Edward Hopper and Midwestern Melancholy, c. 1974

 

I’m often asked who my influences are as a painter.  Certainly Vermeer, for his subtle use of light and elegant compositions.  Caravaggio, for the opposite reason—extremes of light and shadow, or chiaroscuro as the Italians call it so beautifully.  Though it’s not overtly evident in my work, I’ve always admired the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich,  the strange symbolist works of Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin and the immediate brushwork in portraits by John Singer Sargent.  But the one artist that’s had the greatest effect on me is Edward Hopper. 

Hopper was born in 1882 in Nyack, New York.  He was a tall, painfully shy child—six feet tall by the age of twelve.  He spent much of his time alone drawing from an early age.  He studied under Robert Henri but also trained as an illustrator in order to make a living, a profession he loathed.  In 1906, at the age of 24 he went to Paris to paint and was enthralled by the light he found there.  He remarked that “the shadows are more luminous, the clouds lower.”  I did not fully understand this until I made my own artistic pilgrimage to France at about the same age.  Two years after that, when I left my native Midwest and relocated to Boston, I discovered “coastal” light—intense, sharp and brilliant.  This light, as well as Hopper’s work has forever changed the way I see things.

Looking at paintings has always been a bit like time travel for me--at least what I would imagine time travel to be.  No matter how long ago the creator of a work lived, when that work resonates within me the years seem to melt away and I feel a visceral, direct connection to the artist and the times in which he or she lived.  In retrospect, this was doubly so with Hopper’s work.  I was only 11 or 12 when I first saw one of his paintings, but it was then that I experienced this sensation for the first time.  It was around 1974 on a school field trip to the Toledo Museum of Art and coincided with a particularly lonely time in my own life. 

For the record, I had a mostly happy childhood.  I grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, and though we lived far from any cultural centers, my parents did the best they could with what they had.  The first paintings I remember were the still lifes and landscapes done by my mother in her youth.  I marveled at the way she could make random blobs of texture and color seen up close suddenly cohere into the most brilliantly realistic depiction of say, an apple or a bubbling stream when you stood just a few paces back.  She was my first artistic influence.

We lived in a modest ranch house with a large picture window that faced a meadow across the street.  In the distance, a line of trees marked what could’ve been the edge of the world to me.  I remember studying the outlines of those trees as a small boy for hours on end, trying to imagine what might lie beyond them.  I suppose I was fated to be an artist, for without realizing it, I was already mentally translating the shapes of those trees into a two-dimensional landscape in my mind--my first landscape.  Today, when I look at home movies and see that treeline in the background, a flood of memories rushes back.  They are happy memories, far from the turbulence that characterized the 1960s.

By the time I was in middle school, though, things were quite different.  My days were circumscribed by seemingly endless bus rides.  We had moved to a different neighborhood, and my parents, both devout Catholics, had sent me and my two older sisters to a parochial school in town.  I recall none of us ever being happy about this.  It wasn’t just because of the long commute—no one in our neighborhood went to the same school as us.  The school itself was a forbidding gray edifice made of massive limestone blocks mined from the local quarries.   It was connected by a “breezeway” of steel and opaque safety glass to a convent and a hodgepodge of several less imposing buildings, without any apparent plan or forethought.  The smell of stale, canned beef emanated from a subterranean cafeteria and permeated hallways that always seemed cold, no matter what time of year.  I jokingly tell my son that I attended Hogwarts.  There was nothing magical about it, though.

This was made clear to me my first day of school when I received a hard slap on the back of the head from my teacher, Sister Mary Rosaria.  Apparently I wasn’t paying attention.  Thus began my introduction to Catholicism, a relationship that was ultimately doomed to fail.  There would be other nuns during my twelve year tenure at St. Mary’s Central Catholic, some much better, some worse.  By the sixth grade I had learned to navigate the ways of the Sisters of Notre Dame as much as any inmate survives incarceration.  The worst part of school, though, wasn’t a few sadistic teachers or our depressing surroundings.  Like Hopper, I was shy and loved to read and draw.  This was a problem, because at St. Mary’s sport was king.  In the social hierarchy, I was quickly relegated to the status of second class citizen because of my inability to do anything with a ball.  I had a few misfit friends that shared my rank as outcast, but for the most part I was invisible.  A nobody.

