At 99, painter Richard Mayhew is still upending expectations

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At 99, painter Richard Mayhew is still upending expectations
The landscape painter Richard Mayhew, 99, who has an exhibition in New York and one coming this fall at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, at his home studio in Soquel, Calif. on May 9, 2023. Since the 1950s, Mayhew has painted invented landscapes in an increasingly unnatural, sometimes acid palette that can sting and soothe the eye in equal measure. (Jason Henry/The New York Times)

by Jonathan Griffin

SANTA CRUZ, CALIF.- Painter Richard Mayhew, who recently celebrated his 99th birthday, has lived through as broad a swath of this nation’s history as anyone you might hope to meet.

Sitting at a patio table outside his cedar-shingled suburban home in Soquel, near Santa Cruz, Mayhew leaned back in his chair and reflected on his long life.

“I drove across the United States six times,” he said. “Three over, and three back, from New York to San Francisco. I was always looking.”

A lifetime spent looking is all Mayhew now needs, in terms of reference material, when he paints in the garage attached to the house, listening to jazz so loud, his wife, Rosemary, told me, “the whole neighborhood can hear it.” (Mayhew is hard of hearing.) Since the 1950s, Mayhew has painted invented landscapes in an increasingly unnatural, sometimes acid palette that can sting and soothe the eye in equal measure.

In 2021, an entire room in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was dedicated to Mayhew’s paintings, six of which were donated by collector Pamela Joyner, a stalwart supporter. Despite Mayhew’s long career, many visitors were encountering them there for the first time.

An exhibition of Mayhew’s paintings, “Natural Order,” is currently on show at Venus Over Manhattan, inaugurating a new space the gallery has opened on Great Jones Street in New York City. In September, a survey of his work will appear at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in Sonoma, California.

To call this late flurry of attention a rediscovery, however, is to overlook the successes he’s had throughout his career. His work has been shown at a steady succession of New York galleries since the 1950s, including the venerable Midtown Galleries and, most recently, ACA Galleries, which continues to represent him. In 1970, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Design.

Mayhew, who has mixed African American and Native American ancestry, has a stocky frame, a salt-and-pepper goatee and heavily lidded eyes; his speech is punctuated by a compulsive chuckle. Given his age, his energy and his capacity for recalling details are astonishing.

In 1942, he was among the first Black cadets accepted into the U.S. Marines. The ordinarily grueling training process, he remembers, was especially brutal for Black cadets. “They didn’t want you to make it,” he said. In 1963, he helped found the African American art collective Spiral, which included figures such as Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis and debated the possibility of an inherently Black aesthetic.

Mayhew grew up in a time when the United States was torn by racial segregation. He was born near Amityville, on the South Shore of Long Island. “It’s a strange thing,” he said, “but Amityville was not segregated like other towns at that time.”

His mother, whom he calls a “flamboyant city girl,” often disappeared on long trips to Manhattan. (His “bohemian” father, a house painter who also ran a limousine company, preferred to stay home.) He was raised, more often than not, by his Shinnecock grandmother, who taught him about his Indigenous heritage and took him to powwows.

Mayhew’s Native American identity is just as — if not more — important to him than his identity as an African American. (He comments that in others’ perceptions of him, the latter often eclipses the former.) What he inherited from his Indigenous forebears, he says, is not craft tradition but “inventive consciousness.”

Mayhew’s exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is titled “Inner Terrain.” When he paints, he describes himself as going into a trance. He asserts that his paintings are not landscapes but “mindscapes” — places only imagined or remembered. While some are titled after specific places (“Monterey Bay” or “Montauk”), Mayhew said that he does that “just to give them some identity.” He might just as well call it “Wednesday,” he said — then showed me a painting, on an easel in his garage-studio, titled exactly that.

It is tempting to try and detect in Mayhew’s hazy, peaceful landscapes an occluded echo of this country’s history of slavery, and the relationship of Black and brown workers to the land. In past titles he has referred to the “40 acres and a mule” that was promised in reparations to freed slaves during Reconstruction; in one interview he described visiting a former plantation in Louisiana, and pondering the dark secrets of its landscape.

However, he told me he is simply committed to color, optics and illusion. Like the late 19th-century Tonalist painters (George Innes is a particular influence) he uses color to conjure space, although he has a perverse predilection for making backgrounds pop forward and foregrounds recede.

“When I was studying in Florence,” he said, “I learned that the mind doesn’t know what the eye is seeing.” In 1960, with his first wife, Dorothy, and their children Ina and Scott, Mayhew decamped to Italy, where he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. His best friend at the time was Nelson Shanks, the classical realist portrait painter, with whom he visited museums throughout Europe.

The sojourn taught him, he said, that creative sensibility “has nothing to do with ethnicity or any particular culture.” He contends that “creative consciousness” (a term he uses often) was what the members of Spiral were really involved with, more than issues tied to race.

Mayhew became recognized as a radical teacher, pushing an interdisciplinary curriculum — one that some art departments were not ready for. Teaching at Sonoma State University in the 1970s, he constructed with his students a giant plastic bubble, inflated by a box fan, in which he conducted classes, inviting dancers and musicians to perform inside it and scientists to measure the reverberations on its skin.

Mayhew’s accomplishments are now inspiring younger artists of color. The 38-year-old African American painter Kajahl, who lives near Mayhew in Santa Cruz, will curate the exhibition in Sonoma with Shelby Graham. He first met Mayhew while in high school, through a security guard who noticed his art. Kajahl has since become something of an acolyte. “I came up in a time when artists felt so incentivized to push politics or notions of their collective identity,” he said. “I find it refreshing that his work isn’t about any of that.”

Rosemary, his wife, told me that he tends not to dwell on the hardships he has endured, the discrimination he faced. She guesses that this might be a form of self-protection. “I didn’t have struggles!” he protested to her recently, pointing to the willingness of galleries to show his work.

“We did struggle,” said Ina, Mayhew’s daughter, a production designer for film and television. “There were always financial issues, we moved a lot, he taught at a number of schools. He had galleries, but we did not live off the sale of his paintings.” Some collectors, she said, did not even know Mayhew was not white. “When he got accepted to the National Academy of Design, they didn’t know he was Black until he showed up!”

There have been many artists of color who have had not only to think outside the box but to invent an entirely new box for themselves. Despite his outwardly traditional subject matter, there is no artist quite like Richard Mayhew. As Rosemary puts it, “I think Rick figured out what he needed to do to survive.”

‘Richard Mayhew: Natural Order’

Through June 17, Venus Over Manhattan, 39 Great Jones St., New York City;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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