Recent Acquisition: The Captive by Ahren Ben-Shmuel

Ahron Ben-Shmuel (American, also active in Israel, 1903-1984). The Captive, 1932. Bronze, 15 1/8 x 4 5/8 x 3 9/16 in. Museum purchase with funds from the Estate of Herman B Wells via the Joseph Granville and Anna Bernice Wells Memorial Fund. Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.63

Although little known today, Ahron Ben-Shmuel was recognized as a leading American sculptor in the 1930s. Known as a “sculptor’s sculptor” among his peers, Ben-Shmuel was especially admired for his technical mastery of stone carving, although he also worked in terracotta and bronze. In the 1930s, his sculptures were featured in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Sculptor’s Guild in New York.

Ben-Shmuel’s streamlined style reflected his study of ancient sculpture as well as the influence of modernism. Although only fifteen inches high, The Captive (alternately titled The Martyr, Saint Sebastian) conveys a powerful sense of anguish. In both subject (human suffering) and style (figural elongation), the piece has a clear affinity with German Expressionist sculpture.

The Captive will complement the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s holdings of German sculpture, revealing the international dissemination of Expressionism, and reintroducing a significant American modern artist to our visitors.

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art website

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Recent Acquisition: Korean Scholar’s Screen

Korean Scholar’s Screen, 1930–45. Ink and color on paper, 67 ½ x 160 in. Purchased with funds from the Thomas T. Solley Endowed Fund for Asian Art, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2018.1

Thanks to the generosity of the late Thomas Solley and the Thomas T. Solley Endowed Fund for Asian Art, we were able to purchase an eight-panel folding screen. It is not only a significant example of Korean art but also a real showstopper. Chaekgeori, or scholar’s screens such as this one, can loosely be described as a still life genre painting suitable for the scholar or any other individual wishing to visually inform others of their erudition, sophistication, and taste. The earliest known Chaekgeori screens date to the late eighteenth century, a time of peace and stability after the destructive
Manchurian and Japanese invasions of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With increased prosperity art patrons and scholars could once again relish the accoutrements of a genteel life. This type of painting continued to enjoy popularity through the mid-twentieth century.

Korean Scholar’s Screen (detail), 1930–45. Ink and color on paper, 67 ½ x 160 in. Purchased with funds from the Thomas T. Solley Endowed Fund for Asian Art, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2018.1

The word Chaekgeori literally means “books and things,” and books, which are displayed in towering stacks on every panel, are certainly the most prominent and important motif in such paintings. Perhaps some of the books here are the Confucian Classics, which all respectable scholars would own and consult. But other objects also populate the screen: fine ceramics, writing brushes, exotic flowers and fruits, butterflies, carp, Buddha’s hand citron, pomegranates, and images of cranes, all of which reference the long-standing vocabulary of wealth and auspicious symbols representing prosperity, longevity, and fecundity.

There are also references to a larger world beyond the boundaries of Asia represented by the inclusion of the round, black eyeglass in the left-most screen. While smoky quartz or glass had been used by the Chinese at an early date to shield their faces and vision, proper eyeglasses were not imported to China until the sixteenth century. Eyeglasses in the East and West are associated with the scholar. Also of note are the Western-style rulers stuck in the brush pots in the two right-most panels. All the objects represented in the screen are not only artifacts of refinement but also of their owner’s worldliness since many of them were priceless imports from China and Japan and, to a lesser degree, the West.

The origins of this kind of genre painting are obscure, but the assemblage of objects and recent scholarship indicate that the ideas are drawn from both the long-established Chinese tradition of paintings referencing the scholar’s study and recently introduced ideas from the West such as antiquarian collecting.

Judith A. Stubbs, PhD
Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

Alumni Spotlight: Andrew Wang

Andrew Wang photo
Andrew Wang

After graduating from Indiana University with a Master of Arts in art history in 2017 and serving as a graduate assistant at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Andrew Wang has completed a Kress Fellowship at Yale University and has accepted a new position as Instructional Design Librarian at the Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota, Florida. We recently caught up with Andrew to hear more about his experiences at IU and after.

