Leipzig’s Bio


Leipzig’s Style

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This feature by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 13, 1998. All rights reserved.

Mel Leipzig’s Life-Sized Legend

Thirty years ago, Mel Leipzig broke free of professors’

preferences and abstract expressionism’s influence and his own uncertainties

— and began painting in the realist style he’s widely and fondly

known for today. Since then, he’s been true to what has always fascinated

him: the human figure in its environment.

Mel Leipzig. It’s a name to conjure with. He remembers how the Bauhaus

master Josef Albers, with whom he studied, loved to pronounce his

German-sounding name. Long a Trenton-area and Mercer County institution,

Leipzig is affable, kindly, and widely admired as a person, as an

artist, as a teacher. He’s now enjoying the formal recognition of

"Mel Leipzig: A Retrospective," at the New Jersey State Museum

in Trenton, to May 31.

Leipzig’s retrospective provides a fine . . . well, a fine illustration,

of what he’s like, as both artist and person — and the teacher’s

in there, too.

First, of course, the art. The museum’s ground floor is bright with

more than 60 of Leipzig’s pictures, most quite large, and packed with

the people and things he loves to paint. At a glance, museum visitors

could mistake this gallery area for a real, live gathering — it’s

that crowded with pictures of near life-size Leipzig family members

and friends, many looking out at the viewer, reminiscent of the portraits

of Manet, Leipzig’s favorite painter.

The light and plentiful space serves Leipzig’s pictures well. Happy

with the look of the show, the artist readily credits Margaret O’Reilly,

assistant curator, for hanging. There’s ample space between pictures,

as well as room to stand back and see them from the distance they


Retrospective in the true, most comprehensive sense, the exhibition

of some 60 works begins in 1950, when Leipzig was 15 and working in

pastel. It includes other works from his years as a high school scholarship

student to the Museum of Modern Art, and oils done while he studied

at Cooper Union. Looking at his 1952 oil portrait of John Giorno,

bristling with symbols, Leipzig says, "Now I think it’s a crock,

but symbolism was the most important thing in painting back then."

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Leipzig’s Bio

A long-time teacher himself — since 1968, visual arts professor

at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) — Leipzig muses on the

lasting influence teachers can have on developing artists. Cooper

Union was dominated by abstract impressionists, he remembers. In spite

of their disdain for realist art, he maintained his life-long practice

of drawing.

Then, at Yale, where he earned a BFA, some professors derided the

very artists he revered, denigrating Degas, for instance, as an illustrator.

They could have planted doubts about even Rembrandt’s drawing ability,

he says, and years later, he might look at a Rembrandt and still hear

those voices in his head. He says it took him years to purge what

some teachers who he now describes as "so stupid and narrow-minded"

had said about painters. Leipzig earned his MFA from Pratt Institute

in 1972.

No wonder Leipzig experienced 10 years or so of indecision

and anxiety. ("Yes, it was tortuous," he says now.) No wonder

during his entire Fulbright grant to study in Paris, he couldn’t complete

one single oil painting. No wonder the first realist painting that

he thought was successful, in 1973, took him over a year to complete.

"Reading the Newspaper" was the first of Leipzig’s now characteristic

"domestic scenes."

His own experience is doubtless the reason why Leipzig emphatically

does not teach realist painting, concentrating instead of giving his

students the tools and techniques for whatever kind of art they may

want to produce. He loves to tell about one student whose work was

"horrible" the whole time he produced representational art,

who then came into his own with non-objective art, and successfully

practices it today.

For Leipzig, the late ’60s marked many turning points. He committed

to a realist style, switched from oils to acrylics, married, and moved

from (Brooklyn) New York to live in this area and teach at MCCC. The

first family home was on Parkside Avenue, Trenton, where he lived

with his wife (and frequent early model), Mary Jo, and daughter (and

frequent model), Francesca. His son (and model), Joshua, was born

after the family moved to an Abernathy Drive house (and model) that

figures in a number of his pictures.

A founding member of Trenton Artists Workshop Association, Leipzig

was a prime mover behind "Eyes on Trenton," a 50-event festival

in 1981 that featured shows at five sites. "That’s where I got

the idea for Jimmy’s shows," he says, referring to the James Colavita

Retrospective that was mounted at five sites earlier this year. Leipzig

and Colavita, a clay artist whose sculptures appear in some of Leipzig’s

paintings, were for years teaching colleagues and friends. To some,

there’s poetic justice in this Leipzig retrospective: The painter

knocked himself out on the earlier event; it’s fitting that his work

is now the center of attention.

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Described as "a sampling of Leipzig’s best work through his career,"

the retrospective allows students of realist painting, and Leipzig,

to track how his work has changed over the years. For instance, in

the ’80s, the artist started painting the desired environment first,

sometimes from preliminary drawings, and then painted the people into

it. Take the van pictures: Not until the interiors were painted did

Leipzig add the figures. And by the way, his figures have always been

family, friends, or students, the people for whom he feels an emotional

attachment — never professional models.

