I met with Mel Leipzig during his recent exhibit at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, N.J., “Mel Leipzig: Friends and Families,” curated by Donna Gustafson. This beautiful exhibition, dedicated to his late wife Mary Jo, includes a selection of portraits from his most recent works, dating from 2000 to 2016. At this occasion he gave several private tours and painted on site, since he loves to share about his work.
To say that Mel Leipzig has an impressive resume is an understatement. Meeting him could have been intimidating if he were not such an accessible person. With a career of over 40 years, he is among New Jersey’s best known artists. His artwork is represented in prestigious public collections, including The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, The Cooper Hewitt Museum for Decorative Arts, NY, The Jersey City Museum, NJ, and The White House in DC., to name only a few. The Gallery Henoch in NY has represented him since 1984 and at 81 he’s actively painting, showing his work, and sharing his passion: “I paint constantly. I love it!”
Paintings are not reality, they’re not the real thing, they are the reality of the painter.
During his talk, Mel Leipzig didn’t say a word about his career or accomplishments, but solely focused on giving insights about his approach and his “tricks”. He defines himself as a “realist painter, but not an academic one”. He wants to make portraits with “a likeness and tell something about the person.” By his own account, he’s not a romantic and loves reality, even if “paintings are not reality, they’re not the real thing, they are the reality of the painter.” He quoted Degas, who said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
All of his work is focused on the figure. While he was in school, realist and figurative painting was not fully appreciated, which makes him say “I didn’t like a lot of my teachers!”. After studying at Yale, in 1958, he worked for a year in France. As I pointed out to him, he was the true Jerry Mulligan, the character of Gene Kelly in an American in Paris (one of my favorite musical movies!).
When he came back to the US, he worked at the Museum of Modern Art for a while before becoming an art teacher at Colombia University, Queens College, and from 1970 to 2013 at Mercer County Community College in NJ. His passion for his art is clear and I can only envy his former students who have benefited from his experience and personality.
Being a realist painter in the 1960s places him right next to other famous American painters like Edward Hopper, Alex Katz, Janet Fish, Wayne Thiebaud, and Philip Pearlstein, who all contributed to the revival of realism at a time when Abstract Expressionism was prevalent.
The title of the exhibit “Friends and Families” is a good summary of his full career focused on portraits. He’s been portraying his family first, followed by his students and colleagues when his “family grew tired to pose” (!) and then artists- as “it’s good not to paint the same thing all the time”.
“Not academic” and “Not entirely realist”
His figures are always in a complete context, instead of a simple background: because “the background tells something about the person. And I like it when it’s messy!”
He’s very realist in his details and pays a lot of attention to the faces: “ I want people to look like themselves,” but he takes some liberties with the surroundings of the persons, with the colors, (flirting with fauvism sometimes), overdoing the light or even making a wall transparent if needed.
My favorite piece of the exhibit is the triptych portrait of the late ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu. She is in her studio on the central panel and the 2 panels on the sides represent her garden because as she said her “work is nature.”
This makes Mel Leipzing a painter of personalities rather than of simple portraits.
He’s not academic either in his process, since he paints with a very limited palette. “I started with 12 colors, then 8, then in the 90s, I used only 4 colors and made black mostly with purple… but I finally reintroduced black. It’s easier!” and he says with a smile “Even though it was quite nice to have people marvel when I mentioned I used only 4!”. He’s a practical person and “having a limited palette is convenient because I paint on site”. To my surprise, seeing his colorful paintings, he doesn’t consider himself as a “colorist like Matisse was.”
He prides himself in painting live, with no sketches, in a time when the majority of realist painters use photographs “it’s fine for others, but I prefer to start with 3 D.”
Sharing about “tricks” and process
Since he likes to add many details, the challenge is to bring attention to the right places, so he shares some tips. “Sometimes I make a wall or a sky pure white even if it’s not, to create contrast. I really want to paint what I see, but not all that I see. With strong contrasts, I put the focus on some focal points.” Mel Leipzig explains that he often uses black to paint cast shadows and apply white on focal points in that same goal to create strong contrasts.
“I also use lines around some shapes. No lines? Who made up this rule? The impressionists? Cezanne did the same and broke with the impressionists.”
In terms of process, he always starts by the figure: people will pose for him 2 to 4 hours, and then he can paint the rest of the background as can be seen on the photos taken during his painting session at the CCA with the double portrait of Donna Gustafson, curator of the show and Elie Porter Truber, the Executive Director of the CCA.
Observing him painting, I noticed that he uses acrylic paint almost like oil paint with little water and quite a bit of texture. He will most of the time have only one layer of paint and he does not varnish his paintings, which leave them with a matte aspect.
Mel Leipzig painting at the CCA
When I asked him about the painters who influenced him most, he immediately named Edouard Manet (favorite of mine too) and also the renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. “I love Manet. He’s a direct painter. I can spend hours looking at his paintings. He’s the father of modern painting you know.” Indeed the direct approach of Manet is what gave him his place in the history of art, but also brought him controversy during his lifetime. One of his most famous paintings “Olympia” created such a scandal during the salon of 1865 that it had to be placed higher to protect the painting from being damaged by the angry crowd of conservative bourgeois. Why? Partly because she was a prostitute, but mostly because she was looking directly at the viewer.
Next for Mel Leipzig
He will have a show in 2017 entitled “Artists in Their Studios,” in the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, MA, but mostly, he wants to paint as much as he can since “painting is something you can do all your life!”…
It was so inspiring to hear him, and I feel very privileged to have crossed his path.
To learn more about Mel Leipzig