1. Tell us a little bit about your experience at IU and specifically the Eskenazi Museum of Art.

I was the graduate assistant to Jenny McComas, Curator of European and American Art, from 2014 to 2017. I worked on a wide variety of projects during those three years, including regular maintenance of curatorial files and electronic records for the museum’s collections. I also assisted MFA students with the installation of their thesis exhibitions and curated special installations in the galleries.

I saw the museum transform dramatically in just a few short years. Jenny executed a major reinstallation in the first floor gallery, we migrated our data to a new collections management system, the museum was renamed, and David Brenneman joined as the new director.

I worked at the Fine Arts Library throughout my graduate program in the art history department as well, so I practically lived in the building.

Andrew Wang discusses the legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades at a Noon Talk in 2017.  Photo: Doug Paul Case

2. What was your experience at Yale like?

The Kress Fellowship in Art Librarianship at Yale allowed me to pursue my own independent projects with the support and guidance of leading professionals in the field. I created visual indexes for the Visual Resources Collection, managed a digital exhibition, and designed a user study for Yale’s art history department. I also provided research consultations for students, instructed classes on research methods and information literacy, oversaw the Haas Arts Library’s social media platforms, and organized the annual Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon and rotating thematic book displays. I spent most of my time working at the Arts Library, but I spent one day a week at the Center for British Art so I could gain experience working in a museum library. At the center I conducted a collection analysis project to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Reference Library’s holdings. The center is involved with so many groundbreaking projects, like the International Image Interoperability Framework.

3. Did you spend much time at the Yale University Art Gallery? How does it compare to the museum here at IU?

I took almost everyone who visited me in New Haven to the Art Gallery, so I ended up spending a lot of time there. Their permanent collection is encyclopedic in scope, like the Eskenazi Museum’s, and the galleries are organized similarly. I think Yale’s Art Gallery has exceptional strengths in its contemporary collection, with works by Gerhard Richter, Barkley L. Hendricks, and Kerry James Marshall, to name a few. They also have Marcel Duchamp’s last painting on canvas, Tu m’, which I loved seeing since Jenny and I had co-curated a special installation in celebration of the centennial of Duchamp’s Fountain. Yale has a larger infrastructure and staff, but the Eskenazi Museum has a competitive collection.

4. Tell us about your new job at the Ringling College of Art + Design.

My new position at Ringling College of Art + Design is Instructional Design Librarian. I was surprised by how much I really loved teaching and conducting research consultations during my time at Yale, and this new position at the Ringling will allow me to focus primarily on those aspects of librarianship. In collaboration with another Instructional Design Librarian (who also happens to be an IU alum!), I will be teaching undergraduate art students how to conduct research and about critical information/visual literacy. In this position I hope to continue to develop public speaking skills while bringing a fresh perspective to library instruction. I want to introduce more engaging activities and relatable analogies to help students take advantage of the resources offered at an academic institution. At the very least, I want students to understand their own agency in their research process and to feel more comfortable approaching librarians for help. I was attracted to this position because the director of the library at the Ringling, Kristina Keogh, was my former supervisor at the IU Fine Arts Library. She encouraged me to pursue so many professional development opportunities as a student, and I always loved working with her. I always said that it would be a dream-come-true scenario to work with her again.

5. How did your experience at IU and the art museum prepare you for post-graduation?

I can’t thank Jenny and the museum’s registrar, Anita Bracalente, enough for the opportunities they gave me at the museum. Working at the museum gave me such a well-rounded perspective on how to serve patrons as an art librarian. I feel as though I have a particularly nuanced understanding of what my patrons need, whether they’re conducting provenance research or just starting to browse the available literature on a new subject. Getting to work so closely with TMS, the museum’s collection management system, helped me better understand metadata standards, which is crucial for efficiently managing projects that are related to digital collections. The Yale Center for British Art also uses TMS, so I felt confident diving straight into my work there.

I think my curatorial experience helped me stand out as a candidate for the Kress Fellowship. At IU I had curated a special installation about Josef Albers’s pedagogy while he was an instructor at Yale, so I had a unique understanding of his legacy in the School of Art’s curricula. Also, working closely with MFA students provided me the opportunity to understand a variety of working processes. I’m especially grateful that Jenny trusted me to work with them.

6. What do you miss about IU and Bloomington the most?

I miss the B-Line/Clear Creek trail and how easy it was to bike everywhere! I made a lot of close friends while I was there, so I plan to visit as soon as I have time. I also find myself craving food from the Owlery and Rainbow Bakery.

