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Walter Feldman

by Jason Lovvorn

"When an artist becomes complacent, he begins to be a manufacturer of sausages," Walter Feldman once noted.[i] Complacency, however, has not been a problem for this artist during his long and varied career.

A painter since the age of 12, Feldman has never been so satisfied with his art that he stopped questioning, exploring, and experimenting. Subsequently, his work exhibits expertise in a variety of disciplines, from traditional painting to avant-garde book making. He is a printmaker, a painter, and a mosaicist. His media include the expected--graphite, ink, acrylics, oils. But Feldman’s pieces also utilize materials as diverse as eighteenth-century rag paper and space-age, thermoplastic adhesives. Now, about to begin his forty-sixth year as a professor of visual arts at Brown University, Feldman shows no signs of quelling his creative explorations. His art, like that of any responsive artist, continues to grow around an ever-changing vision. Yet at the same time, Walter Feldman’s work never loses sight of the essential connective elements that tie artist, artwork, and viewer into a communal matrix of humanity.

For Feldman, it is a humanity that comes from humble roots. In 1925 he was born into a working-class family in Lynn, Massachusetts. His parents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, both labored to improve the family’s lot. His father ran a small grocery store and moonlighted as a tailor while his mother sewed fancy stitching in a shoe factory. Feldman, however, possessed sensibilities that were often less pragmatic than those of his parents. He developed an early interest in sketching the world around him and recalls that he drew constantly as a child. Nonetheless, his artistic impulses received little encouragement from his parents at first. After all, no one in their Russian-Polish-Jewish community earned a living by drawing pictures. Yet Feldman’s passion remained intense--so much so that his parents eventually allowed him to take art classes every Saturday afternoon at the Boston Museum. By age 16, Feldman had his first show at the local library.

[i] Press Release. Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. 27 January 1978.

In 1942, Feldman entered Yale University to continue his art education, but his plans were interrupted by military service. He spent 1943 to 1946 as an infantryman in the United States Army where he served as a scout, not because he possessed nerves of steel, but because of his poor vision. In "Walter Feldman: A Retrospective," Feldman recounts, "I had bad eyes. That’s why they made me the first scout in an infantry company when I went into the Army. The first scout is supposed to draw fire, not to go out looking for the enemy as the name implies."[i] In his book, A Packet of Letters (reprinted in this issue), Feldman looks back at some of his experiences as a soldier. He describes himself as "a frightened kid, far away from home for the first time and having experiences for which, naturally, there was no preparation."[ii] Eventually, Feldman did find himself under enemy fire, most notably at the Battle of Ardennes, or as it is more commonly known, the Battle of the Bulge. Feldman remembers,

On that grey winter afternoon, I had come under heavy enemy machine gun fire and was pinned down at the base of a tree. The ‘burp’ was so rapid that I had difficulty in determining its direction. Mortar shells were lobbing in and their dirty explosions made a filthy mess of the white snow. One of the shells touched the small branches of my tree, burst into an angry orange flame and umbrellared down on me. Chunks of shrapnel slammed into my lower back, and I momentarily blacked out. The medics had trouble getting to me because of all the small arms fire and the mortars. Getting me back to the company, battalion and regimental aid stations was a gruesome adventure: abandoned on the stretcher while strapped down on the hood of a jeep during heavy artillery bombardment, mistaken for a German soldier at the temporary aid station, missing the airplane that was to have flown me back to the U.S.[iii]

Such events would have a lasting impact on Walter Feldman and his art. A number of his later works, for instance, pay tribute to the losses brought by war. From collages like Homage to the Ardennes to book-sculptures like Reliquery of Auschwitz, Feldman’s art often serves as a testament to the powerful, lasting consequences of human conflict.

[i] Quoted in "Walter Feldman: A Retrospective", by Debra Shore. Brown Alumni Monthly February 1979: 25.

[ii] Feldman, Walter, A Packet of Letters (Providence, Rhode Island: Ziggurat Press, 1988).

[iii] Feldman, A Packet of Letters.

