Since 1980 Harry I. Naar has been teaching at Rider University where he is a tenured professor of fine arts and director of the Rider University Art Gallery. He received his BFA from Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and an MFA from Indiana University. Naar’s work has been widely exhibited in solo and group exhibitions throughout the country and is included in many public collections including the Newark Art Museum, Montclair Art Museum, Noyes Museum of Art, and the Zimmerli Art Museum.
Mel Leipzig, born in 1935, resides in Trenton. He teaches painting and is a professor of art history at Mercer County Community College. He studied at the Cooper Union (three-year certificate, 1953-’56), Yale (BFA, 1956-’58), and Pratt (MFA, 1970-’72). He has had over 40 one-man shows, and his works are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Academy Museum, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, as well as several museums in New Jersey. In 1996 he was one of the last individual artists to receive a grant in painting from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2006 he was elected to the National Academy.
The Q&A that follows is excerpted from the catalog for the semi-retrospective of Leipzig’s work opening Thursday, March 10, at Rider University Art Gallery.
Naar: When did you show an interest in the visual arts and was your family supportive?
Leipzig: I knew since I was a little boy that I wanted to be an artist. I used to think it was when I was five years old. When I was very young, my father brought home a book on the lives of the great composers, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, etc., that had black and white portraits of them, probably drawings, and I copied them. I was the class artist. When I was 13, my school friends chipped in and got me a set of oil paints for a Bar Mitzvah gift. My first oil painting was done on a small canvas board; it was an imaginative painting of a castle on a hill. I called it, “The Castle of Jan Sobieski,” a famous king of Poland. I was very interested in history, especially European history. I read Hayes’s “A Political and Social History of Modern Europe,” which my mother had in her library, when I was about 13. It was also about this time that I first read Ibsen. My mother had a book of three of his plays.
I also got a gift of a box of pastels, and I did a series of imaginative pastel works. When I was 15 or 16 and was in James Madison High School, I got a scholarship to study on Saturday mornings at the Museum of Modern Art. The art teacher there thought that symbolism was the most important thing in painting. So for a period of time after I left that class I tried to put symbols in my paintings.
In my last two years in high school, my skills at painting realistically improved. I did a series of commissioned portraits, based on drawings of friends and other people I knew. I included all sorts of symbolic elements in them. One of the portraits was of John Giorno, who later became a famous poet and performance artist as well as part of Andy Warhol’s group. I showed him gripping a steel object trying to pull it. I meant it to be symbolic of the struggle of life. I was paid for the painting about $50. When they were done I often made a party to show the painting.
You ask if my family was supportive? I would have to say not wholeheartedly. My mother especially was opposed to my going to Yale. But I was determined. I knew that I wanted to be an artist. In retrospect I would say that I had to be a painter. Later on they became proud of me, to a certain extent.
Naar: In 1958-’59 you received a Fulbright Grant to Paris and in 1959-’60 a Louis Comfort Tiffany Award. What was Paris like at that time and what did you accomplish with both awards?
Leipzig: I wanted to go to Paris because I love French painting. Manet is my favorite painter with Matisse a close second. I also like Picasso, especially his Synthetic Cubist period. Also Degas and Millet and the American Thomas Eakins and the Early Renaissance masters Uccello and Piero della Francesca. My daughter was named after him.
Paris was a difficult time for me. My education at both Cooper and Yale left me in a very confused state. I couldn’t finish any paintings. I would start a painting with great enthusiasm and couldn’t figure out how to finish it. I kept destroying my oil paintings. So I started doing watercolors, leaving large areas of the white paper showing. I also started to do a lot of drawing using ink washes. I would ask the friends I met in Paris to come and pose in the apartment I rented near the Parc de Monceau. This practice of drawing from friends posing in my house started because of Albers’ refusal to have live models pose at Yale. That started my asking people to pose in my or sometimes their environment.
I really didn’t like Paris. I didn’t find the French to be too friendly, and it rained quite often. I spent the last three months of my Fulbright in Italy. I hitched to Florence and Rome from Paris. I loved Italy, and I loved the Italians. They were warm and the country and cities (I went to Venice and Siena also, staying at convents or hostels) were overwhelmingly beautiful. Art was everywhere.
I married in 1968, and my wife, Mary Jo Michelessi, was of Italian descent. We were together for over 40 years before she died in 2007. She made my life possible. She and my two children, Francesca and Joshua, stabilized my life and made whatever I have been able to accomplish possible.
Naar: You received your MFA from Pratt Institute. How different was that experience compared to Yale?
Leipzig: Pratt was the first school that I went to (graduated in 1972) where the teachers actually tried to help you paint what you wanted to paint, not paint following their ideas about what painting was supposed to be. They helped me develop my approach to realism.
