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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

Laszlo Ispanky, American Hungarian Foundation, 300

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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