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The Artist and His Daughter, 48 x 36 inches, 2016, Acrylic on Canvas (images courtesy of Gallery Henoch and the artist)

After my recent discovery of a PBS documentary on the New Jersey painter, Mel Leipzig, I was fascinated by his story and wanted to find out more about him. I am very grateful (and lucky) that he agreed to take the time out of his busy painting schedule to have a telephone interview with me.

Mel Leipzig is a renowned New Jersey painter who for over 40 years has painted people in their working spaces from observation. He paints family members as well as many other painters and artists of all types, from graffiti artists to major NYC painters such as Lois Dodd as well as students, janitors or cafeteria workers he’s became friends with over time. Leipzig’s inventive spacial compositions and delightfully quirky details visually project the sitter’s personality onto the canvas and connect us in ways that transcend traditional portraiture.

Leipzig paints people without irony, pretense or propaganda. His straight-forward manner forgoes displays of verisimilitudinous display or technical bravado; instead seeking an honest, enthusiastically painted response to the people and places in front of him. Leipzig talks in this interview about coming to maturity under modernism which often frowned upon painting the observed figure. He also discusses his early lessons in how important it is to follow the path best suited to your sensibilities, despite lack of approval from the art-world intelligentsia. 

Gregory at Gallery Henoch, Acrylic on Canvas, 48 x 36 inches

Dan Bischoff states: If Leipzig feels like something of a discovery, that could be due to the lingering prejudice against portraiture. Modernism threw portrait painting into history’s dustbin for nearly a century, despite portraiture’s central role in secular art ever since the Renaissance.

After all, portraitists are required to more or less produce a likeness, which ties them to realism and not abstraction. And while portraits have always been made in every era, the process of building a career in portraiture has always involved a certain amount of patron flattery and therefore compromise — not what the Modern revolution was about.

Leipzig pursues portraiture without commissions. He paints directly from life wherever his sitter is at home, and pays his subjects $25 an hour, no matter if they are rich or poor. Flattery isn’t necessary (though he is usually kind to his subjects). The only limit, Leipzig says, is he finds it difficult to paint “anyone I don’t like.”

“They used to say ‘It’s been done,'” the painter says of realistic portraiture, “and you would not be able to do it any better. That was supposed to put you off the attempt.” … from Mel Leipzig’s ‘As They Are’ at Aljira — portraits of artists, friends, and 21st century fellows Jul 16, 2015 by Dan Bischoff For The Star-Ledger (full review link here)

Mel Leipzig shows at Henoch Gallery in NYC, please see his extensive bio information at the end of this article.

Larry Groff: Thank You for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me.

Mel Leipzig: You’re welcome.

LG: I’d like to start with asking, how did you become a painter and what where your early days like as an art student?

ML: When I was in high school, at about 15 years old, I got a scholarship to study art at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturdays. So I went to MOMA the guy who taught it there said that Symbolism was the most important thing in art. He showed us great paintings and he explained things in terms of the symbolism in the paintings.

After I left that class I started doing a lot of realistic portraits, which I was paid for (not a lot of money) Actually, the most famous person I painted was a guy named John Giorno, who went to high school with me. He later became part of Andy Warhol’s group.

And I did a painting of John there. I put all sorts of symbolic things in the portraits I did in high school. For instance I made a painting of a friend’s grandmother with a candle going out. At the time I thought all of this was important but I was really moving towards realism. I knew nothing about non-objective painting, but then when I went to Cooper Union, in 1953 after I graduated from James Madison High School. Bernie Sanders also went to Madison. He’s younger than me. I think I remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg, because she went there also.

Two Reflections, acrylic on canvas, 1987, collection of the New Jersey State Museum

ML: I went to Cooper Union where abstract expressionism was the dominant mode of painting. Morris Kantor and Nicholas Marsicano were my painting teachers and Will Barnet was my printmaking teacher.

They all had certain things that they were hung up about. Like, when I was in Morris Kantor’s class, I decided that I wanted to do portraits of people because I really wanted to paint the figure, and anybody who knew me knew it was obvious. Morris gave … he had a very thick Jewish accent. And he said, “Vat do you mean, you’re gonna try to get a likeness.” I’m thinking ” so what?” He says, “No.” Cooper Union was free in those days. If you failed one class you were thrown out. So I painted still lifes in Morris Kantor’s class, but one thing I learned about from Kantor, I must admit, I learned how to use the color–pure white. That has stuck with me throughout my life. And then I studied 2D design with Neil Welliver … do you know who Welliver is?

LG: Sure. He’s an incredible painter.

Homage to Neil Welliver, 48 x 48 inches, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas

ML: I loved him. He was wonderful and he’s the one who told me to go to Yale. When I went to Yale, it was the time Josef Albers, from the Bauhaus, ran the art program. The majority of the students were painting color dots, whereas at Cooper Union the majority were influenced by abstract expressionism.

At the Cooper Union Nicholas Marsicano was my first painting teacher. There was a setup, a figure or still life, I was trying to figure out what to paint so I kept turning the painting around. It was a mess of incoherent lines. Marsicano came up to me and said “You know, You’ve got something there” and I was thinking that’s how they got you to move away from figuration or any form of realism into doing non-objective work.

I never did a non-objective painting in my life. I just didn’t want to. Another one of my teachers at Cooper was Sidney Delevante. How have you heard of him?

LG: I’m not familiar with him, no.

ML: Yeah, well he was my drawing teacher. While I was painting one of the still lifes from Morris Kantor’s class, Delevante came up to me and said, “Mel, what are you doing? This is not you. You’re a figure painter, that’s where your heart is.”

And so when I got to Yale, I decided on doing the figure. I should say that it was my still lifes, especially the one of leaves that I did in black, white, greys and with a touch of green along with my woodcuts that got me into Yale.

The Woodcut (detail) 58 x 68 inches, 1994

Josef Albers, ran the school in those days. He was very authoritarian. The difference between Yale and any other art school I’ve been in, is that everyone, including the teachers stood at attention when he talked. In some ways, I admire him. You know, I like his paintings and non-objective painting. I have nothing against it. I just don’t want to do it myself.

Francesca at the Door, 57 x 36 inches, 1992, Acrylic on Canvas, collection of The National Academy Museum, NYC Portrait of a Marriage, 54 x 71 inches, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas

ML: Why should you paint what somebody else tells you … if you do that, you’re selling your soul. It’s just wrong.

I really struggled to do the figure at Yale. Neil Welliver was teaching there and was also trying to break away from Alber’s influence. Welliver had been doing color abstractions, that were very pretty but he was trying to move into painting the figure so he defended me. It was a hard time. You know, if you are actually fighting for something there’s something good about it. That you’re sticking to your guns.

Tracey Jones, 48 x 48 inches, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas Selina Trieff, 48 x 36 inches, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, collection of The Provincetown Art Association and Museum

LG: After Yale, you went to Paris on a Fulbright. Any interesting stories to share about this time in your life?

ML: When I graduated from Yale I had gotten a Fulbright for my woodcuts and went to study in Paris. I was having something like an aesthetic nervous breakdown. All these voices were in my mind. I remember an incident once when I was in Paris and watching an opera production, I think it was Tosca. I was sitting up high in the theatre, and all I could see was the negative shapes coming at me. You know, because in non-objective painting, the idea is not to get an illusionistic space, but to get the background to come forward.

I didn’t do any woodcuts when I was in Paris. I didn’t want to–all I wanted to do was to paint. One good thing that came from Albers was this: Because Albers didn’t approve of concentrating on the figure, he didn’t encourage or provide for figure drawing, you never had a model in the class. We used to have models, at Cooper Union, but there was none at Yale. So I got into the habit of sort of inveigling people to come to my house to model for me. I’d give them a spaghetti dinner in exchange for posing for me… this was during my time in Paris.

LG: That’s a good way to do it.

ML: And so that helped me a lot because that is actually a method that has lasted all my life. I go to places. I find real people, and they pose for me.

Robert Henry, 48 x 36 inches, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas

LG: One thing that struck me when I was looking at your early teacher Morris Kantor’s work and who also discouraged you from painting the figure… anyway it struck me that he was doing a lot of figures similar to what you’re doing now. Paintings of people in their surroundings, perhaps people he knew. There was a wonderful painting he made with a ship captain sitting in his home with a landscape in the window. Seems odd that he would discourage a student from painting the figure if he was a figurative painter himself.

ML: What year was the painting done?

LG: I think it was in the 50s. Maybe 40s. I don’t really know his work very well at all.

ML: He changed his style constantly. His most famous painting is called, “Farewell to Union Square“. It’s a rose being thrown out of a window on Union Square. He was doing abstractions at the time that he was my teacher.

But he believed, by the way, you should constantly change. But I did learn how to use white. That was the one thing and that has stuck with me.

The Sun Room, Director of Photography and Narrator Aubrey Kauffman and his wife Michele

LG: Many painters seem very opinionated during that time, true believers in the modernist doctrine. I don’t know how much things have really changed.

ML: Yes, they were very dogmatic. There were a group of us who wanted to do figure paintings. Actually one of my friends dropped out of Kantor’s class because she couldn’t take it. It was a time where you were learning your teacher’s opinions. That was it. I’m a teacher, so I think I can say this. They thought that painting should be what they were doing, in fact.

LG: That sounds about right. Let’s switch gears a little now, can you talk about what artists have influenced you the most over the years?

ML: Manet is my favorite painter, that actually started when I was introduced to him at Cooper. I also like, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Piero della Francesca and other painters of the early Renaissance. In fact I named my daughter Francesca after him.

LG: Do you travel in Italy much to see these paintings?

ML: Yes, my wife and I … My wife passed, over ten years ago, but we went to Italy–we went to see everything.

LG: Have you painted there? Or just traveled…

ML: No, I don’t do that kind of painting.

LG: I see.

ML: Also I don’t do sketches. I have to have a person; a figure in the painting, no matter what the painting is about.

