A Portrait of the Artist
The St. Botolph Club, like so much of old-world Boston, has lost most of its influence over the decades, if not its sense of significance. Founded in 1880, the private art club once included members such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Henry Houghton, George Mifflin, and John Bartlett. Robert Frost, whose portrait still hangs at the club, was made a member in 1932. The first American exhibition of Claude Monet's work was held at St. Botolph, as was a major early showing of John Singer Sargent. That, of course, was all a very long time ago. These days, the club retains its stuffy formality but has gone a touch drowsy; old men in jackets and ties — the ban on female membership was lifted back in 1988 — sip afternoon scotch in a grandiose first-floor sitting room that remains hushed enough,
despite the muffled conversations about who once taught which class where, to discern the rippling pages of the Wall Street Journal. Which may explain why no one has forgotten that night early last year when Peter Lyons's show opened at St. Botolph.
Lyons was then an unknown painter, a security guard at the Museum of Fine Arts who, like a character in a movie script, would rocket in just a few months to art-world darling, drawing favorable comparisons to Edward Hopper. His ascent, along with his lonely landscapes, electrified St. Botolph's membership.
It was shoulder-to-shoulder that night, all the way to the front hall by the main entrance. Servers balancing trays of hors d'oeuvres had trouble navigating through the crowd. Only raised voices could be heard above the excited buzz. “It was not,” Theodore Stebbins Jr. recalls, “a typical sort of St. Botolph event.”
Eventually, it fell upon Stebbins to make his way to the second step of the spiraling staircase just off of the sitting room. The club quieted as he looked out over the crowd. Ted Stebbins, generally regarded as one of the nation's leading art scholars, the former curator of American paintings at the MFA, the current curator of American art at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, was about to recognize this guy Lyons, the security guard with the dazzling pictures on the wall.
Everyone understood the significance of the moment. By then, most of them knew that Lyons had managed the previous summer to convince Stebbins to walk the few blocks from his Harvard office to the one-bedroom apartment that doubles as Lyons's studio. “He came over [to my office], so I couldn't back out of it,” Stebbins remembers, laughing. The two men and Stebbins's assistant ascended several flights to the apartment. Lyons had set up four paintings for the occasion. “Usually you see things and you wonder how to get back to your office,” Stebbins says. “In Peter's case, I thought, 'These works are intense.'” In one afternoon, the dream of struggling artists everywhere had become Peter Lyons's reality.
Stebbins placed a call to Saundra Lane, the nationally known Boston collector whose purchases help establish art-scene conventional wisdom. Stebbins escorted Lane to the apartment for a viewing. She noted, as many do, similarities to the work of Hopper, one of Lyons's heroes, but also saw an important distinction. “Hopper — I'm always kind of dejected by him,” she says. “Whereas with this young man, I see a future.” Lane bought Blue Midnight, in which a huge oil drum lurks at the center, partially aglow and vibrant in the fleeting daylight but mostly dark and quiet in advancing shadow. “I almost get the feeling that I'm on another planet when I see his work,” Lane says. The significance of making such an impression on Saundra Lane cannot be overstated, for, as art critic Christine Temin noted in a Boston Globe piece about Lyons, “A résumé that mentions the Lane Collection means something in the art world.”
Stebbins also mentioned Lyons to a few Newbury Street art dealers. For various reasons, they all passed. When he recommended Lyons to someone at St. Botolph, however, he got the reaction he was hoping for. The members of the club's art committee made the trek to Cambridge for their own look at the paintings, and soon arrangements for a Lyons show were settled.
Standing up on that second step at the opening, looking out over the exhibit and all those people, Stebbins found himself amazed. He knew the pictures were gorgeous, but all he'd really expected was to get Lyons a bit of exposure. He'd never imagined such a turnout, such a frenzy. “He's a good young artist,” Stebbins told the room. “It's good to see everyone appreciating him.”
Nearby, suited in the first sport jacket he'd ever owned, Lyons stood dazed at the center of a congratulatory pack. He accepted slaps on the back and best wishes from giddy strangers. “People were very excited,” he told me. “They knew they were part of something special. It's the classic story. It's like seeing a unicorn-you've all heard about it, but when you actually see one it's a real shock. Magic moments happen and you feel them.”
The spell would linger for several weeks. The guard making 12 bucks an hour would sell an astonishing $110,000 in paintings during the exhibition. He was 42, far older than the typical up-and-comer, but after years of starving-artist endurance, he had arrived.
Lyons had always imagined it this way, even back when he infuriated his parents by dropping out of college and teaching himself to paint. Now he had a show at one of New York's most influential American art galleries fast approaching. The future glimmered, glorious and limitless, as he had always dreamed. What he was about to learn, however, like so many striving painters, novelists, and filmmakers before him, was that sometimes for the discovered artist, the real struggle has only just begun.
Like all true artists, Peter Lyons is a shaman. I know this because it was one of the first things he ever told me. About 2 percent of painters are shamans, he said; the rest are crap, choking the life out of the best galleries in New York and London and Paris.
