Nationally known Trenton artist Mel Leipzig will be represented in two “Homage to Trenton” shows — featuring Trenton artists and residents — in July. One is part of the monthly exhibition at Trenton Social, opening with a First Friday reception on July 5, 6 p.m. to midnight, and on view through August. The other is at the Trenton City Museum, opening Saturday, July 13, and on view through Sept. 8.
A prominent presence in Trenton’s art community, the 84-year-old Brooklyn-born artist has had more than 40 solo shows and is represented in numerous public and private collections, including the New Jersey State Museum and the Whitney Museum of art.
He taught painting and art history at Mercer County Community College for 45 years, where he drew upon his own art training at Cooper Union, Yale University, and the Pratt Institute. His instructors included Morris Kantor, Will Barnet, Neil Welliver, Josef Albers, James Brooks, and others.
In 2018 artist and Rider University professor Harry Naar interviewed Leipzig to discuss his new work and his bold choices.
Harry Naar: Why have you abandoned the preliminary drawings leading to a painting?
Mel Leipzig: Around 2005 I was doing a painting of my son, Joshua, and his girlfriend at the time, in an apartment they rented in Ewing. I realized that my son might all of a sudden say that he was moving. What was I to do with the painting, as I needed the background of the apartment? I decided to cut out doing a sketch and color study and go directly to the painting and just see what happens. I think my paintings became much more fluid by painting directly, without any studies. So I have continued with direct painting. I believe it made my paintings more fluid. Also in using that method I was able to do some large complicated compositions such as my paintings.
HN: In some of your recent paintings you have changed the interior structure of the space.
ML: I was doing paintings as part of my Artists Series and wanted to show landscapes and seascapes outside their studios in Massachusetts, where I was painting them. So I decided to get rid of the wall behind them and show the seascape and landscape. In this show is my painting “Joshua & Martha, The Engagement Painting,” Joshua, who is my son is shown with Martha, who is now his wife seated in their home in Redford, N.Y. Behind him are three paintings Josh did for his three children. I got rid of the wall those paintings are hanging, and I copied one of my early paintings showing Joshua with his bike outside our home in Trenton, when he was 12 years old.
HN: For many years you have limited your color palette. Now you expanded your palette. What prompted you to make the change?
ML: Since 1990, I limited my palette to four colors a dark red, a blue, a yellow and white. I mixed my dark red with my blue, first ultramarine blue and then a cobalt blue to make something that resembled black, but was actually a dark purple. Margaret O’Reilly, who was the chief curator of fine arts and is now the director at the New Jersey State Museum, suggested I add the color black. Strong darks or blacks are important for me in structuring the space in my paintings. I prefer now to use black. However, since I use black I am using black outlines in my paintings. Also I am now using pure brilliant blue red and yellow in the backgrounds of many of my paintings. In that, I have been influenced by the work of the young graffiti artists of Trenton, who I have been painting as part of my ongoing Artists Series. You will notice that I have yellow, red and green skies in some of my paintings.
HN: Many people, and even art critics, think of you as a portrait painter. In fact you are known for traveling miles to different places to paint a portrait. To me your paintings go beyond the typical portrait because you are concerned with the person’s environment. How do you balance the emphasis between the person and the environment?
ML: When I first became interested in painting the figure realistically around 1970, I felt that my main compositional concern was integrating the figure with the background. And since I made a commitment to being a realist I thought that I should record as much realistic information as I could in both the figure and the background. In 1996, when I did my painting “ LOU” of my friend, the photographer, Lou Draper in the office that we shared at Mercer County Community College, I realized that I wanted to paint Lou seated in his office with one of his photographs and surrounded by the boxes of stuff that he collected, almost obsessively, because that said something about him. Also, the same year, I did a painting of my son, with his tattoos standing in his room with the walls graffitied and repros of pop stars, I thought that said something about my son at that particular age. Both those paintings ended in museum collections, the Whitney in NYC and the Zimmerli in New Brunswick. Since then I consider my paintings to be environmental portraits, in which the background tells you something about the person depicted.
HN: How does a particular environment play a role in determining the person you choose to paint?
ML: I almost always decide to paint the person first and the background proceeds from that decision.
I paint the person first, because the person is the reason that I am doing the painting. And since the people I paint are not professional models, but persons with work schedules and often busy lives, I want to make sure that I am able to portray them on canvas. It takes me now between two to four hours to paint the figure. It can take me months to paint the background. In the end I often have to make changes in the colors and tones on walls, floors, and sky, if it is in the painting in order to complete the painting. I hardly ever make big changes on the figure.
My paintings are interiors with figures in which the objects in the interior have a relationship to the figure. I imagine you could say that it is the human face that most captivates me. I almost always start the painting with the face.
HN: Do you consider yourself a portrait painter?
ML: Yes to the extent that I do paint people’s faces, with the aim to get a likeness. But I am also a painter of interiors and often a manipulator of space. They are important aspects in understanding my paintings.
HN: What do you want the viewer to become aware of or learn from viewing your exhibition?
ML: I want people to want to look at my paintings and want to be drawn into them. My paintings don’t have any message. Except if I paint people realistically, I guess you could say that I am a humanist.
HN: Did teaching over 40 years influence your painting?
ML: I think I learned things about painting because I had to constantly look at and analyze great paintings when I taught both painting and art history for over 45 years. I painted a great deal even when I was teaching. But after my retirement I painted even more. Painting, as hard as it often can be, is very life giving.