But the main thing that interests me is not just the figure. It’s the way the figure related to the background. That has led me to what might be called environmental portraits. It’s mainly the composition of the painting that really excites me, but I must have a person. It’s an essential part of my being, I guess.

LG: Some of your paintings of people in their surroundings reminds me of Vuillard, a portrait of a man in an office with books and papers all around – I forget the exact details

ML: No it is. You mean that Vuillard in the Metropolitan Museum, that painting? I love Vuillard. But I also love Matisse… I love his paintings.

Let me give you a little more of my history. I was doing paintings in grays, black and white when I was at Cooper Union. And it was one of my still life paintings in black and grays that got me into Yale. Albers loved the painting. I mentioned this before. I couldn’t paint realistically at Cooper Union. They literally would have thrown you out.

So I was using bright color. I ended up using a lot of bright color. I thought I was being under the influence of Matisse, Vuillard and Bonnard. Those were painters from the modern movement I was drawn to.

When I got back to America from Paris, I was going back and forth with color in my painting; sometimes with bright colors and sometimes with grays. And then around that time …my good friend and great painter, Bob Birmelin came and said, “You know, Mel, your paintings are schizophrenic.” He said that because my drawing were completely realistic and my color was abstract and all over the place.

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I’ve long been intrigued by Carol Heft’s drawings and paintings that she frequently posts to Facebook. Many of her landscape drawings are spontaneous creations that begin from rapid observations of tree configurations seen out a bus window on her long ride to work from NYC to Allentown, PA. I’m particularly intrigued by the relaxed way she traverses the borderlines of abstraction and representation–observation and imagination; it feels as natural as breathing in and out. Her abstractions are imaginary worlds lyrically filled with light, atmosphere and life.

Heft has several solo shows at Blue Mountain Gallery in NYC where she is a gallery artist. She has had solo exhibitions at Dakota State University, Mattera, Italy, University of South Carolina and LaCuca Gallery in Easton, PA. and Fairleigh Dickinson University among others. She has also been represented by the First Gallery Grassina in Florence, Italy. She attended the Madison Art School where she studied with Robert Brackman, N.A., studied at the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her B.F.A and Hunter College for her M.Ed. She teaches at the Muhlenberg College, and Cedar Crest College, in Allentown PA, and St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York. She currently lives and works in New York.

I’m delighted that she agreed to this email interview and want to thank her for her time and generosity in sharing her story.

Larry Groff:  What was art school like for you?

Carol Heft: I started studying when I was about 12 years old. My first painting teacher, Anne Tuttle, brought me to a school in Madison Connecticut where Robert Brackman did a summer residency program. Brackman was an American master of traditional academic painting, who taught at the Art Students League in New York. I was his studio monitor for the next three summers, and made lunches for the students, mostly adults from his New York class. I was very lucky to have had that experience at such a young age. A follower of Eakins and Bellows, Brackman’s teaching style included demonstrations. Watching him paint was like watching a great dancer, inspiring and beautiful. My high school had a lithography press and an intaglio press, and my teacher and mentor, Gary Stanton, encouraged me. I always loved to draw and paint, and when I started learning about printmaking, I thought I had found my calling. I was a printmaker. I loved it. Later, when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, I returned to painting under the tutelage of Leland Bell, Louisa Chase, Lorna Ritz, Victor Lara and other great teachers and classmates. In spite of my difficult passage from adolescence to adulthood, which included some personal trauma, I liked school very much. I have always loved being in an environment dedicated to learning and study.

Self portrait, 1973 (?) Self portrait, 1979 Self portrait (2018)

LG: What were your first few years like after getting out of school?

CH: I moved to New York in 1976 after I graduated from RISD. I moved into a loft on the Bowery and went to meetings of a group of artists known as the “Alliance of Figurative Artists” or the “figgies” as Lisa Chase called them. I painted and drank a lot as I clumsily negotiated my way through a failed marriage, and various survival jobs. Finally, when I was about thirty, I came to a turning point in my life; a spiritual awakening. It seemed to me that I had been in a daze for most of the past decade, and now, with eyes open, I was able to look at my work with some sense of humility and understanding of what was (and was not) important to me.

42 x 84 inches(approx.) Bowery drawing, 1977-8

LG: What artists do you most often draw inspiration from in your work?

CH: Too many to mention here. The Paleolithic cave artists, Paul Klee, Pieter Breughel, Rembrandt, Kandinsky, Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Berthe Morisol, Mary Cassatt, deKooning, and some contemporaries: Karen Kappke, Ginny Greyson, Heidi Rosin, Vered Gerstenkorn, Francois Dupris, Jean Pierre Bourquin, and Martin Campos, to name a few.

Incident #19, Homage to the Masters of Lascaux, Altamira and Pech-Merle,
ink and wash, chalk, and colored pencil on paper Diptych, two sheets, full size 18 x 48 inches,
5.28.18 Study of Breughel’s, Dulle Griet, 9 x 12 inches, pencil on paper, 3.31.18

LG: How do you start a new painting? Please tell us something about how you go about making your art?

CH: When working from observation, I usually follow the traditional approach of working out a composition with charcoal (Brackman used to say that composition was the most important part of the painting; “no matter how badly it’s painted, if the composition is good it will be worth looking at, and no matter how ‘well’ it is painted, if the composition falls apart, the painting falls apart.” Next I work up a chiaroscuro underpainting with yellow ochre, still composing, establishing shadow patterns and tonal descriptions. I think that is my favorite part. You can see the painting, its essence, its orchestration of shapes and movement in this phase. It is the most beautiful to me. The drawing disappears, and there is a tonal impression of what is possible left on the canvas.

Chiaroscuro underpainting of my sister Heidi, 1970 (?)

When I am not working from observation, the first step of looking at the subject is replaced by making marks. The subject is either on the paper already, and I have to find it, or it is in my head or heart, trying to get onto the paper through my hands. I usually make a few marks and then look at them, and go back and forth like this until I feel I can’t learn any more from the work. Then I stop. It’s very different than finishing a portrait, for example, where it is often clear when the last stroke is applied, that no more need be done, and any more would be counterproductive.

Incident #21 or On the Surface, pencil, pen and ink, oil pastel and watercolor on watercolor paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches 5.23.18

LG: What role does your mark-making play with your work? Is this a way to access or deny your mood or is it more exploratory investigations of formal art concerns – are there connections between these two things?

CH: I don’t really think my mood plays much of a role in my work. Self-expression is not necessarily connected to a person’s affect. As a professional artist, I think of my work as an ongoing organic series of events in which I participate, but do not entirely direct. The decisions I make while painting or drawing are intuitive. It is only afterward, during reflection, that I begin to understand what those decisions mean, how marks, tone, value, texture, color, how they all work together to create a world, a universe really, with its own parameters.

Automatic Drawing #11, watercolor, pen and ink, and oil pastel on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inches, 5.7.18 Papier-mâché, yarn, and “shrinky dink” plastics, oil paint, 20 x 22 inches 1992

LG: I’ve read where you’ve talked about your work being an interactive process. What helps you to better listen to what your work might be saying?

CH: Spending time reflecting on the impact of what I am doing has had or will have on the work. It’s such an enigma, two dimensional art. It’s flat, and you see it in an instant, but it exists in time. It is made in time, can be looked at over a period of time and has visual space and movement, all with temporal analogies. Sometimes I try to visualize a specific change or revision in a piece, but often I need to physically make the change in order to really understand the impact it has on the total. The whole is different than the sum of its parts. Photographing a drawing or painting and putting it in a program like Photoshop is helpful, you can change colors and move things around instantly. It speeds up the thinking process, but to me, it is not a substitute for the physical pleasure of getting paint and glue on your hands and feeling it move from the brush to the paper or canvas.

automatic drawing #4, 12 x 9 inches, 4.24.18

LG: What things might you consider when you start re-working a piece you hadn’t looked at for some time?

CH: When I go back to a piece after many weeks or months, I see it differently, it gives me a chance to integrate ideas that span a period of time, creating temporal layers, while keeping my eye on the unity that is intrinsic to the world of that particular work.

Incident #22, pencil, pen and ink, oil pastel and watercolor on paper, 18 x 24 inches 5.23.18 Visit to the the Veterinary Physician’s Office, pen and ink and watercolor and oil pastel on watercolor paper, 11 x 15 inches, 4.29.18

LG: Many people, especially those with limited art backgrounds, tend to judge representational art by its fidelity to what they think something appears to look like, its photographic likeness or if it follows expected visual conventions. What are some similar ways people wrongly judge abstract works and how would you try to dissuade them?

CH: I think helping people develop an open mind about art is a critical aspect of art education. One of the things I am grateful for having had the opportunity to teach art history is that it forced me to look at and study work that I may have overlooked or dismissed otherwise. This is compatible with having good taste and good judgement. With my traditional academic background (Brackman) it was hard for me to look at non-representational art. For years I could not see Matisse or Leger, or even Picasso. It wasn’t until I had teachers like Lisa Chase, Judy Pfaff and Lorna Ritz, who helped me see beyond the limited scope of what I had been taught. I never judged work by its fidelity to the subject though. In fact, I always thought “realism” was silly. It was painting the surface of something, rather than finding its essential qualities. A great photographer knows the difference between “taking pictures” and composing with the camera. A painter has the same kind of aesthetic choices to make with his or her eye, brush, and heart.

I think of most of my work as figurative and nonobjective at the same time. The figure ground relationship fascinates me in and of itself, but also as it serves the subject. Relationships between shapes, colors, line, all play a role in how the work is experienced. It takes an open mind and engaged viewer to appreciate any work of art, and often these qualities are a function of education and willingness to see things from diverse perspectives.