7. Are there any areas of research that you are interested in exploring in the future?

I’d like to continue researching queer theory and underground subcultures, but I’m also starting to read more about critical and feminist pedagogy. Right now, I’m working on an essay about comics, their history of censorship, and their current place in academic libraries. My reading list is never-ending, so I’m not sure where my research will take me in the future.

8. Anything else that you would like to add?

I just want to reiterate my thanks to the staff at the museum who supported me throughout grad school. With the relocation of the Fine Arts Library, the renovations at the museum, and the relocation of both the art history and information and library science departments, I might not see the IU I knew as a student when I get the chance to visit in the future, but at least I know that I have a fantastic network of friends, colleagues, and mentors in Bloomington.

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

Recent Acquisition: 17.7.215 (2) by Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter (German, b. 1932). 17.7.2015 (2), 2015. Oil on chromogenic color print, 4 1/4 x 6 in. Museum purchase with funds from David and Martha Moore; Burton and Suzanne Borgelt in honor of Linda Watson; the Elisabeth P. Myers Art Acquisition Endowment; and the Estate of Herman B Wells via the Joseph Granville and Anna Bernice Wells Memorial Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.82

The internationally recognized painter Gerhard Richter has consistently defied expectations of what one should paint and how. In the early 1960s, Richter gained notoriety with his blurry paintings based on smeared photographs. Never one to be pigeonholed by a single theme or style, he created images of color charts, monochromatic works, glass constructions, and abstract pictures executed with a squeegee. Richter even experimented with painting over his “failed” gray paintings with colorful streaks of paint.

In 1986, he began a series of overpainted photographs. By combining the implied realism of the photographic image, historically considered the most factual of all media, with abstract gestures, Richter raises questions about the nature of representation. As he said, “Abstract pictures…make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.” In this small, unique work, the juxtaposition of the thick impasto paint with a color photo of a forest taken by the artist leads us to draw our own inferences and to read the multicolor brushstrokes as floral, fungi, or ferns. Although the painting blocks almost two-thirds of the photograph, to Richter each element is equally important.

Nan Brewer
Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

Announcing the Sara and Bob LeBien Arts-based Wellness Pilot Program

Photo by Kevin Montague

This year, our education department is launching the Sara and Bob LeBien Arts-based Wellness Pilot Program, which will connect children who have suffered from neglect or abuse with the healing and educational power of art. As part of this program, our education department staff will expand to include a certified art therapist.

About the Program:
Guided by an art therapist, children who have suffered from abuse or neglect will make art and look at works from the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection in the Learning Lab and galleries. They will be immersed in the creative process for self-expression, stress reduction, healing, and learning. The children’s studio work will be connected to experiences in the galleries for opportunities to validate the child’s expressions, emotions, and self-efficacy. Gallery and studio experiences will help the child form positive bonds with other children, the art therapist, and the cultures, artists, and ideas represented in the galleries.

Photo by Kevin Montague

Why Art Therapy? Why at the Museum?
Making art is natural for children. Expressing through art mediums, like drawing, painting, or forming clay, is an accessible form of communication for children that is easier than spoken language. Artmaking fosters emotional development that bolsters cognitive, social, and physical advancement. For children who have suffered trauma, it is a powerful tool for expressing emotions or sharing experiences that may be difficult to articulate with words. If left unexpressed, these emotions and experiences can become a major barrier for overall educational development. For example, being mad or sad is not always easy to describe with words, but a child can put these emotions into a drawing, which can be the starting point for communication and healing. This reflective and expressive process leads the child to a better understanding of her/his feelings and thoughts.

Cognitive, social, and physical development also emerge when children experience the arts. Artmaking advances the development of motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and muscle control. Through artmaking, children naturally encounter cognitive complexities, such as cause and effect, or imagined and real. In their interaction with the arts, children have to make choices that have visual consequences, which, in connection with their body’s actions, is a highly efficient route to learning new concepts. Through talking about works of art, children learn critical thinking and looking skills; build vocabulary; and discover ways to reason in evidence, ask questions, and seek answers.

