Following his guest-curated exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art, An Artist’s Eye, Sigmund Abeles has resumed his active art life in New York. He spends part of the week in his art-filled residence in an historic building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, one originally built as residential artist studios, and the other in his spacious studio upstate in Columbia County. While in the city he maintains an active social life in art, and in and around my visits with him, he was either going to an opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or a reception at the National Arts Club.
He regularly attends drawings sessions at the Century Association, a private club that is the heir to the Sketch Club, an organization founded in 1829 and counted Winslow Homer and Asher Durand as members. He recently attended the opening of the newly refurbished galleries of the National Academy Museum and School. He was named a National Academician in 1990.
If the life of Abeles in the metropolis sounds like he’s a bona fide member of New York’s traditional art establishment, in many ways, he is a card-carrying member. In point of fact, during one of our conversations, he opened his wallet to show me his two favorite cards. One is his lifetime artist pass to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The other, the more unusual one, is a card identifying him as a member of the New York Parks Mounted Auxiliary Unit, a group of volunteers that patrolled nearby Central Park and other areas on horseback. But with the artist’s love for horses, a frequent subject of his artwork, this affiliation seems not so surprising. Certainly not surprising is that his lifelong body of figurative work has brought him many awards and recognitions, ones that open doors in the city.
Over the course of two visits at his studio in the city, Abeles talked with me about a range of subjects – his early life in Myrtle Beach and his self-taught lessons at Brookgreen Gardens, the art that most inspires him, and his regular drawing routines. Deeply connected to the long academic tradition in art, he finds much to admire in its contemporary practitioners such as Vincent Desiderio or the more post-modern painter Mark Tansey. We talked about the commanding use of color in the paintings of Willem de Kooning, also an artist whose work took a figurative turn. Ever courteous, gentle, and thoughtful, at turns playful and serious, Abeles shared with me several lessons on drawing and on what it means for him to have a life in art.
Habits of drawing
While in the city, Abeles finds some time to work on art, but routinely he spends his serious studio time during his four days at his place upstate. “I think I have to – like most figurative artists – work with models. I’m a little off schedule.” Yet, by our second visit a week later, he had found a promising new model and would soon be back in the groove. Asked about works in progress, he answered, “I work on things that are started, and I start things, some more rapidly.” These days he works mainly in pastels, “a bridge,” as he describes the medium, between drawing and painting. He considers his strongest work now to be in pastels.
As a young teen in Myrtle Beach, Abeles began drawing after he got his driver’s license, teaching himself to draw by drawing the sculptures in Brookgreen Gardens. He also spent summers on the beach, renting umbrellas and drawing people in swimsuits. “It was always people or animals,” he said, a figurative practice that continues to this day. Moving to New York in the 1950s at a time when abstract work commanded attention, Abeles persevered against the grain. “It was abstract or else,” he said. Noting the sea change of our current era, “We live in a pluralistic and diverse time.”
“I was trained as a painter but with the sensibility of a sculptor,” Abeles told me. Yet drawing continues to serve as the underpinning of all his work, whether it’s painting, sculpture, or, more typically these days, pastels. “If I don’t draw, I sit down where you are and every night I draw who’s on Charlie Rose.” He came over to sit next to me on the couch and showed me his small artist sketchbook, flipping through the pages. “There’s Timothy Geitner…Paul Volcker…the Reverend Jeremiah Wright…I don’t draw Charlie because he’s not often that much on camera.” The small drawings well conveyed the essence of these individuals. Indeed, this small book suggests some of the reasons why he makes art. “Drawing is my lifeline to all these things,” Abeles said.
To the point, the body of drawings Abeles told me he considers his best works are the forty-four drawings he made while bedside of his baby son, born severely premature in 1983. He showed me several while we talked, heart-wrenching images of a tiny baby wrapped in bandages and connected to tubes. Known as “The Max Drawings,” these sensitive and honest drawings depict the course of his child’s fragile health from incubator to health. Abeles drew through his fears. When presented with the circumstance of his son’s condition, he reflected on the imperative to draw. “This is the opportunity,” he said. The works won great acclaim and traveled to thirteen museums between 1985 and 1992. He evokes the word “vibrancy” to describe the life quality he seeks in all his drawing. “Being a lifelong figurative artist and an only child with only one parent, I try to bring things to life. I drew both my parents on their deathbed and my child.”
After a long career teaching at the Swain School of Design, Wellesley College, Boston University, and finally, at the University of New Hampshire, Abeles left full-time teaching in 1987. This year he is scheduled to teach a weekend workshop in December at New York Academy of Art, one tied in with his experience in printmaking. As he has guided many students, teachers and visiting artists made important early interventions for him, especially in his formative days in South Carolina. One such artist was Gerard Tempest (1918 – 2009), whom Abeles described as “a Platonist who looked for beauty.” When Tempest visited Brookgreen, Abeles showed him an article in Life magazine about upcoming artists. Singling out one of the featured artists, Tempest instructed Abeles to cut out the picture and paste it on his wall. “He told me, ‘You get as good as he is.’”
As an accomplished draftsman and experienced mentor to other artists, Abeles has much wisdom to impart. For example, for those beginning a drawing, he advises, “If you ever wonder where to start, start with the nearest thing to you.” While those of us who are learning to draw still struggle with the basics of perspective and proportion, I was curious what an accomplished draftsman like Abeles thought about the most. “I think a lot about placement,” he said. “You are led to works and you stay with works that are compositionally interesting.” Drawing proceeds as “a building and a map,” he said, advising to also “start from the bottom up.” He explained that he always sought out form, “trying to have all the parts fit.”
Looking at individual drawings over this career, often so singular and varying that he describes them as “one-of-a-kinds,” the viewer will notice that certain lines or spots are more worked while other areas suggest a lighter touch. He said, “My drawings have hot spots, places of focus and areas that are ignored.” Unlike modern photorealist works, “where every inch of those places has attention, an even focus,” Abeles said his drawings are strong on the face, hands, and feet. When working with models, he advises to be aware of the poses: “Poses have an active side and a passive side. The constellation of the poses – unless it’s a Giacometti – have a more energetic agitated side and a quieter side.”
Abeles gave up painting for twenty years, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Thinking he was not a natural colorist, he turned his attention to printmaking, a medium that drew on his talents in line drawing and composition. Creating prints, though, had definite “democratic” advantages in the art market, as he noted, making his works more readily available. “An ordinary person could own one of my works. A student who worked for a weekend could own a work,” he said. For aspiring painters, he advises, “Try to keep drawing in your painting. Use more round brushes. Give homage daily to Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas. Lucien Simon did wonderful figurative work with the drawing in the painting.”
A drawing by Abeles often invokes a duality between French and German artistic traditions, a prettiness tempered by psychological expression. While he enjoys what he calls the “delicious” qualities of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, he acknowledges that the psychological qualities of northern European art are more prevalent in his own work. “The most powerful influence on my life in the last two decades is Lucian Freud.” He greatly admires Käthe Kollwitz, too. “The darker, mystical side is stronger than the French side. That is for sure,” he said.
At the end of our conversation, Abeles shared a favorite quote from writer Chase Twichell, taken from “the rules” that she follows to govern her poetry: “Tell the truth. No decoration. Remember death.” Abeles agreed with the wisdom of these rules. He said, “I would just add, ‘Take chances. Trust intuition.’”