Feldman also reminds us, however, that art can help heal the wounds of war. In his own experience, the physical and psychic damage inflicted by combat forced him to find a way to cope with his suffering. Among his trials, Feldman was forced to face the possibility of life as an invalid. In A Packet of Letters, he revisits this grim potentiality that resulted from his battle injury. Feldman recollects, "I had no feeling in my legs--and was depressed, having overheard two of the young army surgeons discussing the pros and cons of my ever walking again."[i] While recuperating in Paris, Feldman did receive the news that he would no longer walk. But he subsequently notes, "The doctors were wrong. I learned to walk again."[ii] This succinct, triumphant declaration speaks to more than just Feldman’s motor skills. In the process of recovery, he did not just learn how to use his legs. More importantly perhaps, he discovered that art could offer salvation. He recalls that "Through the pain I learned how to paint, too. Pain and painting, I learned that strange verbal connection."[iii] Art is often born out of such painful conflict, and Feldman experienced his share. Forced to face naked aggression and wrestle with his own mortality and fears, he would find catharsis with paint, brush, and canvas.

After his tour of duty earned him the combat infantry badge, the purple heart, and four battle stars, Feldman returned to the States in 1946 and wasted little time in resuming his art education. His passion intensified, and his achievements and accolades continued to build throughout the 1950s. He attended Yale with the help of the G.I. Bill and received his B.F.A. from the Yale University School of Fine Arts in 1950. That same year, he won the Alice Kimball English Traveling Scholarship and used it to study abroad in France and Italy. Only a year later, Feldman earned his M.F.A. from the Yale School of Design, where he served as instructor from 1950 to 1952. He joined the Brown University faculty in 1953, and three years later, Feldman won a Fulbright Scholarship to study mosaics and stained-glass windows in Rome. More awards soon followed. In 1957, a self-portrait won him the gold medal at the Mostra Internazionale in Milan, and a year later in 1958, Feldman captured the Tonner Prize given by the American Color Print Society.

Throughout this early period, Feldman’s painting showed the influence of Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning--both Yale modernists whose non-objective approaches to art shaped Feldman’s own primarily impressionistic vision. Feldman distinguished his work, however, with his bold contraries in color and theme. The September 1953 issue of ARTNews commentes on Feldman’s first major show and notes that his artwork "presents a contradiction--for all their vivid color and dynamic manipulation of pigment, his pictures preserve a restraint that gives them the character of brooding chants."[i] A later comment by Michael Forster in Nivel makes a similar connection: "The first impact of Walter Feldman’s art is of color: of warm earth colors and yellows and scarlets, of pungent blues and soft viridians, all of them muted by a darkness that shifts across the surface, slow as the shadows of a dying fire that still holds jewel flashes in its embers"[ii] Forster goes on to call attention once again to the "mist of darkness that runs through his [Feldman’s] work."[iii]

Likewise, Ruthann Lehrer of the De Cordova Museum, in her gallery notes to a 1964 show, observes even greater contrast in Feldman’s colors. She points out, "The emotional and spiritual implications of his imagery spring largely from the magic of his color. His rich palette ranges from deep blacks to intense, hot colors, combining brilliance with subtle flickering tones. Dark tones set a somber mood, from which emerge burnished golds, glowing oranges, acid blues, flecks of jewel-like sparks."[iv] Such oppositions in hue--binaries which include a dark undercurrent--cut across much of Feldman’s work, old and new alike. As late as 1993, such dramatic contrasts of color stand out in his woodcuts depicting varying stages of the creation. Even in Feldman’s vision of genesis, revealed in works like The Creation Day 3 and The Creation Day 4, we find volcanic, glowing reds set against the cold blues of night sky and ocean. Anchoring each of these scenes are sections of stark black upon which even starker shapes of white shine brightly. The effect is mesmerizing, primitive, powerful, somber. No doubt, this "mist of darkness" underlying Feldman’s work stems, at least partially, from the artist’s own dark experiences as a soldier in combat. Yet, the works also suggest that Feldman wants to present a comprehensive vision of humanity--a humanity where opposites exist as mutual dependents. Light cannot appear without dark. Life cannot appear without death.

