At 99, the Painter Richard Mayhew Is Still Upending Expectations
Painter Richard Mayhew, who recently celebrated his 99th birthday, has lived through as extensive a part of this nation’s history as you could hope to meet.
Sitting at a patio table outside his gleaming cedar suburban home in Soquel, near Santa Cruz, Mayhew leans back in his chair and reflects on his long life.
“I drove across the United States six times,” he said. Three over from New York to San Francisco, and three back. I was always watching.”
A lifetime of watching Mayhew now needs reference material, as he paints in the garage attached to the house, listens to jazz so loud, his wife Rosemary tells me, “the whole neighborhood hears it.” can.” (Mayhew is hard to hear.) Since the 1950s, Mayhew has painted invented scenes in an increasingly unnatural, sometimes acidic palette that can sting and soothe the eye in equal measure.
In 2021, an entire room at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was dedicated to Mayhew’s paintings, six of which were donated by collector Pamela Joyner, a strong supporter. Despite Mayhew’s long career, many visitors were encountering him for the first time.
An exhibition of Mayo’s paintings, “The Natural Order,” Currently Venus is on show in Manhattan, inaugurating a new space the gallery opened on Great Jones Street. In September, a survey of his work will appear at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in Sonoma, California.
To call this late burst of attention a rediscovery, however, is to ignore the successes he has achieved throughout his career. His work has been shown in a succession of New York galleries since the 1950s, including the venerable Midtown Galleries and, more recently, ACA Galleries, which continue to represent him. In 1970, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Design.
Mayhew, who has mixed African-American and Native American ancestry, has a frame, a salt-and-pepper goatee and heavy eyes. His speech is punctuated by a forced laugh. Considering his age, his energy and ability to recall details is astounding.
In 1942, he was among the first black cadets accepted into the US Marines. He remembers that the generally rigorous training process was particularly brutal for black cadets. “They didn’t want you to make it,” he said. In 1963, he helped found the collective spiral of African American art, which included figures such as Romere Bearden and Norman Lewis, and argued for the possibility of an inherently black aesthetic.
Mayhew grew up at a time when the United States was torn by racial segregation. He was born near Amityville on the south shore of Long Island. “It’s a strange thing,” he said, “but Amityville wasn’t segregated like other cities at that time.”
His mother, whom he called a “flamboyant city girl,” often disappeared on long trips to Manhattan. (Her “bohemian” father, a house painter who also ran a limousine company, preferred to stay at home.) She was often raised by her Shinnecock grandmother, who taught her about her Native heritage. Taught and took him to the powwow.
Mayhew’s Native American identity is just as—if not more—important than his identity as an African American. (He comments that in others’ perceptions of him, the latter often eclipses the former.) What he inherited from his native ancestors, he says, is not a tradition of skill. Rather, it is “innovative consciousness”.
Mayhew exhibit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art “The Inner Region” is the title. When he paints, he describes himself as going into a trance. He insists that his paintings are not landscapes but “mindscapes” – places that are only imagined or remembered. While some are titled after specific places (“Monterey Bay” or “Montauk”), Mayhew said they do that “just to give them some identity.” He might as well call it “Wednesday,” he said — then showed me a painting on a plinth in his garage studio, with the exact same title.
It’s tempting to try and trace this country’s history of slavery, and black and brown laborers’ connection to the land, in Mayhew’s hazy, peaceful landscapes, a hidden echo. In past articles he has referred to the “40 acres and a mule” promised in exchange for freed slaves during Reconstruction. In an interview he described visiting a former plantation in Louisiana and pondering the dark secrets of its landscape.
However, he told me that he was only bound by color, ideas and illusions. Like the Tonalist painters of the late 19th century (George Innes is a particular influence) he uses color to connect space, although he has a skewed approach to advancing the background and receding the foreground. There is a trend.
“When I was studying in Florence,” he said, “I learned that the mind does not know what the eye sees.” In 1960, with his first wife, Dorothy, and their children Anna and Scott, Mayhew decamped to Italy, where he studied at the Accademia di Ballet Arti in Florence. He had a best friend at the time. Nelson Schenk, Classical realist portrait painter, with whom he toured museums throughout Europe.
She said the stay taught her that a creative sensibility “has nothing to do with race or any particular culture.” He claims that “creative consciousness” (a term he uses often) was what Spiral’s members were really into, more so than race-related issues.
Mayhew was recognized as a radical teacher, pushing an interdisciplinary curriculum—something some art departments were unprepared for. While teaching at Sonoma State University in the 1970s, he and his students built a giant plastic bubble, inflated by a box fan, in which he held classes, with dancers and musicians performing inside. Invited to and scientists measured the sounds on his skin.
Mayhew’s achievements are now inspiring young artists of color. 38-year-old African-American painter Ignorant, who lives near Mayhew in Santa Cruz, will prepare the exhibit in Sonoma with Shelby Graham. He first met Mayhew during high school through a security guard who noticed his art. Kajahal has since become an acolyte. “I came up at a time when artists were so encouraged to push ideas of politics or their collective identity,” he said. “I find it refreshing that his work is not about any of that.”
Rosemary, his wife, told me he doesn’t think about the hardships he’s endured, the discrimination he’s faced. He speculates that this may be a form of self-preservation. “I didn’t struggle!” He protested this recently, pointing to galleries’ willingness to show his work.
“We what struggle,” said Mayo’s daughter, Anna, a production designer for film and television. “There were always financial problems, we moved a lot, he taught at several schools. He had galleries, but we didn’t stop selling his paintings. Some collectors didn’t even know it,” he said. That Mayhew is not white. “When he was accepted into the National Academy of Design, they didn’t know until he was black!”
There have been many artists of color who have not only had to think outside the box, but have had to invent a whole new box for themselves. Despite his ostensibly conventional subject matter, there is no artist quite like Richard Mayhew. As Rosemary says, “I think Rick understood what he needed to do to survive.”
Richard Mayo: Natural Order
Through June 17, Venus Over Manhattan, 39 Great Jones Street, NoHo; venusovermanhattan.com