Artist Himmelfarb returns to Omaha via new ‘vehicle’ at MAMby Janet L. Farber
Artists from outside Omaha have always had a presence in the local art scene. They help to keep the artistic landscape varied and lively, enhancing the conversation about how regional artists partake of a national or even international dialogue. Some of these “carpetbaggers” are shown but once, while others become returning favorites.
Among the latter, Chicago-based artist John Himmelfarb has been exhibiting his lively, retro-modernist flavored paintings, prints and drawings in Omaha for so long that he's no longer thought of as an outsider, but more like a visiting relative who never truly outstays his welcome. It is with anticipation that the nationally recognized artist rolls into Modern Arts Midtown with his latest works in tow: John Himmelfarb: Paintings and Sculpture runs from October 2-27, with an opening event on October 5 from 6-8pm.
Even fans familiar with Himmelfarb's art will be pleasantly surprised by new works featured in the exhibition. For about the last nine years, Himmelfarb has centered his work around a new motif: the truck. Also driving his creative impulses is a swing to the three dimensional; small and large scale sculptures are additionally highlighted here.
For those frequent travelers in Omaha's art circles, it's a given that there are merely one or two degrees of separation between participants. That Himmelfarb's orbit came to interweave local collectors, Gallery 72, UNO, and the (then) Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery was predestined.
It began with the friendship that his mother-in-law had established as a college student with Omaha native Kop Ramsey, a connection that continued through their adult years and passed over time and equally by chance through their respective daughters. At the time, the young artist Himmelfarb was expanding his out-of-town patron network by showing his work in other people's homes, and was invited by his friends to bring this experience to Omaha.
After several successful private events in the early 1970s, his hosts introduced him to Bob Rogers, proprietor of Gallery 72, who along with his wife, Roberta, had made it their mission to bring in a variety of national and international contemporary arts to what was then a limited gallery scene. Himmelfarb had his first solo show there in 1979, a heady prelude to his solo debut in New York. He quickly became a favorite and was featured there a dozen times through 2008 before Rogers’ retirement.
He was also introduced early on to Norman Geske, who exercised his affinity for Himmelfarb's ink drawings with an exhibition at Sheldon. He's been an artist in residence at UNO and a visiting artist at Joslyn; public works of art can be seen adorning the exteriors of Conestoga Elementary and the Omaha Public Schools Teacher Administrative Center. It seems fair to conclude that anyone who has not seen his work in the area has not been paying attention.
The truck as a motif in the current exhibition is rich in visual, cultural and economic associations. These omnipresent, hulking beasts of burden take on relic-like qualities in Himmelfarb's art through his characteristically jaunty linear rhythms, bright color palette and lively anthropomorphism.
His route to this vehicle was more circuitous, as can be seen in strongly calligraphic drawings such as “Say Some Words.” This elegant ink on paper has columns of ciphers that hint at a legible text of unknown dialect. It is in fact Himmelfarb's invented language of gestures and figures, whose rhythms dance delicately across the page. Such works metamorphosed into more hieroglyphic pieces, including the bronze relief “Wax Eloquent,” in which symbols seem to tell a story; they are Himmelfarb's Rosetta Stone.
For an artist who works along the edge of abstraction and figuration, this is natural, comfortable territory. Why shouldn't a distinct abstract form, perhaps in connection with other such shapes, be capable of communicating ideas, information, emotions and the like in the same way as fully representational art? For example, there's no specific reason that a stop sign must be red and octagonal, but through years of repetition, it is a convention that is understood globally by sight, regardless of any word printed on it. And by inventing and playing with shapes and forms, somehow the truck popped into Himmelfarb's view and became a recurring icon.
He used the opportunity of an artist's residency at the Kohler company, the international maker of bath and kitchen fixtures, to cast a series of trucks in bronze. These craggy, lumpy works seem to describe both the molten nature of their casting and the heavy industrial lugs that they represent. Though reasonably small in scale, they are dense and massive and gloriously imperfect. They bear weighty titles, such as “Fortitude” or “Fidelity,” all assigned after their making and in response to a sense of the human qualities they communicate.
Lighter, even joyous in spirit, are Himmelfarb’s wood sculptures “Blue Motive” and “The Road to Herron.” They are constructions of jigsawed pieces of plywood to which woodcuts or silkscreen prints have been adhered. Almost immediately, they call to mind the wooden toys of childhood and the happiness of play. That they are brightly colored and rendered with an intentionally naive charm makes them even more attractive. And do not miss their big brother, “The Road Ahead Leaves a Trail Behind,” a large orange work in steel, on the plaza outside Modern Arts Midtown.
Himmelfarb's paintings are, in a manner related to the Kohler trucks, more expressionistic and, like his drawings, emphasize the movement of line as well as form. “Dug In” is an energetic exercise in continuous line drawing; deep violet lines of paint fill the blue canvas from edge to edge. The truck is not entirely legible in this tangle of twisted form, but can be recognized by its cab and wheels.
Conversely, “Hero” is felicitous, with its truck chugging across a pink landscape, with a red and blue mass of stuff springing out of its bed in every direction like a bad hair day. Himmelfarb's animated drawing and brushwork accentuate the precarious balance of its cargo. It partakes equally of cartoon animation as it does, say, of early twentieth century Fauve painting.
It's hard to be disconnected from Himmelfarb's work. It contains imagery that is so familiar and speaks about the ways we work, the materials we use (and discard), and the sturdy motion of labor. It looks back, often nostalgically, at grand old machinery, as well as trying to bring the past into the present by revisiting aspects of Modernism to find the life remaining in its approach to picture making. It's a journey Himmelfarb is making; if there's room in the cab, the viewer is welcome to hitch a ride.
The Reader, October 4, 2012
A Circulating Library: John Himmelfarb, Selected Recent Works
The H.F. Johnson Gallery of Art featured the exhibit "A Circulating Library" Sept. 15-Oct. 17, 2009. The exhibit featured selected recent works by Chicago painter, sculptor and printmaker John Himmelfarb. The following essay was written for the exhibit's catalog by Geoffrey Bates. Mr. Bates has worked over 30 years as an arts professional. He is currently director and curator of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University at University Park, Illinois. See the catalog.
By Geoffrey Bates
One of the first views a visitor encounters as they step over a high threshold and enter the raw space that acts as a foyer in John Himmelfarb's Chicago studio building is of a pair of library card catalogue cabinets stacked one upon the other. The grid of 300 drawers stands a little over 10 feet in height. The face of each drawer is 4 x 5 ½ inches and displays a brushed chrome pull and knurled screw-top that signifies the end of a rod which extends back through a small hole at the bottom of the hundreds of cards contained therein. The entire effect is that of a visual matrix that subtly provides an introduction to what one will encounter as one explores this center of creativity.
The carefully crafted cabinets, along with their cards, each of which was individually typewritten by an anonymous library worker, have been made obsolete with the advent of computer technology and the internet. Each card possesses a discrete, abstract summary of the book it represents, and a number which locates it within the three dimensional space of the library building.
Information and imagination have been distilled through research and creativity into a collection of singular works, each represented by a card in the catalogue.
