Edward M. Gomez
Based in Chicago, John Himmelfarb is another artist for whom abstraction's inherent ambiguity is its own reward. "My interest lies in the pure use of visual language without the baggage of imagery or narrative," he says. As a result, some of his works appear to be primarily essays in expressive mark-making. Others, semi-abstract, are vigorous formal workouts that start with recognizable subjects - a face, an old camera, a swirling sea of everyday objects - whose shapes the artist reduces, contorts, explodes or obscures in rhythmic compositions or distorts with gusto.
Both of Himmelfarb's parents were artists. His father was a regionalist painter who had studied at the Art Students' League in New York; his mother focused on nature and architecture and, after a trip to Asia, produced images based on Arabic writing. "I grew up with books about modern art on the kitchen table," Himmelfarb says. Jean Dubuffet and Mark Tobey are among the major modernists whose work interests him.
Himmelfarb has also been influenced by anthropology and calligraphy. "I respond to different kinds of mark-making systems," he says. Like the epic novelists of the 19th century, he feels an urge to tell big stories through his art but also wants it to remain abstract. If that sounds like a conundrum, for Himmelfarb it also proposes an ambiguity-flavored solution. "Stories require settings," he says, noting that his work may simply be seen as offering "a setting in which something happens." Tiptoeing on the edge of figuration while driven by - and steeped in - an unshakable abstractionist's impulse, Himmelfarb's is an art of imminence and ever-shifting focus.
Head out of town west on Rosa Parks Way and look left, and you’ll spot a curious bit of not-quite-fire-engine red.
Sitting out on the green of the Lincoln Industries campus is a truly unique work, a 1949 International KB-1 pickup truck converted to sanguine sculpture.
The piece, aptly titled “Conversion,” has shovels, picks, pitchforks and other pointy what-have-yous poking out of the truck’s old frame.
In the truck, there’s an 8mm film projector and several 8mm prints of old Mack Sennett comedies. There’s a drop-down screen outside the windshield for any passenger who gets a hankering for some golden-age slapstick.
The work’s artist, John Himmelfarb of Chicago, said he got the idea for the piece when he’d spot utility vehicles piled as high as possible with stuff.
Sometimes all that junk would have this gorgeous composition to it. Using found objects, buckets, trash cans and old scrap, Himmelfarb went looking for beauty in the arrangement of old, mangled metal.
The symbol of trucks has popped up in Himmelfarb’s work for the past 30 years.
“It’s something left over from childhood,” he said. “I’ve just always had a fascination with them.”
There’s just something about them that’s so easy to anthropomorphize, he said. They’ve got a personality, a soul.
“It’s kind of like how some kids relate to Transformers,” he said. “I tend to see trucks as characters.”
Marc LeBaron, chairman and CEO of Lincoln Industries, and his wife, Kathy, bought the piece, so Himmelfarb brought “Conversion” to Lincoln early last week. Here, he gave it a few final touches before heading back to Chicago, where he’ll get back to work on his next projects.
And many of them will involve trucks.
Reach Micah Mertes at 473-7395 or email@example.com.
In his tenth New York show, including works of three decades, Chicago artist John Himmelfarb showcased what he does so well: schematic mark-making that suggests different image languages and systems of thought. Indeed, the show's title, "John Himmelfarb: Ideographic Sequence," prepared the viewer for a series of highly abstracted visual idioms whose intelligence constitutes a large part of their charm. The results of his investigations into calligraphic abstraction are remarkably varied, both imagistically and in terms of materials - Himmelfarb works with pencil, acrylic and ink, as well as printmaking and sculpting in aluminum and bronze. And while the results do not necessarily look alike, it is clear that Himmelfarb has a unifying theme, in which the ideograms demand to be read as a language even as they are experienced as pictures.
