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The man who wouldn't stop painting

Even though the art world has looked away, Steven Trefonides keeps to his vision

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 26, 2009
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Put Steven Trefonides in a room full of his own pictures, and you can feel it: They start to talk to him, and he starts to hear them. The 82-year-old artist, who has lived and worked in Boston for over 50 years, takes on the manner of a diviner, picking up vibrations, subterranean whispers.

He's telling you, the interloper, about each picture; but after a while you start to feel redundant. His manner is concentrated, alert, and improvisational, exactly like an interpreter's.

Gesturing at a vague shape in one painting he'll say, "That's a snake. No, an elephant. An alligator" - without any fear of inconsistency. Of a drawing he made in the '60s, with various figures, a mysterious lake, and a colored rainbow, he says: "It's that feeling you get when you say goodbye - or hello - after a long time. You get an ache in your stomach: Am I here or not here? It's a feeling picture.

"I do a lot of pictures based on feelings," he adds.

Fortunately - or unfortunately - it's rather easy to put Trefonides in a room full of his own pictures: His beautiful Brookline Village home, which he shares with his wife, Phyllis, is filled with them. A downstairs studio and an upstairs attic are crammed with canvases of all shapes and sizes; drawers in the hallway are piled with works on paper.

Trefonides, it turns out, does not have a dealer. Asked why, he says, without bitterness: "No one's asked me. Almost every gallery I was interested in wasn't interested in me."

The situation seems strange, not only because of the quality of Trefonides's work, but because he has been a well-known and popular figure on the Boston art scene for decades. He had a studio on the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth streets, above Joseph's restaurant (now Joe's American Bar and Grill), for 26 years. He had a retrospective at the Fitchburg Art Museum in 1958 and one at the Fuller Art Museum (now the Fuller Craft) in 1968. He also won the St. Botolph Club's artist of the year award in 1980. But that was all a long time ago.

"He has people who are loyal," says his friend Ben Watkins, a photographer and former director of the Society of Arts and Crafts. "He's very generous. He's also a very resourceful and avid seller."

Now somewhat frail, Trefonides has warm dark eyes that convey a hint of mischief. Not exactly reticent, he's nonetheless economical in what he has to say, and he has a tendency to toss in subversive or self-deprecating comments with a poker face.

The walls and various horizontal surfaces of his house are dotted with small collections of Indian miniatures, tiny ceramic shoes, colored glass vessels, family photographs, and figurines of angels. One old photograph shows Trefonides as a devastatingly handsome young man with a black kitten perched on his shoulder.

"The kitten used to climb on my shoulder and down my painting hand to my brush," he laughs.

A small drawing, full of bravura marks and confounding figurative details, hangs on the wall. He calls it "Hurricane in Ukraine." He takes it from the wall, and slowly rotates it through 360 degrees. Bizarrely, and quite wonderfully, the image reads fluently from all four points of the compass.

Katherine French, the director of the Danforth Museum of Art, in Framingham, believes that, as a representational painter associated with the Boston Expressionists, Trefonides is probably accustomed to being out of step with the times.

"At a time when New York artists were developing the language of abstraction," she wrote in an e-mail, "it became increasingly difficult for representational artists to be considered as anything but outmoded and old fashioned."

It was "hard and dispiriting," French adds, for the Boston Expressionists "to see their work go critically unnoticed." She finds it "a mark of courage and determination that they continued to interpret the human figure in ways that reflected personal experience."

French has accepted donations to the Danforth of several works by Trefonides. "Like his contemporary Hyman Bloom" she writes, "Trefonides is a brilliant colorist and the works donated to the museum portray scenes that make sense only when viewed in visionary terms."

Bloom, the leading painter among the Boston Expressionists and an influence on painters like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, has been a mentor and lifelong friend of Trefonides. "I've learned a lot from him," Trefonides says with real warmth. "He would go into an art supply store and say, 'Is there anything new in white?' I liked that!"

Of course, the period of abstract art's ascendancy is long gone and, if anything, the situation is now reversed. Very few abstract painters have come to light over the last decade, and representational art has enjoyed a huge resurgence.

So how does one explain Trefonides's situation? Is this simply what happens to aging artists, even in their hometowns? If you have not made it to the status of living legend, do the dealers just lose interest, the museum curators switch off? Does your house inexorably fill up with your own work?

Trefonides grew up in New Bedford, where his father, who died when Trefonides was 7, owned a diner. "I remember my father's shiny orange shoes," he says. "And getting up early." He studied at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, the Vesper George School of Art in Boston (interrupted by a two-year stint in the Air Force), and finally the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he majored in painting, from 1950-54.

He remembers encounters with European emigré painters like Max Beckmann and Oskar Kokoschka, who were teaching in New England, and meeting Edward Hopper.

