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Scaling Up: The Late Richard Yarde’s Watercolors

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As an artist and college educator specializing in water media, friends, former students, and colleagues are always eager to tell me when they hear about a watercolor show. The excitement levels were top decibel for this season’s exhibition of the distinctly vibrant late Richard Yarde (1939-2011) at the Baltimore Museum of Art through April 24. It’s ironic because Yarde is an artist who, by all accounts, didn’t get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. 

Best known for his 1982 installation of 3-D watercolor paintings depicting the former Savoy Ballroom, which operated from 1926-1958 in Harlem, New York, Yarde lived most of his life in and around Boston and Western Massachusetts. This regionalism both influenced the subject of his work and limited its reach. A long-time professor at UMass Amherst, Yarde’s exhibition of the Savoy series, organized by The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley, Massachusetts, traveled to San Diego Museum of Art, the BMA, and then to New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem, only blocks from the ballroom’s former location. 

Appropriately titled Richard Yarde: Beyond the Savoy, the works in the BMA’s current show include watercolors the artist made in the late 1970s prior to the Savoy series as well as some later works made in the 2000s before he died from complications with kidney disease in 2011. The exhibition will be many people’s first encounter with Yarde’s distinctive improvisational and graphic watercolor style which colorizes, enlarges, and simplifies historical photographs of Black American life, history, and culture.

I sat down with the show’s organizer and the BMA’s curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, Oliver Shell, who met Yarde when Shell was a teenager taking his class at Wellesley College. Shell began planning this show before the pandemic, visiting a number of small college museums to put together the thirty works and bring them to Baltimore for the first time. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

Richard Yarde: Beyond the Savoy at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Richard Yarde, Parade II, 1978, watercolor on heavyweight white wove paper, 19 3/8 x 25 3/4 inches
[Yarde] approached watercolor on a much grander scale than people in the past. Usually watercolor was sort of a small, intimate thing associated with trips and travel sketching, whereas for him it was kind of industrial.
Oliver Shell

Suzy Kopf: Only two of the works displayed are part of the BMA’s permanent collection, and many of the other works are from private collectors and small college and university collections. Can you describe the process you went through to gather all the works in this show? 

Oliver Shell: You’d be surprised how much can be found online. I contacted the curators at Smith College, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley where I knew he’d been collected because I grew up in Wellesley. I also reached out to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston because Yarde befriended a curator who was a big fan of his, so the MFAB has four or five really fabulous pieces. They had just shown a number of them so I couldn’t actually use all of their pieces, but they were very generous in giving me Jack Johnson, as well as Pageant. They have a painting depicting the returning troops from WWI of a Black brigade, which is just fabulous. I would’ve loved to have had that but they had it out recently, so I couldn’t use it.

Not everyone is aware of this, but works on paper are very sensitive to light and museums limit how frequently they are shown as a result. The BMA has an extensive prints and drawings collection and yet most works on paper are not on display year-round. Can you describe why museums need to limit the frequency at which works like the Yarde watercolors are shown?

We have a paper conservator who keeps us in line with how much light exposure works can take. Usually when a work has been out, it’s for a maximum of six months and then it has to go into darkness again for sometimes as much as 10 years, depending on the policies of the institution. Of course, there’s always a great pressure to show the perfect Picasso or whatever, and lots of people wanna borrow things, but we’re pretty rigorous about that. Our conservation departments make those decisions. So although the BMA has over 60,000 prints and drawings and watercolors, at any time they’re only showing a very small portion of those.

Because we’re talking about conservation, do you know what kinds of materials Yarde used?

I know that he approached watercolor on a much grander scale than people in the past. Usually watercolor was sort of a small, intimate thing associated with trips and travel sketching, whereas for him it was kind of industrial. He’d use whole sheets of the big Fabriano watercolor paper, and if that wasn’t enough, he’d attach two of them to each other, or three of them, and in one case five, and just go in whatever direction he wanted to go in. So he approached watercolor quite differently. I looked, quite carefully, at all the works in the show with Linda Owens, our paper conservator, and we both realized that there are almost no drips in his works. He may have worked flat, which would keep things from dripping. He had an incredible technique that he’d worked out.

This is the first all-watercolor show the BMA has put on in many years. Why is it happening now? You have been aware of Yarde’s work since you were eighteen, but you’re actually a curator of European Painting and Sculpture. Has this show been a passion project for you?