In the acrylic-on-linen Gooze on Oakley (1995), three large ideographs, more or less resembling Chinese characters, are painted in gray outlined with bright orange. The background is a crowded mélange of blue and black abstract strokes, which may also be seen through the small openings in the ideographs themselves. Treading a line between abstraction and figuration, the three forms might easily be read as two figures and a head. The acrylic-on-canvas Inland Romance: Getting Through the City (2004) consists of black gestures on top of lighter colors - orange and slate blue predominate. Here the influence of Abstract Expressionism comes into view, as well as the schematic vernacular of German artist A.R. Penck, with whom Himmelfarb shares a restless intelligence if not stylistic symmetry. These two paintings underscore Himmelfarb's search for a vocabulary that would do justice to urban experience in all its complexity and drive.
Some of the more overtly calligraphic pieces, such as the ink-on-paper works Townsend (Roslyn Place), of 2002, and 5/30/79 (1979), resonate as exquisite studies of gesture; in 5/30/79 he has written his marks in horizontal rows, plainly establishing the existence of a text, no matter how abstract its language. The relatively large (50 by 34 inches) acrylic-on-canvas Poem of Prospero (1998) plays with what might be seen as Korean or Chinese seal script; large ideographs are arranged in rough rows over a field of busier brushstrokes. Finally, the small sculpture Proposal (10 by 10½ inches), from 2003, represents in bronze what might be two pictographs joined in the middle or, read more as an image, one person proposing to another, seemingly on bended knee. The ambiguity of the piece's formal relations, at once figurative and abstract, gives a remarkable allure.
Mike Pocius, Lumpen Magazine Art Critic
The work of John Himmelfarb has a frank openness and approach-ability that will engage the most inflexible audience. His colors and stroke disarm the please centers and wit grips the intellect. The abstract paintings capture us in a web of entanglements. The paintings display a youthful agility which can be disconcerting to some, with its carefree attitude, and conceal his deft cleverness and graphic abilities. Some of his works, particularly, his sculpture and tapestries feature a kind of invented alphabet akin to Chinese calligraphy imbued with his own personal symbolism. John also does loose figurative work extremely penurious of line and detail. The paintings feature toy-like vehicles quick of shape and execution, anchored to a most abstracted background. His style and temperament at times reminds one of Raoui Dufy, but still an original of his own time and design.
Volume 17, Issue 1
John Himmelfarb's exhibition at FLATFILE galleries is said to be the first the veteran Chicago artist shows examples of all the media he works in. It presents, then, paintings, prints, works on paper, tapestries, ceramics and bronzes that indicate the development of a language that has proven remarkably adaptable.
Central to this language is a veritable "alphabet" of forms that seems derived from hieroglyphs or Asian calligraphy. Some of these forms look more representational than others, seeming to depict such objects as a cup, boat or grenade. But others are purely abstract, and it is the combination, with each black "letter" set in colored geometric or biomorphic surrounds, that builds up the widest variety of works in a way that is distinctly personal. The sculptures of individual glyphs are as successful as more elaborate tapestries and paintings.
Himmelfarb also shows paintings that have an all-over pattern reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. These sometimes suggest landscapes, both urban and rural. Skeins of color have been set down in a dense overlay that suggests a rawness counterbalancing the order of the "alphabet" works. But these paintings do not declare themselves as personally as the others. Their antecedents are clearer, whereas Himmelfarb's signature works occupy the more interesting position of seeming to have few antecedents and no followers.
At 217 N. Carpenter St., 312-491-1190.
John Himmelfarb: Long OverdueMatt Freedman
John Himmelfarb has papered the Phyllis Stigliano Gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn with some 200 small images drawn on old library catalog cards. This casual deployment of casual work allows us to look in (listen in?) on the artist talking to himself, working fast and playing loose with ideas and impulses, producing objects that are once utterly complete statements and also tantalizing ephemera of pure (re)search.
There is something self sufficient and essential to observe in these pieces. What is displayed is a statement of the artist's core principles that could perhaps only be made in these unguarded moments. The ideas presented in works of greater visual formality may gain persuasive authority through their association with a fully realized synthetic reality, but by the same token the very craftsmanship of that artistic seduction places us at a calculated distance from mind and heart of the creator. Which is why the transparency and contingency of these quick small studies is so beguiling. We are invited to travel deeper into the artist's head than he normally allows us to go and to see, if not another world, then this one through alternate eyes.
