Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on August 31, 2006 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Mort Künstler - The American Spirit
By Franklin Hill Perrell
Widely regarded as the leading history painter of today, Mort Künstler works in a heightened realist vein, bringing fidelity to his subjects and conveying the rich narrative of American history.
It is true, that at our point in time, there are few history painters, perhaps because we have less appreciation for history than our predecessors. It has been quipped, "before us there was history, now we have current events." Hence, this exhibition provides an opportunity to gain a sense, pictorially, of some memorable, and at times, crucial incidents in the American saga. These stories are readily grasped due to the artist's commitment to realism. Poised at the cusp of the Golden Age of Illustration and the ongoing tradition of American Realism, Künstler's well-defined focus sets him apart from the spectrum of postmodernist styles abundant today. Devoid of irony or cynicism, he asserts a value structure based on fixed concepts of right and wrong, courage and fortitude. As a Long Islander, Künstler is, in a way, our own artist, which adds special luster to his distinctive accomplishments.
The history cycle depicted in these works serves as a visual reconstruction of the events which shaped our past. For most of the earlier subjects, extensive pictorial records were never made, yet somewhere in the consciousness of many Americans they are known. The issue of nationalism, unfashionable as it is in many circles, is inevitably evoked, as the subjects identify defining moments in terms of history and values. They provide a useful education, of themes more often forgotten than remembered, and for many of the younger generation, all but unknown.
Mort Künstler grew up in the era which had first hand knowledge of the Depression and World War II. The cliché, "Greatest Generation," is apt since Americans prevailed during these struggles because they kept alive the positive values and inspiring principles of the founding fathers.
For a young man born in Brooklyn during these hard times, an artistic career was not an attractive prospect for the average person, but Künstler's unique skill and circumstances prevailed. Künstler was a child prodigy whose parents recognized his artistic talent at the age of two and a half. Künstler's father was an amateur artist who encouraged his son by setting up still lifes for him at home. His mother enrolled him in Saturday classes at the Brooklyn Museum. In first grade, Künstler's elementary school gave him a classroom and the teacher taped huge sheets of paper on the wall for him to make a mural, while his hushed classmates filed in to admire his work. Künstler's other side, as an athlete, was also cultivated by his parents' support. A sickly child, his father encouraged him to build himself up physically through sports, and Künstler went on to become the first four-letter-man at Brooklyn College, earning awards for basketball, diving, football and track, and ultimate honors in the Brooklyn College Sports Hall of Fame. Art, however, was Künstler's first love and it became his passion. He became captivated by illustration art which was highly prized before the widespread use of photography for book covers and magazine stories. Künstler graduated from high school at age 15, and his parents agreed to help him pursue a career in illustration. After first studying at Brooklyn College and then at UCLA on a basketball scholarship, he went to Pratt Institute where he achieved his first commission, illustrating a book on football written by his former football coach.
In the early 1950s, after graduation from Pratt, Künstler felt he had to become an apprentice. At that time there were still art studios just for illustration, and Künstler found employment at one, doing every sort of menial job from sweeping to cleaning palettes. Making only $30 a week, he nonetheless learned the ropes and made samples of his work at night, building up a portfolio to show art directors. In his first year of freelance work, Künstler made $3000. Thinking that this was enough to live on, Künstler married his girlfriend, Deborah, who added her earnings as a textile designer. The next year Künstler made even more money and the young couple, thinking they were rich, used their wedding gift proceeds to buy a car and travel to Mexico for two months. Optimistic about the future, they bought their first house. Künstler did extremely well during the next five years as he gained more recognition, showing each finished assignment to a new prospective client before delivering it.
