Boardwalk Idyll 

“In the work of Lewis Bryden we find ‘snapshots' of the leisure pastimes of ordinary life, captured with a subtlety of feeling far beyond the powers of a camera. Scenes are frozen moments, like monuments to the ordinary activities depicted—an effect that is greatly enhanced by Mr. Bryden's original fresco-like technique.”

“The richly textured large canvasses in Lewis Bryden's ‘Boardwalk Idyll' series explore and illumine the eternal summer of adolescence. On the sun-drenched boardwalk, in the cool shadows of an arcade, Bryden's teenagers observe one another, preen, posture, flirt, daydream, tentatively seek and avoid contact. They are suspended in the most casual of moments, but in his hands these poses are charged with mythic significance.

Bryden articulated a peculiarly American social iconography reminiscent of Bingham, Eakins, Hopper, and other American realists. The painterly surface of his canvases, however, is allied more closely to the textural experiments of the Post-Impressionists—Seurat, for example, whose paintings also depict public scenes in the open air.”

“The technique of these paintings has remained constant. The large surface area is covered with a heavy impasto, the result of many brushstrokes over a period of time. This aleatory texture acts as a kind of scrim through which a traditional, representative, at times photographic, image emerges.”

A Gallery Talk by Lewis Bryden

What are these paintings about? I would like to answer that question, but I have to go back again to a puzzle that I sought to untangle years ago. When I started painting I had questions that nobody could answer. Along the way to becoming a painter I made discoveries that ultimately describe what these pictures are about. While it did not seem momentous at the time, afterwards I saw how influential each piece of the puzzle was.

There is one question that every artist must decide before beginning, although for artists of the past it may not have loomed so large. Now, however, the first thing that confronts an artist is what type of painting is to be done. If you can answer this you can happily set to work, expressing all the feelings you are sure you have inside. But how do you decide?

It is always best in such a situation to consider what has come before you. I personally gravitated toward the sculpture of ancient Greece and the painting of seventeenth century Europe. I liked the depiction of solid forms in lighted space. Here was something that you could hold onto, but which also had mystery. I liked Impressionism and the art of Japan and China for their sense of the patterned surface. However, art, I decided, had to be solid. Other types of painting did not help me much at all.

The best place to study the art that interested me was in the museum. The Metropolitan Museum was a meeting place of all nations. In the basement, in the copyists' room there were artists from places like Egypt and Korea. Everybody had a hunger to learn the secrets of the great paintings. I set my easel up in front of one masterpiece after another, copying from Velasquez, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Titian, Hals, and of course Rembrandt. I also copied Renoir, Monet, and Pisarro among the Impressionists. It was here, that I began to see the common thread of art that moved me, and why contemporary art had failed to do so. The subjects of these paintings were people from across the ages who were also like us, and they were captured in believable human moments. Later I found the name for this kind of art, which is “genre painting.”

Having copied the masters, I began to assemble the techniques I could use to do my own kind of art. I learned how to do the elements of painting such as underpainting, glazing, impasto, and scumbling. In particular I fell in love with Monet's “Waterlillies,” because of their wonderful texture. To me it looked as if the artist had swept the surface of the canvas with a broom, using the most achingly pure and subtle colors. In these paintings there was a paint surface that had an actual physical presence. I hoped to be able to add this feature to my own, figurative art. Finally, there was the element of photography to be considered.

I had always thought of the camera somehow as an intrusion into the realm of painting, and antithetical to its ideals. I personally did not like taking pictures. That was until I read David Hockney's book, Secret Knowledge, which showed how the lens was used by artists as early as the 14th century. One only needs to add up what are the pros and cons of photography in art. Photographs are best at capturing the fleeting and spontaneous moment, and they also provide a wealth of accurate detail. On the other hand, they lack personal presence, and cannot convey a sense of space or time. The camera is not good at redaction, so it is the artist's job to make the decisions of what to emphasize, what to eliminate, and what of an emotional nature is going on in the scene. Looking at a photo for me is sometimes like looking at life through a telescope, in the sense of being removed from the scene but also very connected to its particulars. Recently, computers have enlarged the possibilities of photography, so much so, in fact, that the manipulation of digital photos is an art form itself.

With the gathering of all these various ideas, there was still a piece of the puzzle that was missing, namely what and where to paint. The techniques of the Old Masters were exciting and useful to learn, but the most exciting issue was how they could relate to today. I always felt that, as Thomas Eakins expressed it, art must express the reality of its time. There were situations in our modern life that had been completely ignored by at least a couple of generations of artists, because they had quit painting people. The freedom of ideas and the techniques of Modern art had turned us away from daily observation of the human presence. I felt something was missing.

Now, you may consider Greek Classical sculpture to be the most beautiful expression of the human condition, as I do, but how are you going to relate it to today? If gods and goddesses were here now they would wear bathing suits. Ancient Greek culture existed on its own plane. Today, youth is still our physical ideal, but unlike other centuries we are aware of the psychological complexity of adolescence. What would the Greeks have done if they were here now?

It was with this in mind, looking for the setting for my paintings, that I found Coney Island. It was obvious, come to think of it. Coney Island was long famous for its democratic hedonism. It was built at the turn of the last century as a middle-class playground. Its rides and midway were a precursor of Disneyworld and every other theme park in this country. By the time I found Coney Island, however, it was in a state of decline, suffering like the big city it was in, with decay and retreat. Still everything was there that was essential—the combination of commerce, entertainment and nature. I liked the feeling of disjunction, rather like that of Modern art, that came from the clash of past and present, natural and artificial, familiar with the strange and bizarre. Coney Island has always been a place that put you off-guard, and that made you somehow a part of the spectacle.

Other artists before me have used Coney Island, each in his own way. I started studying the work of Reginald Marsh, David Levine, and the photographer Bruce Davidson. My own particular inspiration was a fascination with people in public places who are acting out their private dramas. It was not exhibitionism I was after, but an unfeigned, typically American pursuit of pleasure in the demotic crowd.

So there was the resolution of my threefold puzzle—what type of painting, how to paint, and what and where to paint. It all came together in a moment for me on the boardwalk in Coney Island. For most of art history the answers to such artists' questions were automatically supplied by the establishment. Even today in some societies I have seen, such as Cuba, artists do not choose, but are chosen instead. For most of us, however, there is too much freedom. It is a fortunate artist who can stand in a place like Coney Island and say this is the answer to my question.