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This article by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the April 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In the Galleries: Leonard Nelson
Leonard Nelson — whose work is being shown in
exhibits at both the Marsha Child Contemporary in Princeton and the
Montgomery Cultural Center — was an artist very much of his time.
He studied the great art of the museums in Europe and the U.S., but
by temperament he was a modernist. Born in Camden and a long-time
resident of Philadelphia, he lived in New York City from 1944 to 1947.
There he was immersed in the developments of the New York School,
where abstract expressionism was coming of age.
Hans Hofmann, then in his 60s, was beginning to show regularly. Along
with John Graham, who was roughly the same age, these two elder
— German and Russian — exerted a persuasive influence over
a group of younger American artists like Nelson, who were known
as Abstract Expressionists.
One of them, was Jackson Pollock, whose work Peggy Guggenheim showed
in her Art-of-This-Century Gallery. Others had their first exposure
through the Betty Parsons Gallery.
After his discharge from the Army in 1944, Nelson decided to live
in Manhattan, where he found an apartment on 14th Street and began
to put together a painter’s life, including making the rounds of the
few modernist galleries. He met Guggenheim, who had recently opened
her gallery, and who would follow his work with interest for the next
Guggenheim took a shine to the affable Nelson and employed him at
odd jobs. According to Bill Hamel, a collector and friend of Nelson’s
late in the artist’s life, Nelson was on the grunt team that installed
Pollock’s first one-man show at the Guggenheim gallery. Hamel
Nelson’s recounting that one of Pollock’s paintings was so large,
it had to be cut in half to get it into the available space.
to some accounts, Nelson was known to embellish his stories. The
veracity may be suspect, but the fact that Nelson was in the gallery
Guggenheim nursed Nelson along and promised him a one-man show, but
it never materialized. She did, however, introduce him to Betty
then director of the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, who included Nelson
in her Christmas show in 1945. Nelson did not neglect his contacts
in Philadelphia even though he lived continuously in New York for
three years. After honing his skills with the British master
William Stanley Hayter at Hayter’s legendary Atelier 17 in New York,
he showed prints at the Philadelphia Print Club in 1946, the same
year he showed paintings at the newly-opened Betty Parsons Gallery.
Early on, Nelson sensed that the New York art world was a controlling
one. The presence of two artist friends with New York connections
— Leon Kelly and Mel Price — are likely the reason he remained
in the city as long as he did.
Of this period his widow, Alma Neas Nelson Cassels, says Nelson felt
managed by Parsons and Guggenheim. As a painter, he was still finding
himself and, "he was neither about to paint the same picture for
five years nor to make himself indebted to a dealer."
Nelson was fiercely independent and acutely sensitive. His sister
Zola described his character best when she told Cassels that,
is all balls but he has the emotions of a woman." Feeling squeezed
and managed and finding New York "too social," he packed up
for Philadelphia. The move was not a definitive burning of bridges.
It may, however, have had an impact on his chances of future
in the art world. Nevertheless, as he told Hamel years later, he never
regretted his decision to leave.
In 1948, he began teaching at the Museum School in Philadelphia. While
he still held fast to his New York contacts, the choice to teach —
and to teach in Philadelphia — may have been another factor in
why he was overlooked as the New York School rose to international
Nelson was well adapted to teaching and was popular
with students and colleagues alike. The satisfactions of teaching
may have undercut his ambitions as an exhibitor in the New York arena.
In this respect he resembles Charles Pollock, the brother of Jackson.
The parallels between Charles and Nelson are striking. Both were
men of multiple interests, artists acutely aware of developments in
contemporary art, but far from its epicenter. They had close contacts
with the principals inside the movement, but their teaching
kept them from fully participating in it.
For Nelson, who finally settled at Philadelphia’s Moore College of
Art in 1951, the distance was more psychological than geographic,
as it was for Charles who taught at Michigan State in East Lansing.
As art historian Sam Hunter writes in a monograph on Nelson’s life,
published by Rizzoli International in 2001, Philadelphia was a
town. It was, however, Nelson’s kind of town. He loved its feel, its
slower pace. Philadelphia had always treated him well. It provided
him with tuition-free art education and his first exposure to an
brand of impressionism, through his teachers at the Pennsylvania
of Fine Art. The Academy also awarded him its coveted Cresson
Fellowship in 1939, which gave him his first look at European art
— in Europe.
