08 October 2008

Nathan Gluck, Modern Artist

Clicking through the modern design blogs, with their focus on houses and furniture and artifacts, it's easy to forget that there were people who lived and worked -- created -- entirely in the modern realm. One was our friend Nathan Gluck, who died in late September (Gina wrote about him here).

I met Nathan in the mid 1980s and knew him entirely in the context of the Federico family, with whom he was friends since the late 1930s. He worked at a place I had never heard of -- AIGA -- and created things that, to my narrow non-art-world eyes, were astonishing: paintings of quasi-mythological figures, 8 1/2-by-11 crayon drawings, postcards, photograms. He created his own greeting cards! I didn't realize people could or would do that. (He wasn't the only one doing it of course -- my future father-in-law in collaboration with my future mother-in-law produced his own, as did my future wife, my future sister-in-law, and a whole slew of their graphic artist friends.)

Almost everything we've seen of Nathan's was done on a small scale. They are colorful and deft and effortless, as if he knocked them out in the evening after finishing other tasks. He was immensely prolific and generous with his work -- it sometimes seemed that no sooner did he finish a drawing than he put it in the mail and sent it off. There's a drawing he sent to Gina's parents in 1950 of a girl carrying a bunch of balloons. "For Junior," it says and he must have mailed it just before Gina's sister, Lisa, was born and named. There's another -- a simple crayon drawing -- that he sent to us in 1993: "Snowy Owl for Elie," it says in his handwriting, our daughter Elie having been born that year.

Nathan created a lot a collages in his later years and showed dozens of them in a gallery on the Upper East Side in 1997. (We went to the opening one Saturday in late winter, as I remember it, and later visited Leo Lionni, the graphic artist and children's book author, in his apartment -- I remember seeing the cut-outs of the mice characters that he used to illustrate his books, like Frederic, piled in a tray on his desk.) The collages attracted attention and admiration. Here for example is what Nathan's good friend Luis de Jesus wrote:

It's hard for me to separate Nathan, the person, from Nathan the artist. The two were inextricably bound. Anyone who knew him personally can see his quirky, yet elegant sense of style, sharp wit, appreciation of language, music and the classics, and, above all, his oddball sense of humor reflected throughout his work. This is most apparent in the collages that he created beginning in 1995, during his 'retirement' period. It is in these works that Nathan finally found his unique voice, as if everything that he had ever collected over the years--all of the thoughts and ideas, competing influences and styles, tidbits of trivia and non-sense, recipes and scraps of ephemera--could no longer be contained and compartmentalized and simply exploded in a remarkable output of creativity. He leveled the playing field and everything became equal. It says so much about him as a person and an artist--honest, warm, unpretentious and a true original.

While I might disagree that Nathan "finally found his unique voice" in the collages, I absolutely agree that from what I knew of Nathan the collages are an expression of himself. We just happen to like his earlier work a bit better, perhaps because it seemed as if he were creating them for us -- which, in fact, he did. Steven Heller just published a good account of Nathan's life and career for AIGA (which I now know stands for American Institute of Graphic Artists), here. Note the description of Nathan's apartment, filled with art and artifacts. I visited him there twice and it had to be seen to be believed. His most valuable drawings were on the crowded wall but were draped with pages torn from magazines to protect them from the light. He showed me where he had an Andy Warhol piece -- U.S. currency -- that he had sold or given to a museum in exchange for a good copy that he hung on the wall instead. There was a phrenologic head from the 19th century that his father had given him, and which he gave to Gina last February when she and Lisa went to help him pack up for his move to San Diego.

Last week two institutions dedicated to Warhol's work took a death notice in the Times. (If you look at what's been written about Nathan recently, you see hints that he might have had more to do with Warhol's early art than is generally believed). Here's what it says:

GLUCK -- Nathan, gifted graphic artist and collagist, and Andy Warhol's commercial art assistant, died in San Diego on September 27, 2008 at the age of 90. Nathan's wit and unfailing generosity of spirit will be greatly missed by his friends and colleagues at The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York and The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

We almost always have one or two of Nathan's pieces on display in our house. Last week and this week the house is a Nathan Gluck gallery featuring our favorite works by an artist whose career spanned almost the entire modern era.

(Nathan's pictures, from top: A crayon drawing he did for our daughter soon after she was born; a greeting card, "Noel," from 1939 -- the image on the left is the front, the image on the right is the inside; a collage he created for our daughter; a painting, one of three similar paintings he did for Gene Federico in 1947.) -- ta



i love his work!
wonderful blog!
i am a fan of mid century modern design.


Philip F. Clark said...

I worked at AIGA many years ago; on my last day there, Nathan gave me a beautiful set of his watercolors and pastel drawings, which I treasure to this day. It was only until I happened upon your website that I realized he passed away. There was no one like him. A true and loving, and gifted spirit. Thank you for such a beautiful tribute to him.