William Louis-Dreyfus

William Louis-Dreyfus is a lawyer and businessman, an art collector and a published poet. After graduating from Duke University and Duke University School of Law, he practiced law in New York City. From 1969 to his retirement in 2006 he was the chief executive officer of the Louis Dreyfus Group, an international organization of diversified companies that had been wholly owned by the Louis-Dreyfus family since its foundation in 1851.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum awarded him the Robert Mills Architect medal in 2014 "for leadership in American Art." In 2014 he received an Advancement of American Art award from the National Academy Museum and School in New York City.

Essays by William Louis-Dreyfus

Leonardo Cremonini: Timeless Monumentality

In the late 50s and for two decades after that, Leonardo Cremonini was the contemporary artist most written about in Europe, not just by art critics and commentators but by modern philosophers and famous French and Italian writers. Then, as the years passed and those notable intellectuals died, so did the talk around Cremonini mostly disappear and his notice gave way to new waves of art creation explicitly distancing the complex and figurative work that typified Cremonini.

He worked slowly and sometimes on paintings of very large size whose date was stated in multiple years. He paid little attention to the trends of the times and continued to exhibit his work throughout Europe to critical if not public acclaim.

I knew Cremonini well. He was a proud man, sure of himself and sure of what makes up quality in the art world. He had occasion to submit to the superficial envelopes which the art world espouses every now and again, but nothing which might not reflect his views and imagination was acceptable. Once, early in his career, he was solicited by a famous gallery owner in New York who had noticed his work in Italy and proposed to represent him in New York. Cremonini accepted, and the two were about to sign a contract when the gallery owner asked him how many paintings he could do each year. Cremonini explained that the maximum he could get done was five or six. "That won't do at all," said the gallery owner. "I need at least double that amount to make it worthwhile entering the marketplace.” Cremonini told me that story – exclaiming to the man that he should sell varieties of socks rather than art works.

I regret that Cremonini died somewhat in obscurity compared to where he had been. A well known critic and essayist wrote that it was an outrage that the death of a maestro like him was not front-page news befitting his artistic achievement.

William Louis-Dreyfus
Published on the occasion of the exhibition
Leonardo Cremonini: Timeless Monumentality:
Paintings from The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation

Stanley Lewis: The Way Things Are

I think what makes good paintings and drawings is the extent to which the artist succeeds in including the invisible in his visible depiction. The invisible in a work of art is hidden and leaves no traces; its presence extends the accuracy and breadth of the visible, perhaps much like a caesura in poetry attaches to the poem and widens its meaning. Stanley Lewis is a master includer of the invisible. It gives his work constant discovery the longer you look at it. If you watch him work you wonder where all the scratching and cutting and thrashing about is leading to, and the final product, clear and complex, becomes a constant surprise.

I became acquainted with the work by accident. I was visiting a gallery in New York City, showing I forget which well-regarded artist, and in a side gallery downstairs, away from the more grandiose main exhibition space, a number of Stanley Lewis paintings were on display. I was at first puzzled by the disorder I thought I saw in the works. The more I looked the more order appeared until I couldn’t tell which painting I thought was the best. The longer my looking lasted the more enamored I became until I couldn’t resist buying them all.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of a good painting is that it makes you wonder and examine how it got that way. Stanley is very much in that line of work. Discussion with him, whatever the subject, is always inquiring into that question. He doesn’t often examine the excellence of his own work except sometimes to describe the mechanics of his cutting and joining, after which a lawn chair or a white coffee mug somewhat suddenly appears.

Collecting works of art is in a sense a foolish enterprise, especially in a world so full of need and fixing, but when I think of Stanley Lewis’s work I am deliriously happy I did it, and that’s before I whisper to myself that perhaps his drawings in pencil and ink may be Stanley doing the superlative.

