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Columbia Museum of Art Newsletter, October-November 2012 43

Artist Statement & Notes for An Artist's-Eye Exhibition

Columbia Museum of Art, 

Columbia, SC

June 2011


There is only one museum where I was ever “intimate” in the behind the scenes workings and that is the Columbia Museum of Art.  As an undergraduate in USC’s art department in the 1950s, when I was actually supposed to be enrolled in “pre-med”, art did remain my central focus.  Surprise, surprise!  Soon the museum’s exhibition installer and painter, David Van Hook, took me under his and the museum’s wing, and allowed me unique, intense experiences that became central to my “visual” education; thus making, I feel, this once in a lifetime opportunity to curate this exhibition all the more a very special experience.

Hook and I talked night and day about art. The strength of my passion for art got strongly re-enforced by the hands-on physical contact with actual paintings.  Many a night I was invited to uncrate an incoming exhibition often selected from contemporary New York City galleries. These are my most vivid and favorite memories of that privileged time in my development as an artist.  After so many decades past, I clearly recall unscrewing crates prior to screw-guns and sheetrock screws, carefully lifting off brown craft paper filled with raffia padding surrounding each canvas and then grasping the work by its frame, cleaning it off so so carefully and propping it up and launching into our very separate opinions about that specific work.  There is nothing in this world like the sensitive paint surfaces and personal handwriting of original art, and how often can one have such private time with a first-rate painting - especially as an impressionable kid?

Growing up in Myrtle Beach, S.C. where there was no art taught in either the public grade nor the high school, when I got to NYC and met students who had been able to train as serious artists at the High School of Music and Art, I was so jealous of all the art they had been exposed to and feared I could never catch up.  Yet, while I was a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture during the summer of 1955 and 1956, they held an event where they showed one hundred slides, each summer, and I was the top winner both summers.  The prize was the number of right answers in dollars at the art store.  The first summer I got $98 and the next $100, and there were few close runners-up.  Others’ art has always been a huge deal to me.  I have my own significant collection of other artist’s art, so I suppose that alone makes this curating a naturally challenging opportunity for me.

In the 50s and 60s, oh boy, but did I have to buck the tide.  Abstract Expressionism was American’s giant success story and it was an undeniable fact that the New York School took primacy after WWII from the School of Paris.  But those shoes just did not and could not fit me.  Of course I could see merit, even lots of excitement from those explosive gestures, but it could not drive me, lure me, nor feed me artistically.  Of course, as a three decade university art professor I had to be professionally broadminded and inclusive for my students while still insisting they learn to draw with meaning, understanding and passion from the figure.

Now we are in the 21st century, and I have certainly been honored by being invited by the Columbia Museum of Art to curate An Artist’s Eye from their holdings in 20th & 21st century art.  It is without a choice actually that I have decided I can only reflect my deepest passions - after all, why was I, this totally committed figurative imagist being asked to undertake this selection?  Observation, humanity, passion for the humanizing of art that reflects personal visions of what it is to be alive, vital, erotic, optimistic, pessimistic, evolving, even scary, darkly intentioned pictures is why I devoted my whole life to making art and not writing stories; perhaps a more Southern expressive form of telling it as it is.  Very recently I came across the dictum of the contemporary poet Chase Twitchell that reads; “Tell the truth, no decoration and remember death.”  These words so tightly fit my life-long objectives and the only addition I could rightfully add is “take chances” or “trust my intuition.”

A word or two of the process; I was confronted with over 2,500 possible works and initially going through them all was like a kid in a candy store.  That took two trips to Columbia and six days of looking and deciding, which resulted in 400+ winnowed-down selections.  On my third trip, I began to sweat bullets, having to eliminate marvelous things and whittled the selections down to 225.  Patient curator, Todd Herman told me that the final number still had to be 75 to 83 depending upon sizes of the chosen pieces.  At this point the fun was long behind me, now it was a choice of fingers or toes!

I have found so many moving images that really engross and engage me, even if I recognize that much of the focus of this collection was/is just by those with opposite sensitivities and built from and upon the abstract, even minimalist aesthetic. Perhaps another artist with those sensibilities will follow my show and indeed choose another Artist’s Eye show from his/her perspective, satisfying the abstract art lovers. 


Isn’t it terrific that the Columbia Museum of Art has such deep riches in their collection, and in some cases long-buried away from museum-goers eyes?  I delight in resurrecting some wonderful pictures and a few sculptures, and hope they inform and excite you viewers in fresh and significant ways.

Sigmund Abeles

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