On this particular grade school field trip to the Toledo Museum, shortly after we arrived we immediately flocked around an Egyptian sarcophagus and were told by our guide that there was still an actual mummy inside.  Pretty heady stuff for a gaggle of sweaty middle schoolers.  As we wandered deeper into the museum, the first painting that made us stop and linger was Thomas Cole’s The Architect’s Dream.  Founder of the Hudson River School, he was also an architect who designed the Ohio Statehouse.  This painting, unlike his other landscapes, though could be more accurately described as a Victorian acid trip.  Various structures from ancient Greece to the Middle Ages were crammed together in a vast assemblage, complete with the great pyramids of Giza floating off in a distant, atmospheric haze.  In the foreground a minuscule figure reclined atop an ornate column in rapt reverie.  I remember a few of us giggling at this.  Other than its highly detailed rendering, the greatest impression the work made on me was its sheer size—over four by seven feet.  I had never given any thought to the scale of a painting and how it could change its meaning.  Apparently Mr. Cole really wanted the world to know that architecture was indeed the grooviest of all the arts.

Rounding a corner into an adjoining gallery, I was suddenly face to face with an unassuming canvas depicting three figures in an empty theater.  It was Two on the Aisle by Edward Hopper.  I would learn later that this was not one of his more well-known works, like Nighthawks or House by a Railroad.  It even seemed small after bathing in Cole’s billboard-sized landscape.  Nevertheless, there was something oddly arresting about it and I found that couldn’t stop staring.  I started to become a little self-conscious as my classmates wandered on and I stood glued to the spot.  I tried to play it cool and casually moved closer.  Hopper’s brush strokes were rough and almost crude; his colors were garish.  Yet somehow he captured exactly the quality of dim house lighting inside an old theater.  I could almost smell the place.  How on earth did he do it? I wondered.  It was as if he had magically distilled the experience of a thousand empty theaters and poured it onto one canvas.  I was dazzled.

I had never experienced feelings like these looking at a painting and was actually starting to get a little creeped out.  Yet I couldn’t tear myself away.  Examining the figures, I was struck by their separateness—how they all seemed encased in their own thoughts and worlds, despite being so near each other.  Mind you, I had neither the vocabulary nor experience to put this all this into words; it was more like a wave of emotion that crashed over me.  I was looking into an alien world; not just the far away world of a theater in a big city a half century earlier, but the wider and greater world of adults.  There was something far more powerful and toxic about this grown-up loneliness than I could have ever imagined.

While the Toledo museum houses a fine collection of work, very little of it made much of an impression on me after that.  After a couple hours, we had to leave.  Life went back to its familiar routines, but I never forgot that moment.  As I discovered more of Hopper’s work in books, those feelings would be confirmed and amplified.  “My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature”, he wrote in 1933.  In a career that spanned six decades, he never wavered from that goal.  His way of looking at the world would have a profound impact on me.  One of his last works, Sun in an Empty Room seems to coexist neatly not just within his own aesthetic, but also the turbulent changes of mid-20th century art and the rise of Abstract Expressionism.  Though he decried painting that “deals narrowly with harmonies and dissonances of color and design”, he also once famously uttered, “Maybe I’m not very human.  All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.”  Of course, this self-deprecating remark made late in his life downplays his keen insights into human relations.  Hopper observed relentlessly—the world he moved in, the people that inhabited it, their relationships (or more profoundly their lack of them) and the quality of light illuminating it all.

Back on the bus, staring at a painfully flat Ohio landscape, I saw the world with different eyes.  The intimate rendering of isolation in Two on the Aisle somehow lessened my own feelings of alienation.  Other people felt the way I did, even adults.  Author William Nicholson once wrote, “We read to know that we are not alone”.  On that day, it was a painting that jolted me from my slumber of separateness.  In a happy irony, after seeing Hopper’s work, I felt much less alone.


                                                                                                    Michael Zigmond
                                                                                                                      2014






Big Balancing Act

Atop an ornate, inverted crystal glass rests a large, plump red pear on its side, which in turn supports a small young elephant with its trunk raised skyward. This odd and precariously balanced construction sits upon a shiny wooden surface, entirely bathed in bright, warm light. Looking closer, one sees a pattern of ornate ripples, reflections and highlights in the glass that are reminiscent of interstellar dust and starlight from far-distant regions of space. A translucent, blue globe that forms part of the stem above this shows an inverted horizon and a highlight that could double for a white-hot sun hanging in an empty sky. The deep red pear atop the base of the glass is partly in shadow, its stem to the side with with a prominent scar or disfiguration in the high-lit area . The overall tone of the painting is warm, with cooler mauves and violets toward the middle and top of the background, similar to warm flesh-tones or a sky at twilight.