The show came about in conversation with Asma Naeem [the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator]. We were kicking ideas around and I had put together a stack of things and at the very last minute, I’d thrown in a small Richard Yarde catalog. There aren’t large catalogs for his work because he hasn’t received these academic accolades; you have to work to find literature on Richard Yarde.

Perhaps we could talk about why that is. I subscribe to Watercolor Artist magazine, so I just read the print version of their article about the show and I was surprised to learn that Yarde had the opportunity to be included in a Whitney biennial in the 1970s but instead protested the biennial’s curation and as a result was not included. He was protesting the lack of Black curators for the show. Is that correct?

I heard about that through Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, who is a scholar and was a friend of Yarde’s. She did a series of interviews with artists. Her father said, you gotta get to Richard, he’s really failing, because he had kidney disease in his last years. She interviewed him, and the BMA paid to have it transcribed, so I was able to read it.

The Whitney had made a certain promise to a group of Black artists, and then they somehow didn’t fulfill that, or it was perceived that they didn’t. Richard himself sort of laughed about it and said, maybe that wasn’t the wisest idea to turn down the Whitney, because that would’ve maybe catapulted him into the category of all the other people of his generation who were dealing with photography in painting. So many artists, from Warhol on, were using photographs as inspiration and Richard was doing that too.

 

Richard Yarde: Beyond the Savoy at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Richard Yarde, Malcolm X, 1978, watercolor on heavyweight textured white paper, 21 3/16 x 27 inches

Do you think Yarde gets left out of the canon because of the Whitney show and not participating, or is that too big a statement?

It’s sort of a Boston-versus-New York thing. Boston had some galleries, but they really weren’t on that level that could create an overnight sensation out of a person. The Krakow Wilson Gallery showed him, and that’s a good gallery. But the Boston galleries that showed his work tended to be smaller. If you think of the careers that Chuck Close or Philip Pearlstein or all these artists of the same generation had, it is weird that Yarde didn’t get that kind of acceptance given the quality of his work.

I agree. I hadn’t even thought about Chuck Close in conversation with Yarde, but now that you say that I’m thinking they both do that modular piecing together of an image. I’m curious to hear more about why you group them together.

Just looking at the artists of Yarde’s generation who worked through the inspiration of photography, I was thinking, all the way to Cindy Sherman [who made her most famous works in the late 1980s], there’s this fascination with photography that this generation experienced differently than other generations of artists. Yarde also paints in patches, which may also have been inspired by Gee’s Bend quilts. They’re little squares that he paints and that’s part of his method. I think he let these squares dry and then would work on another square. That keeps his control over the image-making and it breaks it into defined little units [similar to photography].

Are you making the argument that Yarde is part of the Pictures Generation because he is inspired by photography, or not so much because he was not making photographs?

Well, I don’t know if he’s using photography in the same Postmodern way that some of these other artists are. He uses photography as an inspirational thing. He’s looking at Black history and he’s looking at little tiny images in black and white and blowing them up to a huge scale and colorizing them. It’s paying homage to people he admired.

That’s a connection I make when walking through the show, a clear connection to history, most of which happened before Yarde was even born.

Absolutely. He actually talked about it a bit, because he had a late style, which you can see in the show, in Mojo Hands and Kismet II. But I put the bulk of the weight of the show on his earlier photographically inspired works because I love them and they’re also what he did for much of his career.

 

James Van Der Zee, Garveyite Family, Harlem, 1924, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 11/16 inches
Richard Yarde, The Sitting, 1978, watercolor on heavyweight white wove paper, 22 1/4 x 19 3/4 inches

The paintings in the show span the thirty-year period of 1977-2007 and yet many of them deal with older themes of Black life in America, namely the Harlem Renaissance and the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Do you think it’s an homage or do you think it is nostalgia in some respect for Yarde to paint these events long after they happened? They are iconic moments in Black history that are held up as emblematic and hugely significant.

Yarde liked to quote 17th-century French artist and printmaker Honoré Daumier, who said you have to be an artist of your time, when he was criticizing himself about his art, and saying really, these subjects are more my parents’ generation. But there was a reason to be nostalgic. He grew up in a part of the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury that doesn’t exist anymore because it was blighted by urban renewal and redlining. Whereas when he was growing up, there were many of his family members living in Roxbury. There were a lot of West Indians; both his parents came from Barbados. It was a very multicultural place with these typical brownstones, which he paints in Roxbury Steps. He talked about how that world was vanishing, so he was trying to capture a bit of that.