But we are not merely-only-looking at sketches. Himmelfarb intends for us to understand the card drawings as ends in themselves. He wants us to see this playful meta-dialogue as the essence of his practice. The play is the thing, not the production. The artist, however, is slyly having it both ways: While Himmelfarb's cards announce their presence as the effluvia of a winsome and active imagination, their collective appearance on a gallery wall reifies the imaginative play that produced them in the first place. The mass of cards is impressive and overwhelming; a respectable and "traditional" work of art in its own right. Collectively, the cards provoke an emotional and esthetic response that individually they shy away from.
This paradoxical melding of the self-effacing and the grand, the deliberately modest and the deceptively ambitious nicely personifies one of the many bracing tensions in Himmelfarb's art. Bipartite themes run throughout the artist's extensive and diverse body of work, as does the impulse to string stuff together, to utilize connections and contingencies as animating agents. Himmelfarb constantly fragments and connects as he doodles his way into massive murals, cartoons his way into pathos, layers whimsy and flippancy into Bosch-like complexity, hilarity and terror. All the while, the artist keeps his poker face and plugs relentlessly away with a studio practice that emphasizes, unfashionably enough, substance over style.
The initial and perhaps lasting impression is of a mind - a mind gently unhitched to conventional flows of logic and propriety perhaps, but a comprehensibly analytic mind nonetheless - whose work is play. Everywhere in the room we are reminded of the inductive and sequential process of the artistic imagination at work, a process Himmelfarb himself subtly pushes upon us as a theme in his practice as important as the actual images that he generates. In the library catalog cards, the linkage of idea to image is largely spatial and schematic. Sometimes, the artist plays off of the content of the cards for inspiration; a word or a theme or a name on the card inspires a drawing, but, just as likely, he responds to the layout of the text itself on the card. The dispersal of black type against white space creates limits for drawings and, sometimes a formation of type, like a cloud, inspires an image on its own. Each card is a separate planet, close but no cigar to the next one over. Within each card we are taken on a delicate little safari, each one inspired by some tenuous ephemeral impression.
It is interesting that Himmelfarb regards the drawings as something akin to diary entries; they are highly responsive, not just to the graphic or narrative qualities of the cards they occupy, but to work of other artists or writers he is encountering; sometimes they are simply drawn from life. They are done away from the studio mostly, and they serve the artist as true mementos, reminders of experiences instantly distilled into line. Collectively, the effect of all these little report cards is quite overwhelming. The wall shifts from small scale to large, a tour de force of imaginative suppleness.
But if the collective presence of the cards somehow legitimizes them as respectable artistic endeavor rather than a series of inspired doodles, so, too, does their massed presence threaten to fool us into assuming that any mind producing so much must operate according to an obsessive structure. We must remind ourselves of the gentle playfulness that produced each little picture. Think, perhaps, of those old pictures of annual food intake of the typical American family, so popular in the self-congratulatory 1950's. Four small people in a warehouse filled with hundreds of roasted chickens, gallons of chocolate milk and tons of Rice Krispies. We ate all that? Yes, but not all at once. The accumulation of any quotidian exercise is formidable over time; seeing it all at once is overwhelming but perhaps misleading: things, inevitably, add up.
At the core of Himmelfarb's playful practice is the idea of noble work; art making labor as a sort of joyous, de-frocked priestly activity that is both its own reward and the path to esthetic and spiritual enlightenment.
Matt Freedman is an artist and writer
living in Queens, New York.
The exhibition is accompanied by a small catalog/book featuring the above text and life-sized reproductions of Himmelfarb's drawings. Price: About $40.
For information: Phyllis Stigliano Gallery
62 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11217 USA
Telephone: 718 638.0659
More than 35 years into a career devoted to painting and drawing, veteran Chicago artist John Himmelfarb is enjoying something of a personal renaissance. Suddenly his works seem to be everywhere.
His dizzying schedule over the span of two months includes the installation of two monumental paintings at Boston's Logan Airport, the opening of four solo exhibitions in Chicago and New York and the unveiling of his recently completed ceramic-tile mural at the Kedzie Station on the CTA's Blue Line. By the end of 2005 Hudson Hills Press will have published a catalogue raisonne of his prints.
