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

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Copyright and Mourning: Funerary Art of New Ireland

The island of New Ireland, part of the contemporary nation of Papua New Guinea, is known for its remarkable and varied funerary art forms. The most famous of these is called Malangan, which is practiced by the peoples of northern New Ireland. These ceremonies free the living from obligations to the deceased and allow the spirit of the deceased to move on to the next life. The term Malangan refers both to the ceremony, performances, and feasts that are held to honor the deceased and the art objects that are created for them.

After a person’s death their matrilineal family line is responsible for sponsoring the Malangan celebrations, though other family members and friends can also contribute and honor the dead. These celebrations include both people from within the community and visitors and friends who have traveled to take part. As these celebrations include feasts, performances, and the ceremonial exchange of goods, they are often spread out over months and years. Given the great expense of such a celebration, it is not unusual for the Malangan to take place months to years after the death of an individual or for one celebration to be used to honor several people. Both receiving a Malangan celebration in one’s honor and sponsoring a celebration for another confers status within the community.

Malangan designs, motifs, and forms are often referred to as having “copyrights.” While this does not line up perfectly with the Western use of the term, it is a relatively good way to understand the rules of use connected with them. Only people who have the “rights” to them can use the designs, motifs, and forms, and these rights are owned by specific families as well as by people who have reached certain important stages in life (such as marriage or the birth of a child).

The peoples of southern New Ireland used chalk figures as a part of their memorial rituals. These figures, made by specialist artists in the center of the island, were created for the deceased’s spirit to enter and as a means of guiding that spirit to the afterlife. Once this purpose had been fulfilled the figure itself was destroyed.

There are two other major funerary art forms from New Ireland, which unlike Malangan are no longer practiced. In central New Ireland the Mandak peoples created memorial figures to embody the spirit of the deceased. These figures would commemorate the life of an individual man and were typically displayed as part of a ceremony for skull burial at the end of a yearlong funeral ritual for an important person.

 

Unknown Artist. New Ireland, Northwest area, Papua New Guinea. Memorial Carving in the Form of a Figure. Wood, pigment, fiber, sea snail opercula. Eskenazi Museum of Art 81.17

After the death of a loved one the family of the deceased commissions a sculptor or sculptors to create, over several months, elaborate memorial carvings known as Malangan. In some instances the head of a family may contribute a form or motif to a friend or community leader from another family.

Figures, such as this one, while varying greatly, typically represent an ancestor or mythical entity connected to the single life-giving force. The exact story or explanation of imagery used in a Malangan carving is only understood by the owner of the rights to that Malangan. Even other members of the community would not fully understand a Malangan they did not have the rights to use.

It is believed that during the public display of the figure the ancestor or mythical figure depicted dwells within the form. The final step in the creation of a Malangan figure is the placing of the eyes, which enliven the carving. Once the ceremony is over the figures are destroyed or sold to people outside of the community.

 

Unknown artist. New Ireland, Northwest area, Papua New Guinea. Mask, Tatanua. Wood, pigment, fiber, sea snail opercula. Eskenazi Museum of Art 63.15

In addition to the carvings utilized as part of the Malangan rituals, dances performed for the public were also extremely important. This mask was worn and danced by men and was created to convey manly beauty. The high crest represents a hairstyle worn by young men of the community during mourning. Additionally, the flaring nostrils and open mouth are common features for the form.

While the hairstyle shown is one worn by young men, the subject the mask depicts is not clearly agreed upon. Early reports suggest that the masks are representations of the dead, ancestors who have returned in order to participate in the Malangan. Many New Irelanders today reject this idea and instead believe the masks to be the representations of living people. It is unclear if this early report was mistaken or if people’s interpretation of the masks have changed over time.

These masks, which typically appear at the end of the Malangan rituals, are danced in pairs or groups. These dance performances are often given and paid for by a friend or by family members of the deceased. Unlike the carvings associated with Malangan that are created uniquely for the individual dance, masks are often rented from the sculptor who created them and can be reused in the future.

 

Unknown artist. New Ireland, Southern area, Papua New Guinea. Figure, kulap. Chalk, pigment. Eskenazi Museum of Art 62.67

After the conversion of the peoples of New Ireland to Christianity the practice of chalk figures came to a quick end. The last figures to be made are thought to have been created around 1910.

Before the early twentieth century when a man or woman from a prosperous family passed away a male relative would travel to obtain a chalk figure. These figures were sometimes commissioned, but sometimes pre-made figures were purchased, always with the sex of the figure matching the sex of the deceased.

Once the male relative returned home the figure would be presented to the local leader who was in charge of such images and placed with other figures in a memorial shrine. This shrine, located within an enclosure, was only to be viewed by men, though women often gathered outside to mourn the deceased.