Before talking about them I must acknowledge the debt I owe to the painter Bob Birmelin. Bob is a friend of mine, and it was he who told me that when I was using color derived from Matisse that there was a disconnect in my paintings, between my drawing, which was realistic, and my color, which was abstract. In order to use color the way he did, Matisse had to invent a way of drawing that was both representational but non-realistic. In my case it made the relationship between drawing and color schizophrenic. It was then around 1967 that I began my search to find a way to paint realistically with naturalistic color. My two teachers at Pratt, Nan Benedict, who was my painting teacher, and Ralph Wickiser, who was the head of the art department, helped me considerably towards my goal, and I am truly grateful to them.
Nan Benedict gave me a great deal of confidence, especially with my natural ability with complex composition, and Ralph Wickiser gave me a talk on mixing color in achieving a harmony in painting that was an astounding revelation for me.
Naar: Besides the artists you mentioned, who else played a role in your development, and are you still interested in them?
Leipzig: To the group I already mentioned I would add Fairfield Porter and Philip Pearlstein, who showed that you could paint the figure in a contemporary way without resorting to academic techniques. I also look for inspiration to the 17th century Dutch especially Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. I got my appreciation of de Hooch through Romare Bearden.
Naar: Why is painting representationally so important to you and, in particular, figures surrounded by their environment?
Leipzig: I love painting people and faces. I don’t think I’d really enjoy painting if I couldn’t paint people. I paint the environment in order to integrate the figures into their background. When I first started painting realistically I almost always painted my wife and my two children. I also paint my students in my home in Trenton or on the grounds of Mercer Country Community College, where I teach.
In 1996 I did a painting of my office mate at Mercer, the photographer Lou Draper, who is now deceased. Lou was, you’d have to say, a compulsive collector. The office that we shared was filled with cartons of mostly newspaper and magazine clippings and probably photographs. I thought that the clutter in that space expressed something about Lou. I also included one of his photographs in the painting (Lou was a great photographer).
That painting started me on the idea of painting artists, architects, and others in their own environment, sort of environmental portraits. The painting “Lou” (1996) is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum, because Larry Rinder, who was the curator at the Whitney at the time, liked my paintings and especially liked the one I did of Lou.
The space in my paintings is as important as the figures depicted. I should also add that besides people I love looking at reality. Everything is paintable. The real world is visually exciting.
Naar: I know from observing you painting that you limit your choice of colors. At first you used eight colors, but around 1990 you decided to limit your selection of colors to only four: dark red, blue, yellow, and white. Where did this idea come from and can you explain what effects the limited palette has had on your work?
Leipzig: In 1969, when we were still living in New York, I did a small painting of Mary Jo reading in bed with just the four colors. I later remembered that I liked the results. In 1990, with that painting in mind, I decided to limit my palette to the four colors. I really liked working with that limitation. The limitation forced me to make certain decisions in creating space, which I like. The paintings became more abstract, while at the same time keeping the realistic depiction of people and the objects in their environments.
Naar: You also paint using acrylic paints. Why?
Leipzig: When I painted in oils, I always painted thickly, going over areas again and again. The paint would often crack eventually. One of my friends, who was a painter, recommended acrylics, and I have used them since the late 1960s.
Naar: In the past, before developing a painting, you would create a detailed drawing. You would even create a grid on the paper that would enable you to translate the study on a large canvas. Why have you abandoned this method and how has it changed your work?
Leipzig: I think it was in 2007, when I was doing a painting of my son, Joshua, and my daughter-in-law, Paula, that I decided to shorten the painting process and start painting directly, without any preparatory compositional drawing or painting. Now I love painting that way. I think it has added a new excitement to my paintings, especially for me, as I have only a vague idea what the result will be.
Naar: What stimulates or supplies the impetus for you to create a particular painting?
Leipzig: At the moment I would have to say it is the themes I am working on: fathers and their children; artists and architects in their studios or workplace, surrounded by their work; teachers at my school in their offices. I must like the people I paint. Also I should add that I always pay the people who pose for me and sometimes to use their workspace to paint.
Naar: In many of your “environmental portraits,” especially when you depict two or more figures, the emotional and psychological connections between these figures appears to be non-existent. Each figure seems to be depicted isolated within their own thoughts. Can you comment on this?
Leipzig: I paint each person one at a time, usually for two or three hour sessions. In that time a person, while posing in a static position, will retreat into their own thoughts. I think we all do this. I certainly do, so perhaps there is something of me in the people I paint.
Naar: Critics have called you a “realist painter.” Would you consider your work realistic?
Leipzig: To the extent that I wish to record the reality of a person’s face and body language and record the objects, paintings, and furniture surrounding them, makes me realistic. But my distortion of perspective often and my use of flat areas of white and blacks (in my case a mixture of the dark red and blue) in order to create air and space makes me, for use of the only term that I can think of, abstract.
Naar: Recently you have started to create paintings that are composed of more than one canvas. Why?