Chicago viewers have the chance to check out two local Himmelfarb exhibitions, one at the Robert T. Wright Community Gallery of Art at the College of Lake County (CLC) in Grayslake and another at the Jean Albano Gallery in Chicago's River North (recently reviewed by Tribune art critic Alan Artner).
Such far-flung exposure befits an artist whose works reflect an ongoing infatuation with abundance in their subject matter, style and media. Himmelfarb's artworks at the CLC and Albano exhibitions fall into two general categories: larger acrylic paintings (roughly 4 1/2-by-12 feet) that burst with irrepressible, edgy lines and bright color, and smaller paintings, drawings and prints from his "Icon" series that present against a rich, black background what seems to be a complete, encapsulated pictographic language that invites interpretation.
"One of the strengths of John's work is his incredible creativity and imagination in mark-making," observes Debora Wood, senior curator at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. "He can use almost any media to advance his vision, in his prints, drawings, paintings and in his more recent tile work."
"I think of John as a draftsman first and foremost," adds Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. "He has this ability to synthesize a lot of different things, including anthropological and archeological forms. . . . He also borrows heavily from his delight with the world."
Much of that delight focuses on Chicago, in particular the industrial landscape surrounding his studio on the near South Side. Echoes of the city's hard-edged forms show up in the Kedzie Station installation and in his larger, abstracted landscapes, whose titles often refer to specific Chicago neighborhoods that Himmelfarb explored as a young man. In paintings such as "Canaryville" in the CLC exhibition, for example, one can discern the shape of a ladder and the form of a sculpture by Juan Miro emerging from the jumble of jagged lines and fields of color.
"Form for me is never something abstract. It is always a token of something I've seen," Himmelfarb explains. "The descriptive part is a way of generating forms. In the end, if it's not recognizable that's not my primary concern. To start something new I have to be thinking of things in the world. If I just try to be gestural I don't get very far."
The son of two painters who took part in the evolution of modernist art in Chicago, Himmelfarb grew up in the woods of Winfield. He recalls the household being fixated on Abstract Expressionism, which he emulated in his work. He was also interested in Art Brut and later adopted Pop Art's use of flat color. He went on to study architecture and design at Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's in education.
Even as Himmelfarb's work refers to major 20th Century art movements, much of it has a childlike, playful quality to it, making it accessible to the novice viewer. This expansive approach mirrors his attitude toward life. "I want my art to show a thankfulness for just being here. I think there's a human need to be thankful for being alive," Himmelfarb says. "A celebration of life is what I'm trying to share, which doesn't mean life is all roses," he adds with a wry smile.
John Himmelfarb: Recent Paintings and Prints
When: Through April 10
Where: Robert T. Wright Community Gallery of Art, College of Lake County, 19351 W. Washington St., Grayslake
Price: Free; 847-543-2000
When: Through March 26
Where: Jean Albano Gallery, 215 W. Superior St.
Price: Free; 312-440-0770
John Himmelfarb's recent paintings, drawings and prints at the Jean Albano Gallery present two distinct manners, both successful in terms of optical sensation, but one more pronouncedly individual than the other. Himmelfarb's larger canvases are all landscapes, brilliantly colored and set down in layer upon layer of linear notations. The effect is decidedly expressionistic but relaxed, doodle-like and upbeat rather than anguished. They might be homages to French Fauve painting of a century ago or the primitivism of a later artist such as Karel Appel. They give the eye a workout.
Smaller paintings, drawings and prints float biomorphic shapes on a field of black. In each shape is a single mark akin to a pictograph from some prehistoric language. The forms suggest more than they depict, and this allusiveness beautifully conveys a sense of wonder. One wants to add them up into coherent verbal statements, though of course we cannot. One of Himmelfarb's drawings is more detailed, including within each biomorph little representational scenes rather than abstract or semiabstract shapes. This higher degree of specificity, however, involves a loss of mystery without having achieved added clarity. I much prefer the small, comparatively stark, paintings in what the artist calls his "Icon" series. They are as satisfying as anything Himmelfarb has exhibited.
