An Interview with Artist Ed Mieczkowski (1929-2017)

November, 2012

JK: The group held its first Anonima exhibition in 1962.

EM: We rented a former dress shop space on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, which became our 10021 Gallery. Frank and I also had a drawing show there in 1964.

JK: In 1964 the group would hold its first exhibition in New York City in a space you rented on West 56th Street.

EM: By this time, we were beginning to get some attention from the art world. This exhibition was favorably reviewed in The New York Times. In conjunction with the exhibition, we held a panel discussion called “Geometry and Art” moderated by museum director Charles Parkhurst. The panel included Hewitt, Benkert and myself, Donald Judd and British constructivist, Anthony Hill, whom I greatly admired.

Anonima panel 1964
April 1964 Anonima Panel, from left: Anthony Hill, Charles Parkhurst, Ed Mieczkowski,
Donald Judd and Ernst Benkert (Francis Hewitt. seated to the left of Hill, does not appear
in this photo; photo credit: Anonima website)

JK: Hanging on the wall behind the discussants, we can see one of your paintings located in the center of the group of three. Looking at the image in color, we can see that its space is difficult to reconcile.

Hard to Come By
Hard to Come By, oil on canvas on board,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1964

In the second issue of Anonima published in 1964, Hewitt wrote an article called “Perceptual Conflict and the New Abstraction.” In it he wrote:

“New painting by definition is outside the critical and historical pattern. It offers few apparent consistent features when compared to older, more established styles. Recently painters have become more interested in visual phenomena that are in themselves contradictory or in conflict … In the New Abstraction the conflict is in the observer and the contradiction is in the painting.”

EM: Our work was very active in presenting mutiple, often mutually exclusive readings. Not only were we presenting depth cues on a two dimensional surface, but we went further and intentionally presented ambiguous or internally contradictory cues.

JK: Looking at some Anonima works from 1964, we can see that the group often used grids that appear to fluctuate in space. The grid anchored many compositions, providing order and repetition as well as a structure through which ambiguity and movement could be introduced.

EM: Yes. We wanted works that were dynamic and difficult to resolve. We created tension by using divergent visual cues.

Ed Mieczkowski Frank HewittErnst Benkert
Ed Mieczkowski, ISO-Study for Iso-rounds
and Bumpers
, acrylic on canvas on board,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1964
Francis Hewitt, Op-Ended #1, acrylic on canvas
on board, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1964
Ernst Benkert, Warsaw #2, acrylic on
masonite, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1964

JK: In your painting, Cornered II, the ambiguous nature of the space and the countervailing diagonal forces work against a unified reading.

EM: Yes. I was also aware of the injunction against cornering, so I deliberately focused on the corners. And once again I incorporated lines and planes crossing over and under one another.

Cornered II
Cornered II, acrylic on canvas on board,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1963

In paintings like ISO-Rounds #3, I would take the basic scheme found in Cornered II and multiply it over the canvas.

Rounds #3
ISO-Rounds #3, acrylic on canvas on board,
112 x 109 cm (44 x 43 in), 1964

JK: You made a number of exuberantly colored paintings with this circle and crosshatching motif.

Adele
Adele, acrylic on canvas on board, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1963

One of them, Adele’s Class Ring, was reproduced in full color in the October 1964 issue of Time magazine in an article called “Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye.” Quoting from the introduction to the article:

“Preying and playing on the falibility in vision is the new movement of ‘optical art’ that has sprung up across the Western world … Op art is made tantalizing, eye-teasing, even eye-smarting by visual researchers using all the ingredients of an optometrist’s nightmare.”

What did you think of the term “Op art”?

Adele's Class Ring print image
Image of Adele’s Class Ring as reproduced in Time,
October 23, 1964

EM: I have always favored the term “perceptual abstraction.” I didn’t reallly mind the term Op art, but I certainly didn’t intend my work to be optical demonstrations. I was far too ingrained as a painter. After all, in high school I had studied Cézanne, and by my first year in art school, I was into Picasso. I really was first and foremost a painter, and as a painter I think your work leads the way. Whatever you want to verbalize about it is somehow tangential, not completely the case. What can you say about the impulse to work? You want to make another painting. You want to make it larger, better in color or composition—all those ambitions for it come together for better or worse.

JK: Over the next several years, Anonima would exhibit in some high profile, traditional venues.

EM: Op art was receiving a lot of attention, and I suppose we wanted to get on the bandwagon. I was thrilled when my painting was reproduced in Time. Anonima’s work was included in an important international exhibition, Mouvement II, at Galerie Denise René in Paris in 1964. Then in 1965 we were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, The Responsive Eye, curated by William Seitz. And well-respected New York City gallerist, Martha Jackson, included us in her Vibrations Eleven exhibition. That year our work was also shown in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and in another important international exhibition, New Tendences 3, in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.

Fusili's Box
Catalog cover for the exhibition The Responsive Eye,
The Museum of Modern Art, 1965
Fusili’s Box, acrylic on board, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1964
(Mieczkowski’s painting, Fusili’s Box, was included in The
Responsive Eye
exhibition)

JK: The following year, Anonima moved to West 28th Street to a dual purpose group studio and gallery space. The group exhibited 24 inch square works in black, grey and white, in accordance with a painting program the three of you had agreed upon.

Bin EntropicIso-Local
Bin Entropic, acrylic on canvas on board,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1965
Iso-Local, acrylic on board, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1965

You also were doing work that introduced different forms of repeating modules.

