Essays

 

 

A Kaleidoscopic Merging of Visual Culture and Art

By: Elaine A. King
Professor, History of Art, Theory & Museum Studies
Freelance Art Critic & Curator
Carnegie Mellon University
17 August 2014

Ronald Weintraub became an artist by an unusual path. He was a prominent entrepreneur in the world of commerce with multiple careers including leading a reputable family business, the founder and CEO of Harmon, the largest publisher of real estate photo magazines in the United States and the publisher of the New York Sun newspaper. Earlier he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California studying Political Science. Although he was pressured by his father to join the family business after graduation, he opted in 1956 to enter the Army and spent two years in Camp Zama, Japan, during the Post- American Occupation. Weintraub refers to this “as a significant transformative time of my life!”[i] This was a critical turning point because of his involvement in army life with a wide range of individuals as well with the Japanese that the United States had once been at war. On returning in 1958, he attended Harvard’s Business School learning from the pragmatic case method. This applied philosophical approach to problem solving would shape and influence all of his future involvements both in business and now as an artist.

After a year of study at Harvard he entered the family company honoring a prior agreement with his father. However, in 1959 within months after joining the business his father tragically died in a car accident—this turn of events suddenly put him at the helm of the company. Abruptly becoming the CEO at the young age of twenty-four coincided with of the heyday of Madison Avenue consumer culture—the era of the “Mad Men.” This was a time when consumer culture increased as television ads tempted American Society in a thriving, flourishing economy to buy and feel elevated by boundless products. This was the zenith of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, and artists employment of aspects of mass culture, advertising, comic books and mundane cultural objects. It was a period when artists in their work explored the connection amid artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertisement that thrived in the 1960s. Living through this age gave Weintraub a far-reaching perspective on American visual popular culture.

Beyond the realm of business, it was also a critically fluctuating epoch for the arts both in theoretical approach and the rise of a new middle class audience. The barrier that once divided fine art and popular culture began to vanish leaving artists free to appropriate objects and references from widespread visual culture. Artists’ openness to disparate sources of content and approach undermined not only Clement Greenberg’s narrow definition of formalist abstract painting, focusing merely on the elements of painting [ii] but also encapsulated the intense, volatile socio-political environment they were living in. No longer were there single answers—this was a time of transformation that reflected a radically changing cultural and social landscape.[iii]

Prior to the 1990s, Weintraub had little interest in the arts except casual visits to museums and galleries and the foremost international sites. However, a transformative trip to Turkey in 1990 occurred when he experienced the lectures of noted archeologist Iris Love about art and culture. After an efficacious career in the world of commerce Weintraub concluded the business chapter of his life in order to pursue being an artist. He took art classes at Parsons and the National Academy School, and, drawing at the Art Students League. He became fascinated with color, form, and, realized how evocative art could be. Yet he found classroom learning too slow and was able to hire the noted Color Field painter Ross Neher as his private teacher who encouraged him to experiment and investigate diverse approaches. Weintraub recalls a conversation with Neher: “He said persistence is more important than raw talent and practice is vital.”[iv] For the past twenty plus years he has been a dedicated working artist. Asserting his view about persistence Weintraub said, “I have an abundance of persistence, so during the past years I have made hundreds of paintings, made thousands of mistakes, destroyed more paintings than I’ve saved, and learned by practicing.”[v]

The eclecticism found in Weintraub’s art demonstrates his awareness of the Modernist canon as well as how Post-Modernism’s liberation broke that constricting norm and opened up new constructs of thinking about art and its production. It expanded the field of painting in which artists became freer to employ dissimilar visual languages and disparate materials in a particular artwork. Being a mature person who did not go the traditional route of art school, he set out to master technical skills and to steep himself in art history. His business like approach of setting goals, implementing strategies and having a focused determination has generated a large body of work that uses elements of both figuration and abstraction. Nonetheless throughout his oeuvre abstraction appears to be his prominent visual language.

