All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Throughout my 1940’s childhood, that question was asked frequently. To me, it meant that I would one day have to face reality, and decide what unappealing career I would pursue to make a living. From a lawyer, like my father and his seven Birnkrant brothers to the man who sweeps the street, the standard repertoire of options looked ominous to me. And it was pretty much a given that the work would be unpleasant. Why else would one get paid to do it? What a revolting predicament this was! Thank God, I never had to make that choice. I knew, beginning at the age of three, exactly, what I wanted to be: “an artist.” That was the only thing, for which I had the aptitude or appetite.
In spite of that clear vision, I never did become an “artist,” only a guy who did a lot of art work, which is a subtle distinction, but one with a big difference. The visual skills that I acquired enabled me to make a living. But the so-called art I generated had nothing to do with self-expression, with the sole exception of “Life Drawing!” Apart from that single activity, the only thing extraordinary about the artwork I pumped out, over the years, was its versatility. I could consciously emulate anything, from space monsters to baby dolls, in any style, without ever endeavoring to discover what my own style might be.
The summer between Hampton Elementary and Mumford High, found me at the National Music Camp at Interlaken Michigan. I was 13 at the time. My grade school art teacher had come up with an unprecedented idea, and managed to arrange it. As a result of her initiative, I became the first and only camper to attend the National Music Camp for just their “Art” program, which up till then, had always been a secondary add-on to enhance the summer of campers who were there for music, dance, or theater.
In my small drawing class, there happened to be one particularly obnoxious kid who was eleven. He claimed to have seen and done everything. Naturally, he was from New York City. As we sat there drawing plaster busts of ancient Romans and a miniaturized copy of Michelangelo’s “dying slave,” the precocious little brat boasted that in his art classes in Manhattan, he drew naked ladies. This absolutely blew my mind! I decided, then and there, that life wasn’t fair. Why him? He was just 11, and here I was, a full-fledged, six foot four inch teen, and the only nudes I’d ever seen were in the pages of National Geographic Magazine! His words played on my mind, and increased my desire to someday be an artist, and live in New York City.
It was not until I was a freshman the University of Michigan that I finally found myself basking in the glow of a live model. The experience turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic. As I quickly realized the the real excitement of life drawing was not merely feasting my eyes on naked ladies, but the actual act of drawing. Furthermore, my artistic ardor for rendering the female figure was considerately cooled down by the discovery that I wasn’t very good at it, and the growing realization that I, most likely, never would be.
For the next few years of art school, I fought a battle with anatomy, trying in vain to merely get proportions right, and squeeze the entire figure, from head to toe, onto a single page. Figure drawing had proven to be hard work for me. It not only wasn’t much fun, it was downright embarrassing. After class, I hid my drawings. Alas, being a collector at heart, I could not bring myself to actually throw these anguished attempts away. So, those awful drawings from my art school days lie in the basement, moldering. I shudder when I see them now, caring not, as they decay. The drawings that I did in France were slightly better. Nonetheless, they too are disintegrating in the cellar.
Fatefully, in 1966, nearly eight years later, Haig Adishian, my then congenial upstairs neighbor, in the New Loft on Lexington, offered me the opportunity to try my hand at figure drawing once again. One night a week, he hired a model to pose for a small group of former art students and enthusiasts. The more artists we could gather to attend these sessions, the less the cost would be, as we divided the models fee between us.
There was a kind of model underground that Haig tapped into. The models who came to pose were fabulous, and very professional. If one was not available for an upcoming date, she would recommend a friend, and so, the repertoire of models grew. Booking successive sessions was a breeze. I don’t recall how much they were paid, but it was the well-established going rate, and divided among the group, it amounted to just a few dollars each.
The task of finding attendees, beyond Haig and myself, more or less, fell to me. First and foremost among these, were two of my good friends from Pratt, my former roommate Harley Wolfe, who was already working in the toy industry, and Ellen Kunsel. Although, Ellen had great potential as an artist, she had never pursued an art career. One of the joys of this little drawing class was watching her draftsmanship grow spectacularly better every week. And the fact that she was there, assuring that the group was not just a bunch of horny men, added a certain legitimacy to the class that put a new model at ease.
