Mel Leipzig’s ‘The Artist Painting the Graffiti Artist Who Painted Him’

Nationally recognized Trenton-based artist Mel Leipzig is the subject of a new exhibition at Rider University Gallery in Lawrenceville. It opens with a reception on Wednesday, September 26, and remains on view through Friday, October 26. An artist talk is set for Wednesday, October 3.

Simply called “Mel Leipzig: Octogenarian,” the show focuses on the 83-year-old’s recent work that includes new approaches and styles.

In preparation for the exhibition’s catalog, Leipzig shared his thoughts about his approach to painting with Rider Gallery curator and artist Harry Naar. Here are some excerpted portions of that conversation:

Harry Naar (HN): Why have you abandoned the study (the preliminary drawings leading to a painting)?

Mel Leipzig (ML): Around 2005 I was doing a painting of my son, Joshua, and his girlfriend at the time, in an apartment they rented in Ewing. I realized that my son might all of a sudden say that he was moving. What was I to do with the painting, as I needed the background of the apartment? So I decided to cut out doing a sketch and color study and go directly to the painting and just see what happens. I think my paintings became much more fluid by painting directly, without any studies. So I have continued with direct painting.

Also in using that method I was able to do some large complicated compositions. I would probably have not been able to complete my five panel painting “Michael Graves” in 2009. I might still be working on it now if I had made studies for all five panels. These paintings are not in this exhibition.

HN: In some recent paintings you have changed the interior structures of the space.

ML: I was doing paintings as part of my Artists Series and wanted to show landscapes and seascapes outside their studios. So I decided to get rid of the wall behind them. In this show is my painting “Joshua & Martha, The Engagement Painting.” Joshua, my son, is shown with Martha, now his wife. Behind him are three paintings Josh did for his three children. I got rid of the wall on which those paintings are hanging, and I copied one of my early paintings showing Joshua with his bike outside our home in Trenton, when he was 12 years old.

HN: For many years you have limited your color palette. Now you expanded it. What prompted you to make the change?

ML: Since 1990 I limited my palette to four colors: a dark red, a blue, a yellow, and white. I mixed my dark red with my blue, first ultramarine blue and then a cobalt blue to make something that resembled black. Margaret O’Reilly, the chief curator of fine arts and now the director at the New Jersey State Museum, suggested I add black. Strong darks or blacks are important for me in structuring the space in my paintings. I prefer now to use black. However, since I use black I am using black outlines in my paintings. Also I am now using pure brilliant blue red and yellow in the backgrounds of many of my paintings. In that, I have been influenced by the work of the young graffiti artists of Trenton, whom I have been painting as part of my ongoing Artists Series. You will notice that I have yellow, red and green skies in some of my paintings in this show.

‘Vincent, Leonardo, Duke, and the Dinosaurs at the New Jersey State Museum,’ by Mel Leipzig

HN: Many people, and even art critics, think of you as a portrait painter. In fact you are known for traveling miles to different places to paint a portrait. Your paintings go beyond the typical portrait because you are concerned with the person’s environment. How do you balance the emphasis between the person and the environment?

ML: When I first became interested in painting the figure realistically around 1970, I felt that my main compositional concern was integrating the figure with the background. And since I made a commitment to being a realist I thought that I should record as much realistic information as I could in both the figure and the background.

In 1996, when I did my painting “ LOU” of my friend, the photographer Lou Draper in the office we shared at Mercer County Community College, I realized I wanted to paint Lou seated in his office with one of his photographs and surrounded by the boxes of stuff he collected, almost obsessively, because that said something about him. The same year, I did a painting of my son with his tattoos standing in his room with the walls graffitied and repros of pop stars. I thought that said something about my son at that particular age.

Both those paintings ended in museum collections, the Whitney in NYC and the Zimmerli in New Brunswick. Since then I consider my paintings to be environmental portraits, in which the background tells you something about the person depicted.

HN: How does a particular environment play a role in determining the person you choose to paint?

ML: I paint the person first because the person is the reason that I am doing the painting. And since the people I paint are not professional models, but persons with work schedules and often busy lives, I want to make sure that I am able to portray them on canvas. It takes me now between two to four hours to paint the figure. It can take me months to paint the background. In the end I often have to make changes in the colors and tones on walls, floors, and sky, if it is in the painting in order to complete the painting. I hardly ever make big changes on the figure.

My paintings are interiors with figures in which the objects in the interior have a relationship to the figure. I imagine you could say that it is the human face that most captivates me. I almost always start the painting with the face.

HN: Do you consider yourself a portrait painter?

ML: Yes to the extent I do paint people’s faces, with the aim to get a likeness. But I am also a painter of interiors and often a manipulator of space. They are important aspects in understanding my paintings.

‘Linda and Shelley, Boston Studios’ by Mel Leipzig

HN: What artists have played a role in your development and are there contemporary artists that you admire?

ML: Manet is my favorite painter. I love his directness, his immediacy, his use of black and white. I love looking at his paintings. Also Degas, for his use of black and white, and then there are Toulouse Lautrec and John Singer Sergeant, especially his sketches. I also learn from Matisse, Picasso, especially his synthetic cubism, and early Leger. Also Vuillard and Bonnard and Fairfield Porter.

I also love Piero della Francesca, especially the way he integrates the background landscape and architecture with his figures with dark shapes in the foliage and architectural elements. I named my daughter, Francesca, after him. Also Fra Angelico and Early Renaissance painting. In another way I love the paintings of Thomas Eakins, for their extraordinary intensity and the way he paints figures in the shadows.

With contemporary painters, I really love the paintings of Kerry James Marshall. His show at the Met Breuer was a revelation.

HN: What do you want the viewer to become aware of or learn from viewing your exhibition?

ML: I want people to want to look at my paintings and want to be drawn into them. My paintings don’t have any message. Except if I paint people realistically, I guess you could say that I am a humanist.

HN: What are your feelings about using technology?

ML: I will not use photographs or the computer to paint my figures. For me, the intensity of feeling and immediacy I am seeking would be ruined by the use of photography. However I do not think that I should impose my attitudes on other artists. If using photographs or the computer or other technology is good for an artist to achieve their form of expression then he or she should go for it. There is no one way to create art.

HN: Did teaching over 40 years influence your painting? How has your retirement impacted this?

ML: I learned things about painting because I had to constantly look at and analyze great paintings when I taught both painting and art history for over 45 years. I painted a great deal even when I was teaching. But after my retirement I painted even more. Painting, as hard as it often can be, is very life giving.

Mel Leipzig: Octogenarian, Rider University, Luedeke Center, Lawrenceville. September 26 through October 26. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Opening reception, Wednesday, September 26, 5-7 p.m. Artists talk, Wednesday, October 3, 7 p.m. Free. 609-896-5168 or www.rider.edu/arts.

Read Dan Aubrey’s column for more on how the staff of U.S. 1 came to be included in the exhibit.

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