Photo by Kevin Montague

These kinds of complex thinking experiences, which connect the mind with the body’s senses, positively impact the brain’s neural connections. Conversely, research suggests that experiencing trauma has significant negative impacts on neural connections for children. For example, the number of times a child experiences the flight or fright release of chemicals directly impacts their wiring for learning, essentially weakening the structure upon which all learning relies. Experiences with the arts require problem-solving and brain activity that build a stronger physical learning structure. Studies show that both artmaking and looking at art reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and they can also increase endorphins, which combat the ill effects of stress. By pairing our newly renovated museum galleries and new education center with the practices of art therapy we can study the impact of a museum-based art therapy program for children. We think this has potential to change children’s lives, both directly through our program, but also as a model for other art museums.

I most sincerely thank Bob LeBien for his gift to pilot this program. If you are interested in learning more or would like to help support this program, please contact me at hdavis2@iu.edu.

Heidi Davis-Soylu
Lucienne M. Glaubinger Director of Education

This article was originally printed in the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art’s magazine. If you would like to receive print copies of our magazine, sign up for our mailing list HERE.

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

Recent Gifts: The Melion and Clum Japanese Ceramic and Print Collection

Charger. Japanese, 1912–26. Manufactured by Fukagawa Koransha. Porcelain with overglazed enamel decoration. Gift of Drs. Walter S. Melion and John M. Clum, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.160
Recently, the museum received a wonderful collection of approximately 100 Japanese ceramics and 22 prints, many of them triptychs, donated by Professors Walter Melion and John Clum. The collection is stunning in the quality, beauty, and presence of each print and ceramic.

CERAMICS

The ceramic collection was begun by Hans Melion (Walter’s father), who was born in Vienna during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph (r. 1848–1916). From a family of collectors, Hans began acquiring Japanese ceramics in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Forced to flee Vienna in 1940, he migrated east, first to Shanghai then Manila, where he was befriended by a community of Anglican missionaries, including a woman named Nellie McKim whose father had been the Anglican bishop of Tokyo. Nellie, a great admirer of Japanese ceramics, encouraged Hans to rebuild his collection and he continued to do so after moving to San Francisco in the 1960s. The Melion collection centers on decorative ceramics that were produced in Japan between the 1880s and 1930s, with a preference for Imari and Kutani pieces. Hans was a connoisseur of underglaze and overglaze techniques, and he was sensitive to the relationship between a pot’s shape and its painted decoration. When he died in the late 1990s, Hans left a bequest of funds to fill gaps (works by unrepresented Imari factories and workshops) in the collection.

Terminology used to describe and distinguish various types of ceramics during this period is often confusing. The most common descriptors are kiln, family, and place names and sometimes these overlap. For example, Imari ceramics are also called Arita or Kakeimon ceramics. Arita is a town located in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island whose principle economic and artistic activity is devoted to the production of high-end overglaze ceramics. Imari is the port from which porcelain was shipped to other parts of Japan and the West. Sometimes these ceramics are identified as Kakeimon after the name of the seventeenth-century potter Sakaida Kakeimon who perfected the technique of overglaze enamel decoration. His kiln was near the town of Arita. Kutani is another place name also located in Kyushu near the city of Kanazawa. But, with a long history of production there are several types of Kutani ware, which are differentiated by age and decorative technique.

Japanese ceramics. Gifts of Drs. Walter S. Melion and John M. Clum, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.148, 2017.173, 2017.125, 2017.124, 2017.146

The collection brings together some of the finest examples of Japanese ceramics created during this window of time and specificity of place. Many pieces in the collection were produced by the Fukugawa family factory in Arita. It makes high-quality ceramics decorated with exquisite detail and technical perfection that are fit, quite literally, for an emperor. The Fukugawa factory has been the purveyor of Japanese ceramics to the imperial family since 1910.

Unusually, the collection also includes many pairs of ceramics. It is hard enough to find one piece in pristine condition, so imagine the difficulty of finding two! The entire collection is of the highest quality, and the addition of these marvelous ceramics enriches our holdings in immeasurable ways. Future guests to the museum can look forward to seeing a rotating selection in the galleries, and they will likely come away impressed and delighted by these masterpieces of Japanese art.

