Sigmund Abeles was born in Brooklyn to an orthodox Jewish father and a self-proclaimed "modern orthodox" mother. In 1936, at the age of 2, Sig and his mother left Brooklyn (and his father) for Myrtle Beach, SC where his mother built a boarding house. Although the art scene was bereft in Myrtle Beach: "Absolutely no art scene, in fact during my 12 yrs. of public schooling there was no art teacher. I was the one kid who was annually asked to draw a Thanksgiving turkey on the black board with colored chalk", it was here that Sig was introduced to his two passions: horses and art. His studio was the outdoor garden sculptures at Brookgreen Gardens: "I taught myself to draw from all those mostly nude figures that never moved. There is a snapshot of me in short pants about 4 yrs. old, pulling the tail of a lion in bronze by Anna Hyatt Huntington and right there is the first time I literally made contact with art."
Not unexpectedly, Sig met with resistance from family members who recommended other, more stable and respectable professions. His father in particular was "ashamed and furious that making art was to be my calling" since this was clearly in opposition to the Second Commandment prohibiting the making of graven images - "The deal was as long as I was enrolled in pre-med at USC, I could study art in the best art schools in the country in the summers." From inauspicious beginnings, Sig persevered with art as his chosen vocation: "I credit Life magazine's excellent art features as bringing great art into my life and helping me determine a life commitment to making art was for me. My first centerfold, taped up over my bed was Life's fold out of the entire Sistine Ceiling. The only other conceivable idea I had was to be a jockey or horse trainer." He would eventually graduate with a degree in Fine Arts from USC. During his time in Columbia, Sigmund befriended a group of artists including J. Bardin, David Van Hook, and Catherine Rembert who were associated with the Columbia Museum of Art (at its Senate Street location) and the adjacent Richland Art School. Despite the prevailing winds of abstraction that were blowing across the nation, Sig remained resolute as a representational, figural artist: "J. Bardin and Catherine Rembert looked over my shoulder and became mentors and friends yet they, too, attempted to nudge me into abandoning figuration for abstraction. No way, how one drew/painted was as core central and inbred as ones faith, personality, disposition, indeed it is one's truest nature. Their abstract art never was for me anymore that my figuration was ever for them. I know they had hopes that I ‘would grow up', get smart and drop representation someday but that never happened."
In 1954, Sig set off for New York City still confident in his calling as a figural artist. However, New York at this time had a far different outlook on art. "While Abstract Expressionism surely did elevate New York as the new center of art, instead of Paris and yes indeed, the art was damned exciting, too, but there was just so much damaging fallout. Terrific representational painters were now ignored, not shown or written about again; seriously, major figures and their careers were marginalized, even destroyed. I honestly felt like I was living in an art dictatorship, not unlike the Chinese Cultural Revolution, [Clement] Greenberg's way or the highway."
Though their artistic expressions differed, Sig shared a deep social conscience with the Abstract Expressionists. He was active in both the Civil Rights and antiwar movements: "I credit my brave mother for my moral sense to act and speak". We see this in his work. There is a depth and devotion to capturing the truth of human experience in all its emotional, psychological, and physical reality. He realizes this not only through the range of subject matter, but also through his ability to manipulate the dramatic through his mastery of contrasting lights and darks visible in his drawings and prints, and his authoritative use of color in his pastels and paintings. "I want the meaningfulness of my imagery to also mean something to the viewer, to be about life, from birth to death. Formalism is too cold and disconnected from the messiness of life for my temperament." It is the psychological insight and individuality of line as conveyor of emotion that links Sig to some of the great draftsmen (and women) of the past. "Recognizing that I was not destined to be an innovator within the art world, I guess I dug in, looked to my heroes, Rembrandt, Goya, Kollwitz and worked and hoped to go deeper, to be honest, to spill my guts and draw what grabbed me from life around me, best I could/can. If some interpret that a defense, well so be it. I have to be as true to my conviction of the high calling of visual imagery that hopefully has resonance with other human beings and cannot simply allow photography to take over the realm of the real, visually."
Today, the art world has embraced a far wider spectrum of styles and expressive means. Figural artists from the second half of the 20th century are experiencing a Renaissance, a period of re-discovery and re-evaulation. Artists like Sigmund Abeles, John Koch, Philip Pearlstein, Jack Levine, and Paula Rego (all represented in An Artist's Eye) remind us that the most common subject in the history of art-- the figure-- still has the power to capture our imagination. "I welcome an art world now, without a dominant style. Good art of all sorts of approaches, if it has merit, is/can be recognized today and I feel it is a healthy more open climate to make and view art."
Interview with Sigmund
Following is an edited selection from an interview conducted with Sig after spending many days working through over 2,000 of the modern and contemporary works in our collection.
Click here to view the entire interview.
Todd Herman, Chief Curator: When you arrived in New York City in the mid 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant style. As a figural artist in that climate, did you face a number of obstacles?