Himmelfarb incorporates these cards into his studio practice. He honors their previous life by recycling them as support for drawings he produces in a stream of consciousness that might: pun on the title of the card's book; use the title as inspiration or, more often than not, disregard the title completely and create an "automatic drawing." They might focus on a formal concern; study another artist's approach to a subject; make a to-do list; or capture that sparkling idea that shows remarkable promise but is just as remarkably fleeting. He notes the day and often the moment they are created, providing a sort of visual diary of this thought-processes and concerns over time. Although the library card drawings do not serve as the bedrock source for his artwork, they are a valuable reference tool for him and assist the viewer in following his restless exploration of form. Occasionally they have been translated "verbatim," if you will, with stunning results (see Borrowed Time (2007), and March 2006 library card drawing Living).
At first glance, it is perhaps surprising that all of the artwork in this exhibition was produced by a single artist. There is no prevailing polemic, no manifesto nailed to the door. The work is consistently outside mainstream approaches to abstraction and figuration. On view are paintings, sculptures, prints, ceramic vases and even tapestries. Many approaches to subject matter are in evidence, but, like volumes in a library, each piece is a carefully considered, discrete work, a distillation of thought carved from decades of experience. Upon closer examination, it is clear that these singular works are united by elements collected in a circulating library of abstraction that the artist has been building, literally, since birth.
It is difficult to write about John Himmelfarb's approach to making art without noting the contribution which his family has played in its development. Both the artist's father, Samuel Himmelfarb (1904-1976) and mother Eleanor (1910-2009) were accomplished artists whose aesthetic was primarily abstract. Samuel attended art school in Milwaukee, then Madison, Wis., supporting himself as a musician.
He found his way to New York City where he took some classes at the Art Students League and gravitated toward work with architectural firms. Eventually the deprivations of the Great Depression in Gotham forced a return to the Midwest. There, he worked through a variety of design-oriented positions before starting his own firm. His timing was good. Corporate America was beginning to realize that it was often cheaper and more efficient to farm out design problems to specialists. He saw the potential for Chicago's growth as a national business convention center at mid-century and successfully positioned his business to take advantage of the many corporate conclaves and trade shows that made the city the center of business entertainment for decades.
The Himmelfarbs continued to paint and exhibit widely. They presented work at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Arts Club, and other exhibition venues throughout the region. They provided what must have been a fertile home life for a young man interested in exploring the arts. Himmelfarb writes, "My dad designed a beautiful house full of art, and it was full of art objects, art books, music, trips to theater, dance, museums." The house was (at the time of its construction) a very contemporary design with an open plan, dedicated studio spaces, and sited on seven heavily wooded acres in Winfield. Young John took advantage of every opportunity to explore the undeveloped region.
Himmelfarb is not a man who "always knew" that making art was his destiny. A college professor encouraged him to commit to an independent study in drawing for a semester. "After a couple of weeks of intense drawing, self directed, the light bulb finally lit!" Once committed, he staked out a difficult position that virtually all of his associates except his parents discouraged — he wouldn't teach, he wouldn't design, he would make his living making art.
This workmanlike approach has served the artist well as he has built an exhibition resume that spans over 87 solo presentations, numerous public and corporate commissions, many artist-in-residence positions, and inclusion in major museums' collections throughout the U.S. and overseas during the past four decades.
Growing up among artists who have made a practical choice to make a living through design and not chosen art as a life-style furnished Himmelfarb with an unpretentious sensibility in his dealings with the world-at-large. Educated at Harvard, he has always shunned irony-laden approaches to expression in favor of an almost blue-collar work ethic whose aesthetic celebrates thought and personal investment. Absent is the affected rebelliousness and signature trademark many artists feel is critical for recognition. Citing the shock of the new as the driving force behind artistic change during the 20th Century, the artist recently commented, "My point being, I suppose, that choosing an approach to art that is firmly based in 'visual language,' refers to and builds on the past, and eschews the pursuit of 'firstness,' is the ultimate rebellion, paradoxically." He rejected a move to New York and has always approached his work with a Midwestern practicality, purchasing a dilapidated 4-story brick building in 1971 and taking a year and a half making it habitable as both work and living space. This prescient move, made to establish financial stability and escape the cycle of gentrification and escalating rents that so often accompany artists’ urban homesteading, later allowed him to buy a building where he now has his studio.
Recently, Himmelfarb's work has moved in several different directions while maintaining contact with basic stylistic signatures.
Many artists find comfort and creative drive through a narrow focus on subject matter or technique. Each of Giorgio Morandi's still life paintings tells a separate truth about form, light, color, paint application, and patience. Josef Albers spent a lifetime parsing the relationships of hue, value, and saturation within a square format. Other artists seek to experience the challenge of unfamiliar media, embracing awkward moments of uncertainty as they discover new truths about their personal aesthetic universe. One of the most fruitful avenues of access to develop an appreciation of John Himmelfarb's work is to concentrate on continuously circulating relationships of fundamental elements over time and across media. The artwork selected for this show represents the disparate approaches to media, yet the consistent aesthetic sensibility, the artist has explored over roughly 10 years as he has enlarged his technical palette.
Himmelfarb has made a career of turning two-dimensional space inside-out and topsy-turvy: drawings so dense with imagery they appear to be calligraphy; calligraphic paintings that balance mark and space in an ambiguous dance of push-and-pull; colorful iconic forms that might be pictographs, could be figurative, might be pure abstraction; matrices of nervous line that are layered with residual forms/shapes from earlier paintings sometimes asserting themselves as foreground and sometimes acting as ghosts of paintings past, pentimenti offering quiet testimony to his persistent search for balance.
Wax Eloquent (2007) provides a clear example of one approach to playing with space. Many of the shapes reflect sources from the "real" world: cannon, trees, dogs, a ship. But the space surrounding each of the forms also creates a dynamic, abstract shape. It is through his close attention to how line and space define form that Himmelfarb’s art achieves its restless movement and continuous, dynamic sense of re-invention.
The Truck Arrives
Himmelfarb began his considered exploration of sculpture by casting iconic pictographic forms in bronze. Echoes of these shapes had been present in his painting since the mid-1970s and are evident in works such as Tool Talk (2001) and Mop (2003).
The resultant sculptures reflect their origin in the artist's continuing interest in calligraphic marks (see Reference, 2008). High Style (2003) appears to be pulled from a Chinese scroll with its crosstrees of bronze enlivened by gestural surface treatment. Party Line (2003) uses a broad curve to imply negative space even as it puns on telephonic history and politics. By the time he arrived at Stretch and Rock Me (both 2003) he was making figuratively abstract objects that successfully activate the space surrounding them while remaining thoroughly flat forms. Leaning in Your Direction, also from 2003, is heavier, both physically and conceptually. The figurative work evokes thoughts of an archaic Northern European figurine with its broad planes, carefully placed holes, and sensitive patina.
Two library card drawings from 2005 seem to indicate a shift in attention toward a quintessentially American subject matter. On July 24, a tow truck appears alone inside a frame of iconic pictographs. And in Paris on July 26, 2005, on a library card for "The Mammals of North America," by E. Raymond Hall, a pencil drawing incorporates arched elements of his Inland Romance series paintings from 2003 as cargo for what may be a firetruck. On the back, the artist has written "at the restaurant near filles di cavaliers 10 PM ONZIEME/ART; 80 RUE Amelot 75011; 0143 38 8525." The definitive nature of his legend affirms the significance of the moment.
Perseverance, a painting from 2006, reflects his blossoming interest in the subject. The wall-sized painting is an energetic accretion of jots, marks, color shapes, and a truck image that seems less of a picture than the result of flotsam coalescing at the surface.
