‘The Excitement of Discovery’

‘Hector Leonardi reveals an unpredictable chromatic articulation virtually unparalleled in painting today.’
Hector Leonardi in the studio of the Bridgehampton potato barn where he has lived and worked for 25 years Mark Segal

Among the defining factors in Hector Leonardi’s career as a painter are his father, Filippo Leonardi; Josef Albers, the artist and professor who taught at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale, and a happy accident. 

The latter happened in 1980, while painting in his studio in Manhattan’s flower district. He was nervously picking at the dried residue of acrylic paint in a plastic container and peeled off a strip. He liked what he came up with.

In the Bridgehampton potato barn where he has lived and worked for the past 25 years with his partner, the artist Karl Mann, there are two enormous tables topped with large sheets of non-porous plastic that are in turn covered with every imaginable color of acrylic paint. Using a razor blade, Mr. Leonardi cuts and peels strips of the dried paint, which he then affixes to the surface of his abstract canvases.

Some of the strips have as many as 10 or 12 layers of color. “Acrylic dries quickly,” he said, “and once dry it no longer mixes with another color, unless the color is transparent.” Offering a visitor a multicolored strip, he said, “You could never get this variety of color intentionally. In other words, make an accident, and use it.” 

Seen in reproduction or from a distance, the paintings appear flat, but the acrylic strips, as well as his textural use of paint and its application in layers, give literal depth or dimension to his surfaces. 

To say Mr. Leonardi knows about color is an understatement. As a graduate student at Yale in the early 1950s, he studied color with Albers, whose 1963 book “Interaction of Color” provided the most comprehensive analysis of the function and perception of color of its time. Mr. Leonardi eventually assisted Albers in his color course and later taught it for 20 years at Parsons School of Design.

According to the critic and curator Robert C. Morgan, “Through his intuitive mixing and layering of carefully selected hues and values . . . Hector Leonardi reveals an unpredictable chromatic articulation virtually unparalleled in painting today.”

He starts with a primed canvas. Sometimes he follows by staining it with acrylic paint. “The viscosity of acrylic varies according to how liquid you make it,” he said. “I can put down a coat of paint that is opaque, but I don’t want that. I’m interested in the excitement of discovery. Do I think it works? Do I think it’s beautiful? Do I think it’s forceful?”

What he doesn’t start with is a preconception. “My approach to my work is emotional,” he has said. “It can’t help but be. I never know what I’m going to do. I feel rather strongly that if I could determine everything ahead of time, there would be no point in doing it.” As the artist Kit White has said, “He listens to the painting.”

Mr. Leonardi’s father was born and grew up in Rome but came to the United States as a young man in the 1920s and settled in Waterbury, Conn. “He would talk about art all the time. When he saw I liked to draw, he showed me books of palaces he knew, and books about art. And when I was still just a kid, he taught me perspective. When you grow up in a place like Rome, everything is art, and he instilled in me his love of art.”

Because Mr. Leonardi was a bookish child, his parents decided he should have a music education. “The first thing was violin. I was a total washout. So they sent me to a traditional drawing class at the Mattituck Museum in Waterbury, where I drew from plaster casts.”

At 18 he enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Like most art schools at that time, RISD took an academic approach to studio art. Mornings were devoted to drawing the figure, afternoons to painting it. As the weather changed, it was landscape and, in the fall, it was still life. “I don’t regret that classical training.”

Feeling secure in his preparation, he applied to the M.F.A. program at Yale. On the first day, “Albers came in, didn’t say anything, took two pieces of chalk, drew two perfect circles, then wrote his name forward and backward, and left the room. It was like landing in another country and you don’t speak the language but you know you want to live there. Albers taught me to not just look but to see, and to see how things interact.”

“I came to Yale with the sense that I knew it all, only to discover I had no idea whatsoever about what was happening.” 

Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell were among the artists who visited the campus, and he took classes with Buckminster Fuller and Ad Reinhardt in addition to Albers. “One thing about Yale: They didn’t tell you not to do something. They criticized the work on its own terms, which is an example of great teaching.”

After earning his M.F.A., Mr. Leonardi moved to New York City and took a job with the industrial designer Russel Wright. The job cut deeply into his painting time, and after seven years, he learned from a friend about the teaching position at Parsons.

“One of the things about New York then was that SoHo was wild, fantastic. Galleries were very different then. They were usually run by people who loved art, and they weren’t the size of MoMA. And AIDS had not happened. That changed everything, of course.”

He first came to the East End in the 1970s, when he and Mr. Mann rented “the very last house on the island” in Montauk. “It was very close to the cliff, and it was falling apart, the way beach places are supposed to be, with a 360-degree view.”

When he lost his studio in the city, he bought the potato barn, which at the time had a dirt floor and neither windows nor skylights. Although his New York studio didn’t have much natural light, “Albers taught all of us to work with what we have.” 

For the past 25 years, he has had plenty of natural light to work with. His studio is flooded with it. 

An exhibition of his work will open at the Drawing Room in East Hampton in June.

Hector Leonardi’s application of dried strips of acrylic paint adds depth and a vast range of color to his canvases. Jenny Gorman