 

Unknown Mandak artist. New Ireland, Central area, Papua New Guinea. Memorial Figure. Wood, pigment, shell, sea snail operculum, fiber. Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 91.498

Visually there are number of connections to the Malangan carvings of northern New Ireland, such as the predominant use of black, white, and red pigments; however, unlike the Malangan memorial carvings, this one would be kept over many years. In fact, whenever a new figure was carved all of the other figures would be brought out and repainted for the occasion.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this type of figure is the presence of both male and female genitalia. It is thought that this may be a representation of the importance of both men and women within the community and as part of the reproductive cycle. However, very little firm evidence is known as these figures have not been created or used in several generations. Also, there are only a few known reports that describe their ceremonial context and these are based on very limited information. What is clear is that these figures were created to represent those who were powerful and important within their community.

Emma Kessler
Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
IU Eskenazi Museum of Art

If you would like to learn more about South Pacific and Oceanic Art visit the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Highlights from the Collection website.

 

Ronald Markman: Remembering the Mastermind of Mukfa

Study for Cityscape II, 1994. Black ink and colored pencil on paper. Echo Press Archive, Eskenazi Museum of Art 95.72.2

 

On May 30, artist and former professor at Indiana University, Ronald Markman, passed away. Below Nan Brewer, Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art reflects on Markman’s career.

In 1962 on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy, Markman saw old maps of Rome by printmakers like Piranesi and was inspired to create his own mythical metropolis. Dubbed Mukfa, which he thought sounded both slightly obscene and sort of lyrical, it became the subject of an on-going series. As Markman later recalled, “Creating a country of my very own, complete with its own heroes, villains, mermaids, newspapers, airlines, and university offered me the freedom I had always sought from art.”

The works’ bright colors and cartoonish style recall the scenic designs of Broadway musicals, comic art, and the Marx Brothers’ movies—all experiences associated with Markman’s childhood in the Bronx. Although he started out with the dream of becoming a cartoonist, Markman continued his studies at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the Art Students’ League on the advice of Saul Steinberg who told him to learn to draw. A stint in the army and subsequent GI bill enabled Markman to attend the Yale School of Fine Arts, where he studied under master colorist Josef Albers and earned a BFA and an MFA. His understanding of color theory garnered Markman a job as a color consultant for Hallmark Cards Co. where he worked for a year after college and would become a central feature of his own creative work.

Turning to painting as his primary medium, Markman also began to teach. After short stints at the University of Florida and the Art Institute of Chicago, he joined the painting faculty at Indiana University in 1964, where he taught until his retirement in 1995. After his retirement and the death of his wife, Barbara, Markman moved to Maryland, in order to be near his only daughter, Ericka. He continued to make art and exhibit his work.

In addition to his many paintings, prints, and drawings, Markman created a series of five wall murals for Riley Hospital in Indianapolis (1986) and a short animated film, Ever Since the Bad Thing Happened (1994). His work is found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, Johnson Museum of Art, and many other institutions.

The Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection includes twenty-two works by this artist. Here is a small sampling.

Cityscape, 1980. Color lithograph with collage on paper. Echo Press Archive, Eskenazi Museum of Art 86.59.1

 

Despite an innate playfulness and naïve, childlike style, there is often a subtle political commentary in Markman’s images. In Cityscape, a print collage created at Bloomington’s Echo Press, a plane crashing into a city, while pursued by the cops, along with the congested skyscrapers, clocks, “eyeball” lamp, and ant-like vehicles, exhort a police state and the inhumanity of totalitarianism. However, speaking about his depictions of evil in the world, Markman said, “I don’t see myself as a mean artist, but I do like to poke fun.”

Garden, 1965. Acrylic on canvas. Museum purchase with funds from the Hope Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art 65.65.1

 

The Eskenazi Museum of Art acquired its first work by the young faculty member a year after he came to IU. Markman’s iconic three-breasted women in this painting suggest the “limits of the nonsensical, the absurd and the subversive” found in his art.

Money, 1962. Etching on paper. Gift of the artist, Eskenazi Museum of Art 68.94.2

 

This print shows the extent to which Markman took his imperial fantasy. The currency represents both sides of an 8 DRAS bill from the Republic of Mukfa.

Still Life with Flowers, 1980. Mixed media assemblage: acrylic paint, wood, plastic, and wicker. Gift of Professor Emeritus Gene Shreve, Eskenazi Museum of Art 2013.165

 

In his later work, Markman began to push the limits of the traditional four-sided canvas by creating painted sculptural reliefs as still life tableaus or hung “rugs.”

For more on Ronald Markman read his recent obituary in the New York Times, or visit Markman’s website.

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website