In the Marcus Garvey photograph, he goes to James Van Der Zee to find a prototype, a very famous photographer of the Harlem Renaissance. But it was probably because those things resonated with his own experience. Apparently Roxbury used to have Marcus Garvey parades in the ‘40s and ‘50s still, especially amongst this West Indian group of relatives of Yarde’s.

Let’s talk about the James Van Der Zee portrait, The Sitting, which is included in the show. I’ve taken several classes of both college-age and continuing learners to see the exhibit and my students are always fascinated by it. They want to talk about why a photo is amongst a bunch of paintings, and they don’t recognize it immediately, the same way most audiences understand that Malcolm X is a painting Yarde made based on the famous mugshot of Malcolm X. Why did you decide to include just this photograph alone?

Because the BMA owns it. When I was traveling to Smith, they have the work that’s based on it by Yarde. It seemed like too lucky a happenstance that I had access to one and could borrow the other and really take a tight look at how he transforms photographic imagery into his art. By contrast to much of what he bases his work on, this is a fairly large photograph, 9.5 inches in height. And then he creates a much larger image out of it and transforms it with the color and the tilting. These manipulations are part of his appropriation. 

The tilting of the imagery, which Yarde does repeatedly throughout his work, may have come from his familiarity with the black and white photographic process because his godfather, Amos Gibson, owned a commercial photo studio. In my own experience working as a darkroom assistant, I remember you’re always looking at the image that’s emerging in the tray and it’s never straight; it’s always sort of floating around, and some of that irregularity may have come from the experience of seeing his godfather working behind the scenes on the developing process.

Oh man, I love that you have an answer for that, because that is a big question for people looking at the work: why is the imagery typically angled to the left rather than appearing to be straight on the page. I’ve had debates with students—well, this means he’s definitely left-handed; no, it means he’s definitely right-handed.

I don’t know if I’m accurate, it’s my best guess. I do know that he had a certain dealer who would frame his work and try to get rid of it, and that Yarde got apparently very annoyed with that person, thinking that he just hadn’t gotten it quite right. Yarde made it clear that he intended for the tilt to be there.

That’s really cool to think about all the different influences from his early life coming through in the work. I want to know more about the Van Der Zee photo. My understanding is, for photos in that time period, you would go with your family to a photo studio and they might have things for you to put on. Do you know if that’s the case in that photo? Were the people wearing their own clothes or were they wearing a costume?

Part of Garveyism, in the ‘20s at least, was that you subscribe to the idea that you would wear a uniform. Marcus Garvey himself wore uniforms and his followers would create their own sort of Garvey-garb. In this case, this has always been identified as Garvey clothing. So Yarde’s decision to paint this photo might be him paying homage to his cousins who lived in Roxbury and who were passionate about the movement.

 

Richard Yarde, Huddie Leadbelly, 1978, watercolor on paper, 21 5/8 x 27 3/4 inches

Did Yarde himself identify as a Garveyist or was it more something he was aware of that he considered before his time? 

He had a very personal connection to that because his older brother who was six when he was three developed pneumonia after attending a Garvey parade and died. So there’s always sort of an ambivalent aspect of that, but I do know that he named one of his sons Marcus, and the other one is Owen, referencing Jesse Owen. I think for his children, it was important enough to him that he chose famous Black figures to honor. 

Due to the historical nature of many of the images Yarde draws his subject material from, he was often adding color to a black and white image, which left him free to be inventive with the color palette he selected. How would you describe his color palette overall? What do you think he was hoping to emphasize by limiting his colors to jewel tones and cadmiums? 

Writers bring up the fact that he uses indigo a lot, especially in painting images of Black skin. That’s a very rich color that borders on black, and indigo’s a hard to define color, but you know it when you see it. And then he contrasted that so often with very rich browns and reds, and most frequently what he does is he leaves the watercolor paper untouched. So there’s always a white element that unifies everything at the level of the primary watercolor paper and his ability to map out. He was improvisational but his ability to map out where a button has to stay white or some feature, he shaped those things in his head and then with watercolor brushes. His white is always beaming through behind it and it’s almost like the watercolor is a piece of stained glass. 