Sig Abeles: I resented the very concept of a dominant style and its power to wipe clean other exciting, and truly deep and meaningful art. While Abstract Expressionism surely did elevate New York as the new center of art, instead of Paris – and yes indeed, the art was damned exciting, too – there was just so much damaging fallout. Terrific representational painters were now ignored, not shown or written about again; seriously, major figures and their careers were marginalized, even destroyed. I honestly felt like I was living in an art dictatorship, not unlike the Chinese Cultural Revolution – Greenberg's way or the highway. Art is not nor never was fashion to me; I cannot consider putting on new stylish clothes that are not natural to me. Recognizing that I was not destined to be an innovator within the art world, I guess I dug in, looked to my heroes – Rembrandt, Goya, Kollwitz – and worked and hoped to go deeper, to be honest, to spill my guts and draw what grabbed me from life around me, best I could. If some interpret that a defense, well so be it. I have to be as true to my conviction of the high calling of visual imagery that hopefully has resonance with other human beings.
I welcome an art world now, without a dominant style. Good art of all sorts of approaches can be recognized today and I feel it is a healthy, more open climate to make and view art.
TH: When we asked you to curate An Artist's Eye, what were your thoughts? Were you familiar with the museum's collection of modern and contemporary art?
SA: Truthfully, I very seldom get such a phone call. I am something of a collector myself, so choosing others' art and just how it might aid or add to my experiences is something of a second nature to me. (As my hero, the artist Lucian Freud says, "I go to art and museums the way some go to doctors, for help.") I have often thought about curating and collections of art and objects, mixing up eras and approaches; good things go well with good things. I saw this opportunity as a challenge for my passion and involvement with art, contemporary and modern. And in truth, I had little idea what the scope of this project was until I leaped into it. I am very pleasantly surprised to see the depth and breadth of the art that has been added to the permanent collection since the days I had inside knowledge of the museum. Would I wish there had been more focus on major figuration? Well, yes, but I have so much very rich stuff to work with here.
TH: You looked at more than 2,000 works in the collection and I know it was painful to narrow it down to 83. What were some of the criteria you were looking for?
SA: What criteria were applied? Art to artists, at least to me, is quite subjective. Some art takes more time to "get," to speak to me than others might take. And I always am eternally appreciative of the criteria that were instilled into me by my high school mentor, Gerard Tempest. He said, "In approaching a work of art it was only fair to ask oneself three questions, so always do so. First, what is the artist trying to say? Often that takes one out of one's comfort zone or established criteria, especially with contemporary art. Secondly, how well did the artist achieve his or her vision/intention? And lastly, does the work mean anything true or deep to you? Do you like/love it or are you indifferent to it? Only after applying these three mental questions can you decide to stay with or choose to walk away from a work of art, in fairness to the particular work of art and its maker." Instinctively, I have worked hard to approach all art in that manner, ever since my teens.
In the three decades of my being a university professor, by the very nature of the job and fairness to the varieties of my students and their personal aspirations, I had to be consciously open minded, as catholic as I could possibly be, staying informed about all the new twists and turns in the visual art world. But now in the long-earned solitude of my studio life, I am more and more inwardly focused and honest to perhaps a fault to my own tastes/needs/choices/desires.
The Human Clay, a poem by Auden, sums it up and to which I say, Amen.
"To me Art's subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne's apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier."
I truly thrive on art of humans by humans for humans and this personal, perhaps too narrow view for some, is how and why I picked what I picked. I simply delight in seeing personal or fresh ways to tackle the human figure in the unique hands of a sensitive, individualistic artist. Each piece I selected satisfies, amazes, tickles, and puzzles me, and a few I now have burned into my mind's eye.
TH: What are some of your favorite pieces in the exhibition?
SA: I would love to own and live with the sassy and bold Paula Rego colored lithograph, to take it home with me. The Chuck Close is sheer magic, his engaging portrait of Philip Glass created with Close's fingerprints, for sure is innovative, fresh and contemporary. I adore the rich painterly way Paul Wonner wrought a space-filled landscape with Abstract Expressionist means. Who does not admire the observation, intensity and compositional might of the Philip Pearlstein major scale painting? To include some "heroes" I actually knew was so satisfying, namely Jack Levine, Paul Cadmus (I was honored to have been placed on his one side, with Chuck Close on the other at Cadmus' 90th Birthday dinner at the National Academy) and Isabel Bishop, a teacher who became a friend.Click here to view the entire interview
It Figures highlights the work of Sigmund Abeles, painter, sculptor, draftsman, teacher, storyteller and printmaker, and guest curator for the adjacent exhibition An Artist's Eye: A Journey through Modern and Contemporary Art with Sigmund Abeles. Sigmund, now 77, embodies the kind of insightful critical thinking and pure joy in artistic expression that comes from close observation and decades of experience in the art world. His reputation as a member of the National Academy, an artist and teacher, and his connections to South Carolina—he was raised in Horry county and graduated from USC—gave him the perfect set of 'eyes' to form An Artist's Eye.
It Figures is intended as a complement to that show—a way for the visitor to understand visually the artistic make up, philosophy and lineage of Sigmund Abeles that finds its very personal expression in An Artist's Eye. Each show enhances the other. With It Figures, we are granted access to Sig's creative mind. Having the ability to appreciate his work as an artist informs what we see through Sig's eyes as a curator.
- Joyce and Bob Hampton
- The Hilliard Family Foundation
- Lunch & Recess
- Dr. and Mrs. Nicholas K. Moore
- Abacus Planning Group, Inc.
- Mr. and Mrs. Ben D. Arnold
- Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin M. Gimarc
- Carla and Dibble Manning
- Susan Thorpe and John Baynes
- Smith Family Foundation