Feldman’s own personal desire for unfamiliar opposites drove him in 1961-62 to Mexico, where he studied as a Howard Foundation Fellow. "I chose to go to Mexico because I wanted to experience a completely different culture," he later noted.[v] There, inspired by Mexico’s mural painters, Feldman continued his experiments with color, but at the same time, he also delved deeper into themes of darkness and mystery that lay beneath the surface of this "completely different" world. Michael Forster comments about the resulting paintings:

In these works Feldman very definitely has a subject: Mexico. His is not the tourist land of bougainvillea and the picturesque peasants in sombreros, of cactus and burros and sunkissed clip joints. What lays hold on him is a harsh, arid land with a blood drenched history that extends from priest-ridden pre-Colombian times to the exquisite callousness of Spanish rule and the destructions of the revolutionary years. A land where death is not a fearful segregation but accepted as normally as living. All of Feldman’s recent paintings are variations on this theme.[vi]

Mexico, with its exotic, turbulent history, quite clearly accorded with Feldman’s own penchant for investigation into the somber and mysterious. Regarding this facet of his art, Feldman has noted, "Illusion, suggestion, ambiguity even, involve mystery, and frequently magic, and are exciting to me."[i] In particular, Mexico’s pre-historical cultures, full of breath-taking beauty as well as barbaric violence, have served as sources of inspiration for many of Feldman’s artworks. In this vein, he even collects pre-Columbian artifacts and incorporates their shapes into his paintings. Such influences often affect his imagery in such a way that viewers are transported back into a primal past where glyphs and pictorial symbols held great cultural significance. Along these lines, in her 1964 gallery notes, Ruthann Lehrer points out: His recent work, which embraces both the abstract and the figurative, might be called ‘totemic.’ His two main themes, the stele and the figure, both create the impression of imposing but elusive presences. These images recall pre-Columbian sculpture, clay idols and monumental engraved steles which impressed him in Mexico. Such images are not just reminiscences, but are recreated as subjective realities with strange emotive powers. To Feldman, pre-Columbian relics are not simply emblems of an ancient past, but transmit the deepest feelings of man, carrying the emotions of the people who invented and used these ritual objects.The images in his paintings are compelling presences endowed with awesome authority, yet shrouded in mystery.[ii]

Through such depictions, Feldman seeks to remind us of the timelessness and the ambiguity inherent in mankind’s spiritual impulses. In the process, he embraces what can be called a communal human psyche--extending from pre-history, to the modern world, to the future of civilization. In Nivel, Michael Forster notes about Feldman’s art that "we recognize the instinct that reaches back to a substratum which is anterior to our whole civilization. Feldman’s is a hierarchical mood, involved as all art should be, in no less an aim than the establishment of our unity of consciousness."[iii] This "unity of consciousness" is a goal that spans much of Feldman’s work, from older pieces to his most recent productions. His art often depicts symbols that, like Carl Jung’s "archetypes," suggest human concepts and impulses that exist beyond cultural and temporal constraints. Forster’s phrase "unity of consciousness" should recall Jung’s theory of the "collective unconsciousness"--the idea that certain ideas are more or less common to all individuals because they stem from the deposit of experiences shared by our ancestors. In a comment on his 1963 oil called Stele of the Jaguar #2, Feldman addresses this element of Jungian psychology:

Stele of the Jaguar is an example of one of the paintings I did while living in Mexico for a year. Carved glyphs pulsated a meaning that was not easy to understand. But I remember that Carl Jung had warned us in Man and his Symbols that ‘we have stripped all things of their mystery and numinosity--and nothing is holy anymore.’ I wanted some things to be holy. I wanted to clothe my images with their mystery once again. The references are to events that took place in the twilight of time; events that have somehow become part of our collective memory.[iv]

As Feldman himself suggests here, one way of getting at this elusive "collective memory" involves the use of glyphs more suggestive than explicit--a strategy that helps explain his continuing fascination with symbols, letters, numbers, and ultimately books. Since his time in Mexico, Feldman has consistently incorporated symbols, both traditional and invented, into his work. In part, this introduction of the printed letter into larger contexts comes from Feldman’s extensive study of mosaic and printmaking. Yet, this technique is also born out of his concern with the ways in which symbols transcend time. We see this interest in many of Feldman’s steles--an early art form of inscribed monuments which commemorated an historic event or preserved the memory of the dead. While studying pre-Columbian steles in Mexico, Feldman realized the powerful emotions and spiritual impact these monuments could impart, and though his own works often employ more cryptic or more modern inscriptions, they still invoke the power of isolated textual figures.