PRINTS

In describing the origins of their wonderful print collection, John Clum and Walter Melion recall, “One day in a gallery in London about thirty years ago we got the bug and began buying Japanese woodblock prints.” The first was by Hiroshige, but John’s interest soon focused on Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), especially his series 100 Phases of the Moon (1885–92), and Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912), an underappreciated artist recommended by Bruce Coates, who was writing the definitive book on the artist. The purchase of many other prints, particularly diptychs and triptychs, followed.

Both artists’ careers span the decades when Japan was emerging from about 250 years of self-imposed isolation. However, each of them reacted to their changing world in very different ways. Yoshitoshi, although interested in modernization and Westernization, increasingly focused on traditions of the past while Chikanobu emphatically embraced and documented the world around him. The majority of the prints in this gift are by Chikanobu, with a few by his close, but less well-known, contemporaries. Chikanobu’s life spanned the end of the Edo period (1615–1868) and the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912), a time of social unrest, encroachment by Western powers (notably the United States), and the modernization of every aspect of Japanese life, from education and the economy to the electrification of the cities and the writing of a constitution.

Toyohara Chikanobu (Japanese, 1838-1912). Singing By the Plum Garden, 1887. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Gift of Walter S. Melion and John M. Clum, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.201 A-C

In his prints, Chikanobu addressed contemporary life, from images of the Sino-Japanese War to changing fashions. In Singing by the Plum Garden (1887) we see the two worlds of old and new Japan in counter balance. The subject of the print is an evening’s entertainment: Empress Shōken, her son, and her attending ladies enjoy a concert. The Western and modern elements are obvious—the piano and Western dress, chairs, and architecture—but less apparent is the new idea of producing an image of the royal family,  something previously forbidden. The more traditional aspects of Japanese life are found in the setting and the pastime of plum blossom viewing, an activity that has deep roots in the Japanese past.

Toyohara Chikanobu (Japanese, 1838–1912). Saigo’s Final Battle at Shiroyama (Shiroyama Oshingeki Saigo Kessen no zu), 1877. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 13 ¾ x 9 15/16 in. each. Gift of Drs. Walter S. Melion and John M. Clum, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.215 A–C
Chikanobu also designed more familiar-looking battle scenes such as

Saigo’s Final Battle at Shiroyama (Shiroyama Oshingeki Saigo Kessen no zu) (1877). Although following the compositional layout of traditional samurai battle scenes, this print also has a modern twist. The scene depicts the famous and near contemporaneous battle of Shiroyama that took place in September 1877 between the rebellious samurai of Satsuma province and the imperial army (seen on the right). The defeat of the Satsuma samurai by a conscripted Japanese army effectively ended the samurai class.

Through these two examples we can see not only Chikanobu’s masterful design sense but also how much he was a man of his times. He straddled two worlds and two narratives but made them seamless. Chikanobu was indeed a master of his medium, and with this gift, we are fortunate to showcase his talent.

Judith A Stubbs. PhD

Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

John Himmelfarb: A Chicago-based Artist’s IU Connections

John Himmelfarb’s Toward the River in construction at IU Central Stores ceramic studio, 2010.

By Nan Brewer, Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper

Although born and raised in the Chicago area (where he currently resides) and educated at Harvard University, the artist John Himmelfarb (b. 1946) has a deep fondness for Indiana University.

In the late 1980s, Himmelfarb was invited to produce a print at Echo Press, a fine arts press associated with IU and founded by IU fine arts professor Rudy Pozzatti and master printer David Keister (who he’d worked with earlier on one of his first lithographs at Landfall Press in Chicago). Himmelfarb created a large-scale combination print with the assistance of Pozzatti and printer Dave Calkins.

The artist lost touch with IU until 2009, when his friend Stephen Mueller donated a major painting from Himmelfarb’s ongoing Truck series to the Eskenazi Museum of Art (then the Indiana University Art Museum) in memory of Mueller’s parents. Mueller recalled seeing the painting shortly after its completion in the artist’s studio: “It was a stunning first encounter and I continue to be surprised with every viewing. I would like my parents to be associated with a work that can provide others with a similar experience.… My father, who was an artist himself, would have called it a painter’s painting with all of the excitement in full view for the general public.” (Editor’s Note: This painting has indeed inspired many visitors to our museum, read a great story about the impact this painting had on a young student HERE.)

