A conversation with abstract artist and educator Tim Lefens brings to mind one of the more famous sentences in Jack Kerouac’s 1958 Beat novel On the Road:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”
Lefens might have been born “naturally Beat” himself. From an early age, Lefens was not interested in authority. He says he was always in the principal’s office at Montgomery High School because he preferred to draw and paint in the art room instead of sitting through the other classes. “They knew, though,” Lefens says, implying that the teachers and adminstrators sensed his talent and gave him a pass.
Lefens grew up in Belle Mead, where he currently lives. His father was a civil engineer and his mother taught nutrition to nurses. And like his teachers they, too, recognized their son’s gift. “I was a superstar before I went to kindergarten,” Lefens says in a phone interview. “They’d have dinner parties and invite me to come out and draw for their friends.”
Lefens’ recent paintings don’t conform to tradition or literal interpretation. An impressive body of new work by the artist — 16 large abstract canvases created specifically for the Artworks Gallery in Trenton, is titled “Songs of the Inmate.” It is on view through Saturday, February 28. Lefens gives a gallery talk, titled “About Abstraction,” on Saturday, February 7.
In his artist’s statement about the new abstractions, Lefens writes, “This series of new paintings is not so much about the successful realization of transcendence, but more, the exertion, the will to transcend — making a break for it, jumping over the fence.”
And indeed, the artworks seem to spill out of the framing, which might not even be called framing because none of the works are enclosed completely within a traditional four-sided frame. For example, “Contessa Quandranda,” alive with rich layers of blood red, has neutral framing only on part of the two bottom corners. Other works have a strip of wood only along the bottom, or an “L” shape on one or two corners.
The partial framing is an innovation in abstraction Lefens enjoys exploring. He doesn’t encase his works in the traditional four-sided frame, for one reason, he says, because he likes to play with the viewer’s sensibilities. Also, he is breaking out of traditional boundaries, using the fragments of framing as another element of the painting. “The frame is also like a drawing tool,” Lefens says. “They are not just white lines that go here and there. One person came to the opening and said, ‘It looks like the color is radiating from that little ‘L,’ like it was a mouth that was breathing.’ That’s why I made it, and she saw it, and that’s enough for a painting. Instead of seeing it in a simple way, people tie themselves in a knot trying to understand.”
With the partial framing, Lefens also wants to highlight the smooth monochromatic surfaces of his new works, true labors of love that he toiled over. He paints on canvas stretched on custom poplar stretcher frames, which he mills himself. The partial outer frames are bass wood, which he chose because it is closest to plain, without colored grain striations. Lefens has previously used the best acrylic paints in his work, but for this show he uses house paint.
“But what house paint!” he says. “It is the most expensive Benjamin Moore and is very, very rich and thick. It’s offered in hundreds more colors than the art paint companies offer, and it can be purchased in a true matte finish, which I was looking for. It’s applied in many smooth layers, and each time I spent hours hand-sanding the surface. Although the surface is very smooth to the touch, if you put your nose up to it, in the track lighting of the gallery you can see the ghosts of the sanding motion.”
The essence of Lefens’ artistic intention is to stimulate a viewer’s heart and imagination instead of the analytical side of the brain. “Abstraction power is escaping the world of words and that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “‘Word thinking’ is literal thinking — you see a landscape (painting) and you say ‘there’s the barn and the cow,’ and you recognize this because you’ve seen an actual barn and cow. Abstraction wants to get free from that, it doesn’t want to play the matching game.”
Lefens talks about the difference between recognition (“there’s the barn across the field and there’s the barn on the canvas”) and pure cognition. “When you are swept away by something like a sunrise, when you lose yourself, that’s not a moment of words, you forget where you are, and that’s the difference between recognition and cognition,” he says. “With just pure color and pure form, you don’t have anything to match, you don’t have anything to hang onto. It’s just the direct experience and everyone was born to be able to fully see abstraction.” But, this ability is schooled out of us in a society where, linear thinking — coloring inside the lines — is more valued. Lefens is pleased that some of his biggest fans are very young children who respond to his paintings emotionally because they haven’t been taught to analyze.