 Pen and ink, 9 x 12 inches. 2018
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Larmor Plage (2018) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm Summer, the Seilleraye (2017) Oil on linen, 35 x 50 cm

I’m delighted to share this email interview with Beth Bernhardt who wrote from her home in France. I was fortunate to meet her a couple of times in the JSS in Civita program in Civita Castellana a few summers ago and wanted to find out more about her life as a landscape painter in France.  I would like to thank Beth Bernhardt for sharing these highlights of her background and thoughts about how she goes about transforming pigment into these stunning visual celebrations of light and air.

from her website…Beth Bernhardt has lived and worked in France for the past seventeen years. After earning degrees from Yale University and Boston University she moved to Jerusalem where she spent a year as artist in residence at the Jerusalem Studio School. The sharp contrasts and brilliant contours of the desert light shifted her attention to the landscape where her focus has rested ever since. She subsequently moved to France where she established her studio in Lyon for a few years before moving to Paris for a decade. Recently she settled in Nantes with her family and began painting the surrounding Loire Valley and Atlantic coast. Landscape has remained the center of her work, seeking to capture form and light and achieving a painterly description of place. She has exhibited widely, participating in various group exhibitions throughout the United States and Israel, and in France has had solo exhibitions at the Ile de Versailles in Nantes and the Nabokov Gallery in Paris. Her paintings and prints are held in various private collections worldwide.

Worth Matravers, (2016) Oil on linen, 100 x 120 cm

Larry Groff:   What made you decide to become a painter and what early influences were important to you?

Beth Bernhardt:     There was no single event that made me decide to be a painter but a number of influences that pushed me in this direction. If I were to start at the beginning, growing up in Baltimore, I suppose I encountered my first influences at home and also at school where it was normal to talk about and look at art and where creativity was nurtured, it was normal to just make things. My mother taught elementary school art and also gave tours at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore so we went often to the BMA, the Walters and also to the National Gallery in DC to look at paintings from a very early age. I remember falling in love with the Matisse cut-outs in Washington and also as a child liking the Roy Lichtensteins, his blown-up, painted comic strips really appealed to me at this early age. In Baltimore there were Matisse’s Pink and Blue nudes in the Cone collection and a certain aura about them that made me extremely curious. As far as school went, I had always followed the art courses throughout my public school education and was extremely excited to begin painting in 10th grade. At my high school in Towson and in the Art program led by Theresa (Terrie)McDaniel, there were many students who were painting, developing interesting bodies of work, and graduating with the intention of pursuing painting as far as I could tell. The quality and sophistication of this high school program played a critical role in my decision to become a painter. It was exceptional in both the way painting was taught—we were taught to see big relationships (versus learning a technique)—and for our exposure to other painters—Terrie had a library of hundreds of art books for us to consult and take home. So you could say I got hooked on painting in high school and have been with it ever since.

To answer your question about early influences, during this period when I first started painting, I looked a lot at the Bay Area Artists including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Nathan Oliveira and also a lot at Fairfield Porter. Fairfield Porter was interesting to me because of his color choices and also the subject matter that he painted—a world that was familiar to me, almost mine. These are painters that I still love and whose paintings bring me lots of joy.

The Cliffs, Civita (2017) Oil on linen, 29 x 40.5 cm Interior with Bluebells and Landscape, (2017) Oil on linen, 97 x 130 cm

LG:   You studied at Yale for undergraduate degree and BU for your MFA. Were you studying with John Walker then? What was art school like for you?

BB:      I knew before choosing to go to Yale as an undergrad that there was a strong art department with a long history of painting. One conversation I remember having in particular before enrolling at Yale was with then chair of the Art department, John Hull. He said that a major asset of attending Yale was the proximity of two great museums (The Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art) and that it was an advantage to study painting at a place that had access to such a great collection. He wasn’t wrong. I did spend a lot of time in both museums and especially with Constable’s landscapes and seascapes.

When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1993, the climate was somewhat different and the art department was in the process of transition. Nonetheless, as an undergraduate I was less directly impacted by the fluctuations of the Graduate School. During my freshman and sophomore years I studied painting and drawing with Robert Reed and Richard Ryan and during one summer worked with Bernard Chaet and Barbara Grossman at the Vermont Studio Center. We were encouraged to spend our summers at places such as the VSC because as art majors in a university setting we did not get as much studio time as students at art schools.   There was a major emphasis on drawing from observation and working on a particular subject or theme in a series. If you are familiar with Bernard Chaet’s book, The Art of Drawing, much of the work I did at Yale came from Chaet’s teachings. Another teacher who had a large impact on me was Natalie Charkow. We worked in clay in her class, sculpting from the figure—we were learning how to see and the experience was invaluable. I would have loved to study painting with William Bailey or Andrew Forge but unfortunately I did not get a chance as they were no longer teaching by my Junior year.

I jumped straight into an MFA program after graduating from Yale and working with John Walker was an extremely positive experience.   The graduate community was also something of a dream come true upon arriving in Boston—a positive and nurturing environment. At some early conjuncture in my first year at graduate school both John Walker and Al Leslie encouraged me to get outside to paint (I had been working on some invented landscapes in the studio). John had a place near South Dartmouth on Buzzards Bay and I would drive there from Boston and spend half of the week painting outside. Sometimes I would work on very large canvases outside that basically only fit into the back of a pickup truck. The paintings were very energetic and had some interesting passages. Working outside pushed me to synthesize things extremely quickly and nature found its way back into the work. Although I continue to work outside, my approach has evolved since this period.

Chateaurenard, (2006) Oil on linen 27 x 35 cm Civita from the Valley, (2015) Oil on linen 27 x 41 cm Sand Hill, Oil on linen, 25 x 22 cm

LG:   You later studied with Israel Hershberg at the JSS in Jerusalem why did you feel the need to go further with your training? What was that like?

BB:      When I arrived in Jerusalem in February of 2000, it was thanks to a traveling grant and not entirely a decision to continue studying, although Israel Hershberg definitely opened my eyes in ways that I hadn’t foreseen. It all began out of a desire to travel after graduate school and to create a project that would give me time to paint. I was inspired by a recent trip John Moore had made to Israel and the landscape paintings that resulted from this trip.   John put me in touch with Israel Hershberg and I began formulating some applications for traveling fellowships. Eventually it was Israel who came through with funding and managed to put this traveling and painting dream together. The JSS had formed a few years before my arrival and the school was located in Talpiot where students were working in a large north lit studio essentially from the model.

Upon my arrival, I assisted to a few of Israel’s classes but mostly worked from the landscape and brought my work to the school when Israel was teaching and available for critique. From these sessions I definitely got drawn into his teaching because he made sense to me in ways that six years of study at American universities can do just the opposite! He talked about hitting the right note, and about color-spots, a word that I had never heard up until that point in time and also about giving more attention to what I was mixing on the palette.   My work started to shift because I became really intent on painting the light of Jerusalem and not just some random situation.   I wanted people to look at the work and say, that’s Jerusalem because of the color, not because of something tangible like a recognizable building.

Sunrise in Rehavia, (2000) Oil on linen, 25 x 22 cm Jerusalem Trailer, (2005) Oil on linen, 27 x 41 cm

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve gone through with your work?

BB:      I think you could qualify that year in Jerusalem as a major changing point, one when I became quite intent on describing things with more specificity. My landscapes became less concerned with the gesture, or gesture became something I was willing sacrifice in my process in order to move my paintings forward. Otherwise I have periods where I work more outside or more in the studio, but I don’t think you could qualify that as a major change. The approach has always been the same, although I do feel somewhat recently that these two ways of working are finding more common ground.

Afternoon by the Cliffs, (2018) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm The Valley, (2017) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm The Aquaduct, Nepi, (2014) Oil on linen 27 x 35 cm

LG:   You have been an artist resident in Civita Castellana, Italy as well as painting in many other locations in Italy. Please tell us something about your experience there?

BB:      Painting in Civita Castellana has been a great experience for me on many levels and I have managed to go back every year since 2013. Stepping into the Italian landscape, one sees the obvious correlation with the paintings that were made there by Corot, Valenciennes, Thomas Jones and others I admire. I can’t really underscore enough the impact of such an experience. It is like coming back full circle in my relationship with these painters because it’s possible to see how their language and their mark-making are directly tied to the subject—how the the landscape led to the work…

In Civita I also connect with painters over an intense two week period in ways that don’t seem to happen here in France. I am definitely invigorated by a town that is crawling with close to one hundred painters over the summer. I find myself surrounded by painters with similar concerns and motivations and this community in turn pushes the dialogue forward, brings the conversation to a new level and helps me to stay close to my center, basically what is important to me as a painter.  

The Cliffs, Civita Castellana, (2015) Oil on linen, 24 x 33 cm View of Vignale, Civita Castellana, (2014) Oil on linen, 31.4 x 38.2 cm
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27 x 50 inches 60 x 72 inches By Tina Engels

A couple of summer’s ago Tina Engels and I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing Dan Gustin in his incredible home and studio in Italy. A number of delays prevented us from finishing and publishing this wonderful interview that Tina Engels wrote until now. I would like to thank Dan Gustin and Tina Engels both for their time and energy in putting together this insightful look at his background, process and thoughts on painting. – Larry Groff

Dan Gustin has been a Associate Professor of Art (tenured) at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago since 1984. He has been a visiting artist for many years at the International School of Art in Umbria Italy. He received his M.F.A. at the Yale University in 1974 and his B.F.A. at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1972. He has had numerous solo shows at the ISA Gallery, Umbria, Italy, Geschiedle Gallery, J. Rosenthal Gallery, and the Lyons Weir Packer Gallery in Chicago, Forum Gallery in NYC and Alpha Gallery in Boston and many others. He is a member of the National Academy of Art and Design and has received numerous awards and grants.

Dan Sheridan Gustin spends his summers painting and teaching near his home in Umbria, Italy. While there Gustin paints the landscape often working on three or four paintings a day. During the rest of the year Gustin is an associate professor of art at the Art Institute of Chicago. While home in Chicago the artist focuses on his large scale narratives.

