Seymour Remenick, An Appreciation

writing | catalog essays | reviews | letters

from the catalog, SEYMOUR REMENICK: Paintings and Works on Paper
Lancaster Museum of Art, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Oct 1 – Nov 21, 2010

Seymour Remenick, An Appreciation

In the late 1970’s while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, I had questions on my mind about drawing paper, and my teacher Arthur De Costa suggested approaching Seymour Remenick who had been recently hired and supposedly knew a lot about paper. So one evening in the old school building at Broad and Cherry while Seymour was on break from teaching life painting, I introduced myself and we sat talking under a lurid fluorescent light by the soda machine, lost in a cloud of his cigarette smoke.

He spoke in a storm of words, his ideas flying in rapid trope completely over my head and none of it was about “paper”. But in retrospect I realized that, more importantly, Seymour had been addressing aspects of visual experience and his concerns about the perceptual encounter. At the time I was passionate about Raphael, and compared to that, his talk seemed unrelated, abstract and theoretical – yet, compellingly visual. Hiis sensibility and point of view were so conceptually different than anything I had encountered at school, that I thought he was high on something. However, during our first conversation my ears were riveted listening to his fluid commentary on Hans Hofmann (who had been his teacher), Sigmund Freud, Cezanne, Hegelian dialectics and aspects of spatial movement in Bruegel’s drawings.

That same year, for the first time, I saw one of Seymour’s drawings in a PAFA faculty exhibition – a panoramic view of Manayunk from the west side of the Schuylkill River – mostly bare paper – with minimal, linear touches of ink. What did I know then, being in awe of the suave chalk drawings of Rubens and del Sarto? I looked at what seemed lacking in descriptive form and thought, “huh, this guy doesn’t really know how to draw”? But, within a few years I began to appreciate Seymour’s understated sophistication and, to recognize that to make such a simplified drawing he must have breathed and dreamt ink and paper for years.

After graduating in 1982 I spent a lot of time with Seymour and for the next ten years we painted outside regularly. And, I was a frequent visitor to his studio. Even though I had seen piles of drawings in the studio, the first gallery exhibition I saw was in the mid 90’s when my own dealer Ben Mangel presented Seymour’s first show in Philadelphia in years. Walking about 15 feet into the gallery I was stopped in my tracks by a ravishing ink drawing, the framed piece of paper maybe 9×12 inches, from the Gloucester/Provincetown trips of the late fifties and early sixties – a small but articulate piece of visual dynamite – a moment of distilled perception translated into an abstract, graphic structure that wouldn’t let go of my eyes. His was an inventive elaboration of visual intelligence – pools of darkness in all densities of tonal saturation, still luminous paper in places untouched by the brush or pen, but no “accurate”, naturalistic rendering. Yet so powerful was its sense of place and mood and so clear its emotional pull that I needed to have it for my own. But it was already sold and I realized then that collectors too coveted his drawings, at times almost obsessively.

From Seymour I learned how to engage with the improvisational contingencies of “the perceptual moment” – and when outside, to dig in quickly and deeply. His descriptions of glorious days and years painting in Provincetown, Gloucester or Manayunk had mythic resonance and held my attention as closely as his stories of landing on a French beach the morning of June 6, 1944. After returning from the war and from Hofmann, he spent almost fifty years drawing and painting Manayunk – the industrial mill town climbing up the hill from the Schuylkill River, five or so miles beyond Center City Philadelphia. Seymour and Manayunk became synonymous.

In a single day of making drawings his approach could vary enormously: in quality of attack, in implied scale and sense of space, in variations of the length of the perceptual glance, in gesture, in focus, and in complexion. During a morning he could be working on an atmospherically moody, translucent, calligraphic drawing on taupe colored paper with a brush, reed pen and three colors of ink, describing deep recessional space looking toward a steeple across many blocks of rooftops – and three hours later, have switched visual gears into another drawing now on pure white paper, examining close up architectural walls with a sharp steel pen nib, dipping into opaque black ink and making lots of thin lines. And it was the same with his paintings. He knew those urban forms with familial intimacy: the old mills, the church towers, the views down onto and across rooftops, the alleys between row houses, the gates into overgrown backyards, and the stone walls beyond which the eyes swept out into the industrial valley of Manayunk with arched bridges and railroad poles popping up everywhere as landmarks and anchors. During the years when we went out painting together I was often amazed at how, even in his seventies he could look freshly and with enthusiasm, subtly reinvigorating his understanding of an already familiar spot.

With years of teaching, Seymour’s verbal and theoretical skills were sharp, and in his last decade he began a series of writings and “letters to a friend”, examining the anatomy of the perceptual encounter and, the young painter’s position within the wider world beyond his or her easel. I remember an art collector trying vainly to convince me that the noblest pursuit in painting was the human portrait – and not the landscape, which to him by contrast was always changing and most of all, too ordinary. He proclaimed that the face was morally superior because “the eyes are the windows to the soul, and who had ever seen a stone wall with a soul?” Seymour, who also knew the collector quite well, had no patience for this man’s anti – visual idealizations. He understood that a wall was never just a wall, and that the real issue for the painter’s eye was: how is the wall seen, felt and then translated into expressive form? As a painter and as a teacher, he aspired to shape, with precision and eloquence, impassioned response within the perceptual moment. And within that state of grace, for half a century, brush in hand, Seymour Remenick revealed a tangible glimpse of something very much akin to “soul”.

stuart shils
philadelphia, may 2010