Another regular attendee was an amazing man named Morris Huzarski. Morris, who was in his late forties, was an art supply salesman. He was also a compulsive draftsman, who always seemed to have a pen or pencil in his hand. His medium was the 5”X7” file card. He carried a stack of these around with him, and whipped out drawings by the dozens, every day. Most of these were quick cartoons, executed in a style that was completely 1940’s. His figure studies were cartoony too, so much so that I sometimes wondered if he was even looking at the model.
Morris lived in what was called an SRO, (Single Room Occupancy) in a residential hotel, just along 28th Street. The tiny room was no more than ten foot square, with ceilings higher than the room was wide. Entering this small enclosure was an unforgettable experience, for every inch of its interior, the walls and the ceiling too, were papered with his 5”X7” drawings; all touching one another, with not an inch of wall space visible, in-between. A single thumbtack held the corners of four cards in place. Most were discolored with age, indicating that they had been hanging there for many years. Hundreds more were neatly piled atop the dresser. Morris’s entire past was present in this tiny claustrophobic chamber.
Morris Huzarski’s bizarre lifestyle became understandable when one learned his life story. He grew up in an orphanage, and had no clue what it was like to have a family. That’s not to say that he was lonely, for he had a multitude of lady friends, most of whom, were prostitutes. That is not meant to imply that he was their client. They were just friends, fellow residents of the hotel. The one exception to that rule was a shy young girl, named Alice, who Morris idolized. Alice lived at home with her parents.
Many years later, when we were living in the country, out of the blue, we heard from Morris. He had married Alice. A few days later, he brought her up to meet us. They had bought a house in New Jersey, and Alice was about to have a baby. For the first time in his lifetime, Morris Huzarski had a home and family.
There was once a popular TV game show, called, “Supermarket Sweep.” It amounted to a prime-time celebration of wild abandoned greed! Several crazed contestants were given empty grocery carts, and invited to run through a supermarket, for five frenetic minutes, grabbing anything they could reach, and cramming it into their grocery cart, for free. When this rapacious romp was over, the overflowing contents of each cart was tallied up, and a prize was awarded to the cunning contestant who had selectively scooped up the most valuable stuff.
Figure drawing at its most exciting, became “Supermarket Sweep” to me! I never lost sight of the fact that the average pose of twenty minutes was all the time I had. Therefore, I worked feverishly, at lightning speed, to capture all the information I could gather, and throw it at the paper. There was no time to stop and think, or hesitate to plan the page. I simply let the insanely intoxicating act of drawing carry me, wherever it might lead. And because I left my meddlesome mind behind, and relied solely on my unconscious intuition as a guide, the resulting art, for once in my life, was unequivocally mine.
Harley introduced the class to a charming young man from South Korea who became a faithful attendee. His name was Kim. He was a toy designer and worked alongside Harley. Kim invited Eunice and I to his apartment in Brooklyn for dinner. His young bride was also charming. They had only been in America a short time, and to some degree, they didn’t have a clue, or for that matter any furniture. Like me, Kim loved music, but he did not have a stereo. Nonetheless, he wanted to share his enthusiasm for Charles Ives. So, while the others chatted, I obligingly listened to Ives’ first Symphony on head phones. It really was the sweetest strangest dinner party, delightfully disorganized. They served frozen TV dinners, cooked one at a time, for thirty minutes each, in a small toaster oven.
The last regular attendee, was a young man who worked at the art store down the street. He was a sales clerk at Sam Flax by day, and and an aspiring artist at night. He was also a handy guy to have around, because when the model didn’t show up, he’d willingly stand in for her, as happy to earn the modeling fee as he would have been to draw. This was a delicate situation. The others had to be careful not to hurt his feelings, and hide the fact that they were disappointed and annoyed. Ellen, on the other hand, whose hugely exaggerated drawings graphically indicated that she was a enthusiastic connoisseur of the male anatomy, was clearly overjoyed.
In the eight years that had passed, since my time in France, many things had changed. I no longer entertained illusions that I would, one day, be an artist. I was content, just to be making a living, in a way that was interesting and somewhat adventuresome. So, when I climbed the stairs, one flight up, to Haig’s loft, on that first night, I was doing it just for fun.