Contact Jean Albano Gallery, 215 W. Superior St., through March 26. 312-440-0770.
Wall to Wall: John HimmelfarbMatthew Rose
If you were at the Koehnline Gallery in Oakton College, in Des Plaines, Illinois on the 6th of September, 2001 you would have walked into a large space carrying your cocktail and noticed two big canvases by John Himmelfarb, and a third canvas, 11 1/3 feet by 25 feet-- completely blank. A few minutes later, a man mounted a ladder and began to punctuate this empty field with blue vertical stripes.
This was Himmelfarb’s first real public act of performance painting. Although the artist performed a large scale public performance painting in the 1980s inside the Toy Bank in Sioux City, Iowa, the Oakton Circle canvas, a tremendous effusion of color and shape, was set up to put the painter directly on the stage of art making. But it was hardly a gimmick. Five days later, with the September 11th attacks numbing the American population, to do anything creative seemed an act of defiance. On the 18th of September, when Himmelfarb continued working on the piece- and continued to perform for the public, most visitors saw in his work a reaction to the September 11th attacks.
Working two days a week until the 26th of October when the show came down (and Himmelfarb completed the work), the bulk of comments by visitors, students, curators and other artists centered on the emotionalism of the work, and how it was one American artist’s take on the world, now that America was deemed vulnerable, and living its life with its very open wound.
Himmelfarb’s most recent live giant painting project at Indiana University Northwest in Gary was called John Himmelfarb Wall to Wall, and ran from September 25 through October 25 2002. The canvas, a 9-foot by 65-foot monster, was installed and primed on September 30, with the painting completed on Oct. 15.
Chicago-based Himmelfarb is no stranger to highly charged emotional painting; he’s been working at it since he graduated from Harvard in 1968. His main subject might in fact be fear, or at least the complexity made from it. I remember a small print of his called Doctor’s Visit. Here a small boy, rendered in a child-like scrawl visibly flips out at the sight of a hypodermic needle. The lines, like many of his works, are scraggly, nervous and yet highly controlled. The larger works, contain the same drama of the line, reaching out for the far edges of the canvas or paper, never quite ending. Fear is like that as well.
The artist, now a well-known quantity throughout the Midwest and New York has been painting the emotional chutes and ladders of his life on the planet for more than thirty-four years. For years, Himmelfarb loaded his truck with paintings for shows in small university towns few artists with his pedigree and exhibition history had even heard of, let alone visited. Himmelfarb would often hang a show, spend a day or two as artist in residence, lecturing and speaking one-on-one with students, and in general making himself available to the community. But his workaday habits have quietly grown, as have the sizes of his canvases. With two NEA grants, and two Pollock-Krasner grants (the most recent awarded this year), the artist is producing ever larger canvases, an admitted heroic attempt to “put everything into the painting.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, John Himmelfarb has pursued the often lonely métier of painter. He shares with Pierre Alechinksy, Franz Kline and to some extent Jackson Pollock a belief in the act of painting, and the line as formal device to achieve expressive conditions. He’s fond of quoting Paul Klee’s remark about “taking a line for a walk.” Indeed working as large as he is these days, one literally has to walk up to and around his paintings. The immersion is physical. Himmelfarb’s lines, overlapping in color and neurotically racing to describe a wide assortment of beasts. These are of course, the beasts that are within us. And it is no wonder Himmelfarb needs more and more canvas to fit them all.
Himmelfarb is also a master printer. Thirty of his most recent prints are on view at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster Indiana through November 24 and will begin at the Christopher Gallery at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Illinois, December 12- January 23, and continues at the Valparaiso University School of Law in Valparaiso Indiana in February. Himmelfarb’s exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Christchurch New Zealand opens in September 2003.
American BeautyChristopher Moore, Art Critic/Writer
John Himmelfarbs paintings hurl themselves from the wall with a loose-limbed, exuberant, cock-eyed American happiness which demands attention.
Theres nothing reclusive or broodingly Calvinist about Himmelfarbs art. There are instead visual references to improvisational jazz, overhead railways, and stained glass. Above all there is colour - eye-trapping panoramas of the stuff, rich tapestries and luminous shards of joyous paint.