Künstler believed that if he was to "swim with the big boys" he had to "look for stuff that he could do better." Fresh out of art school, he connected with Dodd, Mead & Co. to do book covers at $100 a piece. He was assigned three at a time which he was given several months to complete, although they actually took him only a single day to finish. He went on to men's adventure magazines such as True and Argosy which featured writers like Ernest Hemingway, along with the best illustrators. During this time, he worked extremely hard, doing one stretch of six weeks in a row without a day or night off, taking time only to eat and sleep. Money was not his motivating factor. Künstler was living his dream as a successful illustrator and he was afraid to turn down any work fearing that the requests would stop. The 1950s was still an era when photography had not overtaken illustration as a means of communication for stories or advertising. It was the culmination of America's peak period of illustration, and in this realm, Künstler became a leader, and one of the best paid and best known in his field. Action scenes were his métier, and his talent for historical scenes led him from assignment to assignment as commissions flooded in.
During the early 1960s, the field of illustration began to change dramatically, as photography gradually supplanted drawn or painted images. But Künstler was still able to get commissions. It was through his work for National Geographic that Künstler developed the methodology that fuels his work to the present: collaboration with experts who would guide him by providing the historic facts and visual samples needed to build an accurate image. By the 1970s, Künstler was doing covers for Newsweek and many other magazines. However, the bulk of his work during this period was in advertising art. He became one of the star artists in what would be regarded as the golden age of movie posters.
By this time, Künstler began thinking that "a good illustration can also be a great work of art." He also began to collect the then under-rated works of Rockwell, Leyendecker and similarly classic American illustrators, gathering a large number of books and tear sheets. He used Howard Pyle as an example, pointing out that if the illustrator, with enough originality and talent, was given freedom and leeway, he could produce something of great artistic merit. By this time, Künstler was increasingly following this pattern himself since publishers had gained such confidence in him that they no longer demanded preliminaries or corrections.
Around this time, Künstler was making fully realized paintings, either in gouache or in oil, and it began to dawn on him that the originals had a value apart from the commission fee. A fellow illustrator, who was showing his own art in galleries out west pointed out that Künstler could do the same thing and recommended his work for exhibition. Every painting that Künstler submitted sold. This was all in 1975, when Künstler was at the height of his fame as an illustrator. One day, Künstler was browsing around the Hammer Galleries in New York City when a salesman noticed a painting under Künstler's arm, one of his own works. The salesman retrieved Richard Lynch, the gallery director, who told the artist, "We're about to do a show of western sculpture, can you provide us with three paintings to go on the walls?" And that was the beginning of a working relationship with Hammer that continues to this day, with a new exhibition opening December 5, 2006 and running through January 5, 2007.
Künstler's paintings all sold, and he was offered a one person show. Amazingly, he was hesitant to do it, saying he didn't want to gamble on his family's future. Künstler couldn't see how doing paintings in expectation of sale could equate with his commissioned work. The solution to this dilemma came in the form of an assignment from Reader's Digest for ten paintings based on American Indian ceremonials, with the publisher providing folders of research about each theme. Künstler agreed only if he could get the original paintings back, so they could be used for exhibition. After much negotiation, Reader's Digest refused. By this time, Künstler had already made three paintings, with the rest well under way. He kept his art, let Reader's Digest go, and showed them to Hammer instead. The late Dr. Armand Hammer, founder of Hammer Galleries subsequently observed, "His paintings have continually confirmed his talent, and the caliber of Künstler's overall artistic output has now placed him at the forefront of contemporary realism." Hammer's support, encouragement, and promotional skills helped to transform Künstler from leading illustrator to leading history painter. Like other illustrators, Künstler had worked on deadline, chiefly in gouache. Once it was published, a project was over and he was on to the next commission. However, Künstler, like his fellow illustrators, did make a number of finished works in oil, depending upon the level or purpose of the assignment. The skills so practiced, served him extremely well as training for his later career as a history painter.
Künstler's initial successes as an illustrator led him to buy the extraordinary property on the north shore of Long Island in which he and his family now live. This spectacular location, amidst hillside plantings and shoreline vistas, serves the most important purpose for the artist: that of providing him constant northern light through the large glass skylight and windows of his studio. Unlike many of today's artists who depend upon a host of assistants and surrogate painters, Künstler is relentlessly productive and disciplined. When available for a meeting, he emerges reluctantly in paint spattered jeans, covered in remnants of the materials of his work. His studio, likewise, is encrusted with a build up of solidified oil on many surfaces, particularly near his palette and brush jars. To see his work take shape on the canvas is a surprising contrast, almost as if an Expressionist, like Soutine, would quietly and methodically produce the careful work of a precise photorealist, such as Richard Estes. For Künstler, the role of an assistant is to take care of studio business and answer the telephone and correspondence. This artist is literally up to his neck in paint. So methodical is Künstler in his work habits that he tries to predict when a painting will be finished, although these estimates are usually thrown off as the project becomes increasingly complicated.
