Artist Richard Van Buren was walking between his studio and house in Perry in late winter when his phone rang. On the phone was his art dealer. Van Buren relates, "He said, 'Where are you right now?'" Van Buren looked around at the heaps of snow and replied, "I'm standing in a snow bank, why?" And right then and there an art career that has spanned both coasts and over the last decade in Maine was recognized in a way that most artists only dream of. Van Buren learned that he was the recipient of the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award of 2013.
The award is a quiet affair. There are no applications allowed, no press releases, no snapping cameras with grantor and grantee holding a giant check. It is awarded every few years to artists whose work best embodies artist Barnett Newman's own ethos from the parent organization of the Barnett Newman Foundation, which was started in 1979 by Annalee Newman after her husband's death. Barnett Newman is considered a major 20th century figure in abstract expressionism and one of the foremost of the color field painters.
A lifetime achievement award is generally an occasion for reflection. Van Buren sits in his studio surrounded by his work, a dazzling display of colors and forms, with one of his newest pieces, "Islands," to be displayed in July at the Eastport Arts Center. "The award is kind of amazing. It's wonderful, really positive." He explains, "When we decided to move here [in late 2001] we weren't naive about it. We knew that we could suffer economically." While they had owned the Perry property since 1971, it was a big leap. It came as a pleasant surprise that his work has been influenced by the Maine environment in ways that he's "really, really happy about."
Van Buren describes how his art has changed over the years, from the early days in California when he was still an art student to his years in New York City and now Maine. In California, "I was using more traditional materials C canvas and wood. It was organic and sort of aggressive." Over time it became increasingly sculptural. When he received recognition through museum exhibits, he also realized that working as an artist in San Francisco was not for him. "In California if you did well in your work you were lucky to get a teaching job." He knew he didn't want to teach. Van Buren bursts out laughing as he tells the story. "So then I get to New York and teach for 40 years." But he was able to set up a studio right away, for peanuts. "It was easy to survive there, then."
The city heavily influenced his work with its geometry, grids and manmade environment. "Structurally, that became a big influence." He adds, "But then that really started paling for me."
He had an epiphany and thought, "If there were an ad in The New York Times to do this work, I would never apply for it." He wrote a list of verbs of the work he didn't like, such as grinding and sanding. He thought about all the verbs he did like doing, including drawing. And then he did what just about every artist does: He thought about process and came up with viscosity and his interest in transparency and playing with light.
While he started with resins that eventually began to harm his health, he now works with thermoplastics that are developed for medical applications. "For things like cartilage," he explains. "No one was using it in the art world." He started playing with it. And when he moved to Maine his work changed. "In New York City it became too human. I realized that nature was playing a really minor role." His fear that nature would play too much of a role, would "soften" his art, hasn't happened. The lifetime achievement award would suggest others think the same.