Suburban Realist

Renowned New Jersey artist and professor at Mercer County Community College for more than 40 years, Mel Leipzig will be honored during a special tribute by former student and photographer Mike Dill on April 29.

The event will kick off a fundraising drive for a new student art gallery on campus.  Special prints designed by Dill and art student Ryan Lawler will be offered as donor gifts to those who contribute toward the Student Art Gallery Fund.  Now in the early planning stages, the gallery would provide a dedicated space on campus where student artwork can be displayed in changing exhibits, and where gallery management can be part of the curriculum.

Mike Dill of Hamilton, who serves as director of Facilities at the college, and who has studied art and photography there, credits Leipzig with teaching him the history of art and the appreciation of art.  “Mel gave me a whole new outlook on art and I very much appreciate all he has done for me,” Dill said.  He was inspired to photograph Professor Leipzig because Leipzig often uses people and places at Mercer as subjects for his work.  “I wanted to turn the spotlight around and focus it on Mel.  I can’t paint but I can photograph.”

Professor Leipzig is currently serving as curator and featured artist in two exhibits at the New Jersey State Museum which will run through September 6: “Mel Leipzig: Selected Works” and “Artist as Curator: Mel Leipzig.” Here’s what I wrote about that exhibit:

JUST getting inside the New Jersey State Museum these days is a challenge – there were three checkpoints at which I had to show my ID – and finding my way from parking in the capitol complex to the museum required asking four separate people for directions. But once inside, what treasures await!

I was there to meet Mel Leipzig to talk about both the exhibit he curated and the exhibit of his work. Arriving in Mel Leipzig: Selected Works, I was drawn into his very horizontal painting from 2001, “New Jersey State Museum,” in which he conveys the shiny granite floors that reflect the artwork, a few visitors and a security guard in the stark interior. Looking at this painting is so much like being in the museum, and doing both at once has an echo effect.

Full disclosure: I’ve written a great deal about Mel Leipzig in these pages, violating the TIMEOFF once-in-three-years policy for artists. But Mr. Leipzig, whose work is collected by the Whitney Museum, among others, is so prolific on such extraordinarily large canvases, he is worth breaking the rules for.

It had been a while since I’d seen his canvases in person, and was reminded of the impact of such large works – for example, “The Cast of Hedda Gabler” (60-by-72 inches) – can have. Taking up an entire wall of the gallery, the bright oranges and yellows of the costumes against a burgundy curtain backdrop is striking. There are eight characters on Mr. Leipzig’s stage, each emoting as he paints the nuances of their performances, just as he does the characters of his life.

Mr. Leipzig arrives, and I suggest we look at his own works first, then look at the exhibit he curated, Artist as Curator: Mel Leipzig, to see the influences. Mr. Leipzig is an enchanting storyteller, both with his brush and when he talks about the people in his paintings.

It’s nice to keep up with his children. Mr. Leipzig’s son, Joshua, is now married to Paula, and they live in upstate New York. Joshua works as a graphic designer for what Mr. Leipzig describes as a “throwaway newspaper.”

In one very fish-eyed perspective image, we see Paula looking melancholy in a big brown suede-like chair, while Joshua sits alongside, staring longingly at her. Mr. Leipzig’s interiors tell you just as much about the characters as the people themselves. Behind the couple, louvered shades are open, looking out into a deck and the facing brick apartment.

Joshua is heavily tattooed, and in fact is apprenticing to become a tattoo artist. Ten years ago, when Joshua was a teenager living at home, Mr. Leipzig painted “Joshua’s Tattoos,” in which the young man stood shirtless in a graffiti-covered room, strewn with his possessions. That painting was recently given to the Zimmerli Museum as a gift.

Later, a buyer approached Mr. Leipzig for the painting. So he created “Joshua’s Tattoos, 10 Years Later.” Here we see the young man in a room of his Saranac Lake, N.Y., home, again shirtless, standing in the same position. This time, the room is strewn with the equipment of an artist – an easel, paint tables, a box of painting supplies. Joshua paints – unexpectedly – small delicate florals, and one of his canvases leans against a window. There are also weights, baskets of dirty laundry and snowboarding equipment scattered about. Mr. Leipzig, himself neat and organized, loves to paint the chaos of people’s possessions to help describe them.

So, Josh has grown up, but he’s still the same Josh. Behind him, to the left, is the painting with Paula in their Trenton apartment, and to the right, the original “Joshua’s Tattoos.” And off to the right, a mirror, is a reflection of Mr. Leipzig in his white smock, looking on. There’s so much psychology in these paintings – no wonder Mr. Leipzig is repeatedly compared to Lucien Freud.

One of Mr. Leipzig’s signatures is his use of the white dropped ceilings in the offices at Mercer County Community College, where he is a professor of art and art history. He finds the beauty in the everyday. “I love working with the accident of reality,” he says. “You could never make it up.”

Years ago, he painted MCCC office mate Lou Draper, a photographer and photography professor, whose death caused Mr. Leipzig much sadness. Now he has painted “Dom,” his new office mate, an engineering professor who is decidedly neater than Lou. The show includes several other colleagues of Mr. Leipzig under the dropped ceilings, with fluorescent lights and office clutter lovingly brought to life, such as “Monique By Day,” in which we see the communications teacher with her teddy bear and other mementos taped to file cabinets.

