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Meet `The Living Master’
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 3, 1999. All rights reserved.
Sometimes a mysterious thing in a life: for example,
a person knows something to do and never learned. I never knew how
porcelain was done, and when I get there, I just automatically know
everything." Laszlo Ispanky, Hungarian-born sculptor and painter,
reflects on one aspect of his long, international career.
Ispanky’s proclivity for art first revealed itself when as a boy,
he carved figures in the sand hills near his father’s Budapest restaurant,
causing observers to say, "Laszlo, you are talented." He had
turned to sculpture practically instinctively, and even then he was
brimming with ideas.
"Laszlo, you are talented." This frequent expression, together
with his government-sponsored art training, propelled Ispanky to carve
the very deep niche he now occupies in the art world — and which
is the subject of a retrospective exhibition now on view at the American
Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick, through May 2. The show comprises
more than 80 of Ispanky’s works, including about 50 sculptures and
porcelain figurines. The rest are drawings, some with watercolor,
and oil paintings — only some of which relate to his sculpture,
says museum curator Patricia L. Fazekas.
In half-hour bursts of artistry, Ispanky spent much of the show’s
Sunday, February 21, opening reception sculpting a clay bust of August
Molnar, president of the American Hungarian Foundation. ("Usually,"
he explained, "I ask people to talk to the person [posing]. When
somebody is talking to you, you change.") Long before the show’s
opening, he had worked with Fazekas to review the work at his home
studio in Hopewell, and select representative pieces for the exhibition.
And one mid-February day, the sculptor and curator walked me through
the artist’s home collection.
You know this will be no ordinary studio visit when you encounter
a huge color painting of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"
facing the front door, near which hangs an identifying plaque, "Laszlo
Ispanky, Artist and Sculptor." The house where he has lived for
nearly 30 years — in the relative wilds of Hopewell — is reached
by way of a long gravel drive that slices through tall, bare, winter
trees to high, black-grilled gates. ("Did I remember to tell anyone
where I was going?" I ask myself.) Just inside that entry lies
the work space of "The Living Master," as Ispanky, inexplicably,
allows himself to be called. (Shades of hockey star Wayne Gretsky’s
preference for "The Great One.")
A long room along an outside wall of the house serves as both display
and storage area, heavily populated — even after curator Fazekas
had made her choices for the show — with clay, plaster, and bronze
sculptures, large and small, all figurative, some smooth, others with
rough surfaces. On a walking tour of this space, Ispanky — at
age 80, slightly built and casually dressed — talks about many
of the pieces: who commissioned, who owns, what’s the story behind
this one or that one. And maybe for a dash of continental flair, he
tosses off double-entendres and one-liners as we walk. (Those threatened
to be swallowed by his heavy accent are signaled by impish smiles
and virtual nudges, so they’re hard to miss.)
Among his observations: For the Meadowlands race track, he created
a figure of Pegasus, the winged horse. Pointing to a pair of lovers,
embracing, he notes, "That’s my wife and me." A male figure
with a see-though hole in the chest signified to one Ispanky client
"a heartless person." "Sorry," he says (making sure
we’re looking) as he gives in to the urge to pat the derriere of one
of his nudes.
Recurring subjects among the many sculptures on view
are horses (which the artist considers "one of the most noble
animals"), both realistic and stylized; biblical figures, from
Adam and Eve to a hooded Judas; and women. Invariably, the figures
of women have smooth, fluid surfaces, suggesting idealized (and well-moisturized)
womankind; men’s figures are externally rough, presumably suggesting
strength and power.
Fazekas says she’s reached the point of dreaming about Ispanky’s work
now. (He’s not unhappy to hear this.) In her preparation for the exhibition,
she has already visited here often, made selections for the show,
and thought and written a great deal about it. Even now, as the artist
points out various pieces, she murmurs her regret at not being able
to accommodate more of them.
The American Hungarian Foundation exhibition is "more or less
a retrospective," she says, acknowledging "some gaps,"
but marveling that, "he seems to have an endless supply of ideas."
Ispanky concurs, comparing himself with some artists who have only
technical skills: "I am an idea man." So fertile is his imagination
that he doesn’t usually need models, working instead from brain and
experience. He usually starts with a maquette for an intended sculpture
because a drawing can’t show all sides of the figure he may be envisioning.
Moving up a few steps and into another room, we reach Ispanky’s work
area. Along one wall sit a series of clay and plaster busts, some
done in "show" situations like last week’s reception. A coiled
dragon on another shelf reminds him of a trip to China, where he shared
Western ways of making porcelain. Centered in the room is a larger-than-life
work in progress. All that we can see right now are wire, clay, and
metal — and a rounded thigh. Called "River," he says it
will become the heroic figure of a woman, in sweeping, flowing motion.
"How do you know when to stop the build-up," he is asked.
"That’s my job," he replies.
The youngest of 10 children, he was born in Hungary in 1919. His early
recognition as a sculptor led to an apprenticeship with a master sculptor,
which gained him admission to the Budapest Fine Arts Academy where
he earned a degree in sculpture. Some of his work from that time can
still be seen in monuments, buildings, and fountains in Budapest.
Seeking artistic freedom, Ispanky came to the United States in 1956.
He attended the Cranbrook Academy of Fine Art in Michigan, completed
his studies there in 1958, and became an American citizen in 1962.
Continuing to create his own work, he has also taught art and designed
figurines for a number of porcelain companies besides the one he owned.
Now, with his wife, Susan, and 24-year old son, Jason, a dog and a
cat, Ispanky lives in Hopewell.
The studio tour has now moved into the roomy Ispanky
home, and a wall of photographs — the artist with this or that
celebrity, or photos autographed to him — serves as a kind of
divider. To drop only a few names, Burt Reynolds, Brendan Byrne, Michael
Dukakis, Fred Astaire, Grace Kelly, Eugene Ormandy, Agnes DeMille,
Anwar Sadat, the Pope: all are either models, collectors, or acquaintances
he speaks of with warmth. Red dots on a world map that’s mounted nearby
mark the many countries he has visited.
We move to the dining area, where a wall-size china cabinet houses
Ispanky porcelains: nature scenes, figures from Shakespeare and Arthurian
stories, dancers — without exception, all beautiful or handsome,
graceful and colorful. The tiny, ivory hands are strikingly expressive,
and inevitably at risk. This is not your grandmother’s china closet.
At a show of his porcelain work, the artist noticed a group of Japanese
visitors clustered around one piece that prompted their animated conversation.
When he asked them what the excitement was about, he learned they
were debating about how the figures were supported. So artful had
his design been, they couldn’t tell.
A wide window in Ispanky’s living room overlooks a pond on which swim
two — only two, not 4,000 — Canada geese. They come back each
year to what has to be their super-secret hideaway. Asked his method
for controlling the goose population, the artist says only, "if
you radiate friendship to them, they look at you differently."
If, unlike corporate executives up and down the U.S. 1 corridor, he
really has the secret to Canada goose control, his long-acclaimed
talent just took on added luster.
Talented, idea man, living master, even — these descriptors could
sound unduly boastful in the absence of Laszlo Ispanky’s work. Visit
the exhibition at the American Hungarian Foundation, and decide for
— Pat Summers
Somerset Street, New Brunswick, 732-846-5777. Museum hours are Tuesday
to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. $3 donation. Show
continues to May 2.
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