In his almost ninety-one years of life, Hugh Mesibov has experimented with numerous mediums and genres. Along with co-inventing an innovative print process in the 1930s, Mesibov has painted works which have had a significant impact on American art. His vibrant paintings reflect his own energy, state of mind and external surroundings, and he continues to create intensely personal and profound works of art.
Table of Contents
Hugh Mesibov was born on December 29th, 1916 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born to a Russian emigrant painter, Philip, Mesibov began his interest in art at a very young age. He recalls creating art while playing with his father—his father would draw two lines, Mesibov would draw two lines, and then together they would form a picture. Mesibov also remembers spending much of his time in the first grade exiled in the coat closet, a punishment for his incessant drawing during math and spelling lessons. He eventually transferred to a public grammar school which specialized in art and he was provided with artistic training to further enhance his talent (author’s phone interview with Mesibov). Throughout high school, Mesibov won art prizes, and after graduation he attended the Graphic Sketch Club at the Fleisher Memorial Art School from 1934 to 1935.
Mesibov’s youthful artistic precociousness paved the way for his future career. In 1935, at the age of eighteen, Mesibov accepted a full scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which he attended for only two years until his father’s untimely death in November 1936. He continued his studies at the Barnes Foundation, where he studied art history, painting traditions, and was exposed to French art and the old masters whose works would influence his art. In 1937, Mesibov was accepted for the Works Progress Administration in the Federal Arts Project, where he worked until 1941 producing paintings, murals and prints saturated with social commentary reflecting issues of the Depression era (Judelson). The job in the WPA provided Mesibov with a salary to support his semi-invalid mother and his siblings through the hardships of the Depression. Mesibov recalls his time working for the WPA as “the opportunity of a lifetime” (Shopes).
While working in the Philadelphia WPA Graphic Arts Division, Mesibov played a key role, along with Dox Thrash and Michael Gallagher, in the invention of the carborundum mezzotint technique, an innovative print process that received national acclaim and was the focus of a WPA special bulletin and exhibition at the WPA headquarters in Philadelphia during the fall of 1940. The new process involved a “lithograph pulled from a stone coated with carborundum [which] resembles an aquatint, which is taken from an etching plate dusted with rosin” (Raynor). Thrash experimented with the new technique, and Mesibov perfected it, creating the first color carborundum prototype, “Mystic,” in 1938.
By now, Mesibov was achieving significant successes. In 1938, he accepted the first of three awards from the Philadelphia Print Club. Mesibov’s art was displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in an exhibition of major American printmakers. In 1940, Mesibov had his first one-man exhibit in Philadelphia and his works were also included in the first of four exhibits at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts. In 1941, he completed a mural commission for the Post Office in Hubbard, Ohio.
The Depression gave way to WWII, and from 1942 to1943, Mesibov worked at a shipyard during the day, and by night, he painted. At the shipyard he was surrounded by industrial grimness, aggressive co-workers and constant radio coverage of the war, all of which is reflected in his art of this period. After the war ended in 1945, Mesibov moved to New York City where his career as an artist flourished. In 1947, the Chinese Gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan exhibited Mesibov’s first New York one-man show. There, Dr. Albert Barnes (of the Barnes Foundation), bought one of Mesibov’s works to add to his collection. During his time in New York City, Mesibov also taught art at the Lenox-Hill Neighborhood Association from 1949 to 1957.
In 1949, Mesibov married the young opera singer Eudice Charney, with whom he would eventually have three children—Deborah, Paul and Christopher. During the late forties and throughout the fifties, Mesibov’s work continued to progress and was widely included in museum exhibitions throughout the United States under the auspices of the Hallmark Award and the American Federation of the Arts. In 1948 and 1949, Mesibov, as a member of the Formations Group, saw his art exhibited at The New School. During this time, Mesibov became a member of “The Club,” where the newly formed New York school of abstract expressionists convened. At this moment, his own painting style transformed dramatically. Mesibov’s works were exhibited in the Morris Gallery in 1955, in the Artists Gallery in 1956 and 1958, and at Gallery Mayer in 1959. Between 1951 and 1954, during this productive period, Mesibov took summer trips to Aspen, Colorado which had a tremendous influence on his art. In 1956 and 1958, he also made visits to Monhegan Island in Maine (Teller).
In December 1959, Mesibov moved his family from New York City to rural Rockland County in Upstate New York. While in Rockland County, Mesibov worked for eleven years as an art therapist to “troubled boys,” as he describes them, at the Wiltwyck School for Boys (author’s interview with Mesibov). According to Mesibov, “art represents the healthiest part of a society…you’re dealing with regenerative forces. The art represents the healthiest part of the personality” (Shopes). In 1963, Mesibov also started teaching at Rockland Community College, where he eventually became a full professor. In 1966 he became a faculty member at the State University of New York at Rockland. Upstate New York provided Mesibov with inspiration and a sense of serenity, allowing him to experience a “spiritual awakening” (Mesibov.net, Artist Chronology). At his home in Rockland County, Mesibov cultivated a large garden in his backyard, over time expanding it and adding a koi pond. Mesibov’s garden served not only as another artistic venture and retreat, it also became a channel for his art.
