“I suppose if I had it to do over, I would paint flowers and the old red barn. People run like rabbits from anything with any originality to it. I expect a book of my work will have to be published posthumously
– Dellard Cassity
Dellard Cassity (1926-2008)
A Hard-Edge and Op Art Obsession
While internationally recognized artists such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Victor Vasarely were pioneering the styles of Hard-Edge abstraction and Optical Art in the world’s big cities, Dellard Cassity was quietly doing the same in his small town of Litchfield, Illinois.
During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s Cassity was prolific in creating an enormous body of work, few examples of which would ever be seen by the public. In his small town, people knew of Dellard Cassity, and upon hearing that he painted, surely expected a certain something from him as an artist.
In a letter to a friend in St. Louis Cassity wrote, “I suppose if I had it to do over, I would paint flowers and the old red barn. People run like rabbits from anything with any originality to it. I expect a book of my work will have to be published posthumously.” Cassity had a very difficult time relating socially and became increasingly isolated over the decades. He essentially lived and died alone, making art. When he passed away in his home in 2008, he had filled it with hundreds of finished works. The only livable area left in the house was his tiny kitchen. The house inevitably had to be bulldozed, as it was in such shambles.
Cassity’s body of work can be divided into two categories. His early academic and post-academic pieces of the 1940s and 1950s show a sure drawing hand, a passion for color and a love for art history. The pieces are charming, nostalgic and technically beautiful. His second movement of work from the early 1960s through his death in 2008 was thoroughly modern and extremely avant garde. In spite of having very little connection with the outside art world, Cassity pursued a personal vision of Hard-Edge Abstraction and Optical Art. With his home and personal life in disarray/disorder, it would seem that Cassity poured all of his order and clarity into the making of his art.
Hard Edge Abstraction and Optical Art were both Mid 20th Century movements that reacted against the painterly texture and explosion of forms inherent in Abstract Expressionism. Hard edge painters were searching for the “still center” of color and shape. For them the canvas itself became an object that did not need to refer to anything else. Painting with a knife-edge clarity, they used their direct experience of color and form, eliminating all other associations, to create a single dominant experience. Optical artists sought to create an experience of the painting in the mind itself, by playing tricks on the eye. Artists associated with Hard-Edge, Op Art, and Color-Field painting include: Barnett Newman, Sol LeWitt, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Victor Vasarely, amongst others.
The work of Dellard Cassity is featured in these collections:
Illinois State Museum Permanent Collection
Aluminum Corp. of America, St. Louis
United Bank and Trust, St. Louis
Labarge Incorporated, St. Louis
His Personal Story:
Dellard Cassity Jr. was born in Litchfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1926. He died in the same small town outside of St. Louis on February, 21st, 2008 from hypothermia. He was supported most his life, both emotionally and financially by his brother William (“Bill”) and sister-in-law, Martha.
Cassity graduated in 1951 from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Fine Art. His eye was further sharpened while serving the US Air Force drawing maps. After leaving the military he returned to Litchfield to care for his ailing mother.
Cassity exhibited in a few group shows during the 1960s and 70s, including the 1973 Illinois Invitational Exhibit at the Illinois State Museum. And in 1971 he had a one-man show at the Chirst Church Cathedral in St Louis. His friend, noted architect, Kurt Landberg was helpful in putting together this show and others at the Shell Oil Building and another building that Landberg designed. His sister-in-law, Martha said, “He wasn’t interested in trying to sell his work, only to express and create.”
Dellard was a very shy and quiet person. He was only close to his family, who described him as “reclusive”, and was never married. Cassity was an avid reader and had a large collection of Art History books. He was extremely protective of his work, and had very little working space. Martha describes him as nearly painting himself out of the house, including his bedroom. The kitchen was the final room for living space. During his last years he made smaller pieces with fewer colors. These Matisse-like works were either painted or collaged on masonite board vs. hand stretched canvases. At the end of his life he would stay awake, running water to keep the water pipes from freezing and flooding the house and destroying his paintings. Dellard died sleeping on his kitchen floor, using the oven as a heater.
One person in the family that was especially appreciative of Cassity’s art, was his niece-in-law, Lisa McHenry. And it’s through Lisa that his story was brought to the attention of Lost Art Salon. Upon his death, Lisa flew to Illinois and saved a group of pieces, co-curating a selection that represents his major genres.