I had found the wooden box of drawing implements that I’d used in Paris, with some of the pencils I sharpened with a razor blade, eight years before, still sharp and ready to go. Then, I clipped a large 18” X 24” pad of bond paper to a drawing board, and I was sharp and ready too. Earlier that afternoon, Haig and I had carried my odd collection of spare chairs and assorted easels up the stairs. I had acquired several easels, over the years, one of which had come from France. In lieu of an easel, some preferred to merely rest their drawing board on an empty chair, as was often done in art schools.
I’ll never forget that evening. It was a gathering of familiar faces, and a few new ones as well, all of whom were destined to become a community of friends. After some initial greetings, and much arranging and adjusting of the lights and seating, the model finally assumed a pose, the first of hundreds that would follow, and we began.
Now, after a hiatus of eight years in limbo, I experienced a miracle. The instant that my pencil touched the paper, something in my soul caught fire. And the wood clad stick of carbon that had simmered in that box for eight years prior, suddenly burst into flame. It flew across the page, like a blazing comet, leaving a trail of cold gray embers in its wake. And the embers formed an image, untamed and unruly, wild and free. And it suddenly became clear that I had entered a New Era, one, in which there were no rules. With no lofty aspirations, I had nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and no one to please, but me. Below, is the drawing that I did on that occasion.
Another weekly draftsman, who did more admiring that drawing, was my good friend Phil Kaplan, a charming man in his sixties, who was a close friend of Sam Gold of Sam Gold Novelties. Phil had personally assembled a fabulous collection of antique toys for Sam. Sam Gold Novelties created all the great radio and cereal premiums. They also engineered the Blue Ribbon Pop-up books and the Waddle books. I visited there quite often with Phil. On each occasion, he gave me an antique toy to repair, in return for which I got a duplicate toy from the collection. Thus, I repaired two Talking Picture Books, and got one to keep.
Phil had a fabulous collection of rare books himself, including the most incredible book I’ve ever seen, a huge mystical volume, the likes of which might well have been conceived by HP Lovecraft. Spectacularly bound in dramatically tooled leather of unknown origin, its parchment pages teemed with gothic lettering and mad phantasmagorical images, entirely penned in human blood. It was Phil who introduced me to Woody Gellman. And I was able to see his utterly amazing collection that included hundreds of Winsor McCay’s original Little Nemo Sunday Pages, stacked in piles, several feet high. Years later, all these were lost in a tragic fire.
Waiting for each new pose to begin, I turned off my consciousness, and prepared to dive right in. Like an athlete, who all his life had trained for an event that required only a few seconds to take place, this was the moment of truth, an opportunity to ascertain where all those years of doing art had carried me. For a small fraction of eternity, I would not try to please anyone, but me. There would be no contriving, no composing, no rethinking, or second-guessing, and above all, absolutely no erasing! There simply was no time for any of those things. This would be an exercise in total honesty. I stood behind my easel, which was the starting gate. My oversized drawing pad was opened to a clean white page, and locked in place. And once the model settled into a pose that everyone agreed was OK, I rushed forth with abandon, and began the race!
Because I was so eager to begin, I never took the time to think ahead, about a head. Therefore, there was often no space left to fit one in. I focused on the middle of the model, and dove in! Thus, not only the head, but feet as well often didn’t make it onto the page. I tried using bigger paper, only to discover that my drawings just got bigger. And the same problems existed, only on a larger plane.
The way I drew was daring. That was partly an attempt to make it more exciting, and partly because of lack of skill. I didn’t have that kind of awesome ability that is possessed, for instance, by my friend James Gurney. When he picks up a pencil or a brush, it does exactly what he wants it to. When I, on the other hand, attempted to draw even a single line, the results are always unpredictable. I came to grips with this reality, and stopped worrying about it. And thus, I drew with purposeful abandon, and threw lines at the paper wildly, because that made it more exciting. Like basketballs aimed at the net, from clear across the court, a few, from time to time, dropped in, but many more fell short. I played the drawing game for fun, and sometimes by fate, or just dumb luck, I won.
As a kid, I had an amazing book, called, “Junior’s Fun to Draw.” It was published in 1944, when I was seven; and that might have the year I got it. It taught Junior how to draw, step by step, beginning with circles. There were even actual model sheets from animated cartoons, mostly picked up from Fleischer Studios. These revealed how comic characters were constructed, one circle at a time. And so, at that early age, it became fixated in my mind that if I could just find the hidden circles, I would be able to draw anything. I never outgrew that simple concept, and even as an adult, figure drawing for me remained a treasure hunt for pure geometry! Rectangles, squares and triangles were often hiding in there too, but first and foremost, trumping everything, I sought to find, and render visible, the secret circles.
I loved to circulate among circles, languish amid their curvaceous contours, and often times exaggerate their size. But most of all, I savored the exquisite pleasure of balancing precariously on the razor thin line that separates abstraction from reality. I strove to master the subtle trick of adding just enough exaggeration to hopefully convey to others the elements that I found exciting, without stepping across the line into the realm of caricature.
A curious phenomenon, not easy to describe or explain, that happens intuitively, and is impossible to fake, is where an image exists in relation to the picture plane. Some artists draw in front of the flat page. Their images exist in the space, standing out from the surface of the paper. Others draw, as if, the paper were a window, and the images they create take place in an inner world beyond that plane. I drew in the middle, my drawings utilized the surface of the page as part of what they were made of. Some elements came out from the page, other elements sank back into it. The paper’s surface and the figures were always intermingled.
Walking around a life drawing class, and looking over students shoulders, is an experience unique in all of academia. Nowhere else, can a student’s level of development be assessed as quickly, or as accurately, as here. In any other course of study, a teacher must rely on tests or grades to ascertain a student’s standing. But in the field of figure drawing, one has only to see their drawings.
Recalling my own art school days, viewing fellow students work not only revealed their level of proficiency, it could also reveal their interests, in ways that sometimes bordered on hilarious. One often encountered drawings, especially among beginners, in which certain areas of the anatomy were rendered in great detail, or enlarged outrageously, while other parts were totally ignored. Now, all these years later, my drawings, too, were hardly exercises in objectivity. I admit that they revealed a point of view. This visual overstatement is something I did purposely, knowingly exaggerating the curves and contours, hills and valleys, shapes and shadows that seemed most interesting, hoping that the viewer would see them too.
My attempts to emphasize the obvious, were not what they might have, at first glance, seemed to be, a tendency to just make everybody chubby. I tried to exaggerate objectively. Therefore, if a model happened to be thin, I emphasized her skinniness. The exaggerations that my drawings display are all based on perceived reality, not subjective ideology.
When Maurice Sendak saw my drawings, for the first time, I knew that he could assess their strengths and weaknesses instantly, and dreaded what he might feel obliged to say, not wanting to hurt my feelings. He uttered just a single word: “Voluptuous!” Yes, by God! He got it! “Voluptuous” was my proclivity! As brutal honesty was one of Maurice’s most characteristic traits, I did not ask him to elucidate. Voluptuous was good enough for me.
Haig’s life drawing sessions had proved to be the highlight of everybody’s week. The entire group loved these evenings so much that we mutually agreed to double the fun, and do it twice a week. Haig enthusiastically agreed. And I, for one, was on cloud nine. I had my music back, and I was beginning to draw again.
I always thought it strange that Mimi never joined the group; she could have drawn circles around us all. She would appear when she got home from work, always upbeat and congenial. In spite of that, something was not right. Haig grew more bad tempered by the day. Dark clouds began to gather on the horizon. A storm was on the way. From time to time, when working late at night, I could hear the sound of thunder and lightning upstairs. Then, all at once, Mimi was no longer there!
That changed everything. Haig grew increasingly bitter, and the chip on his shoulder transformed into a boulder. Unhappy with his life, unhappy doing record album covers, unhappy that anyone else was happy, and especially unhappy with my stereo. Even when it was almost inaudible, he was increasingly prone to banging on the ceiling.
Ironically, while wallowing in his misery and self-pity, he was also making many people happy by offering them life drawing sessions, twice a week. Furthermore, their drawing skills were visibly improving, while Haig’s mood and draftsmanship, alike, appeared to be deteriorating. So, no one was surprised when one evening, just as the class was ending, Haig unapologetically pulled the plug, proclaiming that the session that was just ending would be the final one. Henceforth, he claimed, he was going to devote his life to painting. His thinly disguised glee at making this announcement was the first time I’d seen him happy in weeks.