This gift encouraged Himmelfarb to make a return visit to Bloomington in 2010 where he met IU ceramics professor Malcolm Smith. After hearing about Himmelfarb’s interest in making large-scale clay truck sculptures, Smith invited him to come back the following year for an artist-in-residency and the museum asked him to present a Noon Talk, “Mad Dogs and Rust Buckets” on his work in the collection. Not only did students get a chance to work with an accomplished professional artist, but Himmelfarb was also able to undertake a monumental project that required more technical expertise and numerous assistants. The resulting piece, Toward the River (28½ x 38 x 83½ in.), unfortunately did not survive glazing and re-firing back in Chicago. Himmelfarb recently remarked, “I should really try to remake it, as it was something I liked a lot.” So you never know—he may be back to try again.

Realizing that the Eskenazi Museum of Art lacked examples of his other favorite subjects—based in calligraphic marks and hieroglyphic symbols—Himmelfarb encouraged collectors Stan Ries and Aline Hill-Ries to give two of his prints produced at UNO Print Workshop, and Nell and Paul Schneider to donate a beautiful mixed media drawing. More recently, Himmelfarb’s sister gave a complex pen and ink drawing that provides a deeper understanding of his earlier stylistic progression.

When documentarian Elizabeth Brackett began to make a short film on Himmelfarb’s career, the artist suggested the film crew go to Bloomington and shoot a segment in the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s works-on-paper storage room with Nan Brewer, the museum’s Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper.

Watch the video below:

Here are six works by John Himmelfarb in the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection.

John Himmelfarb (American, b.1946). Untitled (2-24-77), 1977. Black ink on Japanese paper. Sheet: 20 ½ x 31 3/4 in. (52.1 x 80.6 cm). Gift of Susan Himmelfarb, IU Eskenazi Museum of Art 2013.169

When a Harvard professor encouraged Himmelfarb to consider art as a career, he jumped in with a vengeance. As if he could not draw fast enough, Himmelfarb crammed his compositions with a myriad of details until his landscapes moved beyond representation into the realm of surrealism and non-objectivity. In this image animal-like creatures (fish, birds, and reptiles) peak out between vegetative forms, but the work is really about line and pattern. An earlier precedent for this type of fantasy mixed with linear abstraction can be found in Paul Klee’s etching Garden of Pleasure. Himmelfarb recalls that he grew up with books on Klee.

Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879–1940). Garden of Pleasure (Garten der Leidenschaft), 1913. Etching on paper. Image: 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. (8.9 x 14 cm). IU Eskenazi Museum of Art 75.2.2

Acknowledging a kind of automatism in his drawing technique, Himmelfarb said, “I get a little nervous when narrative element becomes too important and the investment in medium and process becomes less so. There is always a tug-of-war between content and abstraction, narrative and form.”

 

 

 

John Himmelfarb (American, b. 1946). Serena Lane Meeting, 1988. Color sugar-lift aquatint and relief flat on white Arches Cover paper. Image: 19 1/2 x 37 1/2 in. (49.5 x 95.3 cm). Echo Press Archive, IU Eskenazi Museum of Art 90.48.1

A multi-talented painter, sculptor, ceramist, and printmaker, Himmelfarb often works on an idea in a range of media over a period of years. Such is the case with this print (named after the artist’s then two-year-old daughter and Serena Lane in Bloomington, where master printer David Keister lived), which began in 1982 as a series of giant brush drawings. All of the works in the Meeting series feature a pair of grotesque heads (often accompanied by a snarling dog).

Despite the aggressive demeanor of the print’s protagonists—accentuated by the short, choppy black lines and fiery red-orange color—it was meant to represent confrontation and resolution. As such, the twining plant separating the faces might be construed as a divider or as a peace offering—an olive branch of sorts. The artist also saw the image as a psychological self-portrait with the frontal visage representing the integrated individual, while the face in profile and dog suggest competing inner voices. A lover of word play, Himmelfarb also enjoyed the title’s ironic pun on serenity.