These are paintings that cause spontaneous smiles on the faces of the most jaded of gallery visitors raised on a diet of sombre introspection and contemporary angst. At 54, John Himmelfarb is firmly established as one of the world's foremost contemporary American abstract expressionists.
The painter is in Christchurch for an exhibition of his work at the Centre of Contemporary Art, one of the rare occasions when contemporary American art has been shown in New Zealand. Its exciting. Im at a very happy phase of my career right now," he says. Ive realised that I can do this after trying for 30 years but never quite having the vocabulary. Himmelfarb is the antithesis of his paintings, a quietly spoken Mid-Westerner with a laconic sense of humour, a keen eye, and a personality with instant reminders of Jimmy Stewart at his most charmingly diffident.
Last week, CoCA filled with 300 guests for the opening of the Himmelfarb exhibition. For many, American Graffiti was an entirely new experience. Most eyes gravitated to the focus of the exhibition, Inland Romance: Nino Rota in Chicago 2001. As a work of art, this could never be described as virginally demure. This is up-front, in-your-face and sock em in the eye stuff. Measuring 3.65m by 9.14m, the acrylic on canvas is a pyrotechnical display painted in his Chicago studio, says Himmelfarb, using two ladders and an extension pole adapted to fit brushes. As he clambered up and down, he was accompanied by Rotas score for the Fellini film Juliet of the Spirits, music which always reminds me of the circus.
Working ProofSeptember/October 2001
John Himmelfarb, Uzzle (2001) (fig.12), an etching and woodcut in an edition of 30, 25 of which are Arabic numbered and five Roman numbered, plus three artist’s proofs. It measures 24x20 in. and was printed on Rives Buff paper by Gary Day at the UNO Print Workshop at the University of Nebraska Press, Omaha. For years, John Himmelfarb has been fascinated with writing, both with its variety of character and the way it can move the eye through a composition. Often his imaginary hieroglyphs proceed along fairly orderly lines, unified by whatever gesture he establishes at the top left. This print, however, recalls the irregular, engraved stones of ancient civilizations: a pile, in fact, of brown (woodcut) interlocking stones (the puzzle of the title) with an irregular border, each section of which is etched (in white, red, and black) with a variety of images: stick figures, spaceships, plant forms, architectural vignettes, even an ink bottle and envelope, as if to underscore the linguistic content. The etching is mainly in black with some red characters (following these, says the artist, is one way of moving through the piece), and, for the first time, the artist’s name is part of the composition in this red, with the final “b” on the back of a tiny envelope. The woodcut is the ground, printed in a brown ink that transforms to beige over the greenish paper; around the border is a black aquatint, a graininess that adds a nighttime quality.
Working ProofMay/June 2000
John Himmelfarb, Astronomer (1999) (not illustrated), an etching with sugar lift and aquatint in an edition of 40 plus four artist’s proofs. It measures 12x10 in. (paper) and 7-7/8x5-7/8 in. (image) and was printed on Arches Cover White paper by Jessica Gormula-Colvin assisted by Jessica Benjamin, Richard Finch, Mike Hornyak, and Veda Rives at Normal Editions Workshop at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. John Himmelfarb has completed a number of small-scale prints over the past few years at Normal Editions, and all are worth a look. Like the others, this one crowds faces and shapes into dense, trippy composition. Deep blue ink creates a thick, pooling line that does an optical seesaw with a mustard-yellow ground. Very Art Brut in feeling.
Paul Klee was once quoted describing his approach to his work as that of an active line on a walk, moving freely, without a goal. A walk for walks sake. This quote is appropriate for describing John Himmelfarbs drawings, paintings, and graphic work.
An established Chicago-based artist whose work is represented in major museum collections around the world, this was, surprisingly, his first solo exhibition in Chicago since 1988, providing local audiences the opportunity to experience the exuberance and complexity of a mature artists accomplishments in multiple media.
