SOUTH CAROLINIANA LIBRARY
UNIVERSITY SOUTH CAROLINIANA SOCIETY
Sigmund Abeles Papers, 1955-1998
"As you and I know, intense art about people, often shed of their clothes[,] is not for everyone and I am not about to tell you that I am an easy artist to sell," Sigmund Abeles (b. 1934) wrote to a prospective dealer on 10 June 1987. "I am a corporate un-touchable, so one must find personal collectors who care about the connectedness of us humans to one another and who love good drawing...hopefully there are such brave and unusual souls in Greensboro." Less than a year later, in a letter of 15 February 1988, fellow American artist Herbert Waters would tell him—"I feel that your body of work is both strong and beautiful, and that you come so very close to uniting Art and Life. It is something to create pattern and form that explain and enhance the poignancy and beauty and even tragedy of life, as well as humor."
The three and three-quarters linear feet of manuscripts, 1955-1998, transferred from his New York residence in 1998, represent the Library's initial installment of the letters and papers of this extraordinary printmaker, sculptor and painter. Comprised chiefly of letter files, the collection also contains appointment diaries, 1978-1992; consignment sheets and sales records; exhibit invitations, notices and catalogues; photographs; and miscellaneous printed items, including some published reproductions of his work.
Reared in Myrtle Beach from the age of two and a half, Abeles established formative ties along South Carolina's Grand Strand. There, metaphorically under the watchful eye of Anna Hyatt Huntington in a place where "the spell of sculpture in a formal setting was total in effect," he made his first sketches and began what was virtually "an early academic education" (Contemporary Artists of South Carolina, 1970). During his high school years he came under the influence of Gerard Tempesta, an artist who had moved to Myrtle Beach in 1950. It was an apprenticeship under this artist which "so set my head and work that I gained little from all my subsequent formal art school study."
But Abeles' conscience and awareness were further developed through his associations in Columbia, where in the 1950s he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, 1955). Here, guided by such faculty members as Edmund Yaghjian and Catherine Rembert, he came to be considered "one of South Carolina's most promising young artists" (Gamecock, 14 January 1955). In the early 1960s, while teaching at the Columbia Museum's Richland Art School, he first began to focus on printmaking. It all began in the Columbia Museum's parking lot, he later claimed—"A representative from the Roten Galleries was packing his car in the museum's lot and showed me a Kathe Kollwitz print in the collection. I bought my first Kollwitz right here. I had made prints before, but this was different. That was what got me going. I gradually realized that my graphic/drawing work was my clearest, strongest, most personal statement; so by the mid-sixties I gave up painting and color" (Carolina Alumni Quarterly, May 1981). Abeles would later return to working in color, especially in the medium of the pastel starting in 1979, all the while focusing upon "an intense and empathetic investigation of the human figure and how it relates to our times." He has continued to believe that an artist needs, first and foremost, to be able to draw well, from life as well as from memory and imagination, "in order to communicate what he sees, senses, and dreams about into convincing visual expression" (exhibit catalogue, "Psychologically Charged: Four Figurative Painters," 1997).
Abeles pursued further studies at the Art Students League in New York City—where he has also taught; the Pratt Institute; the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine; and the Brooklyn Museum School. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University.
Before moving to New York in 1994, Abeles taught for thirty years in New England—first at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Mass., and then at Wellesley College, Boston University and the University of New Hampshire. The collection contains material linking him with these schools, principally letters from former students, many of whom have gone on to build successful art careers for themselves. "My strength, as well as my fault, in being a liberal teacher is that I approach each student as someone with a particular or peculiar way of looking at the world and at art," he has said. "I try not to have students develop in a direction foreign to their already-existing visions" (exhibit catalogue, "Sigmund Abeles: A Retrospective," University [of New Hampshire] Art Galleries, 1988).