In 1947, schools of all kinds were experiencing a heavy influx of
students on the GI Bill. Teachers were in great demand; and Nelson
landed his position at the Museum School with no effort. He was, in
fact, able to get his friend Price a teaching job, along with Price’s
friend, the leading abstract expressionist Franz Kline.
Cassels says that Kline did not like teaching in Philadelphia and
soon gave it up, although he would remain helpful to Nelson when
later sought New York exposure in the 1950s. For a few years Nelson
worked both cities — Philadelphia and New York — with an
exhibition schedule. He produced a series of pictographic paintings
containing abstract emblems that evoke Native American art of the
Southwest. They are every bit as beautiful as similar images produced
by Adolf Gottlieb during the same period.
The pictographic paintings, shown at the Peridot Gallery
in New York in 1949, opened to favorable reviews from Art Digest,
the New Yorker, and Art News. Cassels recalls that critics wrote
was an "artist to watch."
One of his paintings from the series "Hieroglyphic Figures"
is at the Montgomery Art Center. It is a mosaic of large, interlocking
colored windows on a black field. Each window contains a skeletal
figure or mask, which appears to undulate within. On the right and
left sides of the canvas, two larger figures stand guard in the most
This 1947 painting is similar in imagery to a 1948 black-and-white
woodcut called "Dance for Midzimue," owned by the Philadelphia
Art Museum. Cassels says that several years ago the Whitney Museum
sought the master block from which the image is printed.
For me, this pre-color field period — 1947 through about 1959
— is Nelson’s most interesting. He continued to show in New York
until 1954, when he had his last one-person show at the Hugo Gallery.
Around 1966, he made a valiant attempt to reintroduce himself to the
New York gallery world, which had grown fat and bitterly competitive,
and which exhibited even more of the negative characteristics that
Nelson had turned his back on 20 years earlier. He was not seen again
in a solo show until the mid-1990s when he had a posthumous show of
works on paper at the Susan Teller Gallery in SoHo.
By the mid-1960s, Nelson’s work had evolved into his own brand of
color field painting. He was influenced by artists as diverse as
Pousette Dart, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, and Philip Guston.
Nelson’s paint application had not changed much since the 1940s. He
still used loaded brush strokes with massively built-up, layered
In 1963, at the age of 52, Nelson married Alma Neas.
She was 25, a former student at the Moore College of Art, and an avid
gardener. Nelson began painting abstract landscapes that suggested
garden views and wind-swept grasses. Dappled light entered his
not so much as an observed phenomenon, but as an invented one, with
its own dynamics based on gestural brushwork.
In his "Colorfield Abstracts" painting series, examples of
which are at both the Montgomery Cultural Center and the Marsha Child
gallery, Nelson eliminates not only the horizon, but also all
to boundaries. Those artificial distinctions between figure and ground
that he explored so resolutely through the 1950s are now banished
so that the entire canvas seems to be a detail of a larger field.
Seeing it is like looking into a viewfinder as it moves lazily through
a blizzard of confetti.
Nelson’s work of the 1970s and 1980s differs from leading exponents
of this genre — Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Jules
— because he does not stain or flood the canvas with veils of
color as they did. Nelson builds instead a dense, luxuriant surface,
comprised of thousands of strokes. Generally, he does not combine
long and short strokes in the same canvas, although the stroke length
may vary from longish fingers of color to edited shorter ones between
canvases. The overall treatment of the surface is reminiscent of a
number of American painters, going back to Mark Tobey’s "White
Writings" paintings of the 1950s. It is most like the work of
the Italian painter Piero Dorazio, a Nelson contemporary whose
are, however, flatter and less illusionistic than Nelson’s.
Dorazio was in Philadelphia in the 1960s, setting up the graduate
program in painting at the University of Pennsylvania. Cassels is
fairly sure that the two artists did not meet, but says that Nelson
may have seen Dorazio’s work at the Marlborough Gallery in New York.
