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An Interview with Artist Ed Mieczkowski

November, 2012

Ed Mieczkowski was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1929. He received a BFA in Painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio in 1957, and an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA in 1959. Mieczkowski received a National Endowment for the Arts Award in 1965, the Cleveland Arts Award in 1966, the Ohio Arts Award in 1977, and the Carnegie Mellon University Alumni Achievement Award in 2009. For 39 years he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art while simultaneously maintaining a studio in New York City for a number of years. Mieczkowski was a founding member of the American art group, Anonima, which was active from 1960 to 1971. The group carried out systematic investigations into perceptual abstraction, and was to become associated with the Op Art movement. A painting by Mieczkowski was included in the 1964 Time magazine article that introduced Op Art to the public. His work was also included in the groundbreaking international exhibition, The Responsive Eye, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1965. Mieczkowski’s work is represented in numerous private, corporate and public collections including: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH; the Akron Art Museum, Akron, OH; the New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, Tel Aviv, Israel; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lodz, Poland. Mieczkowski is represented by LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe, NM and D. Wigmore Fine Art in New York City. He lives and works in Huntington Beach, CA.

Julie Karabenick: Looking at your artwork that spans more than 60 years, one is struck by the great breadth of your artistic explorations.

Op 4 (Red)
Op 4 (Red), acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2006

Ed Mieczkowski: I was always quite deliberate about not wanting to do just one thing.

After Adele
After Adele, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 107 cm (48 x 42 in), 1963

This was a conscious decision that I made quite early in my career.

Necklansig, acrylic on paper, 124 x 112 cm (49 x 44 in), 1995

Over the years, my work has continued to evolve and change. I was always fairly flexible and never had much difficulty moving on from something I was doing to something new.

 Cortez Iron, acrylic on board,
91 x 91 x 9 cm (36 x 36 x 3.5 in), 1983

So I would typically go from one work to another …

 
 Blue Ore, acrylic on canvas, 184 x 168 cm (72.5 x 66 in), 1986

… and every so often, I would make a significant change.

Bumpers #2
Bumpers #2, acrylic on canvas on board,
112 x 108 cm (44 x 42.5 in), 1964

JK: Whether hard-edged or soft, right-angled or curved, your work almost always incorporates geometric elements.

 Fanfare, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 152 cm (72 x 60 in), 2007

EM: I’ve always been comfortable with geometric forms.

Blue KRRSSIN
Blue KRASSIN, welded steel,
142 x 71 x 48 cm (56 x 28 x 19 in), 1993
 M 1025, acrylic on wood,
81 x 38 x 24 (32 x 15 x 9.5), 1986

I find them quite plastic and subject to considerable variation.

Fracwell, acrylic on paper, 114 x 241 cm (45 X 95 in), 1985

And one always does have a dialogue with art history in one’s work. But in general, I played fast and loose with the various dogmas of painting. I felt I didn’t want to hobble myself with any of them.

Color Bloc (Marsden's Hart)
Color Bloc (Marsden’s Hart), acrylic on canvas,
178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 1967

Behind it all is simply an everlasting love of painting and of making art …

Big A, 1964, acrylic on masonite,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 1964

and I spent all the time I could doing it!

Faraday Lines for Ernst B.
Faraday Lines for Ernst B., acrylic on paper,
112 x 105 cm (44 x 41.5 in), 2003

JK: Turning to your early years, you were born in Pittsburgh in 1929.

EM: My father was a steel worker, and my mother was a homemaker. They were always supportive to me in whatever I wanted to do. Growing up, I was independent, a street kid who wandered all over town. Pittsburgh was a great city to grow up in. Many things that were important to me were accessible—a major art museum, a big library.

JK: When did you begin to show an interest in art?

EM: I feel that I always chose my way into art. It started out with my first box of crayons and coloring book, and I never veered from the path. I remember that instead of coloring the pages, I would copy them onto separate sheets with a pencil. I soon graduated to drawing, which I pursued throughout grade school. In school I drew to the point where I was punished for it. And I was fortunate enough to have a grade school teacher who, when I misbehaved, would send me to the art room for punishment! I began to get a reputation as someone who could draw. There was a fellow in our gang who played the violin very well, and I was jealous of him, so out on the street one day, I drew a large, six foot nude, which momentarily made my fame.