Weintraub’s early paintings evince an astute understanding of the operational power of color and its relationship to activating space across the entire canvas. To achieve this, he abandoned any figurative reference and in its place employed the dramatic power of color by first producing a multi-layered ground color field that was inspired by an amorphous concept. Subsequently when the canvas dried, a type of ritual of mark making would commence. He refers to these as marks added intuitively; “The best analogy is improvisational jazz. It is the spontaneous, improvisational marks and their place that bring harmony to the finished work.”[vi] Weintraub does not instigate any work with an intentional direction or statement. Collectively each painting is a gestalt resulting from the artist’s unrestricted engagement with color and his feelings of the moment.

Bursts of multicolored shapes and specks appear to dance care freely against saturated color fields of red, orange, and dense blue. Contradiction in Red, 2004 is a nocturnal blue composition in which a red, luminous stick shape resembling a midnight star constellation reverberates contrary to the underlying subtle pattern of delicate monochrome blue dots. Ensemble in Red, 2004, suggests jellybeans bouncily zipping across the canvas. And, Contradiction in Turquoise, 2003, a deep blue-purple painting comprised of varied size solid and bubble like spots frame a curvilinear, turquoise serpentine-like form that diagonally cuts across the entire image. A free-spirit playfulness connects each composition to the other. Known to have an interest in semiotics, when he was asked if there is a deeper meaning to this work, he replied, “It was not my intention to express specific ideas or emotions through symbols.”[vii]

Weintraub’s new multi-component compositions are enigmatic diptychs, showing a significant departure from his previous single panel, pure painterly abstract vibrant arrangements. Most contain contrasting 48 inches x 36 inches panels. Jointly they allude to the past evincing abstract minimalism and figurative references to daily life as portrayed in American popular visual culture. In each set this artist appears to be exploring a poetic interplay of particular iconic cultural themes such as heroes, war, advertising, history, icons, and comics with an abstract painting that frames and accentuates the figurative contents.

Filled with contradictions in each tableau Weintraub fundamentally uses varied forms and materials in his production and presentation. In view of the freedoms artists have inherited after Post-Modernism he is unrestricted to obliterate the boundaries between serious “high” art and “kitschy” popular culture. Weintraub, as many painters over the past decade, persistently experiments and employs non-traditional methods. Consisting of disparate yet related panels that actually are not connected although adjacent, each set is to be read as a single composition imparting a merger of abstraction and figurative realism. They beckon a new way of recognizing everyday objects and invite viewers to navigate the dense terrain of three-D artifacts, varied patterns and abstract fields of color that resemble a type of operative stage set. When asked how he sees this work Weintraub resists categorization however, refers to the new three-dimensional paintings as “mixed media collages.”

Weintraub’s art that relates two disparate styles is an anomalous amalgamation of collage and painting tackling social memory. When viewing this assortment of idiosyncratic multifaceted collections one need conceivably to approach this mix of icons as a three-dimensional tableau of visual culture. As artists before him consciously sought alternative ways to push the boundaries of painting so to redefine painting or to diversify its construction, contrarily Weintraub’s intent is not pursuing such a direction. Plausibly, taking into consideration his prior interface with the world of commerce, what one is witnessing here is an artist looking back at mass culture and his evaluating how that culture impacted his own life and career. His direct involvement with the escalation of consumer culture in the 1960s is a natural link to the rise of society’s insatiable consumerist attitude, product strategy and a growth of escapism into the realm of entertainment. These sundry powerful iconic assemblages spark a connection to the surge of popular culture in the late 1950s and 60s. His inventive diptychs invite viewers to pause and scrutinize the content of each paired arrangement.