Because Nelson never relinquished the gestural stroke, he does not
easily classify as a color-field painter, a fact that would surely
please him, as all his life he abhorred labels. From all accounts,
also, he would likely deny that any of his style shifts derived from
anyone but himself.
Nelson believed that painters were meant to paint and not to
Throughout his life, he held fast to this view, showing little
for those who did not share it. In fact, in the late 1980s, during
a seminar, when students from Tyler Art School pressed Nelson for
a formula for quick success in New York’s competitive art world, he
walked off the stage in disgust, complaining to his wife that these
students were "just a bunch of whores."
Credit for the first revival of interest in Nelson must
go to Hamel, a young collector with an interest in painters using
pictographic imagery between 1925 and 1955. In 1990, Hamel bought
a 1947 Nelson pictograph painting at auction. He wrote to Nelson,
beginning a correspondence that eventually led him to visit the artist
at his home in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. The consistency of Nelson’s work
so impressed Hamel that he offered his help in Nelson’s search for
long-overdue recognition; and he eventually brought Teller, the New
York gallery owner, to Berwyn.
In the mid-1990s, Paul and Harriet Gratz of New Hope’s Gratz Gallery
and Conservation Studio were seeking work by surrealist painter Leon
Kelly. Nelson’s widow, who owned a Kelly, saw the Gratz’ advertisement
and called. Coincidentally, Paul Gratz, who did not know Nelson, had
recently clipped the artist’s obituary from the Philadelphia papers.
At length, Gratz visited Cassels in Berwyn and was simply "blown
away" by the quality and quantity of Nelson’s work. Like Hamel,
he bought several pieces for himself. Gratz notes that Cassels had
sold on average "one or two pieces a year." Gratz was shocked
that here was a gorgeous estate consisting of hundreds of important
paintings "just sitting in a mildewed cellar." His knee-jerk
conservator’s impulse was to "rescue and protect it." Cassels
engaged Gratz as her agent; and he began the awesome task of
and photographing the entire estate.
Toward the end of 1999, Gratz made two more contacts on behalf of
Cassels. One of them was with investor Brent Byrne, who recruited
five others. Calling their group Colorfield Partners, these investors
bought more than 80 percent of Nelson’s life’s work, according to
Cassels. What remains in her collection is mostly sculpture, prints
and memorabilia, including a gown Nelson designed for her to wear
to a masquerade party.
Gratz’s other contact was with Sam Hunter, art historian and professor
emeritus at Princeton University. Gratz had done conservation work
for the university and he introduced Byrne to Hunter. Colorfield
commissioned Hunter to do the Nelson monograph and to begin the quest
for a big retrospective, preferably at the museum level. In May 2001,
it looked as though the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) might
be interested, but plans for an exhibition there fell through.
PAFA’s loss is central New Jersey’s gain. We have a museum quality
artist in our midst, whose life and work are exquisitely braided
What Nelson loved most was the chase for the next great painting.
He adored color, so often expressed in his titles, such as "Bluer
than Blue." He was a very good painter, if not a great one, a
principled individualist who, in the end, did it his way.
— F.R. Rivera
220 Alexander Street, 609-497-7330.
the Arts , 1860 House, 124 Montgomery Road, Skillman,
Two-venue retrospective curated by Sam Hunter, professor emeritus,
Princeton University. Shows on view through April 17.
of paintings by Costa Rican artist Arlyn Heilbron Ortiz. Open by
during school hours. To April 25.
"What inspires me to be an artist," says Ortiz, "is the
ability to express my emotions and to convey different messages. I
get inspiration from the environment — organic shapes as
animals or human beings, towns, cities. I also get inspiration from
poverty, hope, and freedom, and from the textures and pigments of
"Memoir of an Assimilated Family," works by Judith Brodsky,
Princeton printmaker, Rutgers art professor emerita, and founder of
the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper. Brodsky’s
of 50 photo etchings were created from snapshots of various members
of her extended family, dating back to the 19th century. Each image
carries the artist’s personal anecdote about the people represented
and her thoughts on the process of assimilation. Gallery hours are
Monday to Friday, 3 to 5 p.m.; and by appointment. To May 9.
Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy," celebrating the
of Swiss engineers to structural design in the 20th century. Robert
Maillart, Othmar Ammann, Heinz Isler, and Christian Menn are among
the designers featured. The show is also a tribute to David Billington
who pioneered the integration of liberal arts into engineering
during his 45 years teaching at Princeton. To June 15. Open Tuesday
through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Highlights
tours every Saturday at 2 p.m.
Also "The Photographs of Ed Ranney: The John B. Elliott
an overview of the artist’s career from 1970 and 1999. First
for his photographic studies of Mayan stonework in the 1970s, Ranney
began an ongoing collaboration with the artist Charles Ross in 1979,
documenting the evolution of Ross’s earthwork sculpture "Star
Axis" being carved into a cliff face in eastern New Mexico. Ranney
will give a lecture on "Space and Place" Wednesday, April
9, at 4:30 p.m. in McCormick 106; show runs to June 7.
Also "Shuffling the Deck: The Collection Reconsidered," a
show featuring artists Sanford Biggers, Anne Chu, Ellen Harvey, and
Zhang Hongtu, curated by Eugenie Tsai, to June 29. "The New
New York Pop," to July 13.
The museum invited four contemporary artists to create new works
by paintings, sculptures, and other objects from the museum’s vast
holdings. These works are on view in the permanent collection
Organized by guest curator Eugenie Tsai, the exhibition is designed
to help visitors to gain new insights into the museum’s collection
of works from earlier periods. Also "The Arts of Asia: Works in
the Permanent Collection" to June 30.
609-258-3184. "Unseen Hands: Women Printers, Binders, and Book
Designers," a Milberg Gallery exhibition curated by Rebecca Warren
Davidson. To April 13.
609-620-6026. In the Hutchins Gallery, "Ted Berglund: Paintings
& Drawings." Berglund is an alumnus of the class of 1996. Open
Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to noon; and 1 to 4:30 p.m.; Wednesday and
Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon. To April 17.
609-490-7550. Solo show by Larry Miller. "Lines of Code"
on his `genetic’ pieces including "Lines to Grow," a palmistry
piece with hand castings, and "Score," with references to
the Ten Commandments. Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To April
Over the last 30 years, Larry Miller has produced a body of work that
deals with the thorniest philosophical and cultural issues in ways
that rearrange assumptions about reality. His work in the past 10
years has focused on issues of genetic cloning. His work has been
shown at the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of
Library Place, 609-497-7990. "Mythic Women: Helen and
an exhibition of paintings and sculpture inspired by contemporary
women and mythic stories by Ann Stewart Anderson. Open Monday to
8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. To May 3.
"In depicting women, I strive to explore visually the richness
of her roles and the variety of her stories," says Anderson.
these paintings are not only about subject. They are also about the
intricacies of pattern, juxtaposition of color, and contrasts of light
and shade, figure and gesture. They are essential statements about
the vicissitudes of human life."
609-895-5589. "Rosemarie Beck: Paintings 1965-2001" featuring
21 paintings by the artists who teaches at the New York Studio School.
On Thursday, April 10, artist and teacher Catherine Drabkin speaks
on Beck’s contributions as both an artist and a teacher. Open Tuesday
through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. To
"Rosemarie Beck is considered one of the most important figurative
painters of our time," says Harry Naar, director of the gallery.
"She has played a critical role in the development of American
art, especially from the New York art seen during the late ’50s and
early ’60s. Because her work is deeply rooted in both mythological
and musical concerns, students in particular will see how an artist
can look to historical references to create powerful, meaningful
Brunswick, 732-932-7237. "George Segal: Sculpture, Paintings,
and Drawings from the Artist’s Studio," a major traveling
to May 26. Also: "June Wayne: Selected Graphics, 1950 to
a show celebrating Wayne’s recent appointment as a research professor
at Rutgers and the establishment of the June Wayne Study Center and
Archive; to June 29. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.;
Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Spotlight tours Sundays at 2 and
3 p.m. Admission $3 adults; under 18 free; and free on the first
of every month.
Sculpture by Gabriele Roos and an group show by the photographer
of Gallery 14 in Hopewell. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3
p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. To April 13.