I would draw whatever came to mind, and in school I was noticed for that. The nuns selected me to attend Saturday morning classes at the Carnegie Museum, and I found this very exciting. I attended for three or four years, and I really enjoyed going. There we would each be given a large sheet of paper and told to make a drawing, which we passed up to the front at the end of class. Next week the moderator would comment on the drawings that she picked out. I was also quite attracted to stories about artists. As a teenager, I read about Cézanne and any other artists I could find material on. I was fairly precocious.

I was advised to go to Connoley Vocational High School because they offered a course of study in commercial art, and the teachers there were very knowledgeable and good. There I was particularly taken with one teacher, Mr. Sullivan, a marvelously kind curmudgeon who was the most important teacher I ever had in my life. Mr. Sullivan gave us small art assignments that he later critiqued. More importantly, he was a great raconteur who would begin his classes by divesting himself of whatever was on his mind that particular day. Mr. Sullivan opened vistas for me in literature, politics, history. Going to his lectures was the best part of high school. I began to feel that I would like to go to art school.

With just a semester left before my graduation from vocational school, Mr. Sullivan told me that there was an opening at Ad Art, a commercial art firm in downtown Pittsburgh. We were all kids from poor neighborhoods, and a job was nothing to sniff at. So I quit school and became an apprentice. I spent several years doing photo retouching. At that time, I never thought of myself as an artist even though I was working in commercial art. Acutally I felt a bit out of my element in that mercantile organization.

JK: While apprenticing you also began to attend art classes.

EM: Yes, in the evenings I went to night school at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, later to become part of Carnegie Mellon University. At that point my interest had changed from Cézanne to Picasso. In a painting class I remember I made a painting of the Eugene O’Neill character, the Emperor Jones, creating a whole field of dark foliage with trees swaying in the wind and a tiny figure on the righthand side fleeing. The painting was judged to be good. I also made a very large, 5-foot long painting of myself from a photo of me lying on my stomach at the beach.

The Korean war had broken out in 1950, and the student deferment I had was about to run out. If I gave up the deferment, I would be sent to Korea. So with my life at stake, I decided to quit the commercial art firm and do something I’d always wanted to do—attend art school on a fulltime basis. I told one of the instructors of my desire to go to art school, and he arranged a working scholarship for me to go to the Cleveland Institute of Art. Thus I was able to extend my deferment. The faculty was made up of conservative artists who were interested in Regionalism. They didn’t even accept Cubism. It was a pretty backward place. Initially I worked realistically, but after several years, I did move on to experiment with abstraction. I got married during my fourth year and eventually dropped out of the program, allowing my student deferment to lapse.

JK: At which point you were immediately drafted.

EM: Yes. The war was winding down, and I was posted to Frankfurt, Germany where I spent 15 months as the regiment artist. I did many realistic portrayals of the soldier’s life. From Germany I could travel to Paris and Italy. I did a lot of looking at art during this time, primarily at the historical record since I could find little contemporary art. When I was discharged, I immediately resumed working abstractly, just following my nose with no particular affiliation to any school or philosophy of art. I received a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1957.

JK: You moved back to Pittsburgh to pursue a master’s degree at Carnegie Tech.

EM: I revered the prodigious painter, Balcomb Greene, who was teaching at Carnegie at that time, and I audited his art history class. He opened my eyes to many new ideas. I was doing a lot of pen and ink drawings, working intuitively and abstractly. I was interested in series and was doing a lot of crosshatching in my drawings. I taught while working towards my degree. I was required to teach lithography, a subject in which I had no prior experience. After three weeks of messing around, I told the students we could learn lithography together. In the class I met an undergraduate art student, Frank Hewitt. Frank was an excellent student. We were like-minded and shared a passion for drawing. We soon became very good friends and would engage in wide-ranging and intense discussions about art.

JK: After completing your MFA in 1959, you accepted a teaching position at the Cleveland Institute of Art where you would soon be reunited with Hewitt.

EM: I had been teaching in Cleveland for a little over a year when the director called me in and indicated that they were considering hiring Frank Hewitt. Thrilled, I did not disclose that he and I were close friends for fear of jeopardizing the hire. Frank got the job, and we resumed our conversations.

JK: Hewitt had done his master’s thesis at Oberlin College on the psychology of perception. While teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art, he would simultaneously pursue a doctorate in aesthetics and psychology at Case Western Reserve University.

EM: I was older than Frank, more devleoped as a painter, and I was constantly painting. Frank was brillant and opened up new vistas for me. He firmly believed that the study of perceptual processes would provide new terrain for abstract painters to explore. We read and discussed American studies in visual perception. The work of J. J. Gibson was probably the most influential for us. Gibson developed his ideas about perception during his time directing aviation training during WWII. Among other things, he studied how bomber pilots estimated distance from the ground on foggy nights.