Trucks continue to appear with regularity on library cards throughout the period from 2005 to the present. But it was a fellowship at the Arts in Industry program in Kohler, Wisconsin, during the winter of 2007 that allowed the artist to begin seriously pursuing a three-dimensional approach to this new topic. Immersing himself in the experience, he worked twelve to fifteen-hour days throughout the three month period taking every advantage of the remarkable opportunity and exploring varied approaches to ceramics, welded steel, cast brass, and cast iron.
Greek Opera, Reefer, Prepared and Bird in Hand (all 2007) emerged from this period of wide-ranging creativity. Greek Opera, with its six-foot length, is a hulking, militaristic amalgamation of Humvee and Mesa Verde ruins and is on long term loan to a private collector. Reefer makes reference "to a refrigerated truck, but also to a reef, like you'd find in the ocean," the artist said recently. The organic work, with its drippy, droopy, crusty forms appears to have been dredged from a South Pacific underwater graveyard for World War II relics.
Himmelfarb quickly began to refine and apply his characteristic spatial game to the new medium. The viewer will make out the restless line threading throughout his oeuvre in both Prepared and Bird in Hand. But, Bird in Hand, in particular, announces a familiar, yet freshly articulated, voice.
We immediately recognize the old, beaten-up truck. However, Himmelfarb has once again turned space inside out, or more correctly, abandoned space as we normally experience it and chosen to use the truck icon as a platform for experimenting with layered space and line. It's as if Irene Ryan and Georges Braque got together to design a moving van. Himmelfarb's gesture, his calligraphy, his pictographic shapes and ambiguous space are all there — but now it's 3-D.
A comparison of three recent paintings provides insight into Himmelfarb's general attitude toward art-making. Despite employing different approaches in each work, none are seen as more or less precious than the other.
Much of the artist's attention in the past two years has been spent on exploring and enlarging his understanding of the truck as a subject. 2008's Inventory functions much as Wax Eloquent — a listing of approaches and images that, this time, have to do with trucks. Some are dark on a light ground, some light on a dark ground, some frontal, some side view. Himmelfarb has lifted the lumpy-bumpy surface treatment from the three-dimensional work and deftly transposed it to canvas with a sense of urgency, layering and incorporating the drips and splashes that occurred as he attacked the surface.
Dug In (2008) is more like a blind contour drawing where the student's pencil carefully maintains contact with his page as he draws from the nude without looking at his results. Himmelfarb's line is no less engaged as it rambles across the surface creating luscious shapes and forms that at first glance seem as though they might define familiar cargo, but upon closer examination, dissolve into a loaded brushmark that’s as delicious as Welch's grape jelly.
With Revelation (2009), he combines aspects of Inventory and Dug In to create a work that marries line, shape, and form with content — here the viewer experiences parts of the architectonic load visible in the library card drawing from 2005 and bits and pieces of other Inland Romance paintings, as well.
The time at Kohler casting his fleet of trucks whet Himmelfarb's appetite for challenge. In 2008, he acquired a 1949 International Harvester model KB-1 pickup with the idea in mind that he would create one of these works in the "real world." The viewer's experience of Conversion (2009) shifts through several phases: first, there's the curiosity factor — What is this stuff? Gradually, one begins to pick out automobile grilles, two-man saw blades, farm whatchamacallits, and other obscure pieces of sculptural metal that have been welded and painted in a seemingly helter-skelter fashion. An antique typewriter and 16 mm projector imply the presence of a narrative known only to the artist. Himmelfarb addresses automotive history by making this a lil' Red Pickup.
Finally, as if the viewer's eyes are finally getting used to the dark, the 'art' part of the piece begins to surface. Here are shapes, lines, and gently curved planes which provide subtly graduated value relationships in abstract spatial arrangement. Here are forms and shapes that have iconic meaning and identity in their other lives, lives which have been subsumed in service to the composition at hand. Here is a sculptural realization of many of his painterly ideals. Once again, he's checked out his own book, rewritten it, and presented it anew.
Over the past four decades John Himmelfarb has built a complex and compelling set of approaches to creating abstract works that remain firmly outside mainstream stylistic impulses. While tangling and teasing out iconic images in the language of abstraction in one series, he has incorporated references to real world objects such as plants, buildings, landscapes and trucks in other series of works. His complex vision continues to unfold a rich dialogue of color and theme that, together, form a sumptuous library of recurring, yet freshly resonant, images for the viewer to ponder.
About the author:
Geoffrey Bates has worked over 30 years as an arts professional. He is currently director and curator of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University at University Park, Illinois.
Studying a painting or print by John Himmelfarb is a little like unraveling a sweater; the more you deconstruct it, the less it looks like what it was. His work is tightly constructed, meaningful, and defined by both deep thought and whimsy. Similarly, it is both quirkily conceived and formally perfect. Himmelfarb loves to play, with titles, with concepts, and with materials; the serious business of art rendered light-hearted. For example, take a recent four by eight foot wood cut. Why not? And to make it even more interesting, why not print it on a four by eight foot sheet of wood veneer, then mount it on the back of the block and suspend it like a screen in the middle of a room? - Himmelfarb thinking in its purest form.
Himmelfarb’s pieces are filled with questions, rife with mystery; unknown texts sidle up alongside invented icons and fill whole sheets with imagined dialogue. These visual love letters are testament to his lifelong infatuation with material and form. In his more recent foray into bronze, iron, and aluminum castings, and working with clay, the iconic texts take three-dimensional form that captivate both mind and hand with their wonderfully raw, brut textures and beguiling patinas. What is so intriguing about Himmelfarb’s work is that he seems equally at home in all mediums. He forms a creative question and shows us that there are many roads leading to the answer, all of them valid, and all of them intensely tempting.
Many simultaneous projects dot the cavernous but highly organized studio. Tiny delicate drawings on library cards grid a tabletop, and a twenty-seven foot long, ten foot high, wildly gestural painting stretches the length of the studio like a billboard. There are waxes in the process of becoming bronze castings, and plates in the process of becoming etchings. Each surface holds a work in progress, for Himmelfarb is nothing if not prolific. His commissions are as diverse as his personal work, from cast bronze gates or hand crafted glazed iconic tiles for homes to mural sized public art for airports, libraries and universities, the list goes on and on, and in each case, new territory is charted, an additional medium is learned. Himmelfarb is a scientist and a sponge, a pioneer and a prophet. He experiments, learns, discovers, and generously shares his unique perception of the world.
On my first visit to Himmelfarb’s studio, I was fascinated at the vast quantity of remarkable work that he has created over a lifetime. Yet, as diverse as his art is, there are threads running through it all that stitch it into one unified body; there is no mistaking any of Himmelfarb’s oeuvre for anyone else’s. He is one of a kind, a Renaissance man let loose in a world of art supplies, fearless, maverick, always on to the next thing, yet remaining true to this vision.
Susan Aurinko, Curator, August 2007
A Painting in the Mural Scale: Nonverbal DemonstrationGerald Nordland
Visual art is a nonverbal language, which addresses the mind fully as much as it does the eye. It is both a language and an instrument of expression. It conjures objects and new worlds, and revivifies old ones with surprising vigor and strength, often greater than the novel or the film. The visual arts can shock and stir up lives, suggest new careers and encourage experiment. As Jean Dubuffet would say, “I believe that painting is more difficult than the written word, and a much more rich instrument for the expression of thought.”