Along with his many teaching roles, Mesibov also had a considerable impact on other aspects of Rockland County’s art community. From 1971 to 1972 he created a mural based on the Book of Job for Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, New York. Mesibov’s many community artistic endeavors provided him with much subsequent recognition—in 1988 he received the Executive Arts Award for Visual Arts from the Rockland Council on the Arts, and a New York State Council on the Arts Grant in 1995-96. In 1997, the Rockland Center of the Arts held a retrospective on Mesibov’s career. In 1989, Mesibov retired from Rockland Community College and in 1993, he became Professor Emeritus (Teller).
Mesibov continued to paint throughout the eighties and nineties and again began experimenting with printmaking and monotype. He still continues to paint and considers his ninety years of age “just a number” (Judelson). In a recent telephone interview with the artist, his voice sounded youthful, full of life, sweet, strong—the voice of someone who has experienced life and continues to offer much to this world.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“My work manifests itself in the integration of color and calligraphy to describe moods and movements that swing from feelings of serenity to sudden bursts of violent energy”—Hugh Mesibov
According to art critic Ellen Sragow, it is this energy “which draws one to Mesibov’s work. You sense the energy of a particular era, time and place, while experiencing the energy of an artist who is able to bring you closer to his world through his visions, his feelings and his skill.” With each decade of Mesibov’s artistic career comes new styles and techniques. He painted scenes of the American experience and experimented with abstract expressionism and figuration. Mesibov has worked in many different mediums and his acrylics, oils, watercolors, monoprints, etchings and lithographs have been exhibited extensively throughout the United States.
At the onset of his career, Mesibov drew inspiration from African sculpture and cubism, creating works that were realistic, “humanistic and expressionistic,” since they “came out of [his] direct experience (Shopes). During the 1930s, he created watercolors, prints, drawings and paintings with subjects based on his examination of people in day-to-day life--on the streets, in bars, restaurants, concerts, subways, union meetings—all of whom reflect the social and political conditions of the Depression. He “had watercolors and a bicycle, and traveled all over Philadelphia on bicycle, painting the barges on the Delaware River, the suburbs of the city, blue collar towns,” and though these works portray a struggling society, Mesibov instilled them with a flicker of hope and optimism (Mesibov.net, Artist Chronology).
During the 1940s, Mesibov’s art underwent a significant change from the socially aware art of the 1930s to a more “raw” degree of surrealism. WWII had a significant impact on Mesibov and heavily influenced his art. During the war he worked in a shipyard, a very “unnatural thing,” as he describes it. He was surrounded by “noise, flashing lights, heat, cold,” and the art he produced during this time was “surrealistic and expressionistic.” As he put it, the “humanistic elements became disembodied in order to protect [himself]” (interview 8). He worked with crayons and oil, and his images were raw, hard-edged, and graphic. In “The Siege” (1943), one of his more surreal and abstract works, he creates a haunting scene that conveys his own state of mind about the horrors of the war. The mood of the painting is hopeless and bleak, with devices and gadgets suggesting torment or genocide. “The Dictators” (1942) is also saturated with commentary on the war, with images of such dictators as Hitler, Franco and Mussolini depicted in bold, angular black and white forms. The war haunted Mesibov. He describes works from the 1940s as “very tortured and anguished and that’s the way I was” (Mesibov.net, Artist Chronology).
Mesibov’s surrealism and geometric abstractions of the 1940s transformed into a more expressionistic abstraction in the 1950s. Painting during the rise of abstract expressionism, Mesibov’s works reflected a certain energy, confidence in his images, and a clear move away from social realism. In his paintings from the beginning of the decade he uses “clear strokes, pictographic figures, boxy rooms and structures, hard edges, and scratched surfaces […] seen in flat spaces with drastically reduced color schemes” (Teller). In the fifties, the series of watercolors reflecting his trips to Aspen, Colorado are infused with abstracted forms of blurred edges and misty atmospheres. Along with his Aspen series, Mesibov also painted abstract expressionistic landscape-like paintings of Monhegan Island.
By the 1960s, Mesibov had moved from bustling Manhattan to the serene countryside of Rockland County, which provided him with inspiration for his paintings of this decade. He began to use the newly marketed acrylic paint which provided him “with the spontaneity of water color and the permanence of oil paint” (Mesibov.net, Artist Chronology). This new quick-drying medium permitted him to apply his dynamic linear forms onto the already color-infused canvas. Along with the beautiful landscape, literature also provided inspiration for his paintings during the 1960s. He went on to painting more dramatic images, with themes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Don Quixote.