Himmelfarbs works suggest several sources of imaginationthe formal rawness of the Art Brut and CoBrA movements; the improvisational spirit of automatism; the magical properties of hieroglyphs and totemschanneled into a rich personal vocabulary. Line has always been Himmelfarbs signature formal element and remains so. Bold contours are applied with both speed and deliberateness in his paintings, drawings, prints, and ceramics to articulate figure from ground, and, of special importance, to create and direct movement. His diverse body bgcolor="#ffffff" of work is unified by an acute sense for orchestrating a continuous rhythm in his compositions. The tempo of each work is carefully dictated through juxtapositions of several weights of line, whose application varies from the delicate, pencil-fine loops of handwritten notations to the bold, paint-dripping boundaries of a three-inch band.
Inland Romance: Passage Blue Island is a tactile, acrylic painting of dense, interlocking shapes and a snaking lattice-work of lines whose colorful patchwork geometry resembles the abstract and irregular plan of a mythic European city. Overlapping arteries of pale greens and faded blues unite and separate mosaics of yellow, steel blue, and dull red. The compact and dense topography leaves no breathing room as large and small shapes, organic and geometric, strain in an animated restlessness against the boundaries of the canvas.
The density of Inland Romance: Passage Blue Island contrasts the open compositions of Himmelfarbs risk-laden works on paper, which provide a greater viewing challenge and reward. In works such as Xplosion of Transport and Xit Treble Clef, a raw and improvised surface is actually achieved through Himmelfarbs intuitive understanding of the critical placement of each delicate doodle, meandering scribble, and bold contour that define the color and texture of these edgy black-and-white works.
Himmelfarbs successful works have always encouraged one to experience them as a tapestry describing a journey. Guiding us through both enigmatic and familiar landmarks, a sense of order prevails as one understands that Himmelfarbs confident line will aid us in maintaining our direction. Through his work, we are reminded that the journey is often more important than the destination.
Oak Park artist John Himmelfarbs show at the Jean Albano Gallery presents his use of varied mediapaint, drawing, lithography and ceramicsand ability to work abstractly and representationally. The urban landscape and musical rhythms inspire many of his patterns.
The large acrylic paintings Inland Romance: Passage Blue Island and Inland Romance: Chicago Breaks, are frenetically filled in with vibrant colors. Herefore The Only Answer Had Been, another mixed media on canvas, looks like giant jigsaw pieces fussily decorated with the artists personal alphabet. The pieces float against a serene white background, adding a calming influence to the cacophony.
Most interesting is 21 Days in Spain, a group of 21 3-by-5-inch drawings and paintings of city scenes, animals, still lifes and purely imaginative designs done on library catalog cards when Himmelfarb spent 21 days last summer in Gallifa, north of Barcelona. He made one artwork each day.
Himmelfarb has left intact the words of Library of Congress, the holes to place the cards in a file and some typed words. He gives us some information but not a complete book, in the same way that postcards tell a bit about a travelers journey but cant replace the actual trip.
John Himmelfarb (Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.): The veteran Chicago artist long has been interested in a kind of abstract mark-making that resembles calligraphy, and his prints and drawings built from layers of such writing are successful enough to tempt viewers into attempts at translation.
Here he has presented such data in the familiar form of bills, receipts and business letters, which encourage the idea that they convey precise meanings and are not just a visual language derived from ancient alphabets and the calligraphic fantasies of masters such as Paul Klee.
Himmelfarbs paintings are, by contrast, based on representational forms found in the urban landscape, such as arches, ladders and bridges. But these, too, he piles on top of each other until they lose their specific references and become elements in a densely packed composition that evokes, by turns, paintings by the German Expressionists and the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet.
In his prints, drawings and paintings Himmelfarb occasionally will magnify some of his calligraphic forms and heavily outline them on a field of multiple patterns. The paintings, with thick impasto and lyrical drips, successfully evoke works by Abstract Expressionist artists such as Franz Kline.
The Print Collector’s NewsletterVol. XXV, No.2
John Himmelfarb, Tabula Tabula Picta (1993), a black and white lithograph signed and numbered by the artist in an edition of 24. Each print is 40x25 in. and was printed on Rives BFK paper by Veda Rives with assistants at Normal Editions Workshop/Illinois State University in Normal. Himmelfarb wrote on a lined aluminum plate with a technical pen filled with diluted lithographic etch. This plate was first used as “a low-level subtext,” printed in pale orange, for a 1992 print, Proof Copy. The plate was then processed so the etch would not take ink and printed in black for a negative image. Himmelfarb seems most pleased with Proof Copy, “a letter to my master printer with a deconstructed text” that is heavy on puns. But sometimes less is more as with Tabula Tabula Picta.