"The relation of the figure to its environment," yes, that’s

Leipzig’s focus. But it doesn’t suggest a frequent element of that

environment: "I’ve always been interested in mirror images and

reflections," Leipzig says. So the exhibition visitor can enjoy

at least eight Mel Leipzigs in "Mirrors" (1985) and puzzle

out "Francesca at the Door" (1992), among other pictures —

some involving TV screens, book pages, and magazine covers.

"I like fooling around with perspective. I don’t know why,"

says the artist. But the viewer knows it’s happening "In the Van"

(1995), when Leipzig uses double perspective, moving toward vanishing

points to the left and right, which he also does in other paintings,

like "The Big Tree" (1992-’93). His 1997 picture of noted

Trenton watercolorist, Tom Malloy, in his chock-a-block-full studio,

combines "straight on" perspective with Leipzig’s prodigious

gift for painting things. "I love painting things. I must say

that," he says, redundantly.

A few outside night scenes introduce a wholly different mood to the

retrospective. "Night Leaves" (1988), whose shadowy house

and yard scene are partly framed by tree leaves, might remind the

viewer of summer nights outdoors, with interior house lights helping

to define the territory. Leipzig starts these works by painting the

canvas black, and proceeds from there. He uses very little artificial

light; "I can hardly see what I’m doing," he says.

In 1990, Leipzig simplified his palette, and still uses only dark

blue, dark red, yellow, and white for all his paintings. "Artists

are notoriously lazy and it’s such a problem to lay out your colors,

but with only four colors, there’s not much to lay out," he says.

Furthermore, he believes his colors are better this way. "The

Wooden Door" (1990) is an early example of his limited palette.

More recently, growing bored with his models coming to his house,

Leipzig says, "I decided to go into other people’s environments,

and literally reverse the traditional idea of a portrait."

Among the pictures that resulted from his entry into his subjects’

space: "Lou" (1996), showing the artist’s office mate, photographer

Lou Draper, in his milieu. "He’s a collector," Leipzig says,

severely understating the "My Brother’s Keeper" look of the

place, with Draper in the center. And true to his subject’s bent for

accumulating and his own love of painting "things," Leipzig

shows not just shelves, but shelves filled to the gills with papers

and books; not just any boxes, but recognizable blue and white "Mead

Chief" and "U-Haul" boxes, complete with rips and mending

tape. The carpet — what little can be seen of it — is carefully

patterned, as are the ceiling tiles and a chair in the foreground.

Exclaiming over the great mass of details, the amazing realism of

the Leipzig show, a visitor to the retrospective announced that the

artist "must take pictures, then paint everything he sees in them."

On the contrary: Leipzig never uses photographs. Never. It’s boring,

he says, and they "destroy the feeling in painting." He faintly

praises the painting of what can be seen in a photograph as "a

technical feat."

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Leipzig’s Style

Leipzig describes his style as "designing with reality." In

some pictures, he consciously changes tones; in some, he deliberately

adds, subtracts or moves elements for the effect he wants — avoiding

clutter, achieving dark or light, and so on. In one picture, he substituted

a Renoir reproduction for a different work to achieve a color value

he wanted.

"Joshua’s Room" (1991), the artist’s favorite picture, shows

four boys surrounded by three graffiti-filled walls and ceiling, littered

furniture tops with drawers pulled out, and clothes on the floor.

It is an amazing inventory of things that Leipzig says he found "really

fascinating." In another example of designing with reality, he

admits he "moved some of the stuff so I could see the floor."

When he painted "Joshua’s Tattoos" (1996), Leipzig captured

— or even immortalized — the same room-plus, for what he calls

"graffiti of the body" has joined the wall graffiti. "Young

people respond to these paintings tremendously," he says, although

by the time he finished painting this one, he says he never wanted

to paint this room again.

Leipzig’s work has been showcased in over 24 one-person exhibitions

and been part of group exhibitions across the country. Leipzig’s work

is included in many public collections, including Cooper-Hewitt Museum

for the Decorative Arts (Smithsonian Institution), Montclair Art Museum,

Morris Museum, Noyes Museum, The White House Collection, Yale Art

Gallery, and the New Jersey State Museum, among others.

Not content helping to round up and annotate some 60 pictures representing

almost 50 years of making art; not satisfied with writing an artist’s

statement to accompany his exhibition, Leipzig preceded the retrospective

opening with an hour-long lecture about his work, with slides, in

the museum auditorium. The place was packed, and often rang with laughter

and applause. On four Wednesdays in April, Leipzig led lunchtime gallery

walks, and he offers a lecture series on four Sunday afternoons, with

the last talk scheduled for May 17 at 2 p.m.

Talk about value-added. This Mel Leipzig is a giving man. But then,

we already knew that, didn’t we?

— Pat Summers

Mel Leipzig: A Retrospective, New Jersey State Museum,

205 West State Street, Trenton, 609-292-6464. Continues to May 31.

Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Last lecture by the Trenton realist painter and MCCC faculty member,

on the occasion of his retrospective featuring more than 60 works

made from 1950 to the present. Free. Sunday, May 17, 2 p.m.

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