In Feldman’s paintings and sculptures, letters and glyphs help remind his audience of their connotative power as individual symbols at the same time they contribute to a work’s overall effect. Feldman’s Stele...In Memoriam III, for example, is a 1963 sculpture that employs contemporary letters--some turned on their sides, others inverted as mirror images--in a chaotic arrangement of varying sizes and positions. Rectangular in shape, the piece forces a seemingly arbitrary choice of text into a shared space, juxtaposing larger, single letters against enigmatic combinations of smaller letters. The larger letters, W, R, U, E, and N, boldly stand out against their smaller and less isolated counterparts and suggest a code available only to the artist. Yet, the work simultaneously invites multiple interpretations, much like the scattered and sometimes broken fragments of an archeological excavation invite debate as to their meaning.

A more recent work, Rubber Stamp Book strikes a similar effect with a completely different medium. Instead of the stele, Feldman utilizes the book as art form, yet again, he explores the capacity of letters to construct and retain larger, symbolic meanings. In addition, Feldman continues to toy with the ways in which symbols can be reversed or altered. Here the stamp book affords him a logical means to manipulate letters and numbers, for the stamp blocks, when viewed directly, invert these figures. Yet, Feldman cleverly provides us with the figures’ natural states by fitting his stamp book with a mirror. Depending on one’s perspective, this mirror reflects some or all of the letters and numbers into their more recognizable versions. The implication here is that such symbols involve a rubbery capacity to bend or shift, but at the same time, they resist the loss of their connotative effects. Regardless of position, a 5 (reversed or not) still lays claim to some essential "fiveness" which we successfully recognize.

During the 1970s, Feldman continued his explorations into the power of ancient forms with a series of collages depicting glyphs and symbols not quite recognizable, but familiar nonetheless. As Jeffery Deitch, Curator of the De Cordova Museum, observes, "Feldman’s immersion into the imagery, the religiousity, and the mystery of the Aztec, Mayan, Hebrew, and other ancient civilizations is always present in his work. He has created a private alphabet of forms that conjures up the spirit of forgotten cultures, but makes no direct quotations."[i] One such collage, Circle Grid III, depicts intertwined shapes reminiscent of pre-Columbian hieroglyphics as well as fragments of bone and fertility pottery. The chaotic arrangement of imagery is controlled by the grids which separate distinct areas of the circle. The theme here is ordered disorder, and each fragment contributes to an overarching message which the viewer glimpses, but does not discern clearly. Again the analogy of an archeological excavation is fitting. Like scholars puzzling over the scattered remains of civilization, we are challenged to reconstruct meaning from fragmented bits of imagery. It is imagery that is strikingly human, yet equally mysterious and somehow religious. As with his previous works, Feldman continues in these collages to incorporate powerful forms that convey the mystique of mankind’s past spiritual impulses.

Feldman’s collages also address various perceptions and mysteries associated with time. As in prior paintings, he reminds his audience of the ways in which certain forms remain timeless--capable of recalling past civilizations even though more immediate, accessible meanings may be lost. In particular, familiar glyphs suggest man’s attempt to escape temporal limitations by inscribing ideas onto more permanent media. As one critic notes, Feldman’s art expresses "a feeling that language is not only one of man’s basic needs, but his unique, mysterious cultural achievement."[i] At the same time, however, because of the design into which he casts these forms, Feldman’s art also deals with the transience of time. In conjunction with an exhibition of the collages, Feldman himself noted, "If painting is the messenger of the idea, due to the time required for the completion of the painting, both the idea and I had become different."[ii] However, instead of being frustrated by this inescapable, changing perspective, Feldman welcomes it in these collages. He sees each work as expressing not a single idea, but rather an amalgamation of ideas--each one the product of a distinct point in time. Each separate area of the collage represents an attempt to record one impression or thought, and since the grid pattern runs in chronological order of production, Feldman refers to these form as "calendars" or "visual diaries." These diaries are made even more interesting by their composition and texture. Feldman uses old materials in some of these pieces in order to give them an even more authentic temporal feel. For example, in one series entitled Britannica, he has mounted gilded, rag-paper shapes from an eighteenth-century encyclopedia onto worn, leather Encylopedia Britannica covers; as a result, the works in this series more powerfully convey a sense of aged knowledge.