From certain angles, Lyons resembles the actor Peter Sellers. He appears coiled and intense even when he's smiling, as though perpetually at his most critical creative moment. “The artist as shaman is this direct experience with the spiritual world,” he said. “Through a metaphor — a painting on a cave wall, a painting on a canvas, or a dance around a campfire with song — he takes the other people around him on this journey that only he could take.” What he seemed to mean was that the work of the true artist functions as a portal, offering momentary passage to grace and truth. And even if I was wrong, even if I hadn't completely grasped the artist-as-shaman conceit, what of it? Who was I to question Lyons's theories about the metaphysics of the art universe? He was, after all, painting's Next Big Thing.
That, at least, was the hope of certain powerful figures within the Boston art establishment, the sort of people who can provide access to a place like St. Botolph, to shows in New York, to affluent buyers. This group had experienced firsthand the shamanistic effects of Lyons's paintings, and their enthusiasm no doubt owed much to the elegant purity of his work. But there was something more: The brilliance of his trajectory, as much as that of his rare talent, attracted the agents and dealers, the collectors and critics. Lyons's agent, Jeffrey Brown, told me that, heretofore, his own career had consisted mostly of brokering the work of dead artists. How thrilling to represent a client with life, with drive, with a chance. Brown, like others who earn their living at the periphery of the artistic process, glimpsed in Lyons that most precious of opportunities-the chance to participate, even if just a bit, in artistry itself. By clearing the space upon which Lyons's impending success could be built, by closing the deals and arranging for the news articles and buying the odd painting, they could, like some form of venture culturists, own for themselves a tiny slice of that success.
So what if Lyons had pissed away most of his small fortune from the St. Botolph show? So what if he had blown it on $17 cigars and $3,500 wristwatches and a $2,800 custom-made walnut box for his paints? As he would explain some time later, “Money isn't particularly a worry. You've got to put it in perspective. I sell two big pictures, there's $60,000” — he snapped his fingers — “like that.”
Lyons was 29 years old when he finally made it out of New Zealand. He had taken up painting after abandoning his pursuit of a physics degree and made enough money at a small show to buy a ticket to Los Angeles. His plane touched down on April 30, 1990, and he took a room at a Huntington Beach hostel, where he met Matt Roberts, a Brit who would become a close friend. To save money, Lyons, Roberts, and five others crammed into a small suite in a nearby motel. There was barely enough room to move, Roberts recalls, yet Lyons set himself up with a makeshift painting station. “Pete is just the most fixated, single-minded, maybe even obsessed person I've known,” he says. Roberts eventually moved in with a girlfriend, and Lyons joined them for a time. He bounced around Southern California for the next five years, selling peanuts and Gummi Bears door-to-door in office parks, working as a security guard in a mall, doing construction. The work was humiliating. “I just got enough money each day to come back in the morning and have one meal,” he says. Roberts once visited Lyons and was shocked to discover he hadn't eaten in three days. Yet Lyons insisted on the finest amber resin to embellish his paints. “This stuff costs about $100 for a tube,” Roberts says with a laugh, “and he'd go and buy that instead of food.” At the time, however, Lyons's obsession was hardly a laughing matter. To his friends, he sometimes seemed depressed. “There were times I did worry for him,” Roberts says. “There were times when I thought things could go bad for him.” After Roberts went home to live in England for good in 1995, he asked mutual friend Rick Handt to keep an eye on Lyons.
Handt became Lyons's primary connection to the outside world. So when Handt moved to Boston in 1996, Lyons followed a few months later. They shared an apartment in the North End, and Lyons took a job baking croissants at Iggy's Bread of the World in Watertown. From there he moved on to the security job at the MFA. Handt admired his friend's willingness to sacrifice everything for his art but was frustrated, too. “He always said he knew he was going to be a success, but he would never do what I thought it took, like going around to galleries with a portfolio,” Handt says. “Who's going to see your paintings when they're in your room?” Contributing to that inaction, Handt knew, was Lyons's sense of isolation. “I can't connect to him on his artistic level,” says Handt, who works for the U.S. Department of Justice. “We can talk about it, but I don't have that background or that higher spiritual appreciation of it. He does find himself lonely on a certain level. It consumes him, and to not be able to share that with people must be very lonely.”
And that's why Handt went along with a bizarre scheme Lyons concocted in 1998 to finally get his work noticed. Lyons asked Handt to drive him to New York, where he would spring his work on unsuspecting gallery managers. “As crazy as I thought it was, I had to get the van,” Handt says. “I had to help him.” Lyons was, after all, at long last displaying initiative.
It went about as well as Handt had expected. Again and again, the van would roll up to a gallery and Lyons would hop out and sprint up the stairs. Once inside, he'd unwrap the paintings from their blankets in front of stunned gallery workers. “A couple of places were going to call security and throw him out of there,” Handt says with a laugh. “Most of the reaction was 'I can't believe you're doing this. Get out of here right now!'”
Despite Lyons's crackling success at the St. Botolph show, he stayed on as a security guard at the MFA for another five weeks. “I was kind of reveling in it,” he says. “There's a perverse pleasure you get from doing things you really don't like for the last time.” When March 2003 finally arrived and it was time for his show at the prestigious Richard York Gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Lyons took the Acela Express down to the show. The glamorous life was still very new to him and he was jumpy with excitement. But a freak snowstorm hit the city. Neither Ted Stebbins nor Saundra Lane could make the opening, and attendance was disappointing. Lyons failed to sell a single painting during the monthlong show.