William Louis-Dreyfus
Published on the occasion of the exhibition
Stanley Lewis: The Way Things Are

Inside the Outside: Five Self-Taught Artists

I have been asked what caused me to collect self-taught or so-called "outsider" art. I think the answer is not anything that differs from what propelled me to collect art itself, namely a conviction that the work achieves an inescapable and meaningful artistic presence: the quality that differentiates art from illustration. In the self-taught world, it is a work that transcends craft and folk art traditions and ends up creating, first and foremost, artistic experience. An illustration is an apple drawn to look like an apple. A work of art is an apple drawn as the artist sees the apple. It is the genuine artistic expression which then comes through. The same is true in the self-taught sector of the art world. The particularities and limitations of art as created in the outsider world fade in the face of the unavoidable artistic presence that is expressed.

I do not know what takes place in the voyage that the visual object takes from the maker's eye through to his hand. It comes out clothed somewhat in what we know of the maker's existence; but mostly it is made of facets unseen before the voyage took place. Castle, Dial, Rowe, Traylor and Young are joined by their independence from each other and by the artistic urge that forced itself through their difficult life-conditions.

William Louis-Dreyfus
PPublished on the occasion of the exhibition
Inside the Outside: Five Self-Taught Artists from
The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation

Bill Traylor: An American Prodigy

It is difficult to talk about art without falling into the numerous traps that await the word-and-meaning user. So much of the written word is spent spinning a sort of literary obscurism, or constructing arguments to include, or not, the artist in some category or other, or identifying historical events surrounding the artist and his work as if such a reference had meaning beyond a biographical one, or using some descriptive fact of the work as if the act of describing was identical to the quality of the description. Not long ago the curator in charge of a Jasper Johns exhibition at the Guggenheim explained the special quality of one of the works (having commented, as usual, on questions about Johns' flags, maps and numbers) by declaring that the painting was of Johns' studio. The interviewer, who had been taught to assume that members of the Art Establishment have thought out what they are saying, referred to that apparently qualifying fact in a conversation with critic Hilton Kramer as a counterweight to the tepid judgment Kramer had of Johns' artistic quality. "So what?" was the reply, a question all art-involved people should keep at the forefront of their viewing.

Outsider art is the category which identifies and encompasses the work done by those who are by virtue of their mental condition, illiteracy, confinement, behavioral defect and the like, excluded from the wide mainstream of artistic creation. Few have formal training of any kind. They do their work absent the self-consciousness that necessarily comes from being an artist in the ordinarily accepted circumstance. The French call it "Art Brut." But here in America, "Outsider Art" "also refers to the work doneby the poor, illiterate, and self-taught, African-Americans whose artistic product is not the result of a controlling mental or behavioral factor but of their untaught and impoverished social condition.

Dividing artists into categories may help critics, curators and collectors organize their views. But it doesn't advance the quality of the work to know that Monet was an impressionist, that Kandinsky helped shape abstract expressionism and that the pop section contains Oldenberg. The fact that William Edmondson, Thornton Dial, William Hawkins and Bill Traylor were self-taught outsider artists reveals more about American society than saying anything relevant about the artistic work produced. Neither doesn’t create or alter the place Bill Traylor's work occupies with regard to its artistic quality to know that he was poor, black, illiterate and, therefore thought to be an "Outsider" or "Folk" artist.

Bill Traylor was an American prodigy. Born into slavery, illiterate all of his life, he worked on the Traylor plantation in Benton, Alabama, for over 70 years and then for a year in a Montgomery shoe factory until his rheumatism prevented him from continuing. He slept nights on a pile of rags in the back room of a funeral parlor and during the day he set up on Lawrence Street in front of a pool hall where the overhanging roof gave him protection. Then, at age 84, Bill Traylor began to draw, working on discarded cardboard with a small straight stick, a pencil and cast off poster paint. In just over three years, in the shade of the tin ' roof behind a red Coca-Cola cooler, he produced an estimated 1,200 - 1,500 works, on some of which he painstakingly learned to write his name.

