Editor's note: The following essay, dated February 7, 2002, is included in the exhibition catalogue "Zoltan Sepeshy Remembered," and is reprinted with permission of the Muskegon Museum of Art. The exhibition "Zoltan Sepeshy Remembered" will be presented at the Muskegon Museum of Art March 29 - May 26, 2002. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the Muskegon Museum of Art directly through either the following phone number or web address:


Zoltan Sepeshy Remembered

by James Houghton


This exhibition celebrates Zoltan Sepeshy (1898-1974) as one of the leading artists in the United States during the middle years of the 20th century. From the mid-1930s through the late 1940s, Zoltan Sepeshy had numerous exhibitions in New York, garnering favorable reviews, and at art museums, especially in the Midwest, including the Toledo Museum of Art, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. He was the recipient of several prestigious awards for painting. Museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Detroit Institute of Arts avidly collected his work.

Sepeshy's art exemplifies changing directions and concerns of American art from the 1920s through the 1950s. At the same time, the singularity of his vision can be seen in an examination of his techniques, imagery, and ideas. The key to understanding his achievement is his belief that the foundation for art was its humanity: "art arises from the common needs and aspirations of all men and that compartmentalization is a hindrance to its growth." Further, his work demonstrates he was always experimenting, broadening his vision to resist compartmentalization, which he saw as the stagnating confinement of the formulaic and cliché.

Sepeshy also was important as a teacher and an administrator. In 1931, he became the painting instructor at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 1947, after Eliel Saarinen's death, he became Director of Cranbrook, and then in 1957, its President, determining the direction of the institution until he retired in 1966.

The Muskegon Museum of Art first acquired a work by Zoltan Sepeshy in 1956, which was a gift of the J.L. Hudson Co. on the occasion of the firm's 75th Anniversary; the painting had first been seen at the Muskegon Museum of Art in 1948-49, as part of the "Michigan on Canvas" project and exhibition organized by J.L. Hudson Co. Later, the Museum received additional paintings and drawings. These include the painting titled Noon in a Spanish Village which was given by A. Harold Frauenthal in 1969; a tempera on panel painting titled Portrait of Albert DeSalle, and a figure study drawing, both of which were Gifts of Friends of Art in 1989; and a charcoal drawing self-portrait, given by Michael Sepeshy.

Indeed, the relationship of the artist to the Muskegon Museum of Art has been reinforced by the long-time presence of Zoltan Sepeshy's son, Michael, and his family, in West Michigan. Michael Sepeshy has been a supporter and friend of the MMA for years. Michael and his family have been generously supportive in the assembly of this exhibition.


Life and Work

On either February 24 or 25, 1898, Zoltan Sepeshy was born in Kassa, Hungary, presently known as Kosice, the second largest city in the Slovak Republic. He was the only child of an aristocratic family that possessed "land, money, and assured position, where everything is granted to the son of a man who had status." Further he stated, "my home was beautiful, there was hunting, there was fishing, there was art. Yes, there was art, an enormous amount of art." His formal education consisted of several years at grammar school, private tutoring, gymnasium and then, lastly, the art academy.

Sepeshy studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest for four and one-half years and, simultaneously for some time at the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna and earned degrees in both art and art education. Sepeshy thought his studies at the Royal Academy gave him an excellent technical foundation. He also traveled widely throughout Europe with his father, visiting France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

An example of the artist's early style can be found in the small painting, descriptively titled Boys Flying Kites. Perhaps done while he was still in Europe, the impressionistic feel to the painting may reflect the influence of Pal Szinyei Merse (1845-1920), who may have been his uncle, and who served as Director of the Budapest Royal Academy of Art from 1905 and whose paintings, often of landscapes, tend to be in a realist and impressionist manner. Sepeshy was later extremely critical about the direction his art would have taken had he remained in Hungary, fearing his training would have led him to "extreme, nationalistic, inane romanticism."