I sat with Lyons in late April in his cluttered Cambridge apartment. A planned second show at the York Gallery had been canceled because the gallery had closed. Founder Richard York had died shortly after Lyons's first exhibition and, according to the story Lyons had heard, York's heirs were uninterested in operating an art gallery. I knew Lyons had not sold a painting in some time, so I expected to find him in a somber mood, but he appeared almost buoyant, convinced of his inevitable fame.
I sat on his battered beige love seat with folded blankets crammed under one of the cushions. He lounged on a chair across the small living room from me, sipping beer, his feet up, his shoes off. Whatever his current problems, he assured me, he had faced worse in his life: “No matter how tough and how struggling it was, I always knew that I was a painter.”
Since the closing of the York Gallery, Lyons's agent, Jeffrey Brown, had been looking for other opportunities. A couple of Boston art dealers had expressed interest, but Lyons would hear nothing of it. “Jeff, he'll get a place in New York. There's no question about that,” Lyons said. “I mean, we may have something here in Boston [too]. Why not? But we will have a dealer in New York.”
All around us was evidence of Lyons's spending spree following his St. Botolph windfall. Stacked haphazardly on a table were hundreds of DVDs. His prized walnut paint box, covered with a white sheet to protect it from sunlight, rested on the floor. A bottle of cologne sat on a shelf, right next to a conspicuously displayed Cartier box. I asked Lyons whether it was a contradiction for a shaman to have such an appreciation for material things. He explained that, having spent so many years in poverty and obscurity, he had lost himself for a while. “There is something about the art world, its openings and Champagne and schmoozing, which is very seductive,” he acknowledged. “I like putting on all these nice clothes I have — Thomas Pink shirts and ties and cuff links and my watch. It's very seductive. All of these things, they're beginning to get their own power over me.”
I wondered about the seduction and how it might affect Lyons's work, how it might interfere with his spiritual journey, with his shamanistic duties.
In mid-August, Lyons and Jeffrey Brown invited me to a showing for a few select buyers at Brown's home in Milton. The special arrangement didn't surprise me because I knew from Lyons's friends that he needed money badly. He hadn't sold a painting in a while and money was tight. I'd last seen Lyons a month earlier, when we met for lunch at a pub near his apartment. He told me then that Brown was close to landing a deal with a gallery in San Francisco. When I expressed surprise, given how adamant he had been about remaining in New York, he pointed out that San Francisco would give him exposure on both coasts. He was more reserved that day than I had ever seen him. For the first time, he refused to answer certain questions.
His friend Rick Handt later explained the pressure Lyons was feeling. “I've known him for at least 10 years now and I can definitely tell this is one of the lower points,” he said. And this was after Lyons had been discovered, he pointed out. “That's what frustrates him,” Handt said. “In the last year he's reached a new height in his artwork and the recognition from the art community. At the same time his sales have gone down.” When I asked Ted Stebbins about Lyons's potential, his answer had nothing to do with the work. “It depends what happens to the world, what kind of art it likes,” he said. The rage among collectors right now is video and multimedia. Who's to say what comes next: sculpture, photography, some as-yet-undiscovered medium?
Because of these vagaries, Lyons might be best served by establishing a name in Boston, Stebbins said, before trying to conquer the entire art world. Most artists have a difficult time enduring the fluctuations of the marketplace, he said. “It's kind of easier to struggle angrily in obscurity than to find success out in the sun and then watch the clouds cover up the sun again. That's the test of Peter as a person, as an artist. We'll know in five years. He has to have the courage and character to keep painting at his best. I have some feeling that he will. He's a very determined man.”
I arrived for the showing at Jeffrey Brown's house at 2 p.m. Brown motioned me into the kitchen and told me he was in final negotiations with two San Francisco galleries. He expected to complete a deal within hours. In the dining room, Lyons fiddled with a dimmer switch for the lights that shone upon his paintings as two friends placed them, one after the other, upon the credenza. Though I knew Lyons had become fascinated by material objects, I was astonished to see brand names appear in the pictures: billboards for Cartier and the International Watch Company, a train car advertising his beloved Sennelier paints.
A second showing at Brown's home was scheduled that evening for several other potential buyers, but the afternoon had been reserved for Saundra Lane. Lyons looked nervous as he explained to her the inspirational this and that of each picture. His descriptions were saturated with “transcendent” and “transcendental.” Lane listened attentively, smiling and nodding politely, but didn't show much passion until she described how she'd been buying mostly photography of late. Beaming, she mentioned a young woman in New Orleans who she'd been collecting. Lyons nodded and turned back to the painting on the credenza, explaining that end-of-day light was the most spiritual.
He finished his presentation and everyone agreed the paintings looked wonderful. His agent smiled at Lane. “Saundra, can I get you a glass of sherry?” he asked.
“No,” she replied warmly, “I think I'm going to get me on the road.”