A member of the National Academy Museum of Art, he has received numerous awards, and his work—frequently included in group shows—has been the subject of many solo exhibitions. In addition to being widely collected privately, he is represented in the permanent collections of such institutions as the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Fogg Museum of Harvard University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Academy of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Correspondence with collectors, gallery owners, and museum directors and curators documents the exhibition and sale of his work. Among the primary letter files involving dealers is one which traces his association with the Mary Ryan Gallery in New York, 1981-1986, and especially his efforts to recoup major losses when on 16 December 1983 art work of his valued in the thousands of dollars was destroyed or damaged in a fire which gutted both floors of the gallery. In a letter of 18 December he wrote— "Almost my entire recent show of pastels plus at least 100 drawings and 75 prints in three bulging portfolios were seriously damaged if not outright destroyed by fire and water. Mary informs me that not one piece of mine escaped damage. What the smoke and fire didn't ruin, a burst water main did. The downstairs where my work was stored was flooded, and then the ceiling collapsed on it all. Included in the destruction were eight of the fourteen sold works, awaiting pickup by their new owners (to be) and works being considered for purchase by a museum. This terrible loss constitutes the best, and most of, my last three years work." He added—"Without a doubt 1983 was the worst year of my life: the illness and death of my mother, the 3-month premature birth of our son Max with all those fears and problems and hospitalizations, the closing of my Boston gallery and now this!"
In addition to letters from family, former students, printers, collectors, museum directors and curators are core units of correspondence with other artists—some of them former teachers and fellow academicians, many of them among late twentieth-century America's most distinguished figurative and realist painters and printmakers—artists' artists. Present in the collection, for instance, are letters from Harvey Breverman, Jack Beal, Jack Coughlin, Domenic Cretara, Robert Ecker, Philip Grausman, Conley Harris, John Hatch, Sidney Hurwitz, Ray Kinstler, R.B. Kitaj, Jacob Landau, Marion Miller, Judith Roth, Deidre Scherer, Harry Sternberg and Jerome Witkin. "I am proud to know you!" painter and printmaker Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) wrote him on 30 April 1981. "I have followed your work since that summer at Skowhegan and I admire your great range and expressiveness." And in a letter of 17 February [1987-1988] Maurice Lapp would tell him—"Keep painting and drawing....You are one of the keepers of the flame....It's so important to preserve and nurture these skills...these arts....Carry on...."
Other correspondents include Andre Dubus, Frank Graziano, William Heyen, Maxine Kumin, Milton Leitenberg, Lewis Mumford, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Williams. The file of letters from Bertrand Mathieu contains copies of letters from writers Anais Nin and Henry Miller. Among the letter-writers from South Carolina are James Lee Barrett, Paul Bright, Stephen Chesley, Mardi Ledyard, William Halsey and Corrie McCallum, Truman Moore, Robert D. Ochs, Alex Powers, Judy Roberts, Boyd Saunders, and Edmund Yaghjian.
Of particular interest and significance are the correspondence files on David Van Hook (1923-1986) and J. Bardin (1923-1997), two artists who, along with Abeles and Jasper Johns, were a seminal part of the art world in South Carolina during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. The letters from Van Hook, who began a lengthy administrative and curatorial association with the Columbia Museum of Art starting in 1951, present a thirty-five year insider's view of the Museum and of the local art scene.
On 5 December 1958 Van Hook wrote—"Jap [Jasper Johns] is in the prize winning circle at the Corcoran show this year. It is not public information as yet. He called Catherine [Rembert] the other night to let us know." "Jap continues to stir the critics in anger or praise every month," he remarked on 7 March 1959. "I'm glad for him as it certainly sells pictures—he is much more controversial than Rauschenberg ever was." In a letter of 23 May 1959 he reported on projected changes at the Museum—"We are planning to get an Assistant Director as Dr. Craft's legs have given out on him and I'm to be able to do more in the way of Museum installation (which I get a tremendous kick out of) and they are also planning to get a full time director for the new Children's Museum (which is underway—abuildin') which will take the Art School hassle off my back and leave me more time to concentrate on what I like best." He added—"Craft had also intended asking you to stay in Columbia upon your return and introduce Printmaking into the School Curriculum (but that can wait until your return). WE ARE GROWING BY LEAPS AND BOUNDS HERE—you won't believe it when you see it." In an undated letter probably written in the early 1980s, after his employment with the Museum had been terminated, Van Hook wrote Abeles—"I am forced to sell my `Black Flag' print by Jasper [Johns] to survive....I find that I'm so terribly depressed that I can't bring myself to paint....The exhibit fare in the city is bad and I can't afford to get out of town to view better."