The subjects of his drawings illustrate his life just as the manner of his pencil stroke reflects his untaught circumstance. Yet his drawings show an unerring ability to invent complex and harmonious compositions and to make brilliant use of negative space. Contrasted to what appears to be ignorance of perspective and shading is a highly sophisticated and original approach to shape, geometric design and abstract form. His approach to the page, to the old cardboard surfaces he found and his incorporation of scratches, discoloration, tears and irregular shapes of his boards reveal a compositional master at work. From the age of 84 to 87, Bill Traylor produced a body of work which is as American and as important to America's artistic contribution as are the scrupulously exquisite watercolors of Winslow Homer or the structured paint drippings of Jackson Pollock. What we know of those years and of Traylor's life is described with simplicity and vividness in an interview with Charles Shannon, Traylor's discoverer. The details of his life, as relevant as they are to the subjects he depicted or the events he drew, do not account for the basic sophistication of the depiction nor for the consistently high quality of the drawings. That consistent level mirrors the one Giacometti, a highly accomplished draftsman, achieved in his drawings. We are accustomed, especially in "Outsider" or "Self-Taught" art, to spurts of brilliance perhaps made all the more noticeable in contrast with the entire body of work produced. In Traylor's work brilliance is a constant.

The facts surrounding Traylor's existence, except for the inner light of artistic creation which found its way out, have no bearing on the quality of the work he produced. Perhaps we should treat as anecdotal the circumstances of this black man's life in a country which never really knew he was there. His genius is the thing, and the perfection of his artistic rendering is what needs to be noticed.

William Louis-Dreyfus
Bill Traylor: Observing Life
Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York

Matthew Daub

Matthew Daub paints in watercolors. The public at large may have the notion that artists tend to dabble in watercolors and paint, make their final statements, in oil. Few understand the mastery required nor the risks involved in being a watercolorist. Every use of the brush is a high wire gesture, a turning and somersault without a net, where all errors are fatal. No misstep is forgiven. All failures are absolute.

Why has Matthew Daub, the painter, chosen to have his artistry expressed in a language where the words, unless they are perfectly chosen and aligned, break or disappear or have their meanings smudged and blighted? Because if you get it right (which means 100% right) the image you get sits on the pin of perfection and trembles there forever.

Watercolors are not a modernist’s tool. The care, the reflection, the disposition they require are not what the modernist can afford to give and still stay true to the “look-at-me” effort that he is engaged in. Can you imagine Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst engaging in the laborious, self-effacing work that watercolor painting demands? It is, thus, not surprising that serious watercolorists do not become the fashion plates of any particular art establishment at any particular fabricated era.

Matthew Daub is not a modernist and not a fashion plate. He paints what seem to be realistic depictions of American “townscapes” on paper. Seldom do people appear. These are scenes that seem to be capturing a moment where the items, big and small, that people have created are left on their own to be shown in their luminous entirely, without interference.

All great painting allows us to look beyond the subject revealed without diminishing the presence of the subject revealed, without denying it. Daub uses the great precision of the subject to corral light and put it enslaved to his own complete use. Notice the factory windows and building panels in the paintings. Note them and think how fully served Rothko would have been by any one of them; indeed, how envious he would have been to see his large oils in their natural place on Daub’s factory windows.

If you start looking at Daub’s work, the watercolors and the conté crayon drawings, you start wondering what keeps your eye fixed on what seems to be an easily discovered and discoverable place. Is it the luminous character of everything, even the dark? Does the obvious seem surprisingly revealed? Are you startled by it? Do all those recognizable left along objects, disclosed in the meticulous watercolor strokes, form an abstract of the real? I can’t help wondering what Kandinsky would see looking at these and I imagine how fixed his looks would be standing before them.

William Louis-Dreyfus
Published on the occasion of the exhibition
Matthew Daub: In the Shadow of Industry. Watercolors and Drawings of Eastern Pennsylvania
Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania