Saltzman: 'I’m not an artist; I’m a painter'

“Abstract Landscapes of Marvin Saltzman,” Eno Gallery, Hillsborough, through Aug. 17.
Jul. 20, 2014 @ 02:07 PM

“Abstract Landscapes of Marvin Saltzman,” Eno Gallery, Hillsborough, through Aug. 17.

Marvin Saltzman (b. 1931) and I have known each other more than 35 years.  We never met in the classroom, however; he was teaching studio and I was studying art history.  But since I have been writing about art, we have spent many hours discussing the state of art in general and his art in particular.

He has been busy these past few years; a one-man show at the Mahler in Raleigh, currently a solo show at Hillsborough’s Eno and a small retrospective will open soon at the Alcott Gallery in the Art Department’s Hanes Building.  Each of the exhibitions advertised an artist talk; his skills as a teacher make him a master at the podium.  In fact, Saltzman never talks about art without teaching the listener something new.  I asked him whether he wanted to be remembered as a great teacher or a great artist and in his matter-of-fact honesty said, “I want to be remembered as both,” and then he said, “I don’t want my kids to let me be forgotten.  I have a body of work and I want them to get it out to the world.”  

Saltzman and I sat in the Hillsborough Gallery surrounded by 20 or so of his paintings and drawings and talked.  The paintings in their strong oranges, reds, greens, blues, marked with his signature slashes and glyphs, look marvelous against the pristine white walls.   He said the drawings come from sketches made on site and may or may not turn into a particular painting.  He never uses photography; a line from one drawing, a form from another act as the reminders for the painting that will ultimately take shape in his mind.  Any relationship to the camera is after the fact.  “I am not reproducing nature,” he said.

Interviewing Saltzman is never an organized process. One thought leads to another and it is not always a direct line from point A to point B.  We began with the paintings; most are recent although his working process takes many months.  He said he works on several canvases at one time.  “Sometimes they take over a year,’ he said.  Today his movements around the studio are hampered and so he paints sitting.   A man of strong discipline, Saltzman is in his studio at least three hours every day.  He begins around nine in the morning and, after 30 minutes of painting, changes to a short work-out on his Nu Step recumbent cross trainer; moving between the exercise and the painting is the way he spends each morning.   He has jerry rigged a table for the canvas which limits his ability to see the whole canvas at one time.  “The totality is no longer there,” he said, but he that has not stopped him.  And then, out of the blue he said, “I would never touch a student’s painting.  I talked to them about their paintings until they understood what I meant.  I did not give assignments or set up still lifes.”  Saltzman was about freedom of expression and his list of students includes some of the Triangle’s best. Although Saltzman plays the curmudgeon, his kindness and empathy is there and no one knows that better than his students, his children and grandchildren. 

 So we moved to his teaching at UNC from 1967 to 1996.  He explained, “The department would assign a student to a teacher so I would meet mine and look at each’s work.  It could be sculpture or painting, it could be portraiture or landscape; sometimes it was bad and we would talk about the art and I would finally say, if this is what you want to do, I cannot teach you; you must find someone else.”  Most stayed, he said, and many became very successful.  He confessed he does not like everything some of them are doing today, but he is proud of all of them, because they are working and they are selling. 

He recalled one of his friends from the School of Architecture would regularly send students to take his design class, telling them it was an absolute must.  His design students came from all over campus.  “Good design,” he said, “means ahead of the pack, not following.”  With well-deserved pride, he added, “I’m a part of their lives.” That reminded him of a story.  Peter Krogh, one of those outside design students, made a toast to him at his 80th birthday party which led him to make a toast to Jackie (his wife of 50 years, now deceased) for, “letting me be a teacher and a painter.” 

I asked him what he thought about the artist Tracey Emin’s bed selling for 2.2 million British pounds.  He answered, “I came out of the School of Paris and skipped Dada.  The buyer bought a story.”  He then told me they teach assemblage at Carolina now and painting classes, to his dismay, are not high on the list. That led to his telling me about a fund he and his wife set up to help students buy painting supplies.  “Some are strapped for money,” he explained, “a tube of paint used to cost $1.50, now it’s $7.50.”

“Look at this,” he said, and grabbed a sheet of paper and made a sketch to show me how to look at his paintings.  First he divided a rectangle into four equal parts and then made more straight lines across the surface.  Finally he made curved lines, cutting through the straight lines with every mark and said, “That’s what I do.” 

I asked about his academic background and when did he become an abstract painter?  He received his MFA from the University of Southern California, but began his formal education at the School of the Chicago Art Institute, where painting from the model was done over and over and was, according to Saltzman, excessive.  As for abstraction, he said, “First I painted the figure, then I painted the figure in the landscape and finally I just painted landscapes.”

 “Vallee De La Dordogne, #4,” is an example.  Trees are scattered over hills, some of his glyphs are there to direct our eyes.  He moves us through the painting on a curved trajectory and suddenly a patch of color (“They are fields,” he explains.) changes our perspective.  The paintings here are memories of North Carolina rivers, the Trent and the Cumberland, and there are also a few from the Dordogne region.  He had a French student and when she found out he and Jackie were going to Paris invited them to visit.  Her family was quite wealthy and insisted they visit often.  “It is why so many of my paintings are of the French countryside,” he said.

I said something about his being an artist and he said, “I’m not an artist; I’m a painter.  Picasso was an artist.  I paint and therefore I’m a painter.”