This is a large painting, almost four feet square with a small still life as its subject matter. But the ideas and symbolic content suggest great size, power and vastness. In The Herder Symbol Dictionary, under the entry “Elephant” we find:

“In Asia it is the steed of the ruler and a symbol of power, wisdom, peace and happiness.  It  is the steed of the Indian god Indra. Ganesha, the popular son of the god Shiva, the victor over obstacles, is depicted with an elephant 's head. In India and Tibet the elephant often appears as the bearer of the entire universe; hence, it occurs in architecture as a supporting structure.In Africa the elephant has been revered as a symbol of strength, happiness and long life.1

Yet in the painting we find a young, juvenile elephant not supporting the entire structure, but playfully trumpeting atop its plump and fleshy, red perch. This is a painting bursting with life yet profoundly still. It hints at sensuality, power and reproduction but it is also portrays the macrocosm of the entire universe within the microcosm of a tiny collection of a child's toy, a ripe fruit and an ornate cup. The objects are arranged to suggest, despite their vitality, a fragile and precarious equilibrium. The artist has even titled the piece Big Balancing Act, alluding to a circus performance but also inferring that all life, throughout the universe, whether great or small requires a willful and careful act of balance to maintain its own existence.

                                                                                                 Noah Limm-Gedicz


1 The Herder Symbol Dictionary, ©1986 by Chiron Publications; originally published as Herder Lexikon: Symbole, ©1978, Herder Freiberg; translated by Boris Matthews, PhD. (pp. 68-69).



ART SUPPLIES

In the early Spring of 2001 I had a dream in which I was in Europe, painting and traveling. I met an artist in Paris who told me about a wonderful old man who had a shop and sold the most amazing art supplies. Would I like to meet him? “Sure,” I said. “He's a little eccentric,” my new acquaintance warned me. “Some sort of old Baron or Count or something. Very old.” How old? I asked. “Oh, 763 or 764. He's not quite sure himself.” I could see that my new friend was absolutely serious. Well, I thought, I did need a few things. Why not?

A short walk and we're at the address. No store front, sign or window. Just an empty courtyard and a heavy, iron gate leading to a stone stairwell. “He only sells to certain artists,” was all my friend said by way of an explanation. Then there appeared before me a rather short, balding man (about 700 years younger than described) in well-worn navy blue trousers and work shirt. He had a deeply tanned, craggy face and very bad teeth. For all the world he looked like one of those beaming Russian farmers from the old soviet propaganda films I'd seen in history class. If he was descended from royalty, he had certainly fallen on some hard times. Introductions were made. He knew of my work, which surprised me and said I was welcome to look around.

Through the gate, down a very deep, stone stairwell to a second, locked iron gate. At this point I'm starting to worry about my personal safety. Does anyone even know I'm here? After the Count fumbled with a large key ring holding several ancient skeleton keys, the gate was quickly opened and we stepped into what could best be described as a sort of basement general store with several people milling about. Unremarkable, at first, until I looked more closely. It was very neat and clean, with the odd assortment of paints and pastels, though many of the shelves were empty. There was clothing and furniture for sale as well. I saw an exquisite, ornately carved headboard that looked brand new. “14th century,” my friend said. “Need a bed? His prices are very reasonable.” There was something very odd about this place.

And then it occurred to me. There was absolutely no dust on anything. My friend had correctly guessed what was going through my mind. “That's what so special about this place. These paints, who knows how old they are? But they're all like brand new. Specially mixed by the Count, himself. And they will last forever. Hell, the guy is over 700 hundred years old. I don't know how he does it, but he knows what he's doing.”

I walk over to a display of homemade pastels, sitting upon largely empty shelves. They are some of the most brilliant hues I've ever seen, even in the dim light. I see a small display of tubes of homemade oil paint, all with unfamiliar labels. They are a variety of custom-mixed flesh tints. I turn toward another room and see a young bohemian-looking woman, dressed in thrift-store clothes looking through a rack of coats. She carefully picks one out and tries it on, knowing that she will never need another winter coat in her lifetime. Everywhere, there are artists of all ages casually shopping and picking out what they need. I wake up.

In June of 2001, I participated in the Third Realism Invitational at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco and submitted a painting titled Still life with Gourds. A full-color catalog was printed and Patricia Failing wrote an essay for it. Of my work she wrote:

Zigmond's spare, very still still life occupies a pristine, hermetically sealed environment that will never endure the insult of dust.”

                                                                                                                                      M.Z.