Künstler gained his greatest repute for paintings of the Civil War, the theme that was covered in his 1998 exhibition at NCMA and extensively at other museums in the United States, including the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Today, he is no longer known exclusively for these subjects, but for a panoply of Americana images. Künstler had done his first Civil War image for a men's adventure magazine in 1955, and went on to do at least ten more during the 1950s. Considering the enormity and scope of his production, it is impressive to note that he later extended his work to cover all the wars through Korea and Vietnam. He did many paintings of World War II -- a war which resonated with his contemporaries and loomed largest in the consciousness of that era.
The theme of American history, spanning the early days of the nation to the space age, is arranged chronologically in this exhibition, with chapters representing broad chunks of time displayed in each gallery. The exhibition begins with the time preceding the settlement of western Europeans and features the activity of native Americans. Künstler meticulously notes costume, ceremony, artifacts, and environmental context -- establishing an inventory of visual information that characterizes all of the works in the exhibition. Characters, real or imagined, enact their own narrative within each composition. Scenes of discovery and settlement follow, eg. Jamestown, St. Augustine, San Francisco, etc. These early colonists are shown battling their environment and dealing with primitive technology. In contrast, scenes of native American villages and ceremonies portray the world into which the colonists entered and foreshadow later encounters with pioneers.
The colonial episode culminates with the Revolutionary period where Künstler depicts soldiers and the cause for their fighting. This affords a dramatic and familiar topic, vividly portrayed by colonists either in uniform or dressed in varying degrees of ad hoc disarray. We see expressive faces in such incidents as Washington at Carlisle and the Surrender at Yorktown. Positioning of the horses and troops, precise descriptions of flags, buttons on the uniforms, all become significant details as a result of Künstler's extensive research and consultation with experts. Künstler's achievement is heightened by the fact that multi-figure paintings were rare during the 18th century, so that he had to extrapolate details from a variety of references, as well as using his imagination. Künstler also shows what was behind the War, for example Ben Franklin at his printing shop in We, the People...1787, symbolizing freedom of the press.
The period between the Revolution and the Civil War encompasses aspects of domestic life, scenes of eastern prosperity contrasting with western exploration, pioneers, Indians, and ultimately the fall of the Alamo. As if to punctuate the theme of Westward expansion, which really took up the entire 19th century, the conflict between North and South tested the question of what the nation ultimately would become.
The Civil War is introduced by the person of Sojourner Truth (an early civil rights activist, born into slavery in upstate New York) and images of soldiers at Ft. Sumter, the South Carolina setting for the war's first battle. Pictures of famed subjects, such as Lincoln and Lee, are interspersed with frenzied scenes, such as The "Mud March" where troops had to endure horrific conditions along with the toll of constant slaughter. Künstler, in a more benign or sentimental mode, also finds occasion to show the familial affections of some of his subjects within the backdrop of war. Closure to this bloody period is represented by paintings which suggest the renewal of a unifying bond between former enemies in the north and south. Künstler seems always to seek balance in his work so that a litany of conflict is counterpoised by peaceful resolution, expressions of dignity or humanity, despite former hard feelings.
The next group of paintings celebrates three themes: the further opening of the west by the next generation of pioneers, the great era of immigration, and America's rise as a world power. Portrayals of the Oklahoma Land Rush present the last occasion of organized mass western settlement. Immigrants In The Great Hall at Ellis Island suggest the diverse future population of the United States. America's reluctance to play the role of a world power was punctuated by President Wilson's agreeing to support Britain and France in World War I. In this section, as elsewhere, circumstances at home, reflecting peace and prosperity, illustrate self contentment and isolation away from the fray of world affairs. This was a time when America was also sufficiently busy with an array of activities spanning farm life to football games.
