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Brush With An Artist

A Thrift Store Piece Of Art Leads To The Discovery Of An Emblematic 20th Century Artist.

March 03, 2001 by JOHN TANASYCHUK Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, I bought a woodcut print. A print with a history I had no idea of when I saw it in a Fort Lauderdale consignment shop for $29.

Two elderly men and a woman sit on a park bench. They look somehow uncomfortable, like they don't belong. Old and sullen, they are clearly recognizable, to me at least, as Eastern European immigrants from early in the 20th century. The artist's choice of colors -- deep orange, azure blue and black -- brings even more drama to these gloomy characters.

A curator friend says it was probably nostalgia that made me buy it. My grandfather emigrated from Ukraine about 1914. The elderly woman in the picture reminded me of my grandmother, who never left the house without a babushka on her head. And like the people now on my bedroom wall, I always believed that my grandfather never felt comfortable in his adopted country, happy for his freedom but too far from his village, where he had been a shoemaker.

Those questions were on my mind when I sat down at my computer and typed into a search engine the name of the artist, Irving Amen. Who were these people? Had Amen done anything beyond this 1949 print?

What came up surprised me. It wasn't so much that Amen's work is included in dozens of museum collections across the country. What surprised me is that 82-year-old Amen lives in Boca Raton.

I wouldn't have to guess at any of this. When I called Amen a few days later, I wasn't sure if I was calling for personal edification or a story. All I wanted to know was whether he'd talk with me about these three old people on a park bench.

Spanning the century

"I love it," Amen says when I arrive at his home with the print. "Yes. That's it. It's one of the early woodcuts, and I won a prize for it, first prize from the Society of American Graphic Artists."

The print was part of a 1949 exhibit of his work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The idea came to him one day in a park near a Young Men's Hebrew Association center in New York. The people in my woodcut were very likely Eastern European immigrants.

I met with Amen twice. Both times, he asked that Paul Carman, an estate and financial planner who helps Amen with his business dealings, be on hand. Each time, Amen grew exhausted, the first time after about 90 minutes, the second after an hour. Carman called me the day after the second interview and said Amen didn't want to talk to me anymore.

During our chat, Amen says he has problems with his memory, and it's clear he's frustrated by it.

"I used to lecture very widely, very easily," says the well-spoken Amen, whose professorial, TV-newsman accent belies the fact he was born above his father's butcher shop on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "Suddenly, I couldn't remember Michelangelo, the great names in art. So I couldn't lecture."

It is especially frightening because Amen's wife, Dora, spent the last years of her life in a nursing home, ravaged by Alzheimer's disease.

Many of Amen's stories are incomplete. When I ask for more details about a particular experience, he becomes irritable. Thinking I might find answers elsewhere, Amen supplies just a few names of friends.

Through those friends and the sometimes-detailed stories that Amen can remember, a picture emerges. In many ways, Amen is a living history of a 20th century New York artist.

I learn that Amen fought shyness all of his life. But he found a comfortable way of expressing himself through art. And if he wasn't creating art, he was talking about it.

Amen struggled mightily for his art. And he made some decisions about the way his work would be produced and how it would be exhibited and promoted that likely altered his position in the art world.

He went to war and dabbled in leftist politics. Amen didn't graduate from college, although he studied art, philosophy and music. He convinced himself he was "being modern," and certainly lived the life of a bohemian by moving to Greenwich Village and marrying a woman 16 years older.

Amen also witnessed the major art movements of the century -- everything from Cubism and Dada to performance and installation -- which he calls the language of art. To this day, Amen sells his work, still speaks the language he began to learn as a child, still paints or draws every day.

"I discovered art at 4 years old," he says. "I missed the first four years. I guess I messed around."

Budding artist

Amen, the first of four children in a Yiddish-speaking household, was not born into a family where art was a high priority. But beginning at age 4, Amen drew. He'd draw fire engines and beer wagons pulled by horses, common in his neighborhood at the time.

By the time he was 6, adults began commenting on his talent, especially when he drew the heads of Yankees players, which his mother put up on the walls of their apartment.

"My mother was a beautiful embroiderer. That was the first art I saw," he says. "I remember heads of horses, their mouths open, a fragment from a Greek chariot race."

The family moved to the Bronx and later to Coney Island, and at age 14, Amen earned a scholarship to the Pratt Institute. It meant an hour trip on the subway every Saturday. He was so shy, he needed a friend to go with him on the trip.

"I was in short pants and sitting in class with a nude nearby. I was so nervous and shy, afraid she would catch me looking at her crotch. I had two sisters, but I couldn't figure that out," he says laughing.

He could have gone to college, but Amen says he was afraid he'd be a financial burden on his family. Instead, he moved to a condemned walk-up in Greenwich Village and tried to get work with the Works Progress Administration, a government-funded program that had a division devoted to public art.

"I know I applied. I know I came up against the Communist control of the WPA. You had to prove you were a good comrade. They said I was a middle-class person. I was getting $10 a month from my father and that disqualified me," he says.

And then the war came.

A bohemian lifestyle

"Psychologically, I wanted to fight Hitler, but I couldn't squirm out of it," says Amen.

He'd known Dora for many years as a friend of the family, but it wasn't until he'd finished high school that their relationship took a turn. She was a librarian and he needed a book for a project.

Dora was 16 years older and had been married and divorced. Eventually, she would cut herself off from her family because, he says, her life was too "fast" to ever earn their approval.

Dora introduced him to New York bohemian life. She was literate, as he imagined himself. They liked the same movies. Dora opened doors for him.