The letters from J. Bardin, one of which (30 March 1985) he characterizes as his "S.C. art report for the year," also convey vital information on art and artists in the state from 1961 to 1992. Among those mentioned are Robert Courtright, Jon Formo, William Halsey, Jasper Johns, William Ledyard, Jean McWhorter, Susan Meredith, Basilios Poulos, Merton Simpson and John Waddill. "We're all different and all getting lots of attention, applause, credits and such," he wrote on 30 April 1986. "You'd be delighted with your response [to the 1986 Columbia Museum of Art's exhibit "South Carolina: The State of the Arts"], the master touches are all there in that piece." Earlier that year, on 4 January, he reported on the status of his own work—"Somehow I did manage to get things to Paris...for April '85. Fifteen works, Centre International D'Art Contemporain. As you know I've been involved at some level for a long time 1960's or so. Did this just to keep bread upon the waters there and a few doors open with all this long time involvement. Right away they've invited me to have 10 works there again for Jan. 86." On 29 June 1992 he observed—"The local art scene (if there's much of any here) seems dead & buried for the hot season ahead. Your show [McKissick Museum's "Sigmund Abeles Retrospective"] is the class act. It offers something for the few loyalists, the few stranded here and the few visitors."
Beyond letters to editors, Abeles' forays into writing for publication have focused upon other artists, living and deceased, whose work has been important to him. In the "artists' eye review" of the 1988-89 Metropolitan Museum of Art's comprehensive retrospective on Edgar Degas which Abeles wrote for American Artist that year, he stated at the outset—"For thirty years, Degas has been a favorite master, but especially after I began to work in pastel in 1979. His unparalleled draftsmanship, surprising compositions and psychological, often mysterious art keep being the measure against which I judge my work. I was born one hundred years after Edgar Degas (1834-1917), yet feel some of the same impulses that drove him...drive me."
Abeles' efforts to produce another piece for American Artist on the works-on-paper retrospective on the Anglo-European artist Lucian Freud at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford never materialized. In turning down Abeles' request to interview the artist in London, Freud's agent, James Kirkman, replied on 28 March 1988—"I am extremely sorry to disappoint you, but I must tell you that Lucian is leading a more and more reclusive live these days. He goes out very rarely and he has always been very shy of inviting strangers to his studio." A few months later, in a letter published in the New York Times Magazine for 8 January 1989, in which he chided the New York museum community for failing to provide a venue for Freud's works-on-paper retrospective (rather than in his print dealer's commercial gallery), Abeles wrote—"Marina Warner's article `Lucian Freud: The Unblinking Eye' (Dec. 4), full of compelling facts and rumors about Lucian Freud's personal life, is surely interesting, but what is important is to see and experience the intensity, depth and mastery of his work; there is no other painter like him. Only a self-portrait by Rembrandt or Van Gogh comes close to the profundity and honesty of Freud's `Reflection.' One is convinced that there is real blood flowing beneath the clotted-cream surfaces of Freud's portraits of nudes."
Near the end of his original letter to the Magazine, which he had written on 6 December 1988, Abeles declared—"Nothing is harder to hide than the naked truth. Finally with Freud we have a painter who when he shows us the emperor with or without his clothes there is no hipe, camp or pretense, only overwhelming honesty, actually worth the prices he can command." As for his own work, Abeles once wrote (in Who's Who in America)—"I strive to observe life with a penetrating eye that I hope can go beyond surface reality to reveal psychological and visual truth, even magic."
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