In early 1921, at the urging of his father, Sepeshy immigrated to the United States, living first in New York, and then coming to Detroit to live with an uncle. Detroit in the 1920s was an important hub of industry and commerce that appears to have had little appreciation for the visual arts. Later, Sepeshy would color his remembrances of this time, seeing not his struggle for artistic survival, but that the cultural backwardness of the city provided wide open opportunity and wonderful potential for those who were dedicated and willing to work. Reminiscing about his early years in the United States, he said when he came to Detroit, "fate afforded me the sweet opportunity for hard work. I mean hard work. So while going 'through the wringer' -- and this is not a point of pride, but plain diagnosis -- [I was] doing for a very few years what were then to me such very 'odd' jobs as stacking lumber, whitewashing walls, window trimming, architectural drafting, selling 'popular' books and real estate in Hungarian, German and Slovak." Sepeshy summarized these years as a Horatio Alger story in reverse, going from privilege to having to struggle for a living.

While working at these odd jobs, he was still producing art. "I painted with a vengeance. I painted not floral table set-ups, manicured scenery, maidens in salon outfits and happy little people, but railroad bridges, factories, miners, grimy city scenes, unemployed park habitués." Sepeshy was moving from what he feared his work would become, romanticized pabulum, to wrestling with the common American experience, depicting the fabric of American life. The subjects that he described were not unique to him but part of the repertoire of American painting. His patrons were the professionals, doctors and lawyers, in downtown Detroit offices who would buy what Sepeshy brought around in his suitcase.

An incredible amount of energy and work characterize Sepeshy's early years. He painted both small-scale works and large murals, traveled throughout a good portion of the United States, had a number of solo exhibitions and embarked on his teaching career. He visited New Mexico in 1923, where he worked with Walter Ufer, again in 1926, and went to Europe in 1928-1929. The decade of the 1920s saw Sepeshy establish himself as an important artist in Detroit. From the beginning, Sepeshy worked in a wide range of subjects: landscape, portraits, modern subjects, and southwestern subjects. Later, in 1943, he wrote he aimed for variety because it forced him to grow and branch out.

One fine example of work from his first decade in Detroit is Noon in a Spanish Village (Muskegon Museum of Art, Gift of A. Harold Frauenthal), 1926. The painting must be based on memories of Europe, since he was not to return there until 1928. Noon in a Spanish Village combines straightforward realism with a sense of abstraction. These, as well as the earthy color, claustrophobic space, and thickly applied paint are reminiscent of the work of Walter Ufer, but the background has a cubist quality. Indeed, Sepeshy saw his painting as the "interplay of concrete and abstract." It contains the germs of his mature style, often characterized as intellectual.

As early as 1922, Sepeshy participated in solo and group exhibitions in the Detroit area. His finances and his artistic orientation were enhanced by part-time work as a draftsman for the important architect Albert Kahn. Sepeshy also began to teach, first at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, then at the Detroit School of Applied Art and at Wayne State University.

By the late 1920s, his most important venues were the Hanna Gallery and the Hudson Galleries. His work was earning substantial recognition: in 1925 and again in 1936, he was awarded the Art Founders Prize of the Detroit Institute of Arts; in 1930, he was awarded the J.L. Hudson Purchase Prize at the annual Michigan Artists' Exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts for Woodward Near Jefferson (The Inlander Collection of Great Lakes Regional Painting).

This period of initial activity is closed by two achievements: his appointment to the position of Instructor of Painting at Cranbrook in 1931 and his first solo exhibition in New York, at Newhouse Galleries, in 1932. Sepeshy showed 20 paintings and eight graphics, including depictions of urban America, genre, and European subjects, all done in a modernist manner seemingly derived from Cézanne and the Cubists. The exhibition was sponsored, at least indirectly, by Willem Valentiner, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Though painted in 1929 (and exhibited at Newhouse in 1932), Woodward Near Jefferson ushers in themes and ideas that will appear in Sepeshy's work throughout the 1930s. He has depicted the urban environment of Detroit in which he lived and he expressed his ideas through an avant-garde modernist style.

Four years later, he enjoyed his second solo exhibition in New York, this time at the Marie Sterner Galleries. His primary medium for this exhibition was tempera, and his new work concentrated upon the American Scene. After World War I, artists, such as John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, and Edward Hopper, began to look to the lives of average Americans and where they lived and worked -- from the rural Midwest to the industrialized city. Sepeshy thought he was closer to understanding the United States than many native born Americans because his every experience was fresh and his every reaction was a new discovery. Sepeshy turned more to tempera, which was then undergoing a revival in the United States, though he later noted that he had worked with the medium during his student days in Budapest. The artist later wrote a book on tempera as a medium of painting.

An example of the artist's interpretation of the American Scene is Mending Row (Muskegon Museum of Art, Gift of J.L. Hudson Co.), though the artist's larger concerns were the posing and solving of aesthetic problems. The painting first appeals to the viewer through a convincingly rendered Great Lakes' fishing port and its strong sense of anecdotal details in the tasks each man performs, but, as in several other paintings, Sepeshy employs a tunnel-like perspective that organizes the composition. The artist has not simply recorded and commented on reality, but manipulated it to create a strong artistic statement.

The expressive force of the painting comes from its underlying structure, spare line, build up of simplified forms and rigorous paring of color. By the early 1940s, Sepeshy's style had evolved as can be seen in a number of paintings. A warm quality of nostalgia characterizes The Things We Children Like (Collection of Cortney and Sandra Boven), a very popular work when exhibited at New York's Midtown Galleries in 1941. Sepeshy's powerful artistic voice, the large-scale composition, and careful color control an intriguing image that, in a lesser artist's hand, could easily have slipped into the sentimentally sweet. While in The Things We Children Like Sepeshy evoked mood, in Wild Flowers (Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute), he seems to speak directly and forthrightly. Wild Flowers is a delicately observed depiction of a young woman engaged in a mundane activity: the making or repair of a hat. Though not obviously posed in a studio, the subject's enclosure within a claustrophobic space robs the scene of a sense of domesticity. Sepeshy has also simplified the figure, reducing it to geometric forms. Sunday Afternoon - The Family, 1944 further demonstrates that by the early 1940s, Sepeshy was emphasizing emotion and sentiment in his subjects.

Sepeshy's appointment as Director of Cranbrook in 1947 marked a change in several aspects of his work. First, the amount of work he created and exhibited decreased. However, in a 1963 interview, Sepeshy said he believed that for an artist, it was not the sheer quantity of time, but how one used that time: a poor painter with unlimited time will still produce mediocre works while the good painter, even stressed by other duties, will still create admirable works. Second, he turned from the representational land- and urban-scapes that marked his mature style to new subjects done in new manners.

Religious themes become more prominent in his work. Explicit Christian iconography appears in New Garden (Cranbrook Art Museum) where Adam and Eve are seen in a desolate landscape. In Mexican Madonna (Collection of Michael and Ellen Sepeshy), 1958, Sepeshy turns to almost a folkloric interpretation of the Madonna theme. He places the simplified form of the Madonna within a space defined by floating, almost ambiguously placed shapes of color. There is a sense of decorative flatness that suggests his knowledge of Abstract Expressionism, but more accurately reflects study of works by colleagues at Cranbrook, such as Wallace Mitchell and Harry Bertoia.

Sepeshy's most extensive discussion of his ideas appeared in the 1945 article, "Why I Dislike Labels," in the Magazine of Art. Since he saw his work as constant experimentation, Sepeshy believed any label was limiting and misleading. This willingness to try different media and choose a variety of subjects and styles characterized his art throughout his career, making it difficult to tag with a particular art historical style. In his day, Sepeshy was recognized as a creative voice that expressed valued insights into American life and culture. But the key to understanding Zoltan Sepeshy's work is the realization that he fused concrete reality with a judicious abstraction to create works that are intellectually intriguing and expressively suggestive.

