Obituary: Jack Beal / Optimistic painter helped define New Realism

June 25, 1931 - Aug. 29, 2013

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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 Aug. 29 in Oneonta, N.Y. He was 82.

The cause was kidney failure, said his wife, the artist Sondra Freckelton.

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.

Walter Henry Beal Jr. was born 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.

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 New York City subway.

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