It wasn't painting, however, but photography that allowed Trefonides to earn a living. In Europe on a painting grant in 1954, he had fallen under the spell of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He started taking photographs, and, back in the States, entered a Life magazine photography contest with a portfolio of images taken in a nursing home.

He didn't win, but Edward Steichen saw the portfolio and almost included them in his famous "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. (It was a question of timing; Steichen told him that if he had seen the images a couple of days earlier, he would have put them in.)

Trefonides went to India on a Fulbright grant as a painter in 1959, but found himself "seeing Cartier-Bresson's photographs of India everywhere I looked." So he got to work with his own Leica M3 camera (Cartier-Bresson's favorite; "The click is so seductive!") and eventually collected the resulting photographs in a marvelous book, called simply "India."

In the end, Trefonides was instrumental in getting photography legitimized in the Boston area. He staged an important exhibition in the Cyclorama building in the South End and organized monthly gatherings of local photographers. Both the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art bought his photographs.

But after 30 years, he says, "I just got tired of it."

"Steve resented all the attention he got from photography," his wife, Phyllis, explains. "He did it to support his family. He has this feeling of it being in competition with what he really is."

What he really is - and what he was trained as - is not just a painter, but a wonderfully original draftsman and, like his heroes Edgar Degas and Odilon Redon, a virtuoso in pastels.

Like Degas, a keen amateur photographer, Trefonides still uses photographs as aides to his painting (he has a wonderful collection of old postcards and stereoscope photographs in his studio). Indeed, you can feel the influence of photography in his love for strange body postures and in his resistance to conventional compositions. Trefonides embraces the arbitrariness of the camera's framing, so that, for instance, two figures will overlap, even while a significant portion of the picture remains empty.

Anachronistically, he has a penchant for top hats and old-fashioned dresses - a function not only of his fondness for old postcards and paintings but also, you feel, a more or less arbitrary symptom of his deep relish for human peculiarity. It's clear he gets a big kick out of small things, among them the many efforts we make to attract each other: the gestures, the clothes, the props, and so on.

"I want people to look at the picture and keep seeing new things all the time," he says.

Often described as a romantic painter, he nevertheless has a streak of mischief, and is always seeing the comedy in romance. He describes the figures in one painting as having "desires percolating around them." Another drawing, from the 1960s, shows four naked women in a vigorously drawn Maine landscape, Trefonides's saucy answer to the conventional New England genre of windswept coastal landscapes.

"Four women on the rocks," he says wryly, after moving it into view: "It's like a drink."

You would never describe Trefonides's pictures as "plotted," but he has not shied away from art's ancient role as a function of storytelling. This may be another reason his work has felt out of step with contemporary fashions, which have tended to scorn anything associated with illustration. Trefonides's subjects do seem, wrote the Boston poet William Corbett in a 1996 review, "to be creatures of fable, invented from memory to tell a mysterious story or involve the reader in some other ambiguity."

Trefonides puts it this way: "I don't paint stories, I paint afterthoughts."

One picture he shows depicts, he says, "a woman coming out of a depression"; the man seen in profile in another part of the picture is "waiting patiently." "The Magnet," a superb, vigorously painted recent work that borders on abstraction, depicts two men, one of them in a boat, competing for the attentions of a woman. "What you can't see," explains Trefonides, "is that the man in the boat is being drawn by a magnet."

And in yet another, mysterious figure composition, a sinister figure is shown whispering into the ear of a teenage boy. The boy, says Trefonides, "is at a vulnerable time in his life, not knowing what he wants to be." His hands are clenched hard, squeezing at insects, which shoot up in a line (entrancing detail!) to a third figure. The scene outside is bucolic: "His future's a bright one."

Trefonides likes to make repeated versions of the same scenarios, so that the same figures or groupings will turn up in multiple pictures, often in different mediums. "They have a life of my own," he says cryptically.

Sometimes, it's true, he tries to do too much, or fails to get the right balance between specific information and tremulous atmosphere. As Corbett astutely observed, he sometimes "fusses with his pictures, overworks them, and creates distraction in reaching for the poetry that unites his best work."

But the best work is plentiful, and it reveals Trefonides not only as a bold and brilliant colorist, but as a powerfully idiosyncratic dreamer.

For many people, there is nothing quite so moving or inspiring as the sight of youthful talent blazing away with total commitment. But in fact, there is something more moving and, in its way, more impressive. It's the sight of creative talent at the other end of life. The painter or performer who has dedicated a whole life to his or her calling; the artist who has stamina, who has gone on creating, who, despite setbacks, has never given up, and keeps on finding more to discover, more to express.

Steven Trefonides isn't done yet.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

Steven Trefonides (Globe Staff / Pat Greenhouse) Steven Trefonides lives surrounded by his work, like this oil "The Two Women in the Trees."