by Adam Zucker. The maverick visual artist rose to prominence during the Abstract Expressionist movement, despite favoring a more representational style.
In 1952, Irving Kriesberg, relatively fresh to the New York art scene, was one of 15 artists in curator Dorothy C. Miller’s survey of American contemporary art at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The show, aptly titled “15 Americans,” included a concise representation of American modern art’s most renowned figures, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and William Baziotes, foundational representatives of the critically acclaimed Abstract Expressionist mode of painting.
Irving Kriesberg was born in Chicago in 1919, which made him, on average, thirteen years younger than the four aforementioned expressionists. At the age of nine he already had the desire to become an artist and filled sketchbooks with drawings of animals from the exhibits he saw at the Field Museum of Natural History. He took up cartooning for his high school’s publications and experienced his earliest artistic influences through comics such as his favorite strip, Krazy Kat.
Kriesberg’s enjoyment of graphic art was the reason he attended a private art school, directed by a popular genre painter and illustrator, Frederick Mizen. However, a short time studying with Mizen left Kriesberg yearning for something more experimental. He wanted to immerse himself in the innovative art and aesthetic theories of modernity, which was something that the Mizen curriculum lacked. One faculty member at the Mizen school who lit Kriesberg’s fire was the artist Irving Manoir. Kriesberg recalled that he and Manoir would have lengthy discussions regarding contemporary European and American painting. Manoir taught a more up-to-date artistic approach than what the Mizen school focused on, and eventually was asked by the administration to leave. After that there was nothing that the school offered Kriesberg and he also left to study on scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kriesberg graduated in 1941 with a degree in fine art and a concentration in painting.
Realizing that he needed to be based in the heart of the avant-garde scene, Kriesberg moved to the Big Apple in 1945. He had spent the previous three years living, working, and studying in Mexico, where he immersed himself in a vital and influential art scene that was driven by socially engaged themes and accessible artwork in the form of public murals and widely disseminated prints. This is when Kriesberg realized art’s ability to communicate powerful sociocultural messages and envelop viewers in mythological and modern narratives.
Before his big break at MoMA, Kriesberg was working for Artkraft Strauus, designing animated billboards advertising Broadway shows in Times Square. This job referenced his prior interests in sequential imagery from comics, as well as his admiration of the awe-inspiring murals by Mexican modern artists. However, Kriesberg wanted more than anything to make it as a full-time fine artist and not have to take on commercial jobs to make ends meet. These jobs paid well, but also kept him out of the studio. “15 Americans” laid the foundation for Kriesberg to get all his ducks in a row as a professional artist. His introduction to the art scene happened on one of the biggest platforms, which made his previously relatively unknown paintings more recognizable thereafter. Initially, visitors to the show would not have been familiar with his work. His Red Sheep (1951) and Birds Alighting (1951), two paintings with loosely rendered representational elements which set him apart from the other painters in the show, hung in close vicinity to seminal Rothko and Pollock canvases. Unlike the more well known Abstract Expressionists, Kriesberg was considered to be a Figurative Expressionist. The Figurative Expressionists have not enjoyed the same esteem as their abstract peers.
The MoMA exhibition was an optimistic point in Kriesberg’s career. Not long after the show came down, he had his first New York gallery representation with prominent German-American art dealer Curt Valentin. However, his 1955 solo show at the Curt Valentin Gallery was a bittersweet occasion. On one hand, his work was getting the attention of the uptown art audience, which included museum professionals and collectors. On the other hand, it would be the last time he would show with Valentin, who passed away just a few months before the exhibition opened. Nonetheless, Valentin’s praise and promotion of Kriesberg’s work was significant to his art-world ascension. Kriesberg remained a part of the New York art scene until his death, and was represented by other fairly well established galleries, although his representational style made his work a challenge for both the art market and art historical narratives.
While Kriesberg was committed to the figure and its role in communicating symbolic iconography, he was less interested in giving his viewers a concrete narrative. In his statement written in the “15 Americans” catalogue, Kriesberg explains, “Technically my paintings are depictions with a fluid focal point. The objects in them are shown not as taken from a fixed point in space nor at a single instant of time.”
Kriesberg, like former Abstract Expressionists Philip Guston and George McNeil, who returned to the figure, utilized the confluence of figuration and abstraction to convey psychological and sociological concerns. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Kriesberg explored ways in which to make his figurative expressions experiential using mechanical motion and relational physical vantage points.
The earliest examples are a combination of abstract and representational images on circular sheets of paper or canvas, which he called “Wheels.” These paintings are fitted with hardware that can be vertically mounted to a motor turning clockwise at a speed of 3 rpm or more. The “Wheels” depict contorted human, animal, and mystical forms against a ground of earthy colors.
