When I arrived at the Hahn Gallery's opening reception for John Lear's one man show May 5, the show had been up for three days, and there were already little red dots next to more than half the works on exhibit.
The 86-year-old Lear continues to create (all the works in this show were completed within the past two years) and his creations continue to find favor with both art cognoscenti and the general art-loving (and art- buying) public.
Why is this artist able to sell large numbers of works in a few days at a time when most people in the art community are bewailing a "depressed" market?
Setting aside for the time being questions of quality, one factor may be simply that the artist wants his works to be seen and to find homes, and he prices them to be within the reach of most budgets.
Gentlemanly and self-effacing, Lear has strong opinions about how the art market seems to work. What a work of art is worth, he says, is not the same as what someone may be willing to pay for it at auction on a particular day. Indeed, he voices a belief that when prices for a Van Gogh skyrocketed into the millions, "It was because he cut of his ear and became the subject of a book and a movie."
Some of this, he says is the fault of art journalists. "Whenever you write about an artist you try to put in something interesting about the artist as a person -- not about what he does with paint and brushes."
As another example of prices that reflect the celebrity of the artist rather than the quality of the work, Lear recounts the story of a nationally known artist who was shocked to realize that pencil-signed lithographs of one of his watercolors were being sold for more than he had charged for the original painting. "If a pencil signature is worth thousands of dollars, fine. Because that's all they were really selling. The lithograph was nothing more than a picture of a picture."
Lear says he continues to offer his works at prices similar to those he charged 40 years ago because, "I'm never inspired to paint a picture by what I can get for it. For me the important things are, one, finishing a painting to my satisfaction; and two, getting it exposure -- getting it on a wall where people can see it. If a painting isn't seen, it isn't doing its job."
If art should be judged on the basis of quality rather than notoriety, what are the qualities that Lear looks for in a work of art?
"If I were a collector, I wouldn't choose on the basis of images. It would be color and mood that would attract me. When I jury a show I look for composition, draftsmanship, the use of color and lastly, technique -- how the medium is applied. That, by the way, is what you don't get when you buy a picture of a picture."
Although Lear's work is representational, he stresses that it is not intended as recordings of specific people or places.
"Almost all artists can be divided into two groups: recorders and creators. If a recorder paints a barn, he will paint a record of an actual barn, putting the trees and the driveway just where they really are. When he finishes, he will have a record of what the barn looks like.
"The creator, on the other hand, will probably stay in his studio and make a painting based on his memories and his own sense of what a particular barn could look like.
"The buying public tends to prefer the work of the recorders.
"Of course the distinction is not complete. In every work by a recorder there is a little creating, and there is usually some recording in the work of a creator."
Lear's paintings of figures almost always include strong elements of surrealism, while his landscapes, he says, are almost always created out of memory and imagination.
Lear learned his craft at what is now the University of the Arts. When he began his studies in 1928 it was called the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art. Between then and 1932 when he graduated, the name was changed to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts and then the Philadelphia Museum's School of Art. Other name changes followed.
Lear studied illustration under the guidance of Thornton Oakley, who had been a student of Howard Pyle. It was Oakley, he recalls, who encouraged students in the illustration school to exhibit as fine artists. Lear notes that he has been showing with the Philadelphia Watercolor Club ever since his student days.
After graduating, Lear taught in the illustration program at his alma mater for a time under the chairmanship of Henry Pitz and through Pitz's recommendation he obtained a commission to produce a series of illustrations for a Presbyterian Sunday School curriculum. This project resulted in steady commissions for other religious illustrations and eventually to a position as art director for the Presbyterian Church from 1963 to 1975.
His studies and work as an illustrator provided Lear early on with what he calls "the arithmetic of art." "The talent is either there or not, but a good teacher can show you short cuts. He can show you in a few hours how to do something that might take five weeks of experimentation."
Over a long career Lear has achieved much recognition and respect. There have been numerous prizes (including one from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that had gone to Pablo Picasso two years previously) and a recent retrospective at Woodmere Museum. His output has been steady, and the quality consistent. Although he has avoided notoriety (both ears are well attached), his work speaks eloquently for itself.