An abstract expressionist and figurative painter, Jack Beal was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1931. As a young child he was often ill with ear infections and to take his mind off the pain his mother encouraged him to draw. Although his drawing talent set him apart from his peers, Beal might never have become an artist if a professor at the College of William and Mary had not changed his life by telling him to leave school and go to The Art Institute of Chicago. Beal followed this advice, studying for three years at The School of the Art Institute, where he learned to paint in the Abstract Expressionist style.
Eventually Beal began to move toward figuration in his work
and is now
Mr. Beal was part of a group of young American artists who rejected the psychologically driven Abstract Expressionist movement of the postwar era in favor of art based on commonly recognizable things and experiences. The new wave included Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, who leavened their work with postmodernist humor, and others like Philip Pearlstein, Alfred Leslie and Mr. Beal, whose work was more traditional but no less ambitious.
Mr. Beal was known for minutely detailed portraits, landscapes, still lifes and narrative works, like “The History of Labor,” a series of four murals he painted from 1974 to 1977 for the Labor Department’s headquarters in Washington. Their populist optimism earned Mr. Beal a dubious distinction.
The murals established Mr. Beal “as the most important Social Realist to have emerged in American painting since the 1930s,” wrote Hilton Kramer, the art critic for The New York Times. “Given the generally low esteem — a disfavor bordering at times on contempt — that the Social Realist impulse has suffered in recent decades, this is not a position likely to be a cause of envy.”
But the work was good, Mr. Kramer declared in a review in 1977. “The murals abound in visual incident, dramatic shifts of space and light and an unflagging energy,” he wrote, describing crowded scenes of neighbors helping neighbors, social workers rescuing children from factory jobs, scientists toiling side by side with laborers for the good of all. The overall effect, he said, was “breathtaking.”
Mr. Beal seemed not to care if his work was considered corny. “I think that what we have to try to do is to make beautiful paintings about life as we live it,” he said in a 1979 interview. Paintings, he said, “could lead people in a better direction.”
Walter Henry Beal Jr. was born on June 25, 1931, in Richmond, Va. His father, a factory worker, was also known as Jack. His mother was the former Marion Watkins. An only and often sickly child, young Jack took to drawing early and developed his interest while studying biology and anatomy at the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary, now known as Old Dominion University. Before earning a degree, he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied with Kathleen Blackshear and was influenced by the work of Arshile Gorky, he told interviewers.
The school was where he met Ms. Freckelton, a fellow student. They married in 1955 and moved to New York City in 1957, then to a farm upstate in Oneonta in the 1970s.
Mr. Beal’s paintings have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Virginia Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery. They can also be seen in the subway.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Beal was one of several artists, along with Lichtenstein, Jacob Lawrence and Toby Buonagurio, commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to produce works for the subway system. He decided on two 7-by-20-foot glass tile mosaic panels portraying the Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess who spends half the year above ground and half in the underworld.
The first panel to be completed, titled “The Return of Spring,” was installed on the mezzanine of the subway station complex under Times Square three days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (The second panel, “The Onset of Winter,” went up in 2005.) “The Return of Spring” shows Persephone emerging from a subway exit to buy flowers at a Korean greengrocer’s stall.
Jack Beal, whose pensive nudes, densely detailed still lifes and earnest public murals depicting ancient myths and modern life helped define the New Realism of the 1960s and ’70s, a school of figurative painting notable for being unfashionable at the time, died on Aug. 29, 2013 in Oneonta, NY.