In producing these collages, Feldman continued a long established fascination with experiments in various media and textures. In many of the works, Feldman used a small oxy-acetylene torch to cut pieces of canvas, draw and color his shapes, and then mount the pieces using a special thermoplastic tissue. No pens, paint, or brushes touched these canvas cutouts. Heat alone produced effects decorous to their subject matter. Regarding his collages, Feldman has commented, "Paint did not seem appropriate for the notions I was dealing with. They would become too soft."[iii] The resulting texture in these collages is distinctly harder, but puzzlingly so. Jeffery Deitch observes of the works, "It first appears that the pieces are done with pen and ink, and a light watercolor wash. . .People usually have to be told that the pieces are actually collages and that standard painting and drawing is not involved."[iv]

In Feldman’s more recent artistic explorations, "standard" methods of production are often absent as well. Sparked by his interest in written symbols, Feldman has turned to bibliographic art--the book as artform--and in 1984 founded the Ziggurat Press. Editions of his books may run up to a hundred copies though far lesser numbers are more common. Frequently, his books may exist in only a single copy. In 1986, he began a series of one-of-a-kind artist’s books that he continues to build today. In each book, regardless of how many copies he produces, Feldman uses provocative imagery, diverse materials, and a host of production techniques to create works that explore and question the nature of book. Like his glyphs and symbols in former works, Feldman’s books often strike a chord of resemblance without actually fitting neatly into preconceived notions. Many editions combat our typical, somewhat Platonic ideals concerning what a book is. A work like Don Quixote de la Mancha, for example, utilizes the facade of a book, but places it within a larger context that reverberates with themes from Cervantes’s masterpiece. Other works, like The Kaddish Scroll, employ older, more traditional forms for the inscribed word. Still others, like Reliquery of Auschwitz defy the bounds of "book" as a categoryand instead resemble sculpture. Yet because such works are first conceived as books, they help us see the constraints placed on an art work by its genre. Furthermore, they help us realize how the book’s preservative function, its ability to record and transmit important ideas, can utilize a host of shapes, sizes, and materials. One viewer eloquently notes:

Feldman’s books spread their wings like dragon-flies, open up like accordions, conceal themselves in boxes, scroll into torpedo-like cylinders, become gilded architectural fragments or aspiring spiral notebooks. Their covers are precious or primitive reliquaries for salvaged correspondence, one-of-a-kind musical scores, personal anthologies of cherished verses, private prayers and meditations--or sometimes secret files for precious documents that may go missing forever.[v]

Books clearly have offered Feldman a wide, new avenue to continue experiments with texture and media. And frequently, he adds even greater resonance to his works by using unexpected or personal materials. George Monteiro of the Mansfield Center points to one example, "Opportunity has come to him [Feldman] in many ways. A pile of heavy ledger covers from the 1930s, thrown out by librarians, are transformed into an edition of Lager Lieder, songs composed and sung in the camps of Nazi Germany."[vi] Other scraps and castaways--old piano keys, the skin of a snake, a scrap of Feldman’s own army uniform--also add a richness of meaning and a depth of texture to other Feldman books.

[i] Sozanski, Edward. "A significant retrospective marks a fine artist's silver anniversary". Providence Journal 26 November 1978.

[ii] Press Release. Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. 27 January 1978.

[iii] Cover Notes. Brown Alumni Monthly. February 1979: 1.

[iv] Deitch, Jeffrey. Gallery Notes.

[v] St. Armand, Barton Levy. Gallery Notes. The Bibliographic Art of Walter Feldman. The Rockefeller Library, Providence, Rhode Island. October 8 1997 to November 28, 1997.

[vi] Monteiro, George. The Books of Walter Feldman. Printed by Rhode Island Litho.

This multiplicity of design and material is complemented by carefully chosen textual messages. Often Feldman’s works require little or no words. But when words are employed, poetry is the likely medium. Feldman’s books have payed tribute to the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa and the American Emily Dickinson by incorporating their verse into his work, which has also revisited the King James Bible, John Keats’s odes, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and Abraham Sutzkever’s Yiddish lyrics. The lines of living poets and friends like Edwin Honig, Michael Harper, Denise Levertov and James Schevill have also found their way into at least one of Walter Feldman’s books.

Bookmaking is Walter Feldman's current mistress. Yet he has succeeded with collages, paintings, sculptures, mosaics, stained-glass windows, prints, drawings.He has embraced each discipline, synthesized it, mastered it, and altered it to convey his own aesthetic. His life has been filled with achievements and awards, but Feldman refuses to rest on his laurels. His press continues to create books that redefine our concept of this medium, and Feldman himself remains passionate about book making. Like the young child who constantly sketched, Feldman still exhibits a restlessness in his search for innovative ways to depict the world around him. And we, his viewers, are all the richer for it.