John Himmelfarb is a Midwesterner, who comes from a family of artists. Born in Chicago, he was raised in the country near Winfield, Illinois. Both of his parents were painters, and his father also excelled in architectural design, supervising the construction of the family’s remarkable modernist home and studio. Himmelfarb drew and painted as a child and persuaded his father to permit him to work quietly in the studio. During high school he got away from the visual arts. He confronted Latin and French and applied himself to music. He studied piano and violin, and participated in the youth symphony. Early in his Harvard years, he reconciled himself that he would not make a significant addition to music, and he began to look toward other fields. He wanted to make a social contribution, so he entered a pre-architecture program that led into urban planning. During the second half of his junior year, he enrolled in an independent study program in drawing and decided that becoming an artist was his destiny. He later earned an M.A. in Education Arts. With his decision to become an artist, he reconsidered the social utility of art and upgraded its capacity to make life more livable for others.
Himmelfarb has been drawing, painting and making prints for 30 years. His works are included in many private collections and more than 20 museum collections in 13 states, the District of Columbia and four foreign nations. Most observers of the art scene are sensitive to the gradual changes that take place in an artist’s work over time: phases evolve and proliferate; some ideas disappear, only to return later. Himmelfarb’s phases of change can be as short as two or three years or as long as nine or ten, and they sometimes overlap briefly.
His earliest personal work began with densely worked pen and ink drawings, patterned web like markings drawn from daily life, depicting neighborhoods, villages, or entire cities with roads and highways, bridges, houses; various new and outmoded structures, arches and ladders; and people and animals emulsified into an aerial overview. Closely worked sheets as large as 4 by 8 feet have been created- compulsive tapestries of fine-nibbed pen strokes, artfully dispersed patterns of black and white, near- abstractions of elemental drawing.
Himmelfarb accepts the descriptive word automatism to characterize his drawings.
In their making, the artist moves from intuition to realization through a
chain of subjective reactions. On close study, specific images emerge to
be recognized and then fall back into the web as other images take precedence.
In successive phases, quasi-human-animal figures made their appearance; floral
black on white calligraphic works on unsized canvas presented themselves;
a black and white, overloaded boatman showed up and later found a second
stage of life in robust color. Ever-larger human heads, pushed forward out
of a patterned field shared with an animalian figure, obsessed the artist
for nearly a decade. The Non-Objective group derived from the natural patterns
and interactions of trees, shrubbery, earth and rock formations, forming
an important phase. The most recent period, Inland Romance, involves the
superimposition of multiple lattice-screens over an organic ground, establishing
shallow but active space with progressively larger-scale colored lattices
interacting forward and backward in the canvas space.
Himmelfarb’s work is rooted in drawing and mark making. He is skillful without the wish to make it appear so. He draws simply, selecting aspects of our known world. He draws fluently, outlining, hatching- with a steady flow of ideas and transitions, and an overall senses of balance and rhythmic distribution of darks and lights- permitting his forms to spill out into a maze of observation, incident and anecdote, edge-to-edge. With another pen nib, another tool or a Japanese brush, he would find a new gesture and a proper grammar for the marker to produce distinctive things, permitting the tool and the medium to decide the form of the mark and the style of the image. “I get a little nervous when the narrative element becomes too important and the investment in medium and process becomes less so,” he says. “There is always a tug-of-war between content and abstraction, narrative and form.”
The painting grew out of the drawing process and the tension between figuration and abstraction. In an early period he drew on canvas in the same manner as he did on paper, only to systematically paint color into the descriptive forms and areas. His black and white gestural works on unsized canvas were truly large-scaled drawings. The huge human heads- The Meetings series- brought system to an overall pattern in which heads are almost as hidden as they are revealed by a pattern of drawing strokes. The Non-Objective works were expressions of a landscape sensibility, in tension with an abstract esthetic, on a large scale and with clear discipline. The Inland Romance phase takes similar pleasure in form, but pushes it backward in space by means of overlaying lattice-screens, and each is handled in its own distinctive palette, texture and breadth of line.
Himmelfarb acknowledges the influence of two 20th-century European artists: Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) and Pierre Alechinsky (b. 1927). Dubuffet was French, and though drawn to art and painting in his early years, he rejected academic art teaching in Paris, only returning to painting in midlife. He questioned reason and logic, was impatient with museum art and leaned toward the ‘raw art’ of soldier and mental patients. He looked toward the “underground where the sap was much richer.” Alechinsky, born in Brussels, Belgium, trained as a book designer but gave it up to be a painter and printmaker. Alechinksy joined the COBRA group with Jorn, Corneille and Appel in 1949, believing with them in direct expression unguided by intellect, in spontaneous expressionism and unrestrained gestures.
Since Himmelfarb was born in 1946, he did not attend the Dubuffet exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1951-52, nor hear Dubuffet’s famous lecture. His parents did attend those events, and catalogs of the work of Dubuffet, Picasso and Pollock were available at home. Himmelfarb became acquainted early with those sources, finding Dubuffet’s direct and unpretentious way inspiring. Dubuffet has had a wide influence, opening eyes to the arts of savages, ‘primitive art,’ ‘outsider art,’ the art of children and prisoner. His unapologetic directness, experimentation with unorthodox materials and childlike rendering have opened a door to the world, comparable to the influences of Picasso and Paul Klee. Himmelfarb acquired original prints by Alechinsky, whose embrace of spontaneous gestural drawing and deformation in depictions of figures, beasts and animals; coloring-in with paint of linear demarcations; and the use of marginal notations of collateral and supportive drawing have served as motifs in all his media.
It has been 30 years since Himmelfarb established his separate studio, first sought gallery representation, began to have works purchased, found his work included in group shows, and received occasional awards and honors. The odyssey has not been an easy or uneventful one, nor has it developed without risk, chutzpah and enterprise outside the studio. In early years the painter held private showings in his studio for prospective collectors and drove to various cities to hold weekend showings at friends’ homes for selected invitees. He would remove all art, replace it with his own and set out a rack portfolio. Income from these forays helped to maintain home, family and full-time studio practice until the galleries began to show interest. For a period, he made it a practice to write to curators and museum directors in neighboring states, introducing himself and his work. When invited by them to visit, he dropped by with a portfolio and a few paintings to provide a first-hand viewing of his new work, and to remind them of its variety and growth. These ventures have resulted in purchases of prints and drawings, and a few invitations to exhibit paintings within those same museums.
The exhibition of three mural-scale canvases at the William A. Koehnline Gallery, Oakton Community College, is inspired by the artist’s studio practice and the continuing tension between abstraction and figuration in his work. Nathan Harpaz, the Gallery’s curator, was in Himmelfarb’s studio to select works for an exhibition when he first saw a 30-foot canvas, at that time committed to a show in New Zealand. Harpaz inquired whether Himmelfarb would consider painting three canvases on such a scale for the Koehnline show. The two negotiated and Himmelfarb agreed to present three, quite large (12 by 30 feet) canvases, in the process of being painted, in that exhibition.
Two of the works were begun and developed to a point of preliminary satisfaction over a period of weeks. The third canvas, sized and ready to paint, will be untouched at the beginning of the exhibition, but will be developed during the period of the show. As Himmelfarb works on the new canvas, he will periodically re-examine the two earlier compositions. He expects to make adjustments and revisions to them, as he senses the need. In normal circumstances a painting may reach completion in a few days, but it might require many months to be solved, depending upon size and available studio time. The artist will maintain posted office hours at the Koehnline Gallery just as though he were a staff member, coming regularly and working his normal studio day.
This unusual collaboration between artist and the gallery at Oakton Community College makes it possible for students, faculty and local residents of Des Plaines to observe the progress of the three paintings from time to time and to gain an understanding of the visual artist’s creative process. Himmelfarb began the first two canvases in his Chicago studio, working boldly in an expressionist manner, with large brushes and a freer gesture than has been typical of his earlier work. He worked swiftly with strong colors in a rhythmic pattern he devised.
