goodbye to a modest individual who set a consistently high bar for what it means to be a thoroughly engaged thinker, educator and craftsman.
“It's astonishing what he accomplished in that Broad Street studio working quietly,” Kistler says, watching his studio space re-emerge in the gallery setting. She recalls how VCU sculpture professor Lester Van Winkle once pulled his students to the window to witness sprite-like Carlyon make his way along a Broad Street sidewalk en route to his studio. “He asked the students if they knew that white-haired guy in the black jacket,” she says. “He asked if they knew where he was going. It was wonderful for Van Winkle to be able to talk to the students about Richard's commitment to his work and his work habits. If they stood there at that time every day they would see him go to his studio.”
During his lifetime while Carlyon neither sought the spotlight nor regularly exhibited in New York he steered toward the cutting edge of broader art world trends while continually pushing himself intellectually. He began his career as a painter, explored dance and then pushed his work from abstract to conceptual.
“It's amazing how many people don't know his work,” says Beverly Reynolds, curator and owner of the Reynolds Gallery, which will present two shows as part of the retrospective. “Early and Late” includes 24 works ranging from oil paintings from the late 1950s — “It shows what a good artist he was to begin with” — to works in the 1960s and '70s, “when he started to pare things down,” says Reynolds, who was a student of Carylon's at VCU soon after moving here with her husband in the late 1970s. The “Eleanor” exhibition will feature drawings of Carlyon's wife in a black bathing suit. “She kept coming forward, she kept being present,” Reynolds says of Eleanor Rufty, whom Carlyon married in Richmond in 1962 and who's also in the top tier of Richmond artists. “The drawings he did of her are very sexy — Eleanor the muse.”
At the Visual Arts Workshop, its curator, Katherine Huntoon, is presenting a show entitled “Chance.” The 15 works done between the 1950s and 1990s at 1708 are being packaged as “Interval.” Here, co-curators Brad Birchett and Gregg Carbo, who both studied with Carlyon, are seeking to present “a mediation between polarities,” Birchett says. “Dick's work deals with the spaces between here and there. One's eye can be directed to those spaces and those spaces can be activated [by the artist] or ignored.”
“There was such a wealth of work,” the Anderson's Kistler says of the multigallery endeavor, “there was plenty of riches to go around.”
Carlyon's career also was closely intertwined with the evolution and growth of VCU's School of the Arts. Born in Dunkirk, N.Y., a fishing and steel town on Lake Erie, Carylon was a liberal arts major at the University of Buffalo who was inspired by painters Miro and Soutine to study art. In 1950 he enrolled at Richmond Professional Institute, the predecessor to VCU, in art studies and received a bachelor's degree in fine arts. For his physical education credit he'd taken dance. In 1953 he hoped to study dance in New York with Martha Graham, but was drafted and served in Europe immediately after the Korean War.
“Carlyon came to art at a time when artists were preoccupied more with making art than with careers,” art historian Rissatti writes in his catalog essay.
It's almost quitting time but the Anderson Gallery bell rings and a casually dressed young man approaches the installation in progress. It's Carlyon's 37-year-old son, Jason, a VCU professor of microbiology and immunology. He chats with the gallery staff and inspects the re-emerging of his father's studio which he first visited two decades ago. “After I got my driver's license, I'd sometimes pick him up at the studio,” he recalls. “I remember walking up the steps and seeing this for the first time. It was packed with paints and brushes. There were a lot of paintings and collages with two or three paintings on the floor. I'd never paid much attention before to what he was doing. But I was standing there with my jaw open and thinking, ‘How cool is this?’”
“Move: A Tribute to Richard Carlyon,” will be presented by the VCU Department of Dance and Choreography on Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St., 828-2020 (reservations recommended).
“Richard Carlyon: A Retrospective,” will be on display starting Sept. 11 with different exhibits at the following venues:
907 1/2 W. Franklin St.
1514 W. Main St.
319 W. Broad St.
Visual Arts Center
1812 W. Main St.