For example, Weintraub builds in his art on the decades long practice of using animals in corporate logos and as symbols to create distinct branding through creature identification. His piece Les Animaux is comprised of a photographic chart of animals, miniature plastic animals, mixed pattern paper swatches, and imagery of corporate logos is a fascinating accumulation. Our perceptions of specific animal characteristics as anthropomorphized clichés about the animal kingdom work to corporate advantage; take for instance such phrases, as “strong as an elephant,” “clever as a fox,” or “quick as a cat” or “big as a bear.” Enhancing the central emblematic section are two abstract a-symmetrical panels on each end, painted in orange and black resembling tiger stripes. The association with the stripes calls to mind “Tony the Tiger” and that Frosted Flakes are “grrrreat” or “Put a Tiger in your Tank,” from the 1965 ads from Esso. This complicated piece, the only triptych of the series, packs a powerful punch as one scrutinizes images and dimensional replicas of real animals as well as famous commercial logos including the Playboy Bunny, Firefox, Jaguar and Lamborghini. Weintraub’s piece demonstrates his acute awareness about corporate identity and through this collection of artifacts, collaged patterns and corporate signs he suggests places in time, situations in visual culture, as well as emotions, memories or states of mind. Claude Levi-Strauss said, “animals are good to think with.”[viii] Since the cave art at Lascaux humans have been using animals as symbols in persuasively varied ways.

The composition Nippon perhaps is the most personal of this series and it reads as a type of unique self-portrait of the artist illuminating his expansive engagement with history. Having spent time in Japan after World War II, he was invested in the reconstruction of this once warmonger society. This elaborate mixed-media constellation of historic photographs, ready-made design backgrounds, texture and actual material objects blur the lines between collage, assemblage, painting, photography and sculpture. Methodically arranged one observes in this works strong interconnections with the many parts in this piece. This work alludes to being a composite of time past; evidence is observed throughout the allegorical panel with a picture of Weintraub himself as a soldier in uniform, his “Good Conduct Medal”, an image of Emperor Hirohito on a white horse, the survivor of the atomic bomb blast, Kiyoshi Kikkawa scarred, along with an image of Japanese Sumo wrestlers and imagery by Katsushia Hokusai, of “Great Wave off Kanagawa,” probably the most famous image in Japanese art. What enforces the power of this diptych is its contiguous abstract panel, an intense orange field of color radiating red oval pulses from a central fragmented circular shape signifying a type of rising sun.

Tutankhamun is a quiet work beckoning viewers to pause and reflect on its contents. It is a celebration of a once great culture however, despite its relationship to antiquity and its association with ancient Egypt with its wondrous pyramids, it manifests a contemplative silent theatrically. This piece with its specific imagery of the pharaoh, cats and diminutive reliefs collectively conveys a message about death yet a desire for eternity. Accentuating the multifaceted elements in the emblematic section is the subtle abstract graded ochre panel that brings to the fore the underlying narrative of this diptych. The subdued elusiveness of the sand-like panel adds structure to what is otherwise a very complex configuration, loaded with historical symbolism.

America, America, reads as a double edge sword because of its content. It appears to celebrate the “western”, the myth of the cowboy and the Wild West—a land free from social constraint, providing independence and a place that cannot be found somewhere else while showcasing portraits of Native American. The cowboy was the essential symbol of America as a radical alternative to the constraints of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. This assemblage not only depicts pictures of cowboys from different eras, including a dynamic portrayal of the John Wayne with gun, embodying the “Idyllic Hero” and defining the male American for much of the 20th century, but also a range of portraits of prominent Native Americans. It reads as a divided medley, of both types of people who populated the west. In the 1950s to the 1980s, the myth of the American West was unquestioned however, with the rise of revisionist history a new empathy for the Native American ascended.[ix] Compassion for the Native American is sensed in Weintraub’s diptych because his choice of portrayals conveys a stoic pride and self-assurance. It is the adjoining buttery panel showing a Texas Lone Star, along with two floating feathers, that seems to summarize a struggle for independence which neither the state of Texas nor the Native American ever achieved. This is a contradictory enigmatic configuration that leaves one pondering!