Photographer Ricardo Barros, a longtime friend and supporter of Lefens, has frequently photographed his work. He says Lefens wants to put paintings out there that knowledgeable people would appreciate, but he also wants to engage more “innocent” viewers. “People might just say `oh, that’s like trying to capture the sky and you can’t fit it in because the frame can’t contain it,’” Barros says in a phone interview from his studio in Bristol, PA. “A totally naive reaction is as valid as the reaction of someone with a Ph.D. Time wants to include all levels of viewership.”
Lefens has lived in Utah, North Carolina, New Orleans, Miami, and New York City. He earned his BFA in 1977 from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and did graduate work at the Mason Gross School of the Arts. A recipient of the Pollock-Krasner award for painting, Lefens’ work has been exhibited in New York, with solo exhibitions at the Brooke Alexander Gallery, the Farah Damji Gallery, the Judith Klein Gallery, and the 426 West Broadway Gallery. Lefens has also shown his work in numerous venues throughout central New Jersey, including the Ellarslie Museum in Trenton and the Merrill Lynch headquarters in Princeton.
His mentors include painter Roy Lichtenstein and pre-eminent art critic Clement Greenberg. “He was a champion of Jackson Pollock, a huge figure for his criticism, colorful and controversial, but he was very kind and encouraging to me,” Lefens says.
Lefens lives with vision impairment, which he feels has its roots in a couple of motorcycle accidents in his younger days. One in the early ’90s was particularly traumatic, yet doctors were not able to specifically link the head trauma with his gradual loss of sight. He prefers not to dwell on these issues, however, and says since he has been making art since childhood, low vision doesn’t affect the way he conceptualizes paintings, which is done with the mind and not the eyes.
“Technically it seemed a bit challenging, but now it feels as natural as a duck in water,” Lefens says. “When I paint I know exactly what I’m after and how to get to it. I mill and build my own stretchers so I am intimate with the all important size and shape of the canvas. I do have some aids, including a cool talking tape measure.”
Lefens is the founder and executive director of the Belle Mead-based non-profit Art Realization Technologies (A.R.T.), which, since 1995, has enabled children and young adults with severe physical challenges — who often can’t see or move — to create original visual art and music. When he founded the organization Lefens says he felt a kinship with the young people in the program, however he says the idea to launch A.R.T. had nothing to do with his sight. “No one knew I had a vision condition back then,” he says. “It was based on my being strongly drawn to outsiders and underdogs.”
Lefens is adamant when he says the physically challenged persons make all the decisions when they create art, and he has crafted some sophisticated devices to assist the artists. “For painting, I developed this simple laser headgear,” he says. “It lets the immobile person simply look at the canvas where they want the paint to go and the Tracker (another person who assists) follows the light with a brush loaded with the color the artist has chosen. For music I created this machine called the A.R.T. LASSY, a light-actuated synthesizer. The person who cannot use their hands can point the head-mounted laser at a ring of light-sensitive targets and it plays all the notes on the piano, or whatever instrument the synthesizer is set to. Some of the other targets control rhythm, others volume.”
Lefens says he, as well as the kids and young adults A.R.T. works with, “do not want to be seen as ‘disabled’ but as who they are: individuals.” Lefens’ experiences with these artists are recounted in his book, “Flying Colors: The Story of a Remarkable Group of Artists and the Transcendent Power of Art” (Beacon Press, 2002).
At age 55, Lefens has never married, but thoroughly enjoys befriending and mentoring the disabled men and women he meets through A.R.T. “I like hanging out with (physically challenged) kids, I really love them — they’re radical and they’re amazing,” Lefens says. “Not too many people know that; in fact, other people run away from them. But I have a taste for outsiders. I do ‘feel’ the kids. One quadriplegic we worked with had a little typing machine and she wrote, ‘Tim can see us.’ That’s the proof after all these years of rejection. A.R.T. proved that I was right about things. There is power if you look past the surface. What if everyone could see in this new way?”
Art Exhibit and Gallery Talk, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley at South Stockton Street, Trenton. Saturday, February 7, 2 p.m. Gallery talk, titled “About Abstraction,” in conjunction with “Songs of the Inmate: Tim Lefens Recent Paintings,” an exhibit of 16 large new abstract canvases created specifically for this exhibit space. On view through February 28. 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.
Gallery hours: Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. or by appointment. Visit www.timlefens.com or www.artrealization.org. For information on Ricardo Barros visit www.ricardobarros.com.