Charles Seliger-Small Is Beautiful
Charles Seliger, whose small-scale, jewel-like paintings of imaginary natural forms made him the most idiosyncratic of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists, died in Manhattan on Oct. 1. He was 83 and lived in Westchester County, N.Y.
The cause was a stroke, said his son Robert.
While fellow artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning created high drama with drips and bravura brushwork on billboard-size canvases, Mr. Seliger conjured up his own private worlds on canvases, and later Masonite boards, that rarely exceeded the dimensions of a cafeteria tray.
Strongly influenced by the Surrealists and the idea of automatism — the belief that the artist’s undirected hand could reach deep into the unconscious — he layered skeins of fine, interlaced lines and overlapping luminous forms that suggested microscopic views of human tissue or plant specimens, land masses seen from an airplane or undiscovered worlds exploding into being.
These poetic explorations, increasingly complex and refined, carried him through a career that lasted more than 60 years.
“He was the last link to the Abstract Expressionist movement,” said the art historian Francis V. O’Connor, the author of “Charles Seliger: Redefining Abstract Expressionism” (2003). “He was the last artist fully committed to the methodology of Surrealism and psychic automatism, which he developed in a carefully thought-out way.”
Charles Marvin Zekowski was born on June 3, 1926, in Manhattan. His parents divorced when he was 2, and at 14 he adopted his mother’s maiden name. His childhood was chaotic, as he and his mother, destitute, hopped from one residence to another in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.
He began painting and drawing as a child and, after moving to Jersey City in 1940 and discovering a copy of Amédée Ozenfant’s “Foundations of Modern Art,” experimented with the styles of Aubrey Beardsley, Persian miniatures and Cubism. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and found work tinting photographs at a studio in Manhattan.
In 1943 he met Jimmy Ernst, the son of the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and through him began meeting and showing with the dominant figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement at the 67 Gallery and later at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, which gave him his first one-man show in 1945, when he was still in his teens.
His painting “Cerebral Landscape” was included in an influential traveling exhibition of Abstract Expressionists that originated at the David Porter Gallery in Washington in 1945.
In an artistic statement for the exhibition, Mr. Seliger wrote: “I want to apostrophize micro-reality. I want to tear the skin from life, and, peering closely, paint what I see. I want my brain to become a magnifying lens for the infinite minutiae forming reality. Growth is the poetry of all art.”
Mr. Seliger got off to a fast start. In 1946 the Museum of Modern Art bought “Natural History: Form Within Rock” for its permanent collection, and in 1948 he was given his first important museum exhibition, at the De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. A year later he joined the prestigious Willard Gallery, where his fellow artists included Mark Tobey and Lyonel Feininger.
In 1948 he married Ruth Lewin, who died in 1975. In addition to his son Robert, of Winchester, Mass., he is survived by his wife, the former Lenore Klebanow; another son, Mark, of Auburn, Mass.; and two grandchildren.
For the next six decades Mr. Seliger worked steadily and slowly, producing no more than 10 paintings a year but always showing and always represented by major dealers, most recently the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery on 57th Street, where he had a solo show last fall. At the same time he maintained a full-time job at Commercial Decal, a china company in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where he started out as a decal artist and retired in 1993 as executive vice president.
Mr. Seliger’s earliest paintings, often depicting botanical forms and insects, fused small areas of color in a manner suggestive of stained-glass windows. Later he intensified his focus, concentrating on all-over compositions of intricate tracery and linked patches of color. Often he drew spidery lines and dots with a Leroy pen, normally used for blueprints, which he filled with thinned paint, and applied paint with a single-hair brush.
He read voraciously, and it showed. “He was extraordinarily erudite,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Apart from Motherwell, the Abstract Expressionists only knew themselves and their own art, but he knew history, literature, art and even science. One of his first works was an homage to Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles.”
In 1986 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which owns more than 20 works by Mr. Seliger, presented a retrospective exhibition of his work. In 2003 he received the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s Lee Krasner Award.
Beginning in 1952 Mr. Seliger recorded, in a minute hand, his observations about the art world, his thoughts on painting and the technical details of his works in progress in slim notebooks. In 2005 he donated all 148 volumes of his journals to the Morgan Library & Museum.
Actually, come to think of it, art and artists should provide a wealth of inspiration, so let’s have villanelles on Art and/or Artists.