David Ligare

By Scott MacClellandLigare & Arno

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades a Monterey County fine artist is enjoying a major museum retrospective exhibition. Called David Ligare, American Classicist, it is on display now through September 20th at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. It will reopen at the Laguna Art Museum in October. Then it travels to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, and finally to the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara. “The show contains about 80 works altogether,” Ligare told me. “Most of them have been loaned back from generous collectors.”ligare

Ligare was born in Oak Park, Illinois. He received his formal artistic training at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. His paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Jose Museum of Art, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence, and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art, Madrid.

During his first six years in Monterey County he lived in Big Sur. Then, in 1974, he went to Santa Barbara where he met his life partner, Gary Smith, who was subsequently hired by Hartnell College in Salinas to lecture in art history and to teach ceramics. Today they share a home and studio atop the ridge that separates Calera Canyon and the actual geographical Corral de Tierra (Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven) midway between MonteLigare riverrey and Salinas. A huge number of Ligare’s oils depict outdoor scenes of Monterey County. Two of them, of the Salinas River, adorn CD covers: the painting “Diogenes throwing away his bowl” on a collection of madrigals by Salomone Rossi, and “Broad landscape with a river” on Eric Whitacre’s “Beautiful River: Songs of Love and Devotion.”

While not aSalomone Rossi CD musician or performer in the usual sense, music has always figured prominently in Ligare’s life. He was a good friend of the recently deceased Alan Curtis, a harpsichordist, scholar and leading light in the restoration of early Baroque opera. “Amazing guy; we had dinner with him at his house two years ago.” (Below, from left, composers Lou Harrison and Virgil Thomson, instrument maker Bill Colvig, Smith and Ligare.) Ligare describes his taste in music as “catholic.” He ticks off a list that ranges from Lou VirgilChinese and Indian classical music, to Monteverdi and other Baroque composers, to jazz and Western Classical. “Everything but hip-hop, but I don’t mean to slight that style.” Though his busy schedule has kept him from regular attendance at the Cabrillo Festival, he has nothing but praise for its conductor, Marin Alsop. “She’s a goddess!” he declares. “I absolutely love her.”

Ligare is more than a painter, or a “classicist.” Since 1978, he has focused on painting still lifes, landscapes, and figures that are influenced by Greco-Roman antiquity. He loves talking about art philosophically and of its role in teaching values from the Age of Enlightenment. For three years, he lectured on art history at Hartnell College, but ultimately found that commitment “too confining” of his busy schedule of traveling and mounting shows in private galleries and public museums. “But I had wonderful students then.”

As a follower of Nicolas Poussin, whose stylistic principles are easy to see in Ligare’s art, there is always a balance between opposing points of view, equipoise between Apollonian restraint and Dionysian extravagance. This is especially the case when he depicts characters from classical mythology in legendary conflicts that require the agency of a third party to mediate and preserve the balance. The two opposing forces need a third; the two-part form morphs into a three-part form. He cites the example of the ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos and the ideas and science of Pythagoras. He says, “I think that I’m very Californian in the character of the light that I use, but I made a decision very early on in my project to try to be an invisible presence in my work. Personal expression and having a personal style are very important to many artists but I’ve been much more interested in how we see—what I call perceptual analysis—and the potential meanings of the objects that I’ve depicted.” That thinking used to be what any modern generation eschewed. But today, it has really become radical, the Isle of the Deadexception to the prevailing ‘rules.’

Ligare’s Magnafide (right) is his shrine to Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century Florentine writer and architect. “Magnafide means the Great Belief,” he explains. “The sphere is perfection of form, yet its context is enigmatic.” He acknowledges that the painting was influenced by Arnold Böcklin’s famous Isle of the Dead (which inspired orchestral interpretations by Max Reger and Sergei Rachmaninoff.) “Böcklin painted it in Florence,” Ligare says. (Ultimately, Böcklin painted three other versions of the mysterious image.)

The balance that Ligare prizes means his images exist in the moment—the pause—between the preparation and the action, the moment when, for example, a baseball pitcher is poised before throwing the pitch, that breathless split second at which all eyes are focused on exactly the same point. One could say that Ligare’s art is stopped in time—even didactic—as can also be applied to Poussin’s, instead of the spontaneity of artistic impulse that is prized by others. “A review in the LA Times, in 1986, said I couldn’t do what I was doing, that all great artists have reformed the image into one of their own time,” Ligare says. “But Poussin never once did contemporary dress, but always historical dress.”

Why is this a problem for some people? “It’s classicism against contemporary art rules. I totally accept that. The early 20th century moderns, Picasso, Matisse, Bracque, were going against the grain in those days. “It’s become a very modern radical thing to be didactic. It’s what needs to be restored in our society. Art can teach us things that it’s necessary for us to learn,” he says. “Art has been about teaching throughout most of history. I feel rather brave going against the grain.” He further clarifies, “This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy looking at contemporary art. I’m always on the prowl to find something I can steal.”