Lisa McHenry had this to say about her memories and relationship with Dellard:
“I would visit Dellard every time I came for a visit to Litchfield. He seemed happy and grateful to see me. We would also exchange letters periodically. He would write about what was going on in his garden or if any birds had come to his feeder. Dellard really enjoyed the stationary sets from the big museums and ordered them regularly.
Over the 20+ years I knew Dellard, the biggest change I observed was his house got increasingly more cluttered. He was getting boxed into living in his kitchen with one chair to sit on. The last work I saw Dellard make were the figural Matisse-like ‘red ladies’. That must have been in the 80s. When I saw his place filling up and he spoke of not having any more room to make anything, I sent him a small sketchbook to encourage him to make small art, maybe do some drawings. The book was found amongst his possessions, empty.
Physically, Dellard grew more soft spoken, hunched over and thinner. He wore blue jeans, an undershirt and a button down shirt every time I saw him. I felt he still took care of his appearance in that 1950’s/good manners/grooming sort of way – as best he could. Shirt tucked in, hair combed, a belt. I think he was in good general health at the time of his death. He walked a little over a mile each way to the market a few times during the week. He would only pick up a few things at a time – perhaps all he could carry – or maybe it gave him a reason to go back out.
The house Dellard lived in for most of his life, in rural Illinois, had no shower or toilet. The family had an outhouse until the city of Litchfield more or less forced them into putting in a sewer/plumbing system. This took place around the time my Uncle Bill (his brother) moved out to marry my Aunt Martha. They put a commode and a little sink in a small room off the kitchen. Dellard never did have a shower installed despite several offers. At the time of his death this small room was inaccessible, filled with artwork and furniture, with a leaking roof. If he ever did laundry he must have done it by hand. I think my Aunt would do a load for him from time to time.
Dellard was resourceful. In all of the windows were cut strips of cereal type boxes. He used them as shims to keep out the cold winter weather. He slept on the kitchen floor to be near the oven – his source of heat. He felt this was safer than a space heater and probably better with his decaying electrical system – that and his bedroom was inaccessible and full of artwork. Over the years his brother and sister-in-law purchased new roofs and electrical systems that he either didn’t use or maintain. Dellard was always worried enough to protect his artwork – Aunt Martha tells the story of him putting coolant in the drains to prevent the pipes from freezing & bursting in the winter, and therefore damaging his work.
Dellard’s most notable works are large colorful paintings and 3-dimensional wood cut-out sculptures. The majority of these pieces were found covered in kraft paper, one leaning against another, separated by a 1″ x 2″ x 6′ board throughout the small house, covered in 40 yrs. of dust. I believe a combination of a shrinking workspace in his house and a strong interest in Matisse inspired the next wave of work – figurative females. I found within the stacks of sketches, images of women clipped from magazines as far back as the 70’s.
When going through these figural paintings and collages, I could see the same poses as the women from the magazine clippings. He would clip, sketch, collage and then paint all in a Matisse-like way. Dellard made hundreds of these very similar looking paintings and ordered assemble-it-yourself black metal framing for most of the pieces. He didn’t put glass in them; he would use a thick piece of plastic. This large body of work filled up the living room and dining room, as did stacks of old LIFE magazines, mail, old furniture, papers, broken appliances and later an impassable amount of debris.
Dellard’s work was well thought out from the start. Stacks of sketches found showed the various color choices he would use before painting. He was meticulous and precise. Some of the earlier paintings were ‘sketched’ using a crossword puzzle from the newspaper. Dellard made many of the canvases he painted on. They were made with an architect’s precision. And as I recall, he liked to use the finest materials for his work.
He photographed much of his work. There are photographs of the paintings and 3-D sculptures in his backyard and are multiple pictures of each piece. He would rotate the paintings to view them from different perspectives. He kept binders of the photographs.
I think the letter written to his friend Landberg, about getting recognition posthumously, tells us a lot. I believe Dellard knew he had talent and liked what he made – he wasn’t shy to share it with me, but certainly was never showing off. I think he knew his limitations in Litchfield, as far as the audience and any chance of showing/selling it there. I’m not so sure he was as much into selling the work as the making of it; which was very perplexing and upsetting for his family. I do think he would have been very happy to show it – but didn’t have the capacity to make it happen. I got the sense that Dellard focused on the present – living day to day and making art giving him great pleasure & purpose.”