The high evaluation of his work is suggested by the number of awards he won in state and national competitions. Among the more prestigious awards were the I.B.M. Award at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1940; the Award of the National Academy of Arts and Letters in New York in 1946, the Carnegie Institute First Prize in 1947; and the Samuel F.B. Morse Gold Medal from the National Academy of Design in 1952. A further gauge of his importance is that during his lifetime, museums ranging from national institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago to university galleries such as the Sheldon Art Museum at the University of Nebraska acquired his work for their permanent collections.

Examining the work and career of Zoltan Sepeshy today, one readily sees he was not an artist who merely typified his time period and whose legacy is limited to the curious art historian. In his day, he was recognized as a creative voice who expressed valued insights into American life and culture. The art of Sepeshy today speaks with the authority of time as to the subtlety of ideas and the skill of his expression.


Zoltan Sepeshy and the Critics

Although the following does not pretend to be exhaustive, some reference to the criticism of Sepeshy's solo exhibitions in New York offers insight into his contemporaries' response to his art and allows one to follow his changing reputation. In the introduction to the brochure accompanying his first solo exhibition in New York at Newhouse Galleries, Walter Heil, Curator of European Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, saw Sepeshy as a modernist, well-aware of avant-garde ideas that can be traced back to Paul Cézanne in the late 19th century. Critics for New York, as well as out-of-town newspapers, echoed Heil's thinking.

In the catalog essay to the exhibition at Marie Sterner Galleries in 1936, Clyde H. Burroughs, Curator of American Art at the Detroit Institute of Art, explicitly developed a theme, implicit in Heil's writing, which will resound throughout much of the writing on Sepeshy: a dialectic between his European background and his current American environment. Burroughs attributed the sureness of his craftsmanship and technique to the thoroughness of his European training. However, he also saw Sepeshy as an American in his openness and willingness to "penetrate the character of his adopted land."

For his 1938 exhibition at Midtown Galleries in New York, critics saw a new direction to Sepeshy's work, a direction characterized as the completing of his Americanization or the abandonment of European abstract style for American realism. The critic in the Art Digest concluded: "Starkly effective as were his former pictures, there was no breathing space in them for rounded forms; they were cold and cruel in their jagged edges; squeezed up like a closed accordion. Now Sepeshy's pictures are open, redolent with form and ether, mellow in their transitions, carefully woven in their color. The Americanization, judged by any standard, has been for the better."

Following his exhibition at Midtown Galleries in 1941, there is again a change in the critical perception and reaction to Sepeshy's work. There continued to be divergent opinions upon the artist's aims and achievements but Sepeshy was seen primarily as an artist who posed difficult problems to which he offered complex solutions and only secondarily as one who wanted to affect his viewer. The critic for Art Digest noted The Things We Children Like was "an exercise in getting different and difficult textures, in heightening tactile values, and in heightening the strength of color itself, this painting comes off remarkably well."

Though Sepeshy continued to receive favorable reviews throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, by 1953 critics were either writing about him within the terms of abstraction: cerebral solution of interweaving planes, dynamic shapes and thrusting lights, or, quite frankly, merely recycling what had been said earlier. Three years later, Sepeshy had his last solo exhibit at Midtown. At the height of abstract expressionism, his art could scarcely not be misunderstood. The New York Times rather faintly praised him as lively and picturesque, while the Art Digest described his work as a curious mingling of quaint past and incoherent present, as someone out of tune with modern times.

In 1966, the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the School of Art, Syracuse University, presented the exhibition Zoltan Sepeshy: Forty Years of His Work. In the catalog essay, Lawrence Schmeckebier of Syracuse University offered insights into Sepeshy and his art, though the essay has become less useful as more information has come to light. Since the Cranbrook-Syracuse University retrospective, little research has been done to assess the magnitude of the achievements of Zoltan Sepeshy as an artist, teacher and administrator.


About the Author

James Houghton is Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Muskegon Museum of Art

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