William Bailey wrote about Dan Gustin and Langdon Quin in September 2017: “…Each has found challenge and meaning in this Landscape so often painted throughout history. They bring their own histories, as did Claude and Corot in their time. They paint with conviction and imagination, shunning the mannerisms which conventionally assure contemporaneity. Gustin and Quin share a subject but find completely different content….Dan Gustin’s landscapes are typically large-scale, and executed entirely within the setting portrayed in his paintings. Using a full range of vigorously applied color and tone, he fills his canvases with the space, light and atmosphere which characterize each particular place. Gustin’s painterly presence and mastery are his own, but one can sense the extravagant Courbet lurking nearby – urging him on.”- William Bailey

30 x 40 inches 24 x 40 inches

Larry Groff: Please tell us how you came to be to Italy?

Dan Gustin:  Initially I was hired by Helaine Trietman, Mark Servin and Nick Carone to teach at the International School in Italy during the summer. The first month I was there, I just stayed in my room and could not paint. I had never painted landscape and I had no ideas or desire to do it. I thought I had to paint large narrative paintings here and I just couldn’t. I was depressed and completely blocked. I didn’t know what to do. One day I just kind of peeked out and started doodling away. One thing led to another and I was soon out in the landscape and totally fell in love with the place.

I think people who paint landscapes are looking for a home. I know I was. I found my painting home was here in Italy. The light the spaces, the land and sky all became familiar in some strange way and it was what I wanted to paint about. Then I had to do hundreds of terrible paintings. But, everyday I am here I learn more.

48 x 84 inches 72 x 108 inches

Tina: You certainly found the perfect place to do this work. These enormous vistas appear cinematic, spectacular. Your translation seems fitting.

Dan: It took me years to do paintings here in Italy, meaning paintings that I could look at or exhibit. I believe you work from where you are. I had many ideas about how I should paint, and while co-teaching in Italy with many terrific painters. One starts to believe in certain rules and devise certain ways of working. You want to fit in. One wants the work to stand up to other painter’s ways of working and painting from the landscape. You get into this thing of what can you do vs. what do you want to do. It took me years to try to even get away from what do I want to do as opposed to what I can do.

Tina: When you go back into the studio, do you imagine or recall the landscape to paint back into your paintings?

Dan: You know how we all tweak things. You pull things out; push things around, little things, but not a lot. I don’t work a lot away from the landscape and I’ve learned only do this in natural light. When I use electric light, the color shifts are all off and I end up with two different paintings.

Tina: I’ve heard you say before that being capable of creating scale is more important to you than the physical size of the painting. For example, a small painting can look big.

Dan: The idea of scale became so apparent to me in Italy. Landscape painting for me is so much about seeing from here to there and about how one creates relationships that work or fit together in this vast space.

24 x 42 inches 36 x 80 inches 48 x 84 inches

Larry: So a miniaturist could do it?

Dan: Right. A lot of people think scale means the size of the picture but it doesn’t at all. It’s the relationships to the parts. If you look at a Van Eyck, the painting looks immense, but it’s physically it is really very small.   I’m not that good, so I can’t do that. In a way, I use size to get scale. Which maybe is a problem, but I’m okay with it.

It’s that battle between your intuition and what your mind tells you to do. For years I kept doing these smaller pieces and then I realized it’s like an ocean out there. How do I paint the sea? Do I want to paint a little part of the water? It started to extend the painting both horizontally and vertically. The wider it got, the deeper it got. Again, it’s that thing, a lot of people paint shelves and others paint distances.

Tina: That’s a great way of talking about painting the landscape. Thinking of the landscape/ sky as a sea. It’s a wonderful metaphor.

Dan: There is a kind of arrogance too. There’s a kind of extreme narcissism to try to take in all of this. And the more I would distance myself from other painters to see how they saw and painted Italy, the better my paintings became. That was hard for me because I had to find a way I could believe in making a painting from a landscape, yet, still feel I was making my own paintings.

Larry: Why do you perceive of it as arrogance?

Dan: Maybe it’s not arrogance, but the hope that you can do something so difficult and still get it somewhat right in relationship to what you are seeing.

60 x 108 inches 60 x 90 inches

Tina: How does one of your paintings near completion? I’ve heard you say you don’t make drawings, or preliminary studies.

Dan: If I look at something and there’s kind of wholeness to the experience, and I know that I don’t want to reopen the whole painting and/or I stop having ideas about it, things don’t jump out. I wouldn’t say it is finished, but I would probably say the painting is resolved. I think for me, drawing sets up the finish idea, the completion, and I think more about the color idea and the disposition of masses on a plane set up a different expectation. In a way, I can never finish a painting. I stop working on it, but they always seem open-ended to me. That’s why I work on paintings for years sometimes. Constantly changing them to the conditions present, yet hoping and believing in the resolution in the end.

Tina: We asked you about composition and abstraction. I’m wondering if the organization or if the abstraction reveals itself as you are initially looking at a vista or as you paint it?

Dan: Because I am so involved with seeing this world, I don’t believe there is anything really abstract out there, its all real to me. I think that’s pulling in an idea of painting into the landscape. Again, I don’t see anything in the world as being abstract. I mean they’re formulations of an image based on seeing. Obviously it’s not the thing I’m seeing. It’s a re-presentation of the thing I’m seeing, and of all the decisions and changes that I make while “seeing” what I am painting.

60 x 72 inches 60 x 96 inches

Larry: Isn’t that just another way of saying abstraction?

Dan: Yes, possibly, but abstraction is not the way I think about making a painting. What I am trying to do is to visually link together successive moments in what I see in front of me. Or, you might say a specific piece of the world as it is in that moment. Each moment is based on trying to find that equivalent in paint while always fighting assumptions to what I am looking at. The painting is built, then, from that succession of decisions and corrections until I find a kind of unified resolution of the whole painting. This is why the weather is so important to my landscape paintings, because that determines in the most specific sense what is happening in front of me, yet is constantly changing. That is the chase I am on.

12 x 20 inches 48x 86 inches 50 x 60 inches

Tina: Your paintings require a slow read, or a process of getting to know them. I also find the periphery of your paintings charged. Are they seem to be meant to see not from one point of view, but from all sides.

Dan: I like to move the canvas so that you come in from the edge on different angles, so that you don’t get a static vanishing point. I don’t create a space where everything leads in to one point and try to take different points of view from varied angles of the painting to get different things happening, from different sides and different angles of vision. Lester Johnson talked to me about this.

It also shakes up your idea that you know what you’re doing. When you get out there, it’s beyond any sense of your comprehension. The more I get into it, the less I know what I’m doing, the less I compose, the less I think about say Corot or other landscape painters, that’s when I paint better. Whereas, if I want to compose, I am lost and spend the rest of the time painting, fighting against that very idea of composition, that I imposed on the painting in the first place. I don’t want to think about making a certain painting, or psychologically align myself with other paintings. Better to ignore all that gets in the way of what I am seeing now.

I think that’s the hard thing, knowing..

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I am very pleased that the renowned painter Robert Birmelin was able to join me for a telephone interview recently and thank him greatly for his time and involvement in sharing his history, process and thoughts on painting.

Robert Birmelin has long been painting highly personal, realist cityscapes, which he continues to explore through complex representational devices. Independent of photography, Birmelin constructs his detailed urban scenarios mentally. Placing himself in the role of pedestrian observer, he frames a street scene as a momentary perception: looking over people’s shoulders, for example, glimpsing events through their hair, or, in dramatic works from the ’80s, watching from between gargantuan fingers, through which we see streams of jostling figures. In the ’90s, he turned to psychologically dynamic interiors, introducing Magritte-like tropes–upside-down passages or interpolations in scale.” – From P. C. Smith’s review, “Robert Birmelin at Luise Ross” Art In America, February 2007

Robert Birmelin has works in collections in leading museums such as The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY; The Museum of the City of New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Nagoaka, Japan; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; The Library of Congress; the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Arts; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the San Francisco Museum of Art; and National Academy of Design.

He is the recipient of many prestigious grants and awards including a Fulbright grant in 1960 followed by a Prix de Rome at the The American Academy in Rome in 1961. He has received Childe Hassam Fund Purchase Awards, American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971,1976 and 1980; the Carnegie Prize for Painting, National Academy of Design in 1987; Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Rhode Island College in 1996, and the Altman Prize for Landscape Painting, National Academy of Design in 1999. He has had numerous solo shows at major galleries such as the Luise Ross Gallery, New York, NY, Peter Findlay Gallery, New York, NY, The Columbus Museum, Columbus, GA, Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, Claude Bernard Gallery, New York, NY, Alpha Gallery, Boston, MA and showed his works during the 1960’s in the Stable Gallery, New York, NY.

Birmelin attended the Cooper Union and Skowhegan art schools and received B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees from Yale University. A 1960 Fulbright grant followed by a Prix de Rome in 1961 enabled him to study for a year at the Slade School in London and to spend three years at the American Academy in Rome.

A realist with a fascination for existentialist literature, Birmelin is perhaps best known today for his panic-tinged New York crowd scenes. He draws his imagery from the disparate environments of New York City, where he teaches, and his summer home on Deer Isle, Maine. Birmelin controls visual experience through viewpoint: the panoramic sweep of his light-suffused landscapes provides the serenity of distance, while in the crowd scenes he crops images and truncates people at picture edges to create an immediacy that perfectly coincides with the compelling urgency of his subjects.

Virginia M. Mecklenburg Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1987)”

It is not unusual to find that a relative or friend’s memory of a past event clashes with one’s own. Indeed, how often do two witnesses to the same crime contradict one another as to what really occurred? As an artist, I found myself seeking a visual structure that would be an active metaphor for such a state of mind – a structure continuous and spatially rich that initially seems to offer an uncomplicated, expected orientation and then self subverts, challenging the observer to recognize the claims of another equally visually insistent counter-reading. Our minds are restless, making choices, fluctuating between possibilities as we strive to interpret, to judge between contending truths. These paintings live in mid-thought, in the space of that uncertainty – an all too familiar space in a world of bewildering choice.” – Robert Birmelin talking about his work at the 2012 Winter Contemporary Show at Old Print Gallery

Larry Groff:     What were your early years like, and how did you decide to become a painter?