Haig’s bittersweet elation was short-lived. I don’t always think fast on my feet, but, for once, I did, and made it clear, right then and there, that in the future, the drawing sessions would continue downstairs, and invited Haig to join us. To no one’s surprise, he declined. Then, I asked him for the notebook with all the model's names and phone numbers, knowing he couldn’t be funny about it with everybody watching. And he begrudgingly handed it to me. And so, an era ended, abruptly, and an even better one began, as a very relieved group of figure drawing devotees grabbed my assorted easels and chairs, and helped to carry them downstairs.
In the two days that followed, I hung huge bed sheets at the windows, which had formerly been bare, and built a sturdy platform, two foot high and eight foot square. Then, I removed some shelves to provide a blank wall behind the platform, and installed spotlights in the ceiling. When the group arrived in two days’ time, they were amazed! And so, the drawing sessions continued for the next several years. More people joined us, on and off, but the core group of faithful regulars remained
Poor Haig; everybody loved the stereo, therefore, we timed the poses by the twenty minutes it required to hear one side of an LP. So, Haig became the grumpy bear upstairs, who had to grin and bear the sound of music, two evening a week. He remained there for just one year. I rarely saw him, because I never used the stairs, and seldom descended to the street. Once, during that time, we declared a temporary peace, and he invited me to see his paintings. I thought they were impressive.
And so, the drawing sessions continued, and never ceased to be exciting. From time to time, the model assumed a longer pose, one that would last nearly an hour, in three twenty minute sections, with rest breaks in between. On these occasions, I often chose a bigger pad, and as this sort of pose was usually reclining, I’d turn the paper horizontally. I tackled these long poses with considerably more care, because I had more time to spare. In spite of my purposeful efforts to draw with calculated abandon, I was acquiring more control. And with the Outer Space Men seemingly succeeding, the possibility occurred to me that I might, one day, have the time and money to become an artist after all.
Sometime in December of 1969, we bought a schoolhouse in the country, with the understanding that the nun who was both the owner and the sole inhabitant could remain there, until summer. That is when we would move in. Meanwhile, in the months before then, we visited the schoolhouse, nearly every weekend. Each time, the car was packed with belongings to be stored there. And so, this half completed sculpture traveled with us to the country. And all HELL broke loose when it arrived there! To be continued.
P.S. The above drawings and 85 more are also posted HERE.
And here is the actual sculpture, silhouetted against the window, overlooking Lexington Avenue, on a bleak day in Manhattan. A larger sketch, based on the one above can be glimpsed behind the ghostly group of manikins that stood around my studio, observing the progress of this sculpture, which, sadly, went no farther. Just as this offbeat attempt at sculpture was beginning, our days in New York City were ending.
I asked myself what form that art might take. My earlier attempts at painting had all been flat and decorative. They existed on a two dimensional plane. But, my drawings were clearly the drawings of a sculptor, indicating forms that could exist in space. Calvin Albert, my favorite instructor at Pratt had pointed that out to me, years before, and encouraged me to become a sculptor. Given the necessary materials, I could have easily transformed these images into the third dimension. But the problem remained, what medium could I work in? It would have to be affordable.
Even if I were to work small, in clay, the cost of casting the resulting images would be expensive. That is when I got a strange idea. What if I were to create large sculptures, like bas-reliefs, made of fabric? The forms would first be cut from plywood, and then, using the same beige linen that is used for painting, I could build up muscles by sewing and stuffing them to create an illusion of underlying anatomy, and then, stretch linen canvas over the top. This would be a means of sculpting that I could afford, and it would also not disrupt the twice weekly figure drawing sessions, we all adored.
The incomplete bas-relief, below, was testimony to my innate naiveté. It was based on a photo, of the sort that were sold in small packets in the shops on 42nd street. It was typical of the legal limits of erotica at the time. The young ladies who posed in them discreetly covered certain areas of their anatomy with their hand. Thus, the hand placement here represented modesty, nothing more. Had the image been completed, my intention was to add two lower legs, fully formed of fabric, and balanced by pendulums at the knees. This would enable them to subtly animate, when activated by the slightest breeze. Below, is the original first sketch. I found it just last week. It displays the ravages of age, and the discoloring effect of rubber cement.