The Indiana State Museum's revisiting of the 431 Gallery and the scene that gathered round it on Mass Ave has prompted another kind of resurrection.
The painter Ed Sanders, who died in 2006, was a charter member of 431 and, over the course of a 25-year career, carved a place for himself as one of Indianapolis' most distinctive, albeit enigmatic, artists.
Sanders was also a graduate of the Herron School of Art and Design, which is presenting the first major retrospective exhibition of Sanders' work in conjunction with the State Museum's 431 show.
Ed Sanders was a true maverick, a painter's painter of great intensity and commitment who not only shunned the limelight but seemed, at times, repulsed by it. Sanders was, by turns, charismatic, antagonistic, generous and glum.
He kept a studio at the Faris Building and, later, would be the first artist to take a space at the Murphy Art Center. Although his creative output was prodigious, his sales were relatively scarce; today, hundreds of Sanders' works remain in the hands of family members and friends.
Enter Bret Waller, Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. By his telling it was three or four years ago when he received a call from Herron's Steve Mannheimer, inviting him on a field trip to see an extensive collection of Sanders' works owned by Sanders' cousins.
Prior to this time, Waller had a barely glancing acquaintance with Sanders' art, which he first encountered in 1990 at a Faris Building group show.
Waller and his wife, the painter Mary Lou Dooley, had just moved to Indianapolis. "We didn't really know Sanders, or his work," recalls Waller, "but were really taken with one of his little images."
It was a painting that was just a few inches across, an uncharacteristic still life by an artist more commonly associated with large-scale works. The Wallers purchased it and that was that.
Over the years, Waller would see other works by Sanders in group shows around town. He developed a growing respect for what he could see was a formidable talent. But nothing prepared him for the experience of taking in what amounted to Sanders' life work in a single afternoon.
"We spent several hours looking at painting after painting that were just astonishing," says Waller. "It was the first time I'd experienced the quality, the scope and the power of Sanders' work."
Waller later volunteered to write the catalog for Herron's Ed Sanders exhibition. He spent over two years closely studying Sanders' body of work and conducting interviews with the artist's friends and colleagues. The result, Ed Sanders: Life and Art, provides both extensive documentation of Sanders' accomplishment and an inferential history of a particularly rich period in Indianapolis, running from roughly 1980 through 2006. NUVO spoke with Waller about the Sanders project.
NUVO: How would you characterize Sanders work?
Bret Waller: There is no pretense or affectation in these things. They were gutsy, they were strong. It wasn't until I really got into this and began looking at the work chronologically that I began to see how he developed over 25 years. A lot of artists will hit on a way of doing something and repeat it. Ed's work seemed to change, but it wasn't capricious change; it was a kind of evolution that was organic and personal.
NUVO: It always seemed to me that Sanders painted as if his life depended on it.
Waller: I think in a way he did. He was authentic. You know he was 30 years old when he enrolled at Herron, so he was much older than his fellow students. He had a practice designing homes, so he had a working life as an architect. But at night he'd be working in his studio, expressing these powerful things.
NUVO: Where would you place him in terms of what was going on in painting in the '80s and '90s?
Waller: He and other Herron students were influenced by the Neo-Expressionists at that time. But he didn't travel much as far as I can see. He and Jody Grober rode their bikes to Washington, D.C. to see the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Hirshhorn — and he was definitely influenced by Bacon. But he took this and ran with it. He wasn't really following anyone else. He went where the spirit led him.
NUVO: Spirituality seems to run throughout his work.
Waller: I think that's what set him apart from so many others. He could have made paintings that sold. He had the talent. But he wanted to make paintings that were true. They were big and many of them tended to be dark, heavily painted, and often with subjects that were emotional and distressing. So he was not painting in order to sell. He would have liked to sell stuff, and he would have liked for people to have his work. But he wasn't a good schmoozer. He wasn't comfortable with people. He tended not to go to openings. All these things conspired, I think, to leave the major part of his life's work as an artist intact. You can actually see his evolution from beginning to end in a way that is rarely possible.
NUVO: Can we extrapolate anything about the Indianapolis scene from Sanders' experience, or was he an anomalous character?
Waller: There was a core group of artists at that time. The 431 Gallery was more than a place. It was a group of artists that exchanged ideas and worked together. I think the Faris Building also had a lot to do with that.
NUVO: What do you hope can happen now with regard to Sanders' work?
Waller: I hope that people will see what a remarkable painter he was, and appreciate the work. I think Sanders, in his own terms, was a success. Even though he didn't earn money from selling his work, even though he didn't have any recognition outside Indianapolis. If an artist is able to produce a body of work over a period of time and do what he thought was right — how can that not be a success?