In the 1970s, Mesibov did a great amount of artistic experimentation. In 1972 he painted a mural for Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, New York, depicting the Book of Job from the Old Testament. The large work was made up of three canvases, each measuring 6’x16,’ and reflecting a figurative style. After Mesibov completed the mural, he went on to paint many abstract works. In the 1980s, Mesibov again began to use watercolor and his images became saturated with a new linear energy and pulsating colors. He painted scenes of winter and summer as well as pastoral scenes in the Pond Series and Sun Room Series. In his landscapes of the time, Mesibov’s “use of pastels with watercolor and strong calligraphic strokes were incorporated to intensify the energy he felt” (Mesibov.net, Artist Chronology).
Mesibov continued with painting and experimenting on into the nineties, and spent much time expanding upon new printmaking and monotype techniques. He experimented with color, paper and adhesive. In these works he “uses an interweaving of the spatial elements with high color and intense line” (Mesibov.net, Chronology). Though Mesibov continued creating landscapes in the nineties he also painted figures, using vibrant colors and dynamic arrangements. The watercolor “Bobbie No. 4,” for example, portrays a female figure outlined in charcoal reclining on a sofa wearing a red satin slip with one leg stretched out as if “she were posing for an expressionist like Egon Shiele.” In its dynamism, this painting “reminds the viewer that for all his awereness of Surrealism, automatism, and to a lesser extent, Cubism, Mr. Mesibov has kept to his essential Expressionist self” (Raynor).
With each decade of Mesibov’s long career as an artist, his work reflects a certain creative energy always parallel with his place in the world at the time. In an interview from 1990, Mesibov discussed his artistic progression throughout his career and how art follows an artist’s life course as “a milestone or path that you have to go through…[A]n innate development….takes place” (Shopes). His paintings are bold, vibrant, profound, and most often infused with an intense lyricism. Now almost 91 years old, Mesibov continues to paint. He explains that he “often wakes up with a fleeting image. It’s the signal of the next thing to do. I come down to my studio and see what I can do with that image” (Judelson).
1916 Born on December 29th in Philadephia, Pennsylvania
1934-35 Attends Fleischer Memorial Art School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1935-37 Attends Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1936-1940 Studies at the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania
1937 Accepted for the Works Progress Administration; Develops Carborundum Mezzotint technique
1938 Wins first of three awards from the Philadelphia Print Club
1939 Art displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair
1940 First one-man exhibition in Philadelphia
1941 Completed mural The Steel Industry for Hubbard, Ohio's Post Office
1942-1943 Works in a shipyard during WWII
1945 Moves to New York City
1947 Chinese Gallery shows his work at his first New York one-man show
1948 Art is exhibited at The New School
1949 Begins teaching at the Lenox-Hill Neighborhood Association; marries Eudice Charney
1951 Takes first summer trip to Aspen, Colorado
1955 The Morris Gallery exhibits his work
1956, 1958 Visits Monhegan Island, Maine; Art is exhibited at the Artists Gallery
1957 Starts work as art therapist at the Wiltwyck School for boys, Esopus, New York
1959 Has show at Gallery Mayer
1963 Starts teaching at Rockland Community College
1966 Becomes faculty member at the State University of New York at Rockland, Suffern, New York
1971-1972 Creates mural for Temple Beth El, Spring Valley, New York
1988 Receives the Executive Arts Award for Visual Arts, Rockland Council on the Arts
1989 Retires from Rockland Community College
1993 Becomes Professor Emeritus
1995/96 Receives a New York State Council on the Arts Grant
1997 A retrospective of his career is held at the Rockland Center of the Arts
2007 Lives in Monsey, New York; still continues painting
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
British Museum, London, England
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Albert C. Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA
New York University Collection of Contemporary American Art, New York, NY
Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
New York Hilton Collection of Contemporary American Art, New York, NY
University of Oregon Art Museum, Eugene, OR
Pennsylvania Historical Museum, Harrisburg, PA
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Worcester Museum of Art, Worcester, MA
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
The Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA
Canadian Society of Graphic Arts, Montreal, Canada
The Wolfsonian Florida International University, Miami Beach, FL
Vera List Collection, New York, NY
David Orr Collection, Cedarhurst, NY
William Brown Baker Collection, New York, NY
Reba and Dave Williams Collection, New York, NY
National Archives, Philadelphia, PA
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Northwestern University, Block Gallery Collection, Evanston, IL
Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
University of Georgia, Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA
University of Minnesota, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, MN
1937 A C A Gallery, PA; Chester Country Art Exhibition, PA
1938, 1958 Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; National Museum, DC; State Museum, PA; Artists Union, PA; Museum of Natural History, DC; Federal Arts Gallery, PA;
1939 New York World’s Fair, NY; National Negro Congress, PA; De Young Museum, CA
1940 Carlen Gallery, PA; WPA Prints, PA
1941 YM&WHA, PA; Art Week National Exhibition, DC
1942 WPA, Exposicion de Trabajos del Programa de Arte de Pennsylvania, PA
1943, 1940, 1948, 1949 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
1945 Philadelphia Art Alliance, PA
1946 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1947 Chinese Gallery, NY; Butler Institute of American Art, OH