I have never thought of watercolor that way. I always think about stained glass being supported and connected by the lead, but you’re thinking more about it as a quality of light thing. 

It’s just the way he uses white. It’s very funny, precisely in those areas where watercolor is most used, such as for floral things, that’s where he’ll just leave it all white or something, because he wasn’t interested in doing that, he was doing something different.

Yes, he edits for sure. Thinking about the Van Der Zee painting again, my students always point out that maybe he didn’t finish because there are parts where there aren’t the same details from the photo. So I have to explain that artists make choices to exclude things and that is very much a part of painting.

I have to think that he was fully aware of all sorts of sources including Paul Cezanne who left this sort of unfinished quality to many of his works. Yarde also took his earliest art classes at the MFAB, which used to have free classes for inner-city kids in watercolor and modeling. So from the age of eight to twelve, he took these courses regularly. He would walk by himself to the museum on Saturdays and do these workshops. And this is right around the time when the MFAB was buying the big Gauguin, so he would have seen some really fascinating work. He loved the watercolors of William Blake.

 

Richard Yarde, Dancing at the Savoy, 2007, watercolor on paper, 23 3/4 x 17 13/15 inches
Richard Yarde, The Striped Suit, 1977, watercolor on paper, 30 11/16 x 22 1/16 inches

For me, much of this work is about the relationship between photography and painting, and as we’ve been talking about, Yarde goes to some lengths to indicate he has used a photo reference for his paintings. Did Yarde ever work from memory or from life? Did he ever work from his own photos?

He got so into these historical photographs that friends sometimes would send him some and he would work from those. He was a professor at UMass Amherst and one of his sources was the library. When he did his Savoy series, he actually found photographs of the Savoy club dancers and of the bandstand [in the collection] and used them as the basis for that whole project which became the high point of his career.

Can you speak about what it means to center this show on works made both before and after the career-defining work Yarde made, and to show it at the BMA?

One of my reasons for doing the show in Baltimore was when I started researching it and then I realized he’d actually shown the Savoy work at the BMA 40 years earlier. So why not make this a show about what he has done since? Probably not that many people around remember the original.

The works in the show explore themes of the everyday, music, and dancing but also the pageantry associated with life and death. Yarde suffered from kidney illness for much of his life and seemed somewhat preoccupied with death. Death is a common theme for artists to probe in their work; do you think this was a way of processing for the artist or something else?

There are certain heroes Yarde had when he was pretty young, like Johnny Ace, a rhythm-and-blues singer who died playing Russian roulette. There was a daring, slightly macho culture that existed in the ‘60s and there might have been some link to that. The Black Power Movement was also happening and Malcolm X was assassinated in that period. And the Vietnam war was going on, so there was a lot of death in American culture to pick up on.

So maybe this subject was less personal and more cultural?

Yes, I think that might be true. The early death of his brother was formative for him. His brother was actually the one who first was colorizing black and white cartoons with watercolor brushes and Yarde picked it up as a kind of copying. They were colorizing cartoons of WWII.

Yarde created a significant body of work in his lifetime. Do you know roughly how many paintings are out there and where interested people could go see them?

I don’t know how many are out there but I think you have to probably make appointments at the various colleges that I made appointments at in Western Massachusetts.

Do you know if the BMA is going to try to collect any more works by Yarde?

I know one of our board members has a beautiful Yarde, which I wish I’d known about when I organized the show, but I had a limited amount of space. There are passionate collectors on both coasts, including movie stars who have good collections of Yarde. One of the things I discovered is also Yarde redid watercolors. He had that ability to do multiples without any sort of mechanical aspect of being involved. You never find lines of pencil or anything on his watercolors. He just kind of improvised them again. There are several that are of the Savoy that were not part of the installation.

This show spans a 30-year period, but most of the works are from the ‘70s and there’s a few kind of at the end there. Would you say he was making stylistically different work in the interim?

His Savoy-related material was extremely popular. So he was asked to do that again and again, and at a certain point he had enough and said, I’m not touching that again. I think he felt that he had more to say.

 

Richard Yarde, Johnny's Gone, 1977, watercolor on paper, 32 x 54 inches
Richard Yarde: Beyond the Savoy at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Mitro Hood.

All images courtesy of the BMA. Header image: Richard Yarde, The Parlor, 1980, watercolor on paper, 58 13/16 x 78 5/8 inches

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