609-586-0616. In the Museum, new work by glass artist Dale Chihuly,
extended to July 6. In the Domestic Arts Building "Focus on
2003," an annual juried exhibition of photographs by amateur
to April 6. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., year
Sunday is Members Day. Adult admission is $4 Tuesday through Thursday;
$7 Friday and Saturday; and $10 Sunday. Individual memberships start
609-695-0061. Ritch Gaiti, "Returning to the Spirits, A Painted
Journey of the West." A self-taught painter, Gaiti spent 26 ears
in the corporate world and retired from his first career as the first
vice president and senior director of advanced technology at Merrill
Lynch. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
To April 26.
Solo show by Hopewell artist Sal Asaro with scenes of Sicily, Bucks
County, New Orleans, and Maine. Gallery hours are Friday, Saturday,
and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. To April 6.
Painter and sculptor Edward M. Adams’ new gallery space. A widely
exhibited artist, Adams is also a licensed psychologist with a private
practice in Somerville. Winter gallery hours Friday, Saturday, and
Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Building 4, third floor, Lawrenceville, 609-896-0732. Solo show
of paintings and sculptures by Mexican artist Rony Chubich. The Abud
Family Foundation for the Arts was established in 2002 to promote
Ibero-American art in various forms. Show runs to April 11.
Created by area neurosurgeon Ariel Abud and his family, the foundation
promotes the contemporary arts of Spain, Latin America, and Central
America. It awards stipends to artists, with an invitation to travel
to the U.S. and exhibit their work in the small Lawrenceville gallery.
Gallery is open by appointment, Wednesday to Saturday, 1:30 to 6 p.m.
Shared show features "Women in White" by Edward J. Greenblat,
and "Plain and Simple Photography" by Heinz Gartlgruber.
hours are Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and by appointment.
To April 20.
Abstract paintings by Florence Moonan. In 1990, the artist was awarded
Best of Show at the Ellarslie Open IX. "Moonan’s abstract acrylics
are deeply moving," says gallery owner Abby Frantz. "They
draw you into the personal and emotional feeling she’s projecting.
Her works reflect an incredible sensitivity, and viewing her work
is a richly rewarding experience." On view to April 26.
James Jansma’s "Time Being," a show of recent clay sculpture.
Also Micheal Madigan’s "Memory Walking," an exhibition of
paintings that evoke scenes of ancient, pastoral Ireland. Gallery
is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to
5 p.m. Both shows continue to April 27.
Street, 609-397-0275. "Moods of Nature," an exhibition of
paintings by Addie Hocynec. Open Monday to Thursday, 1 to 9 p.m.;
Friday 1 to 5 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To April 25.
New Brunswick, 732-846-5777. "From the Old World to the New
recent additions to the collection featuring works by nine Hungarian
Americans who emigrated to the U.S. between 1920 and 1957. Artists
are Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Bertha and Elena De Hellenbranth, Sandor
Emil Kelemen, Willy Pogany, Tibor Gergely, Zoltan Poharnok, and
Korda. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and
Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. $5 donation. Through April.
732-745-4177. "Uncommon Clay: New Jersey’s Architectural Terra
Cotta Industry," an exhibition of artifacts and written and oral
histories of New Jersey’s once booming architectural ceramics
Open Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
To May 30.
609-292-6464. "Cultures in Competition: Indians and Europeans
in Colonial New Jersey," a show that traces the impact of European
settlement on the native Indians’ way of life after 1600. On extended
view: "Art by African-Americans: A Selection from the
"New Jersey’s Native Americans: The Archaeological Record;"
"Delaware Indians of New Jersey;" "The Sisler Collection
of North American Mammals;" "Of Rock and Fire;"
Architects;" "The Modernists;" "New Jersey Ceramics,
Silver, Glass and Iron;" "Historical Archaeology of Colonial
New Jersey;" "Washington Crossing the Delaware."
215-340-9800. "Randall Exon: A Quiet Light," a solo show by
the Philadelphia-area painter and Swarthmore College professor; to
April 27. "A Home of Our Own," a show that commemorates
50th anniversary featuring the contemporary photographs of Jean
and vintage objects from the State Museum; to April 13. Winter hours:
Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission $6 adults; $3 students and
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