1948, 1949 New School for Social Research, NY
1951 Neuman Gallery, NY; Library of Congress, DC; Brooklyn Museum, NY; American Federation of Arts, Traveling Exhibition
1952-53 Elizabeth Nelson Gallery, IL; Roko Gallery, NY
1952-54 Bookshop Gallery, CO
1953 National Serigraph Society, NY; Gallery East, NY
1954, 1955 Morris Gallery, NY
1955, 1956, 1957, 1958 Artists Gallery, NY
1956, 1946, 1958 Whitney Museum, NY
1958 Sunken Meadow Gallery, NY; Riverside Museum, NY; Hansa Gallery, NY; Ringling Museum of Art, FL
1959 Gallery Mayer, NY; Corcoran Museum of Art, D.C.
1960 Fort Worth Museum, TX; Museum of Modern Art, NY
1961, 1960, 1963, 1970 Rockland Foundation, NY
1962 New Paltz Art Gallery, NY; Kornblee Gallery, NY
1963 East Hampton Gallery, NY
1964, 1968-69, 1972, 1980 SUNY at Rockland, NY
1965, 1956, 1957 Babcock Galleries, NY
1965 National Academy, NY
1966 Market Fair Gallery, NY; St. Paul Art Center, MA
1967 Philadelphia Art Alliance, PA; American Academy of Arts and Letters, NY
1968 Mansfield State College, PA; High Point Gallery, MA
1969 State University of New York, NY
1971 St. Thomas Aquinas College, NY
1974 Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NY
1979 Edward Hopper House Gallery, NY
1983 Ringwood Manor Associations of Arts, NJ
1987, 1993 Dolan/Maxwell Galleries, PA
1988, 1990 Midtown Galleries, NY
1988-1994 Kornbluth Gallery, NJ
1990 American Federation of Arts, Eight Major U.S. Museums; State Museum of Pennsylvania, PA
1991 Nabisco Brands Gallery, NJ; Neward Museum, NJ; Ellen Sragrow Gallery, NY
1992 Heckscner Museum, NY
1993 Garrison Art Center, NY; Patterson Art Museum, NJ; Kenneth Raymond Gallery, FL; Nyack College, NY
1993, 1996, 2000 Krasdale Foods Gallery, NY
1995-2002, 2004, 2005 Walter Kornbluth Gallery, NJ
1997 Rockland Center for the Arts, NY
1999 The Broome Street Gallery, NY
2000 Baltimore Museum of Art, MS
2001 Nassau County Museum of Art, NY; Fleisher Museum, PA
2002 Krasdale Foods Gallery, NY; Union League Club, NY
2003 Reba and David Williams Collection, NY; Cummer Museum of Art, FL; Blue Hill Cultural Art Center, NY
2004-2005, 1991 Susan Teller Gallery, NY
2004-2005 Park Avenue Armory, NY; New York Historical Society, NY
2005 Cleveland Print Fair, NY; Rockland Center for the Arts, NY; Phoenix Art Museum, AZ; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA
2006-2007 Park Avenue Armory, NY
2007 Art Miami, FL
2008 British Museum, UK
Graphic Sketch Club, Philadelphia, PA
"The Club," NYC
The Formations Group
Hopper House Gallery, NY
Fairlawn Art Association
New York Artist Equity
Rockland Center for the Arts
Philadelphia Print Club
ACA Gallery Award
Lambert Fund Purchase Prize, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Hallmark Art Award, International Watercolor Competition
May Audubon Post Prize, Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Hugo Robus Prize for Painting, Rockland Center for the Arts Award Show
Thorton Oakley Memorial Prize, Philadelphia Watercolor Club
Rockland County Executive Arts Award, NY
Fairlawn Art Association
- 1. Judelson, Mark. “Accor Artist Profile: Hugh Mesibov. Rockland Artist Reflects on 90 Years of Living and Painting.” Arts Happenings, November 2007.
- 2. Raynor, Vivien. “Retrospective Reflects Artist’s Eye to Nature.” The New York Times, 2 February 1997.
- 3. Shopes, Linda. Interview with Hugh Mesibov. 23 June 1990.
- 4. Teller, Susan. 2002. “Hugh Mesibov (Born 1916).”
- 5. Mesibov Gallery Online: Artist Chronology
- 6. Author’s telephone interview with Hugh Mesibov, September 27, 2007.