The struggle between isolationism and engagement re-erupted during World War II, which comprises the next chapter of the exhibition. Hellcat fighter planes, massive naval battles, army combat, and heroes such as General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell are among the subjects portrayed. Each of the successive 20th century wars reveal new airplanes and ships, uniforms and weapons. From this point forward, conflicts from Korea through Vietnam comprise a military vantage point which contrasts with images showing technological advances of the Space Age. These are dramatically illustrated by paintings of the space shuttle Columbia, showing the construction, testing, take-off, and landing. This latter theme has resonance for Long Island as Republic Aviation, Grumman, Sperry, and other local firms played such a major role in these programs. This latter topic presents a first in Künstler's oeuvre, as these images were produced predominantly through his own eyewitness observation.
In all these incidents, Americans are shown as being successful in meeting challenges and conflicts, chiefly impelled by differences with their enemies, but also, as in the space program, striving to achieve a more abstract goal. Make-do ingenuity is a significant theme, especially in the earlier episodes. This combines with or is animated by virtues such as courage, honor, loyalty, consistency and other positive values, demonstrating what Künstler means by the American Spirit.
Künstler's extensive research is unmistakable, but it is his individualized artistic concept that dramatizes each work. Like a theatrical director, he orchestrates characters, costumes, and settings, yet composes them as a work of art, so imagination and invention play as critical a role as historic veracity.
While Künstler typically focuses on the representational aspects of his work, it is evident that he is a classically trained artist. Underlying his work are compositional strategies comparable to those used by the greatest artists from the Renaissance forward into abstract art. In the painting, Discovery of San Francisco Bay, for example, the explorer, Gaspar de Portolá, looking out through a telescope becomes the focal point, dominating other figures who are arrayed in a broad compositional oval in a pattern which abuts the edge of the painting and is at times, cropped. Men dressed mostly in blue jackets with red trim which set off the silvery grey or brown rounded shapes of their horses. The inherent geometry of the design is noticeable throughout, with forms arranged in parallelograms or diamond shapes to contrast with implied ellipses and curves. A notable spot is in the painting's lower right where some of the horses' heads are organized in a diagonal square. Such visual complexity transcends the assumption of straightforward realism. Heightened color, an element often found in Künstler's work, combines with texture to produce vividly rendered grasses whose golden and burnt orange hues set off the darker greens. This creates an intricately patterned backdrop to the figures. Künstler's approach can be readily compared to that of Meissonier in his painting, Battle at Friedland (coll. MMA) which similarly uses a type of "action painting" for its grassy field. Künstler's animated scene is set against a background of bay and wetlands, the silhouetted far shore with Mt. Diablo in the distance, and the sky above, rendered in calm misty hues of blue that evoke the late 19th century tonalist period in American art.
In the context of American art, Künstler can readily be positioned as the successor to such masters from the Golden Age of Illustration as N.C. Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, J. C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell. From the standpoint of aesthetics, Künstler's work stands upon the foundation of an enduring American tradition of realism: descriptive literalism achieved through Yankee ingenuity. Künstler's distinctive way of laying on the paint, his linearism, and use of scumbling, glazes, and other techniques, evoke either illusion, romanticism, or straightforward representation as each subject requires. A chain of earlier artists, like George Caleb Bingham, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederick Remington, Charles Russell, and Henry Farney are all referenced in Künstler's paintings.
Künstler's art derives its authority from the fact that it is altogether convincing and that every detail conforms to the proper time and place, affirming the artist's fundamental assertion that in his work, "a horse looks like a horse." For the audience looking at these works, there is no trouble identifying with them as a spectator to these scenes, and to feel in their immediacy and vitality, that history lives.
-- Quotes from the artist, and personal recollections based on conversations with the writer, Spring and Summer, 2006.
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Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Doris Meadows, Nassau County Museum of Art, for assistance concerning permissions for the republishing of this essay and the photo of the author.
RL readers may also enjoy The American Spirit: Paintings by Mort Künstler (8/2/06)
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