“I don’t analyze anything. I just like to enjoy it. Your eyes jump from one line to another like shooting stars going through madness. There’s a lot of haze, but if you look you see things.”
I asked Richard Todd why he chooses abstract expressionism when he can also paint figuratively, and he said, “There’s mystery; an artist can hide in abstract.” He keeps people guessing.
Richard Todd doesn’t give himself airs and you would never catch him talking over somebody’s head. Even though he studied and associated with several renowned abstract expressionists, including Willem De Kooning and Vaclav Vitlacyl, he would never pontificate about his experience with the avant-garde. He studied with Vitlacyl for 15 years at the Art Student’s League in Manhattan, after studying at the Studio School in Brooklyn. Vitlacyl saw that Richard had talent and Richard was propelled forward on the strength both of his passion and of the recommendations he continuously inspired. He told me that Vitlacyl used to say to his students, “Painting is just this…” and he’d rub his fingers together against his thumb and smile enigmatically. Whatever that means, Richard must have understood it.
We met him at the BWAC show, the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists’ Coalition, where he was the premier artist out of three-hundred and probably one of the least pretentious. Later, we met him at his studio in downtown Brooklyn, where he greeted us all smiles and enthusiasm. He has been living in his apartment for twenty years now. He came to look at it after answering an advertisement, and when he saw Richard, the landlord starting acting funny, saying the apartment was no longer available. Richard took him to court, where, in defense of himself, the landlord told the judge, “I didn’t know he was colored.” The judge awarded Richard the 3 bedroom apartment with rent control. He has raised two children there by himself, making a living from his art.
R: “Yeah, I got classical training and background. I got the whole shit, I was lucky. I started out drawing. Like, when I was a kid, I copied the whole Sistine Chapel in black and white. Right down to the line, man.”
T: “How old were you?”
R: “I was about fourteen. My mom was an artist. I started before she did, when I was about eight.”
T: “How does one know if an young artist has talent? Is it more important to be skilled at drawing or to have a good conceptual understanding of art?”
R: “Well I look at style by the reaction I get from feeling it. When I see something that is interesting… and I do it myself, when a painting talks to me, I know it’s good. When I do a painting, and sometimes it takes a year, like that big painting you saw in the show, I did that painting two years ago, then I left it for two years, and then one night I put it up there, and it came to me and fell into place. So, I just basically go on what I feel. If I’m feeling it, then I know it’s good.”
I think what Vitlacyl was suggesting with his enigmatic smile and his thumb and finger shuffle is that painting is tactile and intuitive. It is, literally, between your thumb and forefinger. Luckily for Richard, he also has two critics living with him- his two kids- Cheyenne and Theo, who are fifteen and sixteen years old. They have been raised around paintings subtly speaking to them, and it is often they who bring Richard’s hand to apply the finishing touches to one or another of the paintings lying around, in hiatus.