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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."
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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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