The third painting will relate to the first two canvases and will seek to achieve a unity of attitude, technique, gesture and openness with the others, as might three sections of one musical composition. There will be an openness in these works from the white ground, which is unusual in the artist’s work and which affords a welcome contrast for the strong color. Patterns of working in lattice-screens may recur, as will the constant tension between figuration and abstraction. In following the evolution of the three works, the audience may be perplexed, prompted to question the artist or be surprised by the outcome. Three large, colorful and related paintings will be seen in the process of being realized by on of the most skilled and thoughtful painters now working in the Chicago metropolitan area. Most significantly, observers will have the privilege through this showing to acquire a first-hand insight into the nature of the creative act and the process of improvisation, adjustment and revision which poets, novelists, composers, playwrights and architects face daily in the act of creation. Gaining an insight into one branch of the creative arts is of great utility, since it makes it easier to grasp the issues, efforts, risks and rewards of invention in all the other branches.
The Koehline exhibition is a special event. It is, to some extent, a controversial endeavor: risky and time-consuming for both the Gallery and the artist. Both are being challenged to take full advantage of a fresh situation. The great merit of it rests in its openness to possibilities for the spectators-students, faculty members and greater college public- for expanding awareness, encouraging imaginative risk taking, identifying the spirit of play and improvisation in the creative life, and recognizing that experiments in education can be valuable keys to the future. At the end of the show it is to be expected that a number of skeptical members of the academic community will be unexpectedly inspired by this experience.
Himmelfarb’s commitment to this "on site" painting display is a courageous expression of the confidence gained in his years of studio practice, the poise and experience he has found in posing creative problems for himself and his success in carrying them through to a professional conclusion. He once painted a 60 by 90 inch Meeting period canvas for a bank in Iowa as people looked on, and he conducted an open-studio project in Sioux City, which is somewhat parallel to Oakton. In speaking of the Oakton experiment he said, “Intuitions must be paid attention to, not ignored. One has to listen to them. There will have to be something to see; one has to make decisions and go forward. One can’t stall or ‘put off’. If one goes ‘wrong,’ he will have to be able to catch it, correct it and make it work.”
To many in the lay audience the visual arts are inexplicable. Enormous respect is granted to such venerated overachievers as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, but only specialists have a clear idea of how those artists’ iconic works were conceived and brought to completion. To be sure, there were scattered onlookers when Leonardo painted The Last Supper (1495-97). Raphel was joined by a group of pupils and assistants, as well as attendants and emissaries of Julius II, when he painted and supervised work on The School of Athens (1509-1512). There were both clerical and lay observers of Michelangelo’s prolonged endeavor in the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). Rembrandt’s students learned from his studio directions and demonstrations, but there were few who kept notebooks or records on how the historic milestones were achieved, or troubled to communicate their knowledge to successive generations.
Comparatively, the isolated Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) is better documented, only because of his thoughtful and troubled letters to his brother. In parallel, one can imagine watching Pablo Picasso develop Guernica (1937) or Willem de Kooning’s process in making Excavation (1950), now at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, it was common for public muralists to go about their creative work while citizens queued-up for stamps or to send a parcel. Anton Refregier (1905-79), the Russian American muralist, faced such an audience when he created his controversial murals for San Francisco’s Rinon Annex post office in 1946-48. The mural integrated images from the history of California, including shameful events as well as prideful ones, and some political critics expressed immediate disapproval of the artist’s choices.
In a more recent case Jon Schueler (1916-92), an American painter who divided his last years between New York City and Mallaig, Scotland, was invited to paint an exhibition at the Talbot Rice Art Centre, University of Edinburgh, while visitors looked on. He brought his worktable, paints, brushes, ladders and six canvases into a gallery measuring 50 by 50 feet and proceeded to develop a suite of paintings during August and September 1981. Schueler’s subject matter was drawn form the convulsive and stormy skies of the Western Scottish Highlands, where climatic activity is so tumultuous that the artist’s objective was to record his response to the constant dynamic change in the sky. Visitors followed the progress from the balcony, watching quietly, sometimes discussing matters among themselves and occasionally approaching the artist after hours. Some observers returned often, and others did so as their schedules permitted throughout the two-month period of the event. Powerful and distinctive images appeared in the paintings, then evolved, were revised and brought to completion. In other cases images dissolved and found new form and expression before completion.
The artist’s ‘performance’- in Edinburgh or in Des Plaines- is never an entertainment, but a serious demonstration of belief in an educational principle that cannot be made clear in any other way. Through it the creative process is exposed to a new public in the most honest and forthright manner possible.
1. Jean Dubuffet, "Anticultural Positions,"
a lecture given at the Arts Club of Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 20, 1951. (Xerox
reproduction of the manuscript given by the artist to Maurice E. Culberg,
Dec. 21, 1951.)
2. When asked to list his most rewarding experiences in the arts, Himmelfarb listed: (1-2) the first two of his five, one-man exhibitions at Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York; (3) the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Institute of Arts exhibition because of its broad scope and its inclusion in three other museum exhibitions; (4) the Davenport (Iowa) Art Museum exhibition of all black and white works in drawing, prints and painting; and (5) the Sioux City Art Center (Iowa) exhibition which utilized all three floors and the Guggenheim-like atrium.
3. Interview with John Himmelfarb in his Chicago studio, July 12, 2001.
4. John Schueler, The Sound of Sleat: A Painter's Life. Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau, eds. N.Y.: Picador USA (an imprint of St. Martin's Press), 1999. The dimensions of the six canvases were as follows: two at 18 feet wide; three at 14 feet wide; one at 10 feet wide.
John Himmelfarbs extended commitment to printmaking spans over thirty years. Throughout this time, Himmelfarbs prints serve as a rich journal recording and providing links between the seemingly diverse pictorial investigations of shape and line, image and abstraction, that have preoccupied the artist in both his paintings and drawings.
Himmelfarbs prints from different periods of his career, the early 70s, late 80s, and mid-90s, when juxtaposed display a wide formal and emotional range, from the intricate and meditative, to the bold and galvanic. Yet on closer inspection, they nonetheless disclose a consistent and complex approach to image-making that locates meaning in a series of elusive and playful formal variations of concealment and revelation. What becomes evident is that for this very private artist the complexities of his formal languagelabyrinths of original pictographs, typography, or totemic images are a means of both evoking the richness of life experiences while inserting a measured degree of distance between the viewer and Himmelfarb himself. The artist seeks to immerse the viewer in the diverse dialects of his exotic fabricated languages until the artists identity becomes lost in the resulting cacophony of reverberating echoes that make it impossible to separate constructed myths from personal reality.
Himmelfarbs creative process resembles that of an archeologist working in reverse. Where the archeologist sorts through and separates overlapping layers of civilization in search for scientific clarity, Himmelfarb acts as the evolving civilization itselfamassing its mysteries in the seemingly endless, pieced-together scaffolding of language, architecture, and icons erected on the foundations of previous decay to rebuild the present. The resulting formal characteristics of this conceptual philosophy are images whose compositions flatten space and direct movement from top-to-bottom or side-to-side in the picture plane, rather than front-to-back. As a result, Himmelfarbs images resemble excavation sites where each layer of culture supports the other, physically and symbolically.
