Our dear friend and artist Devin Leonardi (1981-2014) so very sadly passed away this summer. Devin was an exceptionally talented and sensitive artist. His vision was not only focused on his distinct contribution to contemporary painting but was also highly political. His concern was focused on American cultural history and the political presence in particular.
Devin was an artist personality not quite of these times. When I first met him in 2005 upon arriving in New York, I sometimes felt he was celebrating a certain symbolic reincarnation of a 1920s Chicago persona (the place of his upbringing). In his 11 years in New York City he had become a political and cultural flaneur. No one knew the streets and history of the city like Devin did, and I enjoyed going on discovery tours with him through ‘his town’. He took on jobs giving him special insight from behind the curtain of old institutions having shaped the city’s cultural economy, places like the Morgan Library. All of these excursions were part of his work. Devin was an artist archeologist of America’s 20th century.
Later when he took the radical step to leave New York City and to move to Montana, it was as if he was literally moving into the landscapes of his paintings. He loved the wilderness and the purity of this epic land but was also fiercely aware that industrialization and ecological changes had severe effects on the region. In this time he changes his style from comedic metropolitan debonair to a mid western country man, – fly fishing and on horse back. When I visited Devin in Montana in July 2013 I was deeply impressed by how deep his understanding for this country had gone. Again he has become an archeologist of the region and organized excursions to the local mining ghost towns, explaining every nuance of their history old and recent. We shared the fascination for the giant muted ruins of this massive chapter of industrialization. Again, all of this was part of his art. Devin’s central project was to create a new contemporary form of history painting and we feel he uniquely succeeded in doing so.
Lesser known to the public were his fantastic political cartoons (which he wanted to circulate only in the context of publishing). Being an amazing draughtsman, his style was inspired by the legendary British cartoonist David Low. Devin started a series of edgy and moving cartoons about the recession, and last year created a series of poignant sketches about the contemporary art scene with a nod to the cartoon tradition of the New Yorker.
Devin Leonardi left behind a very outstanding, deeply human and dignified artistic legacy, which we will cherish and honor of a long time to come. He was not like any other contemporary artist I have known and it was a great privilege to have been his friend and work partner. He will be very missed.
Quotes from Devin:
“In a very general sense my pre-occupation with painting is rooted in it’s unique connections to the past. After all, the methods of producing an oil painting remain relatively unchanged after more than six hundred years. This means painting is uniquely situated to speak for the past. You might say that painting’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it’s roots in tradition remain intact despite all the attempts to radically transform them that define modernity.”
“While I’m on the subject, what is modernity anyway? We all throw the term around very causally these days. But when you say something is modern you haven’t really said anything at all because the whole concept can only be defined in very limited and contradictory ways. Nonetheless modernity (post or otherwise) asserts itself as a pre-eminent good against which most else is bad. It’s just this sense of surety that I hope to question.”
“In my opinion the faith in “the new”, that is one of the only ways to clearly define modernity, has become so over-fetishized as to lose all meaning. I’ll admit that there was a time when the pursuit of change as an end in itself marked the only way forward. But the whole concept of change has become so over indulged that it now seems to have developed a will of it’s own. Under these circumstances I feel that, in many ways, “change is cheap” and I find myself interested in things that persist in the face of the twin juggernauts of capital and technology. I’m hardly alone in this. Everywhere you look culture seems trapped before the reflection of it’s past at the same time that it propels itself forward. As a result almost everything that bills itself as “new” seems vaguely familiar. In fact, in many ways, the historical period that seems to mirror our own most closely isn’t the renaissance, it’s the baroque. Then, as now, we seem cursed by the weight of past precedent to always repeat ourselves. Along these lines allow me to propose a radical thought; the forms of the new are not infinite, as modernity promised. As a matter of fact the cultural malaise that seems to define our era would seem to point to a rather startling revelation, that is, the forms of the new are inherently limited.”