"I had no doors. She was showing me kind of unconventional people," he says. "I was determined to live my life the way I saw fit. I was going into the Army and more than likely would be killed."

And so he proposed. "We should marry," he remembers saying. "You'll at least have death benefits."

Dora suggested he spend the six months before shipping out advancing his art. He studied at the left-wing John Reed Club Art School, named after the radical journalist and author of Ten Days That Shook the World.

Amen's first Army assignment was to go to photography school. It seemed like a logical thing for an artist, though Amen had never owned even a box camera. He was to be in charge of everything from photo IDs to taking pictures of gun placements and depots. But just as it seemed he would be going off to war, he was posted as a mural painter and spent most of 1942 to 1945 executing murals in the United States and Belgium.

Art with humanity

After the war, he returned to New York and used the G.I. bill to study art, philosophy, and music.

Amen had a studio in Greenwich Village and then a bigger one in the garment district. There is something eerily contemporary about the work he did around this time, some of it a comment on war.

A woodcut is a printing technique in which designs are cut into a block of wood and rubbed with ink so that the raised areas will be printed. Amen often used several colors in his prints. It was a painstaking process. Some days only three prints could be made. Some paper was too soft and would break. Color registration would be off or the blocks could be off center.

Amen began to buy presses and hired others to do the printing for him.

"That meant I could sell at a lower price," he says. "I had a hero in Henry Ford. I didn't like Henry Ford generally for his anti-Semitism, but I liked his being able to make automobiles affordable for ordinary people."

Amen did very well. Dora even opened a gallery to sell his work. "She loved meeting people and she was a very, very outgoing person," he says. "You could sit and chat with her."

This suited Amen's personality just fine. Dora became his full-time dealer and promoter, selling the prints he and his staff produced, protecting him from the dealers whose suggestions he disliked.

While Amen won't say on the record how many prints he sold, one dealer says the number would be more than 100,000, big volume for any artist.

Amen seems defensive when asked about the mass production of his prints. He begins a long discussion about craftsmanship and art and how Michelangelo surely didn't paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by himself. Amen has this figured out with the precision of an engineer.

"I am a very successful artist," says Amen, who has taught at Pratt and the University of Notre Dame. "I happened to have lived too long. They start to drop you from sight because you're not exhibiting. I find it very irritating to exhibit."

Lauren Issak, 51, has known Amen since she was 8 years old and her mother was working in his printing operation.

"Because I almost sort of grew up with him, I almost thought of him as my second father," says Issak, a massage therapist in Vermont. "Irv was a connection with the art world."

Issak often modeled for him. "And he would talk and talk and talk. He knew everything about art, all the classical artists and art history," says Issak, who last saw him nearly 30 years ago. "He was a dynamic, charismatic guy. He was pretty confident in his ability to express any kind of creative thought that came to his mind."

Joel Hersh, a dentist and art collector in Boca Raton, has known Amen for 15 years. "He was never a person who you would call an extrovert. He's a person who is very inside and maybe introvert is not the right word. I think everything he feels, comes out in his art rather than in his word," says Hersh.

Hersh calls him a neshomeleh, Yiddish for a good soul.

Thematically, Amen's work shadows the experiences of many first generation Jewish Americans. There are the immigrant New Yorkers. There are strong anti-war images. Then there are children. Amen went to Italy just as European travel became an affordable vacation destination and as he grew older, he seemed to return to his Jewish roots. In 1972, he created 12 stained glass windows depicting the 12 tribes of Israel for a synagogue in Columbus, Ohio.

Rabbi Abie Ingber, director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center Gallery in Cincinnati, first came to know Amen when he bought a couple of prints 30 or more years ago while vacationing at a Catskill Mountain resort.

"That's where just about everybody bought their first Irving Amen," says Ingber. "They were two relatively inexpensive wood blocks and I just really loved his work. At some point in time, I found that he was living down in Florida and I made contact with him and expressed my admiration for him and a desire to just know a little bit more about him."

Ingber started to get to know Amen by visiting him when he came to Florida. About a dozen years ago, he invited Amen to show his work in the gallery.

"I fell in love all over again," says Ingber, whose first Amen was of a young boy on his bar mitzvah. "When I go down, I will spend two or three days in the area and just sit and be mesmerized by his passion to tell a story artistically. He has, without any hesitation, lived an artist's life, one could say for better or for worse."

In 1999, Amen donated most of his remaining work to Ingber's Hillel gallery. There are not only woodcut prints, etchings and paintings, but also sketch books, photographs, letters, reviews and newspapers articles. None of it has yet been cataloged.

Ingber calls it a "legacy collection," in that he hopes it will serve as a monument to Amen and to what it meant to be an artist in the 20th century.

When I ask Amen why he decided to give almost everything to the Hillel Center, he says there's something about "the heartland" that appealed to him. "I'm not a good Jew," he says. "I did have a bar mitzvah. I did try to learn Hebrew, but I forgot most of it."

Ingber disagrees with Amen's assessment of his Jewishness. "If being a good Jew means showing humankind as a creative and intelligent being and being devoted to family as he was to his Dora, I would say Amen's a wonderful Jew."

The Amen piece I purchased certainly spoke to my humanity. My grandfather could have been among the three sitting on that park bench, but he moved on to Canada after arriving at Ellis Island.

Before I leave Amen, he wants to secure my print in its old frame. He finds masking tape. When I tell him I'm thinking about having it reframed, he says he likes its simple black frame.

"This is my baby you're talking about," says Amen. "You have a very precious copy."



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