A seminal example of this formal approach is March, a black and white lithograph from 1974. In this elegant print, Himmelfarb uses the same weight of contour line throughout the composition to create a dense weave of interlocking geometric and organic shapes that results in a rhythmic, all-over pattern. Himmelfarbs tumbling landscape of shapes is an enigmatic hybrid of objects, figures, buildings, and natural terrain. The shapes individual identities remain anonymous, but communally they imply the multiple relationships and hierarchies of a complex society. Giving the appearance that it has been created with a continuous line, March blends both the intimate detail associated with cartography with the improvisational spontaneity of Surrealist automatic writing. In this print, Himmelfarb suggests that the carrier of meaning lies in the network of relationships between different parts, parts whose identity is often deliberately obscured.
An expressionistic print such as Lava Flow, an etching & aquatint from 1986, surprisingly further investigates the network of arteries and scaffolding of early works. Lava Flow appears to take a small detail from a composition such as March and enlarge it, in the process immersing the viewer inside the hidden image of two grimacing, totemic faces. Dramatically heightening the intensity of his bold, interlaced brushstrokes by printing them in searing red-orange against a black background, Himmelfarb transforms the image through the emotional impact of color. What distinguishes Lava Flow is the fugitive nature of the two faces whose features emerge and disappear in the writhing, glowing channels of vibrant color. Resembling ancient reliefs who have been absorbed into the earths strata over time, Himmelfarbs faces appear to come alive when their crevices are filled with molten magmanature gives rebirth to that which it has previously swallowed up.
The process of concealment is extended to written language by Himmelfarb with meticulous obsession in his alphabet prints from the early 90s. The layered formal vocabulary of pre-historic pictographs and hieroglyphs, where image and idea are fused with multiple, elemental variations of line and shape, have been a source of fascination for the artist since his earliest drawings. Providing a structured, yet open-ended format for his stream of consciousness approach to drawing, the non-verbal language of these invented signs are a successful means for Himmelfarb to build a complex syntax of communication that nonetheless retains its mysteries. Reminiscent of the work of Jasper Johns, Himmelfarbs alphabet works understand the poetic and abstract implications of language to provide not just a linear approach to meaning, but a circular one as well.
In the eight color screen print, Note of Appeal, 93, Himmelfarb critiques the differences between the acts of reading and comprehension. Designed to resemble an official letter of correspondence, the prints vertical composition is organized into an asymmetrical grid, complete with heading, salutation, paragraphs, signature, and official seal. The language of the letter, however, is rendered in an elegant, indecipherable calligraphy of the artists own creation. One reads the letter following its familiar structure, but comprehension does not follow. The seductiveness of Note of Appeal is the hypnotic authority it wields in suggesting that any lack of comprehension lies with the reader. The impenetrability of the letters meaning is emphasized by ghostly impressions of several additional layers of text printed in blue-grays on a pink background, creating the papers subliminal, transparent texture. Himmelfarb implies that real meaning always exists beneath the surface of accepted propriety.
Maintaining the elusive quality imbued in his prints has been the challenge that has preoccupied Himmelfarb throughout his career. This has been made all the more difficult because of the artists commitment to a lean vocabulary of shapes and lines that would seem to leave little opportunity to disguise ones personal meanings. That he has created a resonating language of impenetrable depth from such basic elements reveals his accomplishment as an artist. That he has found the medium of printmaking his most flexible tool in assembling this vocabulary speaks to the continuing importance of prints to the creative development of a distinctive contemporary voice.
An accomplished artist in a full range of graphic mediums, John Himmelfarb has been an active printmaker throughout his career. The mediums diversity is a perfect vehicle for his restless creative energy that fuels his search for meaning in non-western alphabets, ancient hieroglyphs, pictographs and totemic iconography. Himmelfarbs resulting abstractions are evocative gestalts of language, image, and thought.
Himmelfarb has always embraced the Renaissance notion of drawing as an extension of handwriting, closest to recording the immediacy of the artists observations and states of mind; a fusion of verbal and visual language. In his paintings, drawings and prints, recording the various intonations of his hand, (and by association, his thoughts) whether the bold fluidity of thick and thin brushstrokes, the edgy crispness of pencil and pen, or the smeary lushness of pastel and crayon, has been the essence of Himmelfarbs oeuvre; a resonating amalgam of Surrealist automatism, the writing paintings of Abstract Expressionist Mark Tobey, the forceful bluntness of Art Brut, the mythical imagery of the CoBrA artists, and the saturated, emotional color of the Fauves. However, it is the particular nature of the printmaking processes which eliminate the scale and tactility of painting, as well as the palpable nature of Himmelfarbs mixed media drawings, that perhaps provides the clearest guide to the relationship between drawing and language that is the foundation for much of his work.
Whether using lithography, etching, or screen printing, Himmelfarb focuses on several formal and conceptual concerns that have been rich sources for him; 1.) line and contour as a primary formal element that directs movement and delineates space; 2.) manipulation of positive and negative space (field and ground) as articulated by the open and closed forms of his alphabets and symbols; 3.) an interest in the visual structures of languages to organize the pictorial field; 4.) the complex relationships between the signified, signifier and the interpreter that provides a guide to understanding unfamiliar icons, symbols and metasymbols.
One gets lost in the unusual beauty that is evoked in the rigorous discipline of Himmelfarbs private languages. His voice speaks with complete authenticity, though his signs, symbols and icons remain deceptive fabrications. Animal and human pictographs from Neolithic societies, fragments of religious symbols from diverse cultures, the earth drawings from ancient Peru, Asian and Arabic alphabets, are some of the sources suggested by Himmelfarbs obsessively detailed cryptography. Creating compositions that resemble sacred scrolls, lost tablets and fragments of temple facades, Himmelfarb cultivates ones curiosity for arcane languages and cultures whose mysteries remain seductive and elusive.
Himmelfarbs prints can be grouped in several stylistic categories; Rosetta Stones, dense, all over images that fill a composition with horizontal rows of compact pictographs; faux correspondence of letters, notes and invoices written in the artists own language and reminiscent of Leonardos sketchbooks; arterieslarge, overlapping calligraphic images of bold colorresembling the enlarged excavation plans of lost cities; and intimate monochromatic images resembling Jackson Pollocks totemic and mythological figures.
The fluency of execution and the complexity of design that characterize the animated hieroglyphs of several of Himmelfarbs 90s lithographs and screen prints, such as Tabula Tabula Picta,93 and Just Follow These, 98, are an evolution of his quirky and highly detailed grid-based drawings from the early 70s. But, where the units of marks in these earlier drawings never relinquish their abstract design status, the components of Himmelfarbs currents prints have a specificity that assigns them a functionality which elevates their seriousness of intent. Decoding his signs is not as important as the gestalt, or oneness, that is accomplished through the signature of gesture, compositional structure and distinctive pairings of symbols and marks.
The intensity of the screen prints Crinkum and Crankum, both from 97, reveals Himmelfarbs ability to elicit from calligraphy and symbols a timeless sense of place. Composed of a few wide, twisting and overlapping bands of saturated color that continue off the edge of the picture plane, these images, though abstract, have idiosyncrasies in contour and shape that recall the ancient organizational arteries embedded in the ruins of unearthed civilizations. Brought to life again by Himmelfarbs bold use of color and line, these fragments of obsolete boundaries and passageways reveal the indelible physical and spiritual signatures left by anonymous societies.
Prevalent throughout all of Himmelfarbs prints are the dualities that provide the richness to his work; spontaneity against structure, pattern juxtaposed with image, clarity versus indecipherability. With ease he composes with these contradictions, creating documents where language draws rich images for the eye, and images write beautiful, though unspeakable, languages that communicate directly to the soul.