EM: Yes. In Clockwork and Decadonna, for example, I was working with relative brightness contrasts.

ClockworkDecadonna
Clockwork, acrylic on canvas on board,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1965
Decadonna, acrylic on canvas on board,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1965

JK: That year Anonima also exhibited internationally—in Yugoslavia, Poland and the UK.

An1966onima catalogue cover
Anonima Group, London Institute of Contemporary Arts catalog
exhibition cover, 1966. Paintings shown are 24 x 24 inches square
in black, white and grey

And in 1966, Anonima developed a four-year plan for future work.

EM: We decided to systematically explore four key methods of evoking dimensional space on a flat surface: overlap, relative size change, brightness ratio, and light and shade. Each was to be addressed in successive years. We first focused on overlap, which the group believed to be the most important of these depth cues. In 1967 we held an exhibition of these works, Perceptual Inquiry 1: Overlap, at our 28th Street Gallery in New York.

Anonima Exhibition Opening, Perceptual Inquiry 1: Overlap, April 1976
(Photo credit: Anonima website)

JK: In the above photo, we can see your large, colorful painting, Color Bloc (Marsden’s Heart), centrally located [color image shown on page 1 of this interview].  Also shown is Small Bloc #2. These works and a number of others like them seem to glow as if illuminated from within.

Small Bloc #2
Small Bloc #2, acrylic on masonite, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1966

EM: The shimmer or glow comes from the use of carefully constructed gradients—from light to dark or the reverse—and close values. Blue Bloc represents the pinnacle of my work from this period. It was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Blue Bloc
Blue Bloc, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1967
(Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH)

JK: In this close-up we can see your use of gradations of value expressed in both the small shapes changing from yellow to green to blue as well as in the more neutral background.

Blue Bloc detail
Blue Bloc detail

Let’s look at a few more paintings from 1966 and 67.

EM: In Blue and White Ford I’m once again using crosshatching.

Blue and White Ford
Blue and White Ford, acrylic on canvas,
121 x 105 cm (48 x 41 in), 1966
(Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH)

Looking back, I regret that I didn’t do many more works like this because they greatly satisified me and were so favorably received.

JK: Here are two more paintings from this period in which gradations and contrasts in value cause a shimmer or glow.

LabyrinthWinter Light
Labyrinth, acrylic on canvas on board,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1967
Winter Light, acrylic on canvas over board,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1967

In 1967 you moved your family from Cleveland to New York.

EM: I got a sabbatical from teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art, which I actually extended for a second year. I wanted to try to make New York stick. However, I had four children at the time, and it was very difficult to find a place to live. We started out near Carona and ended up in Sunnyside. The first year I taught at Cooper Union, the second at Pratt. When I resumed my teaching in Cleveland, I would commute back and forth. I liked this as I would use up the news in Cleveland, then go to New York where there was fresh news, use that up and return to Cleveland where the news had been replenished.

JK: In 1968 Anonima held an exhibition that focused on works created during the second year of its four-year plan.

Size, First Series #5
Size, First Series #5, acrylic on board,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1968

EM: Yes.This group of work dealt with the second depth cue we investigated—relative size change—and we held another exhibition at our 28th street gallery space.

Size, Second Series #2Size, Second Series #4
Size, Second Series #2, acrylic on board,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1968
Size, Second Series #4, acrylic on board,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1968

In 1969 we held an exhibition that focused on the third depth cue, brightness ratio. I used contrasts in value in a grid format to vary brightness. I would sometimes add interest by outlining groups of squares with different colors, here black at the top, then yellow, red, green, blue and white at the bottom.

Gradient Blok #1
Gradient Blok #1, acrylic on canvas on board,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1968

JK: Anonima never completed the final phase of the program, which was to focus on light and shade.

EM: After the brightness ratio exhibition, the group began to loose coherence. By this time I wasn’t very interested in continuing with the program. Moving to New York had heightened my excitement about painting, and I wanted to move on at a swifter pace and make myself heard as a painter. I had become impatient with the group process—too much talking and not enough painting. I felt constrained by our yearly program and our small and inconvenint communal space. And with our anti-gallery stance, I wasn’t doing very well financially.

JK: The group’s activism of that period also took time away from painting.

EM: A lot was going on during those years. Our group was involved in the protests against the war in Vietnam. And during my year of teaching at Cooper Union, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching students in the Midwest where many came from rather in New York City where they later went. The students from New York tended to be more cynical and were often already involved with galleries. And there was a lot of turmoil during my year teaching at Pratt. There were constant meetings, protests, and I remember watching the studio where Frank taught painting be burned down. My family and I were living in Sunnyside in horrible conditions. A sculptor friend of mine, Bill Barrett, had an opportunity to move into a renovated building in the Bowery, and he invited me to take the space above him. So I moved into a loft and felt free to pursue painting without any constraints or restrictive rules.

Looking back, my participation in Anonima was certainly important and worthwhile. That experience was a source of support and strength for what I would do later. My work had gained recognition and had been included in important exhibitions. And I had become more focused in my painting. Now I was free to follow my own muse. Anonima had its final exhibitions at the State University of New York at New Paltz in 1970 and a retrospective the following year at the University of Vermont. Anonima was one of the longest lasting artist groups in the US. I kept a studio in the Bowery until 1978, commuting back and forth between Cleveland and New York. I would eventually retire from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1998 after 39 years of teaching there.

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