JK: Gibson identified the monocular and stereoscopic cues involved in depth perception. He believed that perception was an active process—a transaction between perceiver and environment.

EM: Yes. Frank and I drew on the work of Gibson and others working in the science and psychology of perception to develop a unique course we called Dimensional Drawing. Our course emphasized a systematic, problem-solving approach to making art. We taught students how artists were able to imply space on a two-dimensional surface. We focused in particular on the depth cues of relative size, relative brightness and overlap. We worked feverishly to develop this course, constantly doing research, and we were very passionate about it. We both learned a great deal from teaching that class.

JK: Your conversations, research and teaching with Hewitt would provide much of the conceptual foundation for the artist collaborative you founded with Hewitt and painter, Ernst Benkert, in 1960.

EM: Ernst was a master’s student at Oberlin doing a teaching fellowship when Frank met him. We decided to call ourselves Anonima. I had been in a Salvation Army store and had found a book about a Cleveland company whose Italian division made steamship boilers. The word “anonima” means “incorporated” in Italian, “società anonima” designating a type of corporation. We thought Anonima would make a cool name, and it was close to the word “anonymous.”  We used the name “Anonima” to indicate, among other things, that we wouldn’t sign our paintings on the front and we would seek alternate paths to the traditional commercial gallery system.

Left to right: Ed Mieczkowski, Francis Hewitt
and Ernst Benkert, 1963
(Photo credit: Anonima website: www.anonimagroup.org)

Looking back, I believe we were utopian. We valued collaboration and wanted to prevent the misrepresentation of our ideas and our work. Thus we tried to control the contexts in which our work was seen and written about. Frank was the theoretician of the group and did most of our writing. We produced our own catalogs, wrote manifestos and published several issues of Anonima magazine. Over the years, we held exhibitions in our own spaces and, for the most part, we tried to avoid commercial venues and representation. Actually Ernst was independently wealthy and didn’t need the income. I later came to resent this position because Frank and I were poor. I recall Frank saying, “All I want is a day’s pay for a day’s work.”

JK: In one of the many Anonima documents, Frank wrote, ”Anonima does not mean anonymity within the group. It means, on the contrary, the recognition of individual differences (temperamental as well as ideological) among its members. At the same time it it provides a basis for group cooperation, a way of exploiting these individual differences for larger purposes.”

EM: We were committed to a systematic approach to our art and to communal practice. During the summers of 1960 and 61, we came together at Benkert’s studio in Springs, Long Island. In the summers of 1963 through 65, we met at Benkert’s father’s studio in Mill Spring, North Carolina. These were very creative times. We drew and made small paintings, read theoretical papers, talked and produced a lot of writing. Looking back, I believe we were seeking purity and escape from the hubbub of everyday life. After working communally, we would go our separate ways to paint and teach for the rest of the year.

Anonima in North Carolina Studio
From left: Mieczkowski, Benkert, Hewitt
in North Carolina Studio, 1963
(Photo credit: Anonima website)

JK: In an unpublished manuscript from 1961, Hewitt suggested some of the historical influences on Anonima’s aesthetic: “It was through Mondrian back to the earlier European traditions of geometric and constructivist painting that our imagination was freshly aroused.”

EM: From the outset we were very conscious of being opposed to what was currently going on in the art world and to Abstract Expressionism in particular. We rejected the cult of the individual and emotional expressionism. We used to say that we wanted poetry in our lives and order in our work. Geometric forms were an important aspect of the order we sought as they are readily identified and could be repeated to create structures, grids and serial orders. They offered clarity of form. So at the outset, we agreed to use geometric forms and precise edges in our work.

JK: We have a few of your relatively early works where we can see you combining geometric forms into structures or systems.

EM: When I was teaching drawing, I became fascinated with crosshatching, a drawing style that consisted of a group of lines set at an angle to another group of lines imposed over the top of the first and at an opposite angle. I would use crosshatching to build a painting, no longer thinking in terms of discrete shapes. This would continue for a number of years.

Harmonica C
Harmonica C, ink on paper, 51 x 76 cm (20 x 30 in), 1960

I love black and white and was doing a lot of black ink drawings at the time. This ink on paper work from 1961 shows my interest in serial order. I used geometric shapes to achieve clear form identification. The circles were drawn precisely with a compass.

Anon
Anon, ink on paper, 57 x 72 cm (22.5 x 28.5 in),1961

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