Robert Birmelin:      Like many kids, I always liked to draw and by good fortune, I had a very cultured and helpful high school teacher. Coming from a working class family in northern New Jersey, I wasn’t that clear about going to college. She told me about Cooper Union, I applied, was accepted and that made all the difference in the trajectory of my life. I attended 1951 to ’54.

A Subway Experience, 1966, Acrylic on canvas, 2 panels 79 1/4 x 137 x 17 1/2 inches

LG:      Their tuition was free back then, right?

RB:      Yes, it was free. They again have a plan for free tuition in ten years. They’re going to work toward it. I think that’s good. It’s a wonderful institution, and its founder and his idea about free education for working class New Yorkers was a noble one. When I was at Cooper, the Whitney Museum was on west 8th Street, near Cooper Union, and I became well acquainted with the art happening at the time such as de Kooning, Kline and the rest of the avant garde as well as Hopper and the Social realists. Also, our teachers at Cooper were oriented toward the Abstract Expressionist milieu.

I went to a meeting in the last year I was at Cooper and listened to a recruiting talk by Bernard Chaet, a faculty member at the Yale University Art School. Josef Albers had recently become head of the school and was in the process of changing its nature completly. I went to New Haven with seven other Cooper Union students to show our work. I remember vividly, it was the second turning point in my life. We went into an empty classroom and were asked to stand up against the wall and put your work in front of us on the floor.

We’re waiting around, and in comes Josef Albers, in a gray flannel suit with a yellow tie, shock of white hair, with his assistant. He looks around silently. Looks at the artwork around in the room, mostly drippy, expressionistic work, mine included. And he says, “Vell, who vill speak first?” Nobody said a word, and he looks at me and he says, “Vell, boy.” Extremely nervous, I tried to start talking about my work. I got about ten seconds into it, and he just cut me off and went into a five minute lecture about how New York painting was rotten, how he hated the drips and so forth.

I was devastated. Here I am, this 19-year-old kid, and just been blitzed by Josef Albers! He then looked at other Cooperites and left. So we’re all standing there, in a few moments he comes back in and he looked around the room at each person and then he pointed to me and said, “You.” then he points to two other people, “You and you, go see the secretary.” We were now students at Yale. Can you imagine that for an application process!

LG:      What a difference from today!

RB:      Anyway, that’s how I got there. At Yale, Bernard Chaet was a very important teacher, who later became a friend and advocate. I started drawing with him, and that was very constructive and important. But I had difficulty painting. Albers, in his talks and critiques, was very clear about what he was about, but I couldn’t adapt myself to it. So I fled, as students often do, to the print room and got very involved in making etchings. My enthusiasms were for Goya, Redon and Max Klinger among others. I made a series of etchings and I graduated in 1956 on that basis rather than painting. Those prints were the first works that I really felt were in my own voice. I graduated from Yale in ’56.

I had my BFA, but was tired of school. During that summer I was doing some commercial artwork in the city, probably not very well, and not well paid. I then got a draft notice to report in a couple months. I was drafted in January ’57 and I was in the Army for two years.

Northern City, 1974, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

LG:      Did you get a strong traditional figurative training?

RB:      I’d never painted from the figure; not at Cooper, not at Yale. It wasn’t available, though I’ve drawn from the figure a great deal. I had seen Edwin Dickinson’s paintings in the 12 Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art, sometime in the mid-’50s. I went to study with Dickinson for a couple of months at the Art Students’ League. He was a very interesting kind of man; through him I got an insight into tonal painting, about building a painting with patches of color rather than line. This was something I couldn’t have gotten from anywhere else.

LG:      Dickinson was such an amazing painter.

RB:      He was a marvelous exponent, not so much as a teacher. This had more to do with his painting–building a picture without line, with patches of tone and color. That was very important to learn for me, though I couldn’t use it immediately.

When I was finally discharged in January 1959 I was admitted back into Yale’s MFA program. During that year and a half I made prints, and very large drawings. For the final review of the year there were no formal exhibitions for students graduating, but rather you put your work up in an empty classroom and it was looked at by the faculty, then you took it down. I had made these very large black and white drawings, seven-foot drawings on very crummy photographic background paper. Bernard Chaet brought Eleanor Ward, owner of the Stable Gallery, in to view these drawings. In the 1950’s thru the 60’s, the Stable Gallery was the premiere avant garde gallery of that period. They showed the first Rauschenberg’s, Abstract expressionist painters and even early Warhol.

This would have been in April, May of 1960. In April I married Blair, my beautiful and smart wife, who has been my most loyal advocate and most perceptive critic ever since.

Eleanor Ward comes in and looks around and said, “I’d like give you show.” I was so naïve Larry. I thought, “Oh, that’s really nice.” Here’s somebody who’s running one of the best galleries in New York coming in to see this graduate student show and says, “Oh, I’d like to give you a show.”

I said “Yeah, that would be nice”. Then I thought, these drawings are all on crumby photographic background paper that tears every time I unroll it. When she left I carried them home and stuffed them in a garbage can.

LG:      Oh my goodness.

RB:      Blair and I got a positions teaching that summer at the Yale Norfolk Summer School. During the summer I painted a whole damn show in black acrylic on canvas, white canvas. It was a black and white show. I painted 15 big paintings in eight weeks, some good enough to exhibit. We got back home to New Jersey, my father helped me stretch them in the garage and we shipped them off to gallery in August. The gallery didn’t open until September, but they were stored. I had a Fulbright scholarship. Blair and I were scheduled to leave for England, the ship leaving at the end of August. We were on the boat, we’re going to London when the show went up in New York, it gets reviewed, and I thought, “Oh that’s really nice.” I was so naïve. It was a time to enter the scene… I should have been there. Right?

LG:      Sure, right.

RB:      I should have been meeting people, making contacts but that’s the way it is sometimes. When things come easily, sometimes you don’t know what’s going on. Well, I’ve had a history of lacking the entrepreneurial spirit.

Black and White Photo of first crowd painting. London, 1960-61, 54 x 84 inches, unfinished

LG:      So you received a Fulbright and the Prix de Rome in the early 60’s. How did that influence the directions you took after living in Rome and London?

RB:      We spent a year in London, where I started to paint. I felt released from the entire Yale environment. To start, I decided to paint colors they way I saw them rather than worry about color theories.

LG:      And you were at the Slade School there?

RB:      I was assigned to Slade school at the University of London. I drew from the model there a couple of times. They have this tutor system; I went to see my tutor, who turned out to be Andrew Forge, who later became the dean at Yale.

LG:      Was Coldstream also there at that time?

RB:      Yes, he was there but I had no contact with him. My tutor, Andrew Forge wasn’t that interested in Americans at that time. Frankly, he sort of brushed me off. I didn’t mind, because we’d found a rather nice apartment and I did a number of large paintings of crowds, the first crowd pictures I did. Also we traveled to the continent, Belgium, Netherlands, France and Spain. It was my first sight of the “real thing”, so different than the reproductions in art books. Later we also traveled in Germany, Switzerland and Austria and the Scandinavian countries.

Cityscape – The Stadium Alight, 1980-1981, Acrylic on canvas, 47 x 71 inches

LG:      What painters from art history did you see that have been most central to your concerns?

RB:      There are so many… a big Daumier exhibition was the first discovery we made after arriving in London. It made a lasting impression on me. To risk sounding like a laundry list, in no particular order I would say: Breughel, Goya, Rembrandt (particularly the etchings), Signorelli, Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Degas, Caillebote, Piranesi, Max Beckmann, Picasso’s Analytical Cubism, Futurism, Magritte, and the early films of John Cassavetes (“Shadows”). And at certain moments Balthus and Bacon.

In the 60s, Balthus, Giacometti and Bacon were really the contemporary figurative artists that one tended to look to–painters for suggesting ways forward. Of course this was all set against the context of the dominance of abstract and Pop art.

In American art schools their work seemed to suggest a way to something else, something different, something more radical… Most certainly, the model of Balthus of rang through American figurative painting, in that period and later, probably sometimes in embarrassing ways

After London, I got a grant to go to the American Academy in Rome and we got to Rome in 1961. I was fortunate enough to continue there three years.

It was still a kind of Ivy League-ish kind of place. More weighted toward art historians, archaeologists, philologists, and so forth and so on, though, there were several painters, composers and writers–some very smart, interesting people. I took over Lennart Andersen’s studio as he was leaving. It was a big, beautiful studio on the second floor on the highest hill in Rome, with a skylight that had been built for mural painters.

LG:      Terrific.

RB:      It took me a long, long time to realize how I was lucky beyond belief. Anyway, I started to paint there. I painted a whole variety of paintings influenced by many sources; a little de Chirico, Cubism, Futurism Surrealism and even the emerging Pop Art. Of course we were also devouring the great historical works of Italy and the rest of Europe on our frequent travels. I was doing a lot of drawing. Drawing was, and is, a major part of my production, maybe the best part.

In the last years I was at Rome, I did several large paintings, six or seven foot paintings of different kinds of multiple figure situations and also some interiors. I was opening up as a painter in a way that I hadn’t before. That was good.

You asked me before about what influenced me; there are works that influence you, and there are other things that you just admire immensely. I’ve had certain reproductions of Pontormo, and Rosso Fiorentino, that had been up on my wall for years. Being in Italy and standing before them is so, moving and amazing. There are a couple of pictures by Rosso,” Moses and the Daughters of Jethro” and his phantasmagorical altarpiece in Volterra with their jagged forms, anti-naturalistic space and color dissonances that engaged me deeply.

Another case was Caravaggio’s “Seven Acts of Mercy in Naples. Do you happen to know it?

LG:      I’m afraid not.