John Himmelfarb (American, b. 1946). Quibble, 2000. Graphite and acrylic on pink paper. Sheet: 27 3/8 x 19 1/8 in. (69.5 x 48.6 cm). Gift from the collection of Nell and Paul Schneider, IU Eskenazi Museum of Art 2013.168

Himmelfarb has long been fascinated with the visual power of words and symbols. This drawing consists of a series of calligraphic shapes loosely based on Chinese or Korean seal script characters. The letters work together to form an “ideographic sequence” in seven horizontal lines with an empty space at the bottom that suggests room for a response. Even the title, Quibble, suggests a play on words or a pun. Within each letter is tiny written text in a vertical orientation with all capital letters and no punctuation. Although it is in English and readable, it remains a kind of insider’s joke on the condition of the art world and, thus, serves primarily as a textural contrast. The pinkish paper tone takes on an almost flesh-like appearance, transmuting the letters into cartoonish people or creatures, further referencing ideograms, pictograms, and hieroglyphs.

 

John Himmelfarb (American, b. 1946). Zklee, 2003-2004. Color aquatint and etching on Kitakata Chiri Large paper. Sheet: 23 3/4 x 35 3/4 in. (60.3 x 90.8 cm). Gift of Stan Ries and Aline Hill-Ries, Eskenazi Museum of Art 2010.99

Like fragments of a ceramic vessel, the shapes against this red claylike background long to be reconfigured into some sort of narrative. Figures follow visually from one shard into another. There are letters and recognizable pop culture references such as a Dick Tracy comic (by way of a Roy Lichtenstein work), as well as cartoonish, grotesque figures reminiscent of Chicago Imagist artists like Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum. Although Himmelfarb moved back to Chicago in 1968, his work has never been associated with midwestern groups like the Hairy Who or Monster Roster, although his playful—and sometimes irreverent—imagery has natural affinities. Like them, he embraced the figurative with a raw energy, rather than a Pop artist’s cool. There are other little homages to his favorite artists, including Klee, as suggested by the print’s title, which sounds like giclée (zhee-KLAY), a computer printing process developed in the 1980s.

John Himmelfarb (American, b. 1946). Xtra Xtra, 2003-2004. Color sugar-lift aquatint, aquatint, and etching on Rives BFK tan paper. Image/sheet: 24 x 20 in. (61 x 50.8 cm). Gift of Stan Ries and Aline Hill-Ries, IU Eskenazi Museum of Art 2010.100

Through the use of brown and white inks on tan paper and the implied irregular edge of a tattered manuscript fragment against a black background, Himmelfarb suggests an ancient text. Since his freshman days at Harvard, when he invented his own pictorial alphabet, Himmelfarb has been fascinated by how people use markmaking to convey information. But what is this image trying to tell us? Is it a newspaper extra from some sort of distant or alien world? It reads like a puzzle with tile-like game pieces, letters, and numbers, but like all of Himmelfarb’s icons it remains mysterious and unfathomable. Himmelfarb began looking at the exterior contours of such images and making flat sculptures based purely on their form.

 

 

John Himmelfarb (American, b. 1946). Forbearance, 2009 Acrylic on canvas 54 x 76 in. (137.2 x 193.0 cm) Gift of Stephen Mueller in memory of Karl and Tanny Mueller, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2009.65

“Since 2003, Himmelfarb has created a body of work focused on the image of the truck. Explaining his fascination with trucks, he has said, “There’s just something about them that’s so easy to anthropomorphize.…They’ve got personality, a soul.”

Himmelfarb’s parents were artists, and they introduced him at a young age to postwar European painting. The spontaneity and directness in the work of these postwar painters—including Art Brut pioneer Jean Dubuffet and CoBrA members Pierre Alechinsky and Karel Appel—made a strong impression on Himmelfarb.

Jean Dubuffet (French, 1901–1985) Business Lunch (Dejeuner d’affaires), 1946 Oil and sand on canvas 35 x 45 1/2 in. (88.8 x 115.5 cm) Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry R. Hope, IU Eskenazi Museum of Art 69.157

The tension between representation and abstraction in Dubuffet’s work, as well as his gestural spontaneity, finds echoes in much of Himmelfarb’s oeuvre. The latter’s work, too, is characterized by its balance of painterliness and draftsmanship. Forbearance’s impastoed surface and vigorous brushwork are tempered by its calligraphic, linear pattering. Subtle hints of red, green, and blue soften the boldly black and white composition.”
(This entry excerpted from Curator of European and American Art Jenny McComas’s cover story in Indiana University Art Museum newsletter, November & December 2009).

 

 

You can learn more about John Himmelfarb on his website.

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website