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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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