RB:      Go ahead and look it up sometime. I’ve drawn it several times. It’s an impossible, impossible painting. It made me realize that certain works, which disregard existing canons, look like they have something “wrong” with them. But that “wrongness” gives that image its power.

There’s a painting, in the Metropolitan Museum, by Ludovico Carracci, it’s a dead Christ mourned by the Virgin, St. John, and saints. Every time I go to the Met I look at it. Christ’s broken, dead body is cradled by Mary and is painted in this painfully naturalistic way. But, all the other figures in the painting look like they come out of a different world. Was he experimenting? Perhaps… It’s disturbing. It’s the clash of two kinds of incompatible worlds. The tension between the two holds me every time I see it.

Seeing Max Beckmann Among Commuters Near Penn Station, (Large Version) Acrylic on canvas, 48 in x 78 inches, 2008 The City Crowd – Night (The Hat), 1980-1981, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 inches
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by Elana Hagler Susheela, oil on linen, 20 x 24

David Stanger is a painter and individual of great depth and sensitivity, with a sharp, probing intellect. It has been my pleasure to get to know him and his work better through this interview, and to now share it with others who might benefit and enjoy.

Stanger grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he also currently resides. He received a BFA in painting from Syracuse University, studied painting and Renaissance art history in Florence, Italy and earned an MFA from the Hoffberger School of Painting at Maryland Institute College of Art.

Stanger moved back to Pittsburgh in 2005 and served as the Director and Curator of the American Jewish Museum until his return to teaching in 2008. He is currently an Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at Seton Hill University.

His work is exhibited internationally at such venues as the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Mattress Factory, the Butler Institute of American Art and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, as well as Manifest Gallery, Seraphin Gallery, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Stanger’s work can be found in many private collections and is most notably in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art. View his website, davidstanger.com here.

Elana Hagler: Welcome, David, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I’m looking forward to getting to know you and your approach to painting on a deeper level.

David Stanger: First, I’d like to say thank you for your interest in my work, Elana. I have long admired your work and have been reading your and Larry’s interviews over the years. Painting Perceptions is a great resource for painters working today. It is an honor and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and history.

EH: Did you grow up in an artistic family or is what you do professionally a real departure?

DS: My path as an artist could be seen as a departure, but I honestly can’t fully answer the question. From one perspective the answer is yes, with the exception of a distant aunt, there are no professional artists in our family. However, my story is a bit more complicated because I was adopted as an infant. My birth records are sealed and I know only that I have Italian ancestry. I have no sense if there are other artists in my genetic family tree.

Not knowing is part of my life and it colors the way I understand and translate my tangible memories. When I was younger, I sometimes had the feeling that I was living a parallel life somewhere, and I would let my mind drift. If a different family had adopted me, could I have become a different person or would my inner nature have expressed itself regardless? Perhaps there is something innate in me that drove my early desire to be an artist, or perhaps it was my familial environment that truly shaped my path – probably both.

I’m lucky to have a supportive and loving family. My mother is a voracious reader and was a librarian and social worker and my father had a long career as a psychiatrist here in the Pittsburgh region. The nature of my parents’ study and professions revolved around helping people, and this sense of social responsibility instilled in me the notion that the betterment of one’s self should to be tied to the enrichment of society. The arts do that in spades.

My parents took note of my interest in drawing and painting from a young age and enrolled me in a few classes at the Carnegie Museum, where I made my first drawings from works in the permanent collection. The art teachers in my public school were faced with an academic culture that was largely indifferent to visual arts, so I had to find my own path into painting. I set up a studio at home and figured it out as I went along. The feeling of visual discovery was intoxicating to me and I have so many good memories from these early experiments.

Eventually, I enrolled in pre-college art classes at Carnegie Mellon University and at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts where I studied with Herb Olds and Bill DeBernardi.  Working with Herb and Bill definitely helped me to gain momentum as a young artist.

Pillow, oil on linen mounted to board, 16 x 22

EH: Are there any works in particular that you saw as a very young person that formed your idea of the kind of painter you want to be?

DS: I have some vivid memories of a visit to the National Gallery when I was around 13, when I first grasped that people could commit their lives to painting. We had been there before but this time I saw things differently, maybe I was ready to let it all in. It floored me. I was actually very uneasy about it, very unsure of what to do with the feelings I had. It wasn’t about sadness or happiness, or really any one nameable emotion, but a sort of aesthetic charge that got tangled up in a variety of memories and associations. The sense of touch needed to make great paintings carries a very particular type of information. At times it feels like a transmission line carrying a charge directly to the nervous system, as the eyes of the painter connects with those of the viewer.

The rooms of Rembrandt and Vermeer, Ingres and David, Titian and da Vinci all made my head spin. At the time, I was most interested in the impressionists and post-impressionists because the visual vibrations seemed the most true to vision, simultaneously present and fleeting. I loved watching the paint dance in and out of form, changing from a volume to a simple smear. This was the first time I was acutely aware of how entrancing paint was as a material. I’m still amazed that this primitive material can be simultaneously humble and unspeakably beautiful, mindless and full of wisdom. I teared up that day, but didn’t let on. It’s always easier to let your emotions show in a dark theater, than in a fully lit gallery, isn’t it?  

I should also say that my cumulative experiences with paintings at museums in Pittsburgh have had a profound impact on my visual and cultural awareness. The Carnegie Museum has some wonderful pieces in the permanent collections, in particular a beautiful Venetian interior by Sargent, some knockouts by Degas and Corot, and several works by Giacometti that never cease to amaze me. The Frick Museum has the beautiful Rubens portrait of Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency. I also remember two fantastic painting shows at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts when Murray Horne was the curator, one of Pittsburgh’s own Raymond Saunders and the other of Odd Nerdrum’s early and mid-career work.

Block Island, oil on linen mounted to board, 7.75 x 11

EH: Not too many people seem to talk about that period when we are freshly out of school and suddenly thrust upon the world. Can you tell us a little about that time of life for you?

DS: Times of transition are always difficult. I had three major transitions, one on leaving undergrad then again after grad-school and then my move back to Pittsburgh. Each time I found myself in a new part of the art world and I’ll share a little about each.

After graduating from Syracuse I moved back to Pittsburgh for a year before I applied to graduate school. My first job was as a bartender and then I started working as an installer at the Carnegie Museum and Wood Street Galleries. I also taught a class or two at local arts centers. My main focus at the time was really on developing my studio work, exhibiting and getting ready for graduate school. I had known since my sophomore year of college that I wanted to be a professor, so an MFA was essential.

I visited and applied to several schools on the east coast and ultimately chose to attend the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA. Grace Hartigan, the founding director of the program, was the main faculty presence and her work, life history and ideas about painting left a powerful impression on all of us. I was also fortunate to get to know some of the many wonderful artists and thinkers there like Bill Schmidt, Raoul Middleman, Karen Gunderson, Philip Koch, Leslie King-Hammond, James Hennessey and many others.

Leaving grad school was a similar experience to leaving undergrad, in that I felt uncertain about the future and was hungry for opportunities. My girlfriend Susheela (who is now my wife) and I moved to Philadelphia and I started knocking on doors, searching out opportunities and meeting new people. I had a small network of friends there who were architects and they helped me connect with a design-build architecture firm. I started working with them to create plaster finishes and decorative carpentry for cash wraps for the retail store Anthropologie, as well as general residential renovations. I learned so many transferable skills and am thankful for the opportunities they provided.

I was also teaching night classes at Philadelphia University for a time and exhibiting works including a group show at the Mattress Factory. I found a studio in the now demolished Gilbert Building near PAFA and worked as much as I was able. At the time, the building housed the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Vox Populi Gallery and other arts cooperatives.

Eventually, we moved back to Pittsburgh so Susheela could attend graduate school and I was lucky to serve as the Curator and Director of the American Jewish Museum. What I discovered though the interview process and in the first few months on the job, was that my experiences in art history and critical theory classes had prepared me well to write grant narratives, curatorial essays and press releases. My earlier experiences as a museum installer and craftsman were also very helpful and prepared me with a sense of how to design, troubleshoot and hang an exhibition. I learned so much in my time at the AJM, but knew that teaching was better suited for me.

What all of these transitional anecdotes should make clear is that being an artist is a hustle and it is important to be proactive, self-disciplined and adaptable. My advice to young artists is to work hard, seek out opportunities and keep your eyes and ears open. Also, try to surround yourself with friends and loved ones who will help you protect the mental space necessary to make your work. Share what you do. Submit work for open calls, apply for residencies and grants, join an arts organization, and stay active.

Night Window, oil on linen, 48 x 32 Detail from Night Window Detail from Night Window

EH: How do you choose the subjects of your paintings?

DS: In my recent work all of my subjects and motifs are in my life in some way. I know all of the people, spaces, and objects, through direct and intimate experience. I’ve chosen to narrow my focus in part, because I need sustained contact to make my paintings over long periods of time, but also because I need to feel emotionally connected to what I’m doing. Critical distance is important, but too much leaves me cold.

One thing connects to another and works unfold. I may have a fascination that I can’t shake or I may see something that feels like an embodiment of my state of being. It could be a pattern of light and shadow on the ground, a face in crowd, or a fragment from a story I’ve read, a melody I’ve heard. Often I find that the most intriguing ideas for paintings come from my family and friends, because I share my life with them. When my son Ravi was born I made several paintings of him sleeping and several of my wife Susheela. We were starting our new lives together and there was nothing I wanted to paint more.

Compositions develop out of their own nature and through chance encounters with light or visual juxtapositions, but I’m not so naïve as to think that my choices in pictorial content are just formal. Like all people, my choices are driven by deep-seated psychological desires and fears. I feel a sense of responsibility for what I paint, I want to know that I am engaged in something meaningful and honest.

Painting as an intellectual discipline is self-reflexive and to my mind, great paintings exist in dialog with other works around them or before them, not alone or without context. Museums are a resource, and the works they house teach and set expectations about what people are capable of. I agree with Cézanne’s dictum that “the path to Nature lies through the Louvre, and to the Louvre through Nature.”