Leipzig: In 2010, last year, when I decided to paint the architect Michael Graves in the beautiful home he designed in Princeton, I couldn’t decide which room to paint him in, so I decided to do a five paneled painting, with him only in the middle panel. Therefore the panels surrounding the central panel are of rooms next to the one he is seated in, and the outer two panels are depictions of the grounds and trees leading to the building.
I now have done several multi-paneled environmental portraits. I like doing them. I find the concept exciting.
Naar: I know that, at any given time, you have two to five paintings in different stages of development and that you travel to different locations to paint your figures in their particular environment. In fact, you may work on one painting in the morning at one location and travel to another location and paint a totally different painting in the afternoon. How do you keep your thoughts and ideas focused from one painting to the next?
Leipzig: I really don’t find it difficult. I like working on several canvases at one time. If I worked on only one painting, I could become so obsessed with it that I might end up destroying it.
Naar: Your working method is quite unusual. You really do not have a studio. You bring all your tools to the site like a traveling salesman. When did this first develop and how has that method changed or affected your style and your ideas about painting? Do you ever make changes on a painting away from the site?
Leipzig: I developed this method as soon as I came up with the idea of painting artists in their studios and my colleagues at Mercer County Community College, in 1996. Also when my children married and left home, I had to travel to their homes in order to paint them and my grandchildren.
I do make changes away from the site, sometimes minor changes, but occasionally major ones, almost all dealing with clarifying the space.
Naar: The New York Times writer, Deborah Solomon, has written that “contemporary artists favor photo-based realism; they find their inspiration in secondhand sources, like magazine photographs of pop stars. Their work is less about capturing a likeness, a particular person, of inwardness and vulnerability, than commenting on the diminished potency of images in our culture.” Can you comment on this and explain why you NEVER use photos and ALWAYS work directly from the source?
Leipzig: I read the article by Deborah Solomon. It was a review of recent biography of the artist Alice Neel. I wrote her and sent her catalogs of my work. She was thinking of artists like Elizabeth Peyton.
I never work from photographs, because I feel that the use of photography would dilute the intensity of feeling, which I am seeking. I must admit that I usually don’t like paintings from photographs. On the other hand I love the paintings of Thomas Eakins, who worked on occasion from photographs and his paintings have intensity.
Naar: You have been teaching at Mercer County Community College since 1968. How has teaching affected your thinking and creativity?
Leipzig: I love teaching. I like my students. I find that for me there exists a really good balance between my teaching schedule and my painting. I paint constantly, even on those days when I have to teach. For the last 15 years I have been working on a series of paintings dealing with the college. Besides painting, I teach art history and my being a painter has helped me teach those courses. History has been one of my interests since I was in my early teens and that has helped me enormously with teaching art history.
Work is actually a high form of pleasure, if you are involved in an occupation that you love. Being an artist and a teacher is very life giving. People who are creative are very lucky. Work can help you get through a lot of heartache and troubling times.
Naar: Finally, I could not end this interview without asking about the Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen. What attracted you to his writing and do you think there is a connection between Ibsen’s world and your visual world?
Leipzig: I first read Ibsen when I was 13. I had just seen a movie with Rosalind Russell and Sidney Greenstreet, “The Velvet Touch.” In the movie Rosalind Russell played an actress who kills her agent/manager because he won’t let her play a tragic role, Hedda Gabler. The movie ends with her performing the last scene of the play. My mother had a book with three of Ibsen’s plays, including “Hedda Gabler.” I read them after seeing the movie, and I loved them. I later read almost all his plays.
In the late 1980s I joined the Ibsen Society of America and became good friends with Rolf Fjelde and his family. Rolf was the founder of the Ibsen Society and the leading translator of Ibsen into American English. I have done several paintings of Rolf and his family and of actors in productions of Ibsen’s plays, done at my school.
Ibsen is a very spiritual and life-giving author. What I mentioned in the last question, about the joy of work is a theme of his play, “Ghosts.”
The possible connection between Ibsen’s world and my visual world, my paintings, is that we are interested in people, in a psychological sense. Also Ibsen is a very visual dramatist, in that the backgrounds of his plays, both with interior and exterior space, tells you something about the person, which I am attempting to achieve in my paintings.
“Mel Leipzig: Semi-Retrospective,” opening reception, Thursday, March 10, 5 to 7 p.m., Westminster College of the Arts Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, third floor. Artist’s talk, Thursday, March 24, 7 p.m. On view through Sunday, April 17. 609-896-5168 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.
Also, “The Influence of a Teacher: Mel Leipzig and Proteges,” an exhibit featuring works of Leipzig as well as more than 15 artists who have studied with him. On view to Friday, April 29, West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road, West Windsor. Opening reception Saturday, March 19, 4:30 to 7 p.m. Leipzig presents “The Influence of Monet, Cezanne,and Manet,” Sunday, March 27, 2 p.m. 609-919-1982 or www.westwindsorarts.org.