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Pepperdine presents retrospective of David Leffel

Representational painter David Leffel (left) sits beside his daughter, Melissa. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
Pictured is a self-portrait painted by representational painter David Leffel.
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
1:00 pm PDT May 18, 2016

The first major retrospective for 84-year-old representational painter David Leffel opened at Pepperdine University’s Frederick R. Weissman Museum on May 14. The artist, often described as a modern student of Rembrandt, was on hand to greet an enthusiastic crowd at the opening reception.  

“It’s not a coincidence that David’s show follows the Andy Warhol exhibition,” Michael Zakian, director of the Weisman Museum, told the Malibu Surfside News. 

Zakian said Warhol and Leffel were born within a couple of years of each other and both began their careers in commercial art in New York. However, while Warhol used his commercial art background to evolve the Pop Art genre, Leffel turned to realism and the traditional painting techniques perfected in the Renaissance.

“I first became aware of David’s work in a magazine article when I was in high school,” Zakian said. “I him met him for the first time in the 1990s. That’s how long I’ve been thinking of this. I took a painting workshop with him in 2005 in Pasadena, and we talked about a show. All the right pieces fell into place.”

The show features 50 paintings from the past 50 years and chronicles Leffel’s work from a sketch of Joe Dimaggio created when the artist was 12, to the present.

Leffel was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1931. He spent much of the first 15 years of his life in and out of hospitals, struggling with osteomyelitis, a rare bone disease. Zakian describes the artist as a child prodigy who poured his energies into drawing.

Leffel studied illustration at Parsons School of Design, and set out on a career in advertising, but found it, in Zakian’s words, “ultimately unsatisfying.”

Leffel left advertising to study painting at the prestigious Art Students League of New York. When he couldn’t find anyone to teach him the techniques of the Old Masters he left after a year to teach himself to paint like Rembrandt, spending most of the 1960s studying neglected methods.

Years later, recognized as a modern master of realism, he was invited to return to the League to teach.

Leffel works in oils using traditional methods, rendering his subjects with subtle colors and rich, translucent grays and blacks. 

The portraits feature friends, family, studio models and patrons. Leffel’s own face appears numerous times among his portraits. The artist, like his long dead mentor, has turned repeatedly to the mirror for a subject.

The still lifes explore complex textures—fraying brocade fabric, rough earthenware, brightly colored fragments of tangerine peel. Several canvases are unfinished, offering an in depth look at the artist’s process.

“His powerful realism arises from his commitment to understanding and capturing the flow of light,” Zakian wrote in a press release for the exhibit. “He does not paint subjects, but rather light falling and flowing over objects. By treating light as a vital force, he gives life to his paintings.”

Although he’s showed work in top galleries, and taught, and authored books on his work, Leffel told The Surfside News that he found the reception to his show “overwhelming.” However, his sense of humor wasn’t diminished by the experience. Asked for a comment, he declined to talk about his art. Instead, he shook his head over the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway and quipped, “You drive like you live in Malibu.”

A large audience, including many Malibuites but also visitors from as far afield as Orange County braved the traffic to attend the opening. 

“The still lifes go right to my heart,” longtime Malibu resident and Malibu Cutural Arts Commissioner Graeme Clifford told The Surfside News at the opening reception. 

“You won’t find [an exhibition] like this anywhere else, and it’s not just on Malibu’s doorstep, it’s in our house.”

“David A. Leffel: The Mastery of Light, a Retrospective,” runs through Aug. 7 at the Weisman Museum on the Pepperdine University campus. The exhibition is open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and one hour prior to most performances at the Smothers Theatre located next to the museum. Admission is free. 

For more information, visit or call (310) 506-4851.