To crack open the squarish volume of Transcendence is to open a portal into a realm of vivid swirling hues, where natural forms pulse with freedom. Each page is a window into American painter Richard Mayhew’s world. As if anticipating a time when people would be sheltering inside, yearning for nature and an escape from the news of the day, the monograph was released in early March 2020, in conjunction with a solo show at ACA Galleries in New York City that’s currently on view. Focusing on watercolors and oil paintings from the latter decades of Mayhew’s expansive career, the monograph features glossy full-color reproductions of his landscapes from the mid-1990s through 2015.
“What I do with landscapes,” Mayhew told Hyperallergic, “is internalize my emotional interpretation of desire, hope, fear, and love. So, instead of a landscape, it’s a mindscape.” His expressive forms might echo trees or clouds or canyons, but they only exist in the terrain of the imagination. His African American and Native American ancestry also informs his spiritual connection to the land. “My mindscapes are also about the healing of the long trauma that Black and native communities have experienced collectively,” Mayhew told Andrew Walker, the director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, in an interview included in the monograph.
Mayhew doesn’t start his paintings with a plan. He doesn’t work from “en plein air” sketches or photographs. He is guided by intuition. “I just put paint on the canvas and that’s suggestive of what will emerge,” Mayhew said over the phone. Bubbling up from his subconscious inner world through his brush and palette knife, the stuff of a long and fertile creative life — memories, feelings, beauty, rhythms of nature, deep grasp of color theory, insights from his lifelong creative explorations — synthesizes on Mayhew’s canvases as lush, layered vistas.
Though there have been books dedicated to Mayhew’s work, including an out-of-print exhibition catalogue titled The Art of Richard Mayhew from the Museum of African Diaspora that accompanied a trio of 2009 exhibitions in California, this is the artist’s first, and rather overdue, monograph for a career that has spanned more than six decades. “It is stunning to think that this is the first one,” said ACA Galleries curator Mikaela Sardo Lamarche, “especially when you think about all the different people in his peer group who have multiple books out.”
Richard Mayhew’s life and career are intertwined with a rich expanse of American history. Born in 1924, during the Harlem Renaissance, in the bayside town of Amityville, New York on Long Island, Mayhew celebrated his 96th birthday this April, during a global pandemic. In between, he’s had more than 40 solo exhibitions, taught for nearly 30 years, and been a tireless arts advocate and activist.
He was also a member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and the legendary artist group, Spiral. A “think tank” of Black painters, the collective formed in 1963 in response to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to discuss their relationship to the Civil Rights movement and experiences as artists in that moment. Fellow members included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, Emma Amos, Charles Alston, Charles White, among others.
So, why hasn’t Richard Mayhew’s work gotten the same recognition as his peers, people he joined in conversation and activism? It could be that Mayhew works with landscape, a genre that’s underappreciated in contemporary art. It could also stem from the fact that his work doesn’t use overt narrative or figurative elements or political imagery like many other Spiral artists.
“Even though he was very much part of the movements in New York City, he doesn’t really fit that niche that some people want Black art to fit into: narrative quality, political and Civil Rights [imagery]. Because of that I think a lot of people don’t know how to address his work,” said Lamarche. “And as a consequence, he’s been on the sidelines a bit.” For example, the recent exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Time of Black Power, which included a gallery dedicated to Spiral, didn’t initially include Mayhew’s work — even though he’s only one of two Spiral artists still living, and he was active in the art and politics of that time. (His art was later added for the showing at Brooklyn Museum and subsequent stops on the tour.) Ina Mayhew, Richard’s daughter, puts it this way: “His contribution was different. It is spiritual. He’s taking on the spirit of the time and Civil Rights movement in tones of color.”
The exhibition at ACA Galleries, which has represented Mayhew since the mid-1990s, features a color-saturated slice of the artist’s work. Ten watercolors and 14 oil paintings radiate off the gallery’s white walls in signature Mayhew hues. Offering an up-close look at the artist’s brushstrokes, the show is a meditative space awash in incandescent pigment and texture. The artworks’ titles, including undated watercolors from the Santa Cruz Serenade Series and the oil paintings “Lumbee” (2009), “Fall Sonata” (2019), and “Misty Mystic” (undated), reflect recurring explorations in Mayhew’s work: music, place, his heritage, seasonal transitions, and the spiritual. “The show is a celebration of life in many ways,” said Lamarche. Despite anticipated festivities, the show opened quietly in June, after the coronavirus outbreak forced the original March date to be postponed and the opening fanfare to be canceled; it will remain on view, by appointment only, until October 17.
Mayhew continues to make art every day in his studio in Santa Cruz on an easel with a glass palette and jazz or classical music playing in the background. On the phone, he shared that before becoming a painter, and after serving as a Montfort Marine in World War II, he worked as a jazz singer for a few years. “I can still sing,” he said, before bursting into joyful song.
Between 1948 to 1959, Mayhew trained in visual art at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the Art Students League, and took additional courses at Columbia University. While working as a ceramic painter, he met his first wife Dorothy Zuccarini. “She was so often the researcher who discovered […] and applied for grants, which permitted my father to continue painting and elevate his art,” wrote Ina Mayhew, their daughter, now an accomplished production designer, in the preface to Richard Mayhew: Painting Mindscapes and Searching for Sensitivity. These grants included the prestigious John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship and a grant from the Ford Foundation, which funded Mayhew’s studies in Europe in the early 1960s, where he moved by boat with his family.
After returning to New York City, in 1963, Mayhew started teaching at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and Pratt Institute. This marked the beginning of his teaching career that spanned numerous institutions across the US. His brand of teaching centered on interdisciplinary studies, and suited his penchant for the stage. “Standing in the middle of class, you’re performing!” he exclaimed, over the phone. Spreading art into communities, beyond the confines of art schools and academia, is also important to Mayhew. He has contributed to various arts initiatives, including developing an artists’ outreach program as part of Rockland Center for the Arts, in the diverse community of Hillburn, New York.
Though known for his landscape paintings, which are included in numerous museums’ permanent collections (including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the de Young Museum), Mayhew is also a skilled draftsman and portrait painter. He has worked as a medical illustrator and in the 1960s illustrated several children’s books on science and history. Throughout his career, he has consistently painted (though rarely exhibited) self-portraits, portraits of friends and family, and a series dedicated to women artists of color.
But Mayhew always returns to the land. Nature is the center of gravity in his art. “Like the fires here in California,” Mayhew said from his Santa Cruz home, “the grass will grow back again. The trees will grow back, and the leaves will grow back on the trees. That’s nature reinventing itself.” He continues to infuse his improvisational mindscapes with sensitivities fine-tuned over his life, turning his canvases into luminous expanses of color that transcend time and place.
Richard Mayhew: Transcendence continues at ACA Galleries (529 West 20th Street, 5th floor, Chelsea, New York), by appointment only, through October 31. Transcendence by Richard Mayhew is out from Chronicle Books.