Ravi, oil on linen 28 x 32 inches

EH: How does your teaching inform on your artwork and vice-versa?

DS: Painting and teaching are now intertwined for me, as I grow as an artist so too as a teacher. My pedagogy is a reflection of my current understanding of painting, but I am careful to not be orthodox in my approach, so as to not limit what is possible for students in the studio. I provide structure and teach observational drawing and painting techniques, but I also work hard to make a permissive environment for students to explore their own fascinations. Because my early professional and artistic life was so varied, I think I bring that curiosity about all aspects of the contemporary art world to the classroom.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was in exposed with wide perspectives on contemporary art through the Carnegie International exhibitions, and the expansive and far ranging exhibitions at the Mattress Factory and Warhol Museum. As a viewer, I have endless curiosity about what I see and try not to discriminate about categories of art making or discount works prematurely.  

Both teaching and being a father have, in their own ways, tempered my mind. When I was a teenager and even in college, I was more volatile, excitable with my moods and work. Explorations were wide ranging, and I followed my intuition and desires.   Now I find, that while I remain open as viewer, I have become more sensitive to what works I truly connect with and filter what enters into my deeper studio investigations.

One of the great challenges in life is balancing external demands on our time and energy with our private concerns and personal investigations. While I feel very inspired by my students and colleagues, I often struggle to balance my ambitions in the studio with a large to-do list. My studio is in my home and I try to work daily, in manageable chunks of time. Some days I can get 8 hours in, others only 1 or 2, and sometimes all I have energy for is looking. Summer and winter breaks are when I can really get things accomplished in the studio.

Being truly present in the studio does require constant engagement and maximum effort. I want my work to be on my mind continually and if my connection slips, I’m not really myself. This is at the heart of being an artist; it is not only a profession, but also a heightened sense of being.

Skull, oil on linen mounted to board, 16 x 20

EH: When asked about your creative process in an earlier interview, you answered very beautifully with the following:

My work is often born of unexpected visual encounters that fascinate and tug at me. I trust those rare moments of heightened visual perception, when I’m shaken out of my daily concerns. It is this trust in a glance that leads to sustained observation and enduring, meaningful experiences.

As a painting develops in and out of months, the surface gains a history and begins to hold a measured intensity and an increasingly complex technical narrative. Paintings carry a physical index of the painter’s accumulated decisions and are both objectiverecords and a distillation of memories.”

When you spend months on a single painting, how do you preserve the power contained in the experience of the initial glance?

DS: Life is fleeting but we try to hold onto it, embrace it. Painting is a very particular way to share our visual experiences. The process of painting slows me way down, which unto itself is significant in our modern world. It allows me to be fully present in the moment and open to experiences.

One of my favorite authors, Paul Auster wrote, “Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them, someone once said. In the same way, perhaps, experiences present themselves only to those who are able to have them.”

I don’t set out to spend months on a painting but I often need extended time to make determinations about what is most important in a given work. This often translates to countless hours putting paint to canvas, but it can also mean spending time looking and thinking, or even setting it aside for a time.  At any point in this process, I give myself license to change or remove elements from the composition. Accounting for change and the readiness to make it happen is essential to..

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Self Portrait 3, Collage on Paper, 5×8 inches 2012

I’ve long marveled over the diminutive works of the Canadian painter Harry Stooshinoff and have been impressed and inspired by his success and creativity with selling his works online, no mean feat in this day and age. I’m pleased to share this interview where he talks at length about his background, process and thoughts on making paintings and would like to thank him for his generosity in responding to my email interview questions. I thought his website’s statement is a great introduction for those who may not be familiar with him and include it here:

I am both a painter and teacher. I hold a B Ed, BFA and an MFA. I have been producing artwork almost on a daily basis for over 35 years. A few decades ago I started making small pictures so that I could start and finish the piece in one sitting. The work is small because an intimate scale encourages maximum intuition, freedom, and experimentation.

My work is both abstract and figurative, and there is no inherent contradiction between these sensibilities; one inclination supports the other.

I am prolific and I do not wish to die with 10,000 paintings under my bed! Making small work also solved a few practical problems; small work is easy to mail. I very much enjoy selling art online. Mailing pieces to destinations all over the world is a great pleasure.

I live in the rolling countryside of the Oak Ridges Moraine, an ancient landform located just north of Lake Ontario, and am inspired by what I see every day. I roam this unique place in all seasons, and document my impressions. At first view, rural environments may seem natural, but they have been continually altered and reshaped by man. The landscape will be very different tomorrow; it seems negligent not to record how it looked and felt today.

It’s a big NOISY world, so I make small, quiet paintings.

March Evening, 8 x 8 inches, 3/2018

Larry Groff: How did you decide to become a painter?

Harry Stooshinoff: I remember wanting to be an artist in Grade 7 and searching out all kinds of books and materials to learn techniques. I always did very well in school so I was no stranger to a library. In high school, art was not offered, and this may have been a great thing in the long run. Through those years I learned on my own by emulating examples from art history, and that method would prove very useful later on. I was producing artwork on a regular basis all though high school and by that time I knew that I would study art in university. I think from a fairly early age I was seeing that through painting…there was this possibility of enchantment, of being carried into another place.

LG: What was art school like for you in Canada when you studied there. Where there many people doing landscape then? How did you get to be a landscape painter?

HS: I did my BFA in studio art at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. When I arrived I fully understood that I knew next to nothing and was very ready to learn. I was an academic high achiever in high school and a certain kind of humility comes with that. You expect that things will not be easy, and you expect to work hard for everything. The program at that point was Open Studio and was based largely on studio critiques of work produced through the week. Looking back on this experience now, I think this program worked well for me. I was terrified by my own ignorance so I produced a great deal of work. One important method was based on going to the library, deconstructing artists from my favourite movements, and allowing them to influence my painting and drawing development over a period of time.

The faculty was mostly post abstract expressionist in their outlook, with critics such as Clement Greenberg enjoying huge popularity. The abstract painter Otto Rogers was the head of the department at this time, as was Stan Day (1974-79). There was a period of time when I painted urban landscapes of Saskatoon in a Fauve manner influenced largely by Derain and Dufy. The department did have a landscape painter on staff (Wynona Mulcaster) in earlier years, and her influence was still felt, but one sensed, and this was reinforced in many ways, that the abstract concerns of a painting were always primary. For those who took the teachings to heart, the process was analytical and rigorous. I remember showing up for term-end evaluations with a stack of works on paper 2 feet high. Figure drawing, ceramic sculpture, printmaking, drawing, painting and art history were all essential parts of my studies there. At the end of my 3rd year I also did a summer session at the renowned Emma Lake workshops in northern Saskatchewan. This was an important time because one had a chance to work next to world-class artists from Canada, the US, and Britain for a number of weeks. Anthony Caro was making sculpture in the parking lot. I still remember admiring how Otto Rogers moved layers of wonderful greys as I watched him work on a works on paper series. I also met my wife, painter Jane Zednik in my 4th year, who was at that time doing her MFA in painting at the university. She was a large influence in my work over the next number of years, and through graduate school, when I worked in a more narrative and figurative manner. After completing the BFA, I studied at a year-long painting workshop (run by Canadian painter Takao Tanabe) at the Banff Center. This was also incredibly helpful since influential artists were brought in for talks and individual critiques every 2 weeks. A great range of opinion, perspective, and guidance could be had in a short time. I still have very fond memories of a summer printmaking workshop taught by Jack Lemon, creator of Landfall Press.

Development Site, 4 x 5 feet, acrylic on canvas, 1986

I then completed an MFA in painting at the University of Calgary, but my work at this stage was still dealing with a variety of narrative themes. I vividly recall one experience close to the end of my time in Calgary. I took all of my paints and a heavy, cumbersome drawing board to a bit of turf next to a busy street beside the campus, and painted a 22 x 30 inch landscape while sitting on the grass. In retrospect it was in important cross-over piece…..I always remembered this piece of work. Pure landscape did not make a full appearance in my work until a few years later when my wife and I moved to Oshawa, Ontario in 1983. I found the industrial city ugly and inhospitable, and the only way I could figure out how to make peace with it was to walk its streets for countless hours, taking photographs that I would later paint from during the nights. A series of many 22” x 30” paper pieces and 4 x 5 foot canvases of urban landscape paintings resulted.

Corner Store, 4 x 5 feet, acrylic on canvas, 1986

LG: Have the great Canadian modern landscape painters like Tom Thomson or the group of seven and similar been influential to you? Any other painters work been important to help you find your own voice?

HS: Over more than 4 decades of painting, many artists have been an influence, at different times. In the very early teenage years I would gobble up all the history of art I could get my hands on. But in small Canadian prairie towns, art wasn’t a large concern, and there certainly weren’t galleries to visit. The wonderful old town librarian would use inter library loans to order books on artists I selected. I recall giving a lot of careful attention to Constable as well as Baroque Dutch landscape painting. I looked carefully at the Group of 7 mostly through reproductions. But there was one year when an excellent selection of their landscape paintings toured through small Canadian western towns. In my town, Kamsack, they were hung in the auditorium of the junior high school for a weekend. I loved that and it was the first time I saw important paintings close up. And it was also the first time I saw Canada represented in paintings. But even then, one doesn’t see the Canadian prairies represented in works by the Group of 7, so there was still a sense that art was made “somewhere else”. I loved David Milne in the early years and still appreciate the work today. I first encountered his pieces at the Mendal Gallery in Saskatoon, when I went away to university, for my BFA undergraduate degree. J.W. Morrice is also a Canadian landscape artist who I admired, especially the small on-the-spot pieces.