Mr. Leipzig’s daughter, Francesca, is married to “Louis,” here portrayed in a cluttered home office. The computer programmer and manager for Merck has a poster for “Goodfellas” behind him, and boxes of paraphernalia are everywhere. The viewer’s overloaded eye goes toward the open window, where, in nature, there is respite.

“If I had a dog and named it ‘Homer,’ it would be after Winslow Homer, but their generation has a different ‘Homer,’” says Mr. Leipzig of his son-in-law and daughter. Mr. Leipzig’s grandsons, Leonardo and Vincent, were not named for the painters, either – although Francesca is an artist.

In a painting of another colleague, a conceptual artist, there is a book on Marcel Duchamp on the desk. Mr. Leipzig, an ardent realist, says “Duchamp is not one of my heroes.”

Explaining his colleague’s conceptual art project, Mr. Leipzig says “the idea is so much more important than sensual visual painting. I deal with ideas, too, but also people. It’s good that we have young people at school who are enthusiastic about conceptual art. I’m enthusiastic about everything up to Rauschenberg and the neo-Dada movement.”

A septuagenarian who has been teaching art and art history for more than 40 years, Mr. Leipzig offers a kernel of what led us to where we are in art today. “Cézanne and Matisse were the gods of Modernism,” he says. “When Abstract Expressionism comes in – except for (Willem) de Kooning – everyone was influenced by Monet’s color field. When Rauschenberg and Pop Art come in, you have a neo-Dada movement. Duchamp was the god of Dada, but he wasn’t crazy about Monet or Cezanne.

“Younger artists may not have a good understanding of structural painting,” he continues. “It’s not just moving paint around. When Monet died in 1926, no one liked his waterlilies because Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism dominated. People thought Impressionism was this fuzzy stuff because it wasn’t structured, like Cubism. Picasso said Monet doesn’t do paintings, he gives you weather conditions.”

Mr. Leipzig adds, “Once Pollack starts flinging paint all over the canvas,” Monet experienced a resurgent popularity. (Mr. Leipzig will share more of his thoughts on realism and Modernism in an April 2 lecture at MCCC.)

There’s enough in these paintings to keep us talking for hours – “The Rabbi’s Family,” with Adath Israel’s Rabbi Grossman sunken into his couch, tefillin on his head (“I’m Jewish but don’t know this stuff,” says Mr. Leipzig, when asked about some of the Judaica in the painting) to “Monsignor Toomey at the Church of the Sacred Heart” in Trenton. “It’s one of the oldest churches in the city,” says Mr. Leipzig. “I find these religious people very nice no matter what their religion.”

Under the apse and surrounded by frescoes and stained glass, Monsignor Toomey exudes a holy air. The painting is so large you almost feel like you’re in the cathedral, and it makes even a non-believer want to pray – you can feel the holy spirit here.

Mr. Leipzig starts a fascinating conversation about the history of the pagan temple on church architecture, but we must spend some time talking about the exhibit he curated. There are 24 paintings from the museum’s collection by artists including Ben Shahn (“the most famous painter from New Jersey,” says Mr. Leipzig), Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Gregorio Pestopino, Horace Pippin, Milton Avery, Raphael Soyer, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Stella and Edward Hopper, “the greatest American painter of the 20th century – period,” says Mr. Leipzig. “He didn’t like Modernism.”

Everything is, of course, realism, but Mr. Leipzig breaks it down into classical realism, romantic realism, photorealism and Surrealism, and points to influences from all the other movements.

Mr. Leipzig’s own teachers included Abstract Expressionist Josef Albers and Neil Welliver, and says he would have been thrown out of Cooper Union if he had painted realism then. “(German-born) Albers relished my name because it was the German city,” says Mr. Leipzig.

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4 Responses to Suburban Realist

  1. Christine Whalen-Waller says:

    Thanks for a great article on Mel Leipzig. For me, it was liked revisiting his classroom again. I studied with Mel in the early ’70′s at MCCC and Mel is a generous and supportive teacher, an inspired painter and a great, great man. Thank you, Mel, for everything you give so generously to us all.
    -One of many very grateful students.

  2. Pingback: The Artful Blogger! » When the Masters Meet

  3. Daniel C. Remer says:

    I was a student of Mel’s when I was a young boy – sitting in a seat certainly not warranted for me at the time – and distinctly recall being mesmerized by his stories on the history of art. It isn’t often one has the chance to learn art history from the combined artist / scholar that lived through the transformations that art took on in the 20th century – let alone of such a person of Mel’s caliber. I’m delighted to read your stories on him, and your blog as a whole text. I am reluctant to disclose that I am the nephew of J. Colavita – but feel it prudent to say I am grateful for having been raised around the influences I was. Thank you for you for sharing your writings.

  4. Daniel C. Remer says:

    I was a student of Mel’s when I was a young boy – sitting in a seat certainly not warranted for me at the time – and distinctly recall being mesmerized by his stories on the history of art. It isn’t often one has the chance to learn art history from the combined artist / scholar that lived through the transformations that art took on in the 20th century – let alone of such a person of Mel’s caliber. I’m delighted to read your stories on him, and your blog as a whole text. I am reluctant to disclose that I am the nephew of J. Colavita – but feel it prudent to say I am grateful for having been raised around the influences I was. Thank you for sharing your writings.

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