The “Wheel” painting Profane Love or the Fall of Man (1946) conveys the Ancient Greek narrative of Zeus punishing the Titan god Prometheus for his extravagant generosity towards humanity. The imagery is drawn from the drama and sorrow within José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus (1930) mural. Both paintings express the horrors and indignities of the human condition. Within Kriesberg’s “Wheel” version, the Titan’s regenerative torture and humanity’s ongoing struggle for survival is made clear by the spinning painting’s suggestion of life’s cyclical nature.
Kriesberg followed up his “Wheels” with a variety of sequential and open-ended constructions featuring multiple panels which can be manually manipulated by rotating or flipping them to reveal a myriad of narratives. According to art critic David Cohen, this “radical, disjunctive aspect of Mr. Kriesberg's work could deem him a forerunner to minimal and conceptual art. His style, however, belonged increasingly to a very different camp: bestiaries and crucifixions looked to such contemporary European expressionists as Pierre Alechinsky and Graham Sutherland, as well, no doubt, to their forebears, Matthias Grünewald and The Book of Kells.”
Roslyn Diary (1967) is a prime example of Kriesberg’s blend of personal, multicultural, and timeless iconography within a manipulative multi-paneled construct. Physically, it contains fourteen panels hinged together that open to reveal three tableaus. It depicts a diptych resembling a plague of frogs when closed. The title comes from the village in New York where Kriesberg lived during the late 1950s through the mid 1960s. He had just returned from a year-long sojourn in India and was teaching at Yale University, where he taught many significant contemporary artists including Judith Bernstein.
Roslyn Diary is part painting, sculpture, book, and tabernacle, offering an Omnist outlook and an expression of social consciousness. The moveable painting’s bestiary and iconography highlights Kriesberg’s unique brand of animalia, art history, theosophy, and current events within a composition. Although the anarchic scene offers no defining story, the juxtaposition of quotidian and supernatural actions, along with archetypal symbols of crucifixion, serve as a contemplation on mortality. In a similar manner to the cyclical concept of Profane Love or the Fall of Man, Kriesberg is describing the act of creation and desecration through interactive tangibility and visual poetry.
One of Kriesberg’s biggest supporters was conceptual artist Allan Kaprow. In a 1964 essay published in Art International, Kaprow writes, “Irving Kriesberg literally makes creation his central theme. He directly describes generative action. Time for him is palpable and sequential, moment following moment. He ponders organic energy, seeing it as an event, embodied in hieratic transmutations from animal to human to inanimate nature. Back and forth, a simultaneously progressive and retrogressive Darwinism.”
The comparison of Kriesberg’s artistic process to Darwinism is astute, albeit in a more fantastical manner. From the get-go, Kriesberg painted animals, humans, and environments in flux. He gave his pantheon of creatures humanistic souls, an idea that was inspired by his stints in Mexico, India, and Japan. The fluidity of one image moving to another creates both a revelation and a mystery, which left his fellow artists and critics in awe. The spectacle of viewing Kriesberg’s paintings inspired art historian George Nelson Preston to declare him a “rare bird” who “has never consciously sought a counter aesthetic through purely painterly means. He has been a leader in innovation through eccentricity of composition and exposition of an internal mental dialect of polarities. The means by which this has been carried out are largely through the presentational motifs of proscenium, setting, and encounter.”
Kriesberg left the mortal world on November 11, 2009. He died peacefully in bed in his downtown New York City apartment. His painting Green Dormition with Cat (2004) is an apt scene that symbolizes this occasion. It depicts the dying Buddha surrounded by his animal friends, a dreamlike portrayal which clearly foreshadowed Kriesberg’s inevitable fate.
The Irving Kriesberg Estate Foundation was established in 2015 to preserve his work and present it to familiar and new audiences alike. I had the honor of knowing Irving Kriesberg during his final months, while I was studying for my Master’s in Art History. We had worked together on a loosely constructed career narrative and he became an invaluable mentor who pushed me to take risks and find my voice within my art historical research and writing. One of the final things he said to me after calling me into his room where he lay sanguinely in bed with a beret-like nightcap on his head, was “change the canon!”
Adam Zucker is a curator, writer, and educator from Queens, New York. His exhibitions featuring the work of both contemporary and historical artists have been on view in museums and galleries throughout the United States. He writes a blog called Artfully Learning, which critically examines the benefits of integrating contemporary art practices within pedagogical frameworks. Zucker is the archivist and manager for the Estate of Irving Kriesberg.