Tracking the Backtracker: John Himmelfarb in the GardenMichael Bonesteel
The wooded area where John Himmelfarb grew up in Winfield, Ill., had a profound effect on the artists work. In that tangle of branches and leavesand critters moving about within itHimmelfarb found a primal source for imagery that would turn up again and again as a leitmotif in his compositions. Whether abstract, figurative or some mysteriously ambiguous place in between, his subject matter continuously threatens to revert back to nature, as if the artist were merely a gardener tending a temporary landscape that might turn wild and savage the minute he turns his back.
Meetings in the Garden is an apt title for the present exhibition, not only because it refers to Himmelfarbs most prominent body of work, but because it really can be applied to the artists entire oeuvre. Long before the two Titans confronted each other and the toothsome hound in the forest, Himmelfarb was creating a variety of pictures with many of the same elements in them: verdant surfaces and, when present, odd, quizzical figures.
Like the aesthetic woodsman that he is, we find him backtracking throughout his career, moving forward into new territory, then retreating to an old trail; blazing that one a bit further, then returning to the first path any number of years later.
What the artist is stalking is generally unknown, even to himself. Early on, his only philosophy was to make a mark and react to it. Today he know a bit more about what he wants to do beforehand, but once he starts (and this, naturally, is true of most artists), hes never quite sure where hell end up.
Upon examining the numerous directions in which Himmelfarb has taken his art, one is struck by the variety of work and the versatility of the artist. Contrary to the laws of the artistic jungle, he refused, as a young artist, to search out and secure a bankable signature style. Instead, he experimented, changed his mind, took up new routes in completely unpredictable ways, exploring one idea after another.
It wasnt until the mid-80s, as the artist approached mid-career, that he coame upon a theme that was to hold and challenge his, by now, virtuosic capabilities. With the Meeting series, he pulled out the stops backtracking over the same fertile terrain, employing the many facets of his skillfacets that may recall his greatest inspirations (expressionism a la Appel, abstract expressionism a la de Kooning, surrealistic classicism a la Picasso, art brut a la Dubuffet), but inspirations recombined and transformed into Himmelfarb originals.
A 1971 lithograph like Ether Ore is basically an orchestrated jumble of doodlings, and yet, however abstract, it appears to be something. Certainly its organic; perhaps a topographical view of a jungle or a slice of mud on a microscope slide. The punning title indicates that it is a precious component of a transcendent dimension. Moving ahead 11 years to an acrylic painting such as Spring Green, we find the artist has developed a more lyrical style and his vocabulary has become richer, more voluptuous. And yet there is the same feeling of looking at essentially nothing that appears to be somethinglike thick tendrils and floppy leaves, maybe. Or maybe just a bunch of non-representational designs.
Looking at two other examples, there is the 1975 four-color lithograph, Home, and the 1988 monoprint, Sunlight Dialogue. Home looks for all the world like an all-over scribble pattern of aimless marks, a sort of compulsive Cy Twombly without a break. Only the occasional and seemingly random appearance of a recognizable imagea face or a housebreaks up the piece. Sunlight Dialogue, executed 13 years later, utilizes a similar approach. Again we have a four-color composition, each color represented by a mark, but here the marks are thicker, more expressionistic. Nothing figurative can be absolutely pinpointed, but with a little imagination, the viewer can easily fabricate a face or some other form out of the controlled thicket of brush strokes.
In both of these comparisons, Himmelfarb has created a contemporary work by backtracking, consciously or unconsciously, to a previous work and picking up where he left off with an approach that is ostensibly abstract, but figuratively teasing.
From 1976 to the early 80s, Himmelfarb experimented with grids in his drawings and prints. The grid idea originally grew out of a need to solve the problem of making large-scale prints in two sections without betraying the dividing line. By breaking up his image into columns or grids, he could disguise the break that divided the piece.
He eventually became so enamored of the grid approach that he began making drawings of densely inscribed bars or rectangle with little or no white space between them. The spaces gradually became more pronounced and, at the same time, the abstract markings within the bars and rectanges began to reveal figurative elements. In a work called Early Riser (1977), he pushed the grid pattern into outright cartoon panelsclosed frames around figurative line drawings. The cartoons dont really tell a story, but certain figurative shapes reappear, sometimes extending into the surrounding panels adjacent to it on all four sides.
In 1979, he made a foray into the realm of bad art with a piece called Where Have I Been?as well as a brief exploration of a spare, almost minimalist approach in a continuous line drawing titled A Peep into the 20th Century. Still, before the year was out, he had backtracked to his dense grid pieces with a work called Elements. He also would backtrack to his bad art phase with Physical (1983), as well as to his spare line drawing approach in Tell Tale Tall Tale (1984).
The year 1982 was a momentous one for Himmelfarb as he settled on several themes that were to occupy him for the rest of the decade. Bone (1982) is a rather remarkable lithograph picturing two figures, presumably a man and a dog. Both are so elaborately decorated with patterns and details in a manner reminiscent of the so-called personnages by the artist Maryan, that it is difficult to decipher, yet its fairly clear that the creature with the gritted square teeth is throwing a bone to the other creature with the sharp, pointed teeth. That same year, he completed Meeting, a brush and ink piece which depicts another man and dog, and the profile of a third figure hidden in the undergrowth. He would later return to these pieces as models for his Meeting series, but first he would complete his Boat Man series begun the previous year.
The Boat Man works are less expressionistic and more cartoonish in execution. They show a man in a boat weighed down by hundreds of personal possessions, to the degree that the boat sinks and, ultimately, so does the man. This rather grim scenario gave way to a more subtle enigmatic one with the Meeting series.
When Himmelfarb backtracked to the Meeting drawing in 1984, he simply felt that it was a strong composition that he wanted to elaborate upon. Like Meeting, Two Heads (1984) contains the same full-faced and profiled heads, plus a dog (and one or two birds). The composition is a little clearer since Himmelfarb dispensed with most of the background foliage. After that, he made September Meeting (1984) which developed the three characters further by giving them the kind of full-lipped, bug-eyed demeanor that they came to possess in later renditions. A slight hint of Picasso is introduced in September Meeting as well: the full-faced figure on the left has a double mouth which is sort of split in half, like Picassos dual profile/full-faced portrait of Marie-Therese Walter (Girl Before Mirror). Moreover, both heads have a kind of man/beast quality, a larger-than-life machismo redolent of Picassos pen and ink drawings of bulls, matadors, horses and women in the 1930s.
With each new Meeting painting, the figures take on added significance. In April Meeting (1985), Himmelfarb includes a rendering of his own hand with a brush working on the scene. As the series continues, the full face looms larger, crowding out the profiled face and dog; or the full face and profile reverse positions (but the dog always faces the profiled face). Sometimes there are two full faces alone or just a full face and a dog. Most recently, the full face has been pictured by itself, but with that curious Picassoesque dual full-face/profile.
Some of the works are very large, such as Giants Meetings (1985). One panoramic piece, Meeting in the Attic (1986), takes up an entire wall. Various mediums are tried: acrylic and oil paintings, monoprints, etchings, woodcuts, even cast bronze reliefs. Midway through the series, black and white are abandoned for a number of daring color experiments. Lava Flow (1986) is an aquatint etching of two heads in red and black that actually resemble rivulets of burning lava against black volcanic ash. Sexuality Meets Aggression (1987), depicting a man and a dog, fairly bursts with manic shapes and high intensity red, yellow and green colors, while the three familar figures in Listening In (1986) are expressed in such calm, cool blues and aquas that it reminds one of an underwater mosaic.
