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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

De Hirsh Margules

Coenties Slip, New York, 1947, De Hirsh Margules
De Hirsch Margules Self-portrait
One of the hardest things for a writer dealing with art to do is to expound upon an artist whose work he doesn't much like. I do it several times a year but it doesn't seem to get any easier. Why I do so boils down to the fact the my tastes in art are not universal. If an artist is important, regardless of my own personal feelings, I feel obliged to bring him or her to the attention of readers whose taste in art may differ a great deal from my own. The other problem is that after covering so many artist the past few years I sometimes become jaded. It's very easy to do. Dutch Golden Age painting effects me that way, as does German expressionism, and especially good, old-fashioned American Abstract Expressionism. Although I try not to eliminate artists based upon their style or era, sometimes I get the feeling that if I see one more Polish painter (for example), I'll scream (in Polish, of course). De Hirsh Margules (who's not Polish, by the way, but Romanian) effects me that way.
Bedford Street Fantasy, 1947, De Hirsh Margules
Bi Focus, 1843, De Hirsh Margules
Although born in Romania in 1899, Margules spent all but the first ten weeks of his life in New York City. The family was Yiddish, Margules' father active in the Yiddish theater. Margules' mother was an actress and some thirty-nine years younger than her husband. Margules' and his brother and sister appeared as child actors on stage while another brother became a magician under the name "Rami-Sami." Around the age of nine or ten, young De Hirsh began to take art classes at a local Boys Club. At the age of eleven, the young artist won a city-wide art competition sponsored by Wanamakers (department store). During his teen years, Margules studied art at the New York Evening School of Art and Design, while working as a clerk during the day at Stern's Department Store. He took up painting around 1920 and had his first showing in 1922 alongside Stuart Davis, Jan Matulka, and Buckminster Fuller.
Safe Harbor, De Hirsh Margules
A "Time Painting" by
De Hirsh Margules
During the 1920s, Margules traveled broadly around Europe, eventually ending up in Paris's Montmartre area near an "art park" called Place du tertre, where he sat up his studio on the top floor of a nearly deserted fleabag hotel with neither heat nor running water. During the day he studied on his own at the Louvre. At night, he set up his easel on the darkened banks of the Seine painting nocturnes. He joined a group calling themselves "Noctambulist" (nightwalkers). The group experimented with painting and exhibiting in low light. Margules also began experimenting with what he called "Time Painting," (right) that is, dividing the canvas into quadrants and using colors in each associated with different times of the day.

New York Street Scene, De Hirsh Margules

Willem de Kooning, 1948,
De Hirsh Margules
Returning to New York in 1929, Margules's art associations would tend to confirm that "it's not what you know but who you know," especially where art is concerned. He impress Alfred Stieglitz, his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and Elaine de Kooning, among others. His friends urged him to open his own art gallery (two rooms) on West 8th Street which he called "Another Place." There Margules held fourteen highly acclaimed art shows featuring his own work alongside that of several other artists who were to make a name for themselves with the advent of the New York School after the war. Margules' career took off about the same time when New York's Museum of Modern Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts both purchased his paintings as part of their permanent collections.

Figure and Flowers at Rest, 1941, de Hirsch Margules

Boat Plant, 1943, De Hirsh Margules
De Hirsh Margules was more than just a painter, though he was painting "realistic abstractions" long before WW II even began, positioning himself several years ahead of the Post-War period of Abstract Expressionism. Margules prided himself in being, what we'd call now, perhaps then too, a "character." His hair was long, his black French beret holding most of it in place, his clothes deliberately sloppy and mismatched, his demeanor full of life to match the avant-garde nature of his art. Writers began writing about him, even as a fictional character. The comic book writer, Alvin Schwartz pictured him in a debate with Clark Kent as to whether Superman could have stopped Adolph Hitler. In a sense, he became a part of the 1950s "beat generation" almost before that generation was born. His antics might well have been a model years later for the painter/showman, Salvador Dali.

Geometric Abstraction, 1959, De Hirsh Margules
The death of De Hirsh Margules in 1965 was treated by the New York Art World as, if not the end of the world, then something of the end of an era. In reality, they weren't far wrong. The era of Modern Art was winding down. Minimalism and Pop Art were in the offing. Despite his carefully honed persona as a Bohemian starving artist, the New York art world was shocked a few months after his death by the news he'd left an estate worth over $100,000. Apparently Margules was something of a stock market wizard as well. He was remembered at his wake as a kind, generous, though rather flamboyant man always ready to help a friend of struggling artist. Margules' sister, actress Annette Margules, remembered him as charitable and generous to all who needed help. He took care of people, he even fed them. "Why, last night, people came up to me and said, 'How am I going to eat now that De Hirsh is gone'?"

Approach to Provincetown, 1948, De Hirsh Margules

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