Through the university years I took apart every artist who appealed to me. The fauves, the French impressionists, most of the German expressionists, French expressionists like Soutine and Georges Rouault, and select abstract expressionists like Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky were all influences at certain times. There was a time when I painted personal narratives, dream images, and book illustrations–medieval manuscript illuminations were one of the influences for that body of work. My MFA degree thesis at the University of Calgary was titled New Humanistic Pictorial Art, with artists such as Saul Steinberg, Robert Crumb, and Jean-Michel Folon, cited as influences. The main idea argued was that there needed to be more than purely formal, plastic, and painterly concerns driving the work. Societal or human situational concerns needed to be somehow addressed. I painted purely abstractly only for a short period of time; through all my investigations, I wanted to paint the world, but this needed to be done in a modern, authoritative way. Picasso and Matisse were important to me almost right from the start, and they remain very much so today–likewise Joan Miro. Really, through all this time I have been very much concerned with method as much as subject, so my range of influences has been fairly broad. The list could go on for a very long time. I still spend a lot of time looking at paintings and drawings every day…all of that has an influence.

Sand Slip, 2016, 8.75 x 8.75 inches Ceder Shade, Homeline, 2015, 8 x 10 inches

LG: Was there any particular lesson or experience you had that helped you become the painter you are today?

HS: Looking back now, very early experiences seem important. My first years growing up on a farm in eastern Saskatchewan were happy and idyllic. I remember being 6 years old, climbing tall aspen trees, and listening for a long time to the sound of the leaves in the wind, and enjoying the way the tree moved with the wind. I ran freely all over the farm and it seemed an enchanted life. I idolized an older brother who later died at 21 in a car accident. He was great at art and I would carefully watch all the things he did. I recall waking up, in that groggy state between dreaming and waking, and seeing a combine harvester my brother made out of plasticine, sitting on the window sill in front of me. It seemed a thing of magic and I remember holding on to that semi-awake state just so I could prolong the wonderful feeling of staring at that sculpture. We also had a person who lived on the farm with us. I called him grandfather but he was an old Russian craftsman and carpenter who helped on the farm. He built his own little house there, and he decorated various outbuildings with crafted tin work. For me he made a wonderful carved wooden rocking horse, with hand-wrought stirrups and metal moving fixtures, a real horse hair mane and tail, and a hand-tooled saddle. It had marble glass eyes and was beautifully but primitively painted. He also made toys for my brothers and me. Most of the furniture in the house was handmade by him and brightly painted. This type of Doukhobor furniture is very collectible these days. For the first 7 years of my life we lived on this farm with no electricity, no running water, but they were happy years where I learned to love solitude, and where I saw that people could make a bit of magic with their own hands.

Not all early years were as happy. An alcoholic father could not keep the farm afloat and squandered a great deal of the money from the sale of the land. My 12th year was painfully memorable; the family, while awaiting the closing date on a house purchase, was for a few months that seemed like an eternity, squatting in the house of an alcoholic lady with our furniture crammed everywhere including the front yard. Living in a house with daily binge drinkers was unbearable. I remember the great relief of finding a sleeping place under a table with other furniture jammed up against it, which at least gave some semblance of privacy and ‘place’. In all years hence, the security of ‘home’ has been the greatest value, and it’s ‘home’ that I paint today and every day. The idea of being able to depict and comment on all aspect of one’s life seemed to my very young mind as something that could save me, or at least prevent me from disappearing. And a few years later, when the home situation stabilized to a tolerable degree, the study of art history showed that all manner of pain was on display in the range of masterworks. All of my early years were documented in narrative drawings and paintings made between the ages of 22 and 24. Later on, in graduate school, when the work of many outsider artists became a useful influence, I remember the joy of finding the work of the Polish, and sometimes homeless artist Nikifor; he could do so much with almost nothing. I loved the work but was also inspired by his life and thought “well, if it all goes completely to hell, I could still live like Nikifor”.

Toward Lost Dog Hill, Oct 10 Prison Hill, 2016, 11 x 15 inches

LG: What are some of your most important concerns when first starting a painting?

HS: I always want to know that this next painting is not like the one before, or at least there has to be some sense of departure. There has to be something new in both the process and intent. Without this, I lose interest. And there has to be a glimmer, some chance that I might be able to create some sense of life through this work. I also need to know that I’m ready to paint…which means that my mind needs to be empty, and my body relatively loose and relaxed, ready to move and react easily and happily for up to 2 hours.

LG: What are some things you look for when making a selection about what to paint?

HS: I live in beautiful rural area just north of Lake Ontario. The rolling hills, plots of mixed forest, farmlands, roads and lakes make this place endlessly interesting to me. This is home, so I’m interested in poking my nose into all sorts of areas within a 50 mile radius. I walk every day and this sampling of place, atmosphere, and light provides the incentive for the daily picture. I make little drawings of motifs, or I take digital photos, or I might make a conscious mental note about something experienced to base the painting on, and then paint exclusively from memory. One of the influences of growing up in Saskatchewan is that I am always looking far into the distance; this seems to provide some sort of emotional solace…it’s comforting. But as I walk all sorts of arrangements present themselves. Usually a strong painting motif will have 3-5 things in relationship, and I’ll note those. The painting will be made within a few hours of returning home. The motifs that I notice most often seem to carry some sort of strong emotional load; they seem important to me for some strange reason that goes further than pure design. From the daily excursion (it’s usually a walk, but it could also be a drive) a number of ideas will have been noted, and I will select only one for the daily painting session. Painting on location works a bit differently because I commit to a spot and dive right in to the painting. Sometimes I will roam around for quite a while, searching for a place that not only looks right, but ‘feels’ right.

Little Hill, October 5, 2017, 8 x 8 inches
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A heartwarming and insightful 2013 PBS video documentary about the New Jersey based realist painter Mel Leipzig. The program was produced over a 3 year period by his friend and neighbor Eric Schultz. Mel Leipzig is represented by Gallery Henoch in NYC Leipzig’s portraits are in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the White House, and many other museums.

Mel Leipzig: Everything is Paintable - YouTube

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A Devastating Critique of the Art Establishment: Museums, Art History (2000) - YouTube

Interesting talk and discussion given on Book TV on CSpan by Lynne Munson about her 2000 book Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance The late art critic, Hilton Kramer, also contributes to the talk and discussion.

This video addresses important issues for painters that are as relevant today as it was back in 2000 when this panel discussed such topics as; the unfair and biased awarding of NEA art grants, the loss of teaching aesthetic standards and traditional artistic knowledge in many of today’s art schools and the ridgid hold the postmodernist academy has on our art institutions.

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Mari Lyons Memorial Exhibition: The Vital Street Review by John Goodrich, guest contributor

January 30 – February 24, 2018 at First Street Gallery, NYC

Mari Lyons, Store for Rent, ca. 2004, oil on linen, 77 x 57 inches. Courtesy of Nick Lyons

Over the long course of her life as a painter, Mari Lyons (1935-2016) explored a wide range of genres, from portraits to still lifes, interiors and landscapes. All these subjects she rendered with a modernist’s flair for heightened color, vigorous brushwork, and simplified, often flattened spaces. The memorial exhibition at First Street Gallery presents what may be the single most appealing and accessible of her motifs: the cityscapes she painted from the window of studio at West 80th Street and Broadway.

Among her many teachers, Max Beckmann may have made a particular impression of the artist; one can imagine his influence in Lyons’ bold, dark outlines and sometimes distended forms. But these thirty paintings and works on paper vividly catch the staccato rhythms of Lyons’ own subject, observed for some forty years from her third-floor vantage point. Taxis and crosswalks tilt at crazy angles, signs cry out brand names, and pedestrians weave through the clatter, and yet Lyons manages to keep everything under control, so that one never loses the sensation of looking down upon a unified, spreading scene. The artist’s pleasure in the sheer spectacle of the street is immediately apparent, but so is her savviness about constructing a painting.

Mari Lyons, Snowy Trees with White Car, 2010, oil on linen, 36 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Nick Lyons

Indeed, Lyons seems to invite every visual complication. In one canvas, trees dotted with clumps of snow set off the regular beat of a red and whited striped awning. In others, she records the utter transformations of roads and sidewalks by rainfall, which turns concrete into a patchwork of damp, dark spots and brightly reflecting puddles – the whole punctuated by the colorful crescents of umbrellas. Many a modern cityscapist avoids cars because of their usual lack of charm and complex, shiny surfaces. But Lyons clearly delights in the here and now – however it presents itself – and she pursues this particular challenge, too, often distorting the vehicles’ proportions and angles. (They still convince, rhythmically; the artist wisely prioritizes pictorial heft over perspectival accuracy.)

In their battle between busyness and cohesion, the former wins in a few of the paintings. But others evoke an impression of cohering abundance – a distant echo of Brueghel’s teeming orderliness, in which every element, large and small, plays its part. In these, a central hierarchy of forms unfolds, in the horizontal tiers of facades/ street/sidewalk, or the uncoiling arc of a wall in Broadway’s center divider. Further looking reveals worlds within these worlds – communities of interacting figures within a bus shelter, or a shop window.

Mari Lyons, Thursday Afternoon on the Corner of West 80th Street and Broadway, 2001, oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Nick Lyons

While the installation – especially in the gallery’s smaller space – feels slightly crowded, the strategic hanging of the strongest paintings shows them to good advantage. Among these is “Thursday Afternoon on the Corner of West 80th Street and Broadway,” which from twenty feet away greets the arriving visitor. Focusing on a single street corner, this six-foot-wide canvas could be a blown-up portion of the more panoramic views hanging on every other wall. With its much closer vantage point, the viewer practically stands among the pedestrians. The familiar “stacked” space develops as overlapping color-forms that generously pace the movement, figure by figure, into the depths. Lyons seizes the opportunity to explore eccentric details: a pile of opened umbrellas, spreading like a huge, tropical bouquet; an autonomous pair of legs, apparently belonging to a person seated around a building’s corner; twin toddlers in a double stroller, the stroller hoods surrounding them like Egyptian cartouches. The painting celebrates two life forces: the ever-changing energy of New York City, and the peculiar powers of paint to re-make it.

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