Himmelfarb may have been backtracking over the same ground, but he was doing more than just rearranging figures and adding new colors. The very fiber of his compositions changed year by year. In 1984, figure and foliage are one organic entity, lips are leaves, and eyes are knot-holes. By 1986, the figural forms have hardened into gnarled grains of cracked, aged wood. Then suddenly (with Lava Flow) they become liquid, melting coagulating, waxen and undulating; or (in Listening In) crystalized into chips of inlaid stone. In 1987, the forms catch fire and break into sharp, glassy shards. And so it goes.
What was it about this tableau that obsessed Himmelfarb for so many years? The artist has mentioned an interest in playing around with dualities: black vs. white; figuration vs. abstraction; profile vs. full face; whole personality vs. parts. The dog adds another dualityman vs. beast. If one includes the vegetation, there is a fourth element to contend with. Himmelfarb admits that he tends to identify with the figures and sees them, at least subconsciously, as self-portraits. Some, he confesses, remind him of his father.
The late Samuel Himmelfarb also was an artist. Not unlike his son, Samuel moved between abstraction and figuration in his work. He had a studio on Chicagos Halsted Street and John first began seriously making art in a corner of that studio. They even exhibited together. Johns mother, Eleanor Himmelfarb, is an artist as well. Like both her husbands and sons, her work straddles abstraction and figuration. More telling, her work emphasizes the relationship between man and nature.
Theres no point trying to look for Himmelfarb in his workor for that matter, his parents, the dogs he grew up with, or the woods he roamed in his childhood. Nevertheless, theyre all there. One might just as well search for them in his latest series of abstract works titled, appropriately, Non-Objective. Here the same veil is thrown across the landscape that we encountered in Ether Ore and Spring Green. Nothing is strictly identifiable. Except, of course, the methods of the artist, backtracking in the garden again.
John David Himmelfarb was born June 3, 1946, in Chicago, the only son and second child of Samuel and Eleanor Himmelfarb. The family lived in rural Winfield, Illinois, in a house designed by Sam and strongly influenced by the prairie architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The comparative isolation of this location led John into close contact with nature, and many of his childhood games focused on the plants and animals he found in the woods surrounding his home. The self-reliance that these games provided, and the rich imaginative life they encouraged were to be important in John’s later work as an artist.
Because no public preschool programs were available, Sam and Eleanor Himmelfarb, together with a few of their neighbors, founded a kindergarten called Little Red Wagon. John recalls that the time spent here and his undergraduate years at Harvard were the “only exciting education” he ever received within the formal system. He studied piano and violin, and music was an important part of his life. He attended Michigan’s Interlochen Music Camp with his sister Susan during the summers following his fourth and fifth grades.
The Himmelfarbs lived outside any regular community. The closest school, Gary’s Mill, was a one-room country schoolhouse. After it consolidated, John attended West Chicago elementary schools, and then transferred to Wheaton for high school. Music continued to preoccupy him, and during high school he played violin with the Wheaton College Orchestra, the Dupage Symphony Orchestra and, in his senior year, with the Chicago Youth Symphony. John had no thoughts of becoming an artist, although the visual arts were always a part of his life. Both his mother and father were artists. His mother taught art and his father was a professional painter who also established a commercial design business. Art surrounded John in his home; he met artists who were friends of his parents. When the family traveled, they looked at art in museums and galleries. Drawing was natural to John as a small boy and, at an early age, he began painting regularly with his father every Sunday in his studio. But it never occurred to John to think of the visual arts as a career.
Far from knowing what he wanted to do with his life, he was even reluctant to go on to college because he thought high school was such a waste. (He certainly had no intention of going to a “rich boys’ school out East.”) In his junior year of high school, however, he went to Boston on his way to visit his sister Susan, who was attending Sarah Lawrence. He enjoyed what he saw of the Harvard campus and, when his mother showed him the undergraduate course catalogue, he was intrigued by the vast array of classes that were offered, and by the freedom of the undergraduate curriculum. He decided to apply and was accepted. During his first two years at Harvard, John enjoyed a wide range of classes and continued with his music by playing with the Harvard- Radcliffe Orchestra. He knew he would never be able to be a professional musician, at least of the caliber acceptable to himself, so music remained an important but purely personal interest. Meanwhile, the strong visual presence of the campus itself, as for example in Corbusier’s Arts Center, brought him back to the visual arts.
In his freshman year, John took his first studio course, a two-dimensional design class taught by Albert Alkali; thereafter he took one or two studio classes per semester. But in his junior year John took an independent drawing class and, for the first time as an undergraduate, was able to work on his own art. While he was involved in this independent class something “clicked in” for John and he began to think seriously about becoming an artist.
A mentor for John at this time was Wil Reimann, a sculptor and teacher from whom John had taken a three-dimensional design class. Earlier, Reimann had talked with John about his career plans and asked if he had ever seriously thought of being an artist. It was Reimann who suggested and helped John design the independent study class. Reimann’s interest and confidence in him helped John make the decision to become an artist. After graduation in 1968, John enrolled in the M.A.T program in the School of Education, thinking he would need a job to support his work as an artist. He plunged immediately into team teaching, spending five days a week working in a special summer enrichment program for children at Newton, Massachusetts. Newton served as a lab school for the Harvard School of Education, and John’s day was divided between classroom teaching and graduate education courses.
For the first year of the two-year graduate program, John moved to a sheep farm in Millis, about 25 miles from Boston. He lived in a rent-free cabin in return for keeping an eye on the sheep. In the time he had between sheep-watching and commuting to Boston for classes, he was able to devote himself to making art. His first one-man show in 1969 was at the Millis Public Library, where (not coincidentally) the owner of the sheep farm was Director. The show consisted of the work he completed during his months on the farm.
The second year of the graduate program consisted of a supervised job in a field related to his subject area. John worked for General Learning Corporation in New York City, living with friends in Jamaica Plains for the ten month he was there. On the job he worked in space planning, translating performance requirements for classrooms into specifications for architects. He finished the M.A.T on schedule in 1970.
The year 1970 was important in several ways. In February he met Molly Day, his future wife. In June he left on a trip that took him to Europe, Crete, Turkey, and Tehran. Having decided against teaching in favor of concentrating on art, he cut short his travels to try to establish a studio.
In September he returned to Chicago, where he worked in his parents’ studio. In the fall of 1970 he had his first studio sale. The proceeds allowed him to begin to set up on his own. In December 1971, John and Molly bought a house on 19th Street in Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood. In March 1972 they were married in New York City and, in the year that followed, remodeled the Pilsen house into a combination home and studio.
From the early 1970’s John’s work has received attention and critical acclaim. He has participated in over 60 group exhibitions and has had over 30 one-person shows, an impressive number for an artist his age. In 1979 he received a Yaddo Fellowship, followed by National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1982 and 1985, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 1986. The birth of his children, Forest in 1979 and Serena in 1986, enriched an already sound marriage. Although it may seem that success has come easily for him, the reality is that John has made his reputation with talent and very hard work. He has approached being an artist with the same discipline and focus he was trained to use as a musician. He has deliberately rejected the glitz of the New York art scene in order to develop at his own pace and in his own way in his native Chicago. There is a calm and balance to John’s life. What is remarkable is that there is also an intensity and determination in his artmaking that is unshakable.