The Print Collector’s NewsletterVol. XXIV, No.1
John Himmelfarb, Juggler and Juggler on Stage (1992), two screenprints signed and numbered by the artist, Juggler in an edition of 11 with the two artist’s proofs and Juggler on Stage in an edition of 24 with three. Each print is 36-3/4x25 in. (image size) and 41x28-1/2 in. (paper size) and was printed on Rives BFK paper by Norman Stewart assisted by Joe Keenan at Wing Lake Studio in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Himmelfarb has been working with biomorphic forms in his recent paintings, but nothing so figurative as these jugglers, who emerged quite unexpectedly as he doodled on mylar at Wing Lake Studio. First was the Juggler, the linear figure comprised of loose forms and printed in two blacks. But Wing Lake mylar is lined to show two sheet sizes. As Himmelfarb worked, the smaller guide suggested an interior stage, so he worked off that, introducing a sense of scrim and backdrop for the action. “It ended a kind of self-portrait of the artist, juggling elements. Sometimes the artwork takes the lead, and you take what comes.” Jugglers on Stage was printed with two blacks, two yellows, and orange.
The Print Collector's NewsletterOctober 1986
John Himmelfarb, Lengthy Meeting (1986), a black and white woodcut signed and numbered by the artist in an edition of ten. Each print is 23-3/4x90 in. and was printed on Goyu paper by J. Nebraska Gifford and John Nichols Printmakers & Publishers in New York. The artist cut the block. Himmelfarb has swung from abstraction to representation and back in the past. Lengthy Meeting seems perfectly in-between. The image is fairly specific- a woman’s head and an animal’s head in profile and part of a man’s face- but Himmelfarb’s discrete strokes build a sensual pattern so dense and energetic he straddles imagery and abstraction. The black and white palette helps, of course, as does the exaggerated shape of the composition.
The Print Collector’s NewsletterVol. XVI, No. 4
September- October 1985
John Himmelfarb, Grand Street Meeting (1985), a nine-color lithograph with screen-print signed and numbered by the artist in an edition of 65. Each print is 30x42-1/2 in. and was printed on Arches 88 paper at John Nichols Printmakers & Publishers in New York. Himmelfarb considers Grand Street Meeting a self-portrait, an image he has been using for about a year now. It all began when he was asked to demonstrate monotype and lithography last fall. That led to his doing large drawings in grays and blacks, then a series of monoprints, and now this edition. The three-part self-portrait presents inner and outer visions. One head looks out as another, in profile, seems to carp at the first. The third is a barking dog, a more benign self-critic. Each is rendered in a dense pattern of lines. Himmelfarb enjoyed the freedom to experiment with color at John Nichols. His paintings on this theme now reflect the print’s palette.
The Print Collector’s NewsletterMay-June 1982
John Himmelfarb, Trio (1982), a lithograph signed and numbered by the artist in an edition of 25 with two artist’s proofs and one printer’s proof. Each print is 25x32-1/2 in. and was printed on Japanese Moriki gray paper by Will Petersen and Cynthia Archer at Plucked Chicken Press in Chicago. Printed in black on gray, this is a curious image of three Brut figures so scribbled and intertwined the piece seems a puzzle. Himmelfarb continues to surprise.
The Print Collector’s NewsletterVol. XI No.1
John Himmelfarb, Words Cannot Describe (1979), a one-color lithograph signed and numbered by the artist in an edition of 50 with five artist’s proofs. Each print is 38-3/4x24-3/4 in. and was printed in white on Sugikawa paper at Landfall Press in Chicago. Himmelfarb rendered text like lines of pictographs so small they appear to be scribbles, repeating the linear arrangement of a recent drawing but in radically condensed and abstracted form. So much for the Chicago Imagists. A successful print.