The two diptychs that are anomalies in this series include Knights and Foreign Legion. Unlike Weintraub’s other compositions that illustrate American visual culture here the focus is on European references and the central themes of power and violence. The piece Knights is inspired by the TV fantasy drama “Game of Thrones”, that followed the three storylines of A Song of Ice and Fire. “The novels and their adaptation derive settings, characters and plot elements from much of European history.”[x] It is a bold diptych that is organized into three main sections, with an antique global map filling the central area. Adjoined by a bold blood red abstract panel dissected by a flowing diagonal organic swatch this unit adds structure and enhances the entire figural segment filled with replica knights, symbols of war and conquest. In Foreign Legion unexpectedly, the graded deep blue panel containing a curvilinear red line not only serves as a forceful accompaniment accenting the theatrical panel filled with military references but also is visually an intriguing work itself. The Foreign Legion, comprised of foreign nationals, was created to be a military force outside of France and to protect and expand the French Colonial Empire. Within this panel toy uniformed soldiers are adhered throughout a background of varying pattern squares, along with the Legion’s grenade emblem, French flag and a photograph of a raging battle from colonial times. Collectively the assemblage assimilates the essence of military might and its symbols. Although both of the diptychs address another epoch, ongoing-armed conflicts with its violence, fatalities and destruction, globally the bloodiness of war continues at the moment.

Ronald Weintraub is an artist who creates cultural puzzles and over years of fortitude has mastered the languages of figuration and abstraction to produce his idiosyncratic brand of art. He assuredly provides viewers with familiar clues and elements, however does not deliver a clear map or finite answers. Weintraub elects to engage viewers with his multi-layered pageants by providing metaphors, signifiers and abstract color. One must spend time examining and reflecting on the contents of each distinctive conglomerate. This artist possesses an acute sensitivity about how shifts in business and social values contribute to the transformation of an image-saturated culture, one that is oversupplied with popular culture artifacts and an infinite bombardment of information.

[i]. Interview with Elaine A. King with Ronald Weintraub, Water Mill, New York, 7 June 2014.

[ii]. Formalism is a particular mode of art criticism and theory according to which all visual art has an intrinsic value. This value is determined by the artist’s ability to achieve an aesthetic order and balance of certain elemental truths within a painting. These elemental truths are the painting’s use of color, line, composition and texture. No matter how much artistic style and taste may change over time, formalism holds that these truths are constant. http://www.theartstory.org/section_theory_formalism.htm#sthash.MG3s2cbj.dpuf

[iii]. King, Elaine A. , “Shifting Realm of Abstraction,” in Abstract Art from Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY at Chautauqua Institution, Abstraction in America, Part II: The 1970s and 1980s,” organized by Don Kimes, June 2012,

Chautauqua, Institution. Also, published in Artes Magazines, October 2012.

[iv] Interview with Jeffrey Hoffeld, “A Conversation with Ronald Weintraub, Exhibition catalogue, accompanying the exhibition in March 2005, Salander-O-Reilly Galleries, LLC, New York, NY

[v] Interview with Jeffrey Hoffeld.

[vi] Interview with Jeffrey Hoffeld.

[vii] Interview with Jeffrey Hoffeld.

[viii] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, translated by Rodney Needham. (London: Merlin Press, 1964)

[ix] Holm, Tom, The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs: Native Americans and Whites in the Progressive Era, Tucson: University of Arizona, 2005. [This revisionist history reveals how Native Americans’ sense of identity and “peoplehood” helped them resist and eventually defeat the U.S. government’s attempts to assimilate them into white society during the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s). Tom Holm discusses how Native Americans, though effectively colonial subjects without political power, nonetheless maintained their group identity through their native languages, religious practices, works of art, and sense of homeland and sacred history.]

[x] Holland, Tom, “Game of Thrones”, The Guardian, London, March 24, 2013.


Signified: Mixed Media Collages by Ronald Weintraub

By: Cara Ober
Founding Editor, BMoreArt
Painter/Teacher/Artist/Writer

Regardless of age, background, or taste, all human beings are united in a common quest for meaning, which manifests in thinking abstractly through signs. We all create signs, think in signs, and interpret signs. A smell, object, act, word, or image can be a sign, but each has no intrinsic meaning until it is assigned one. Anything can be a sign, as long as it stands for something other than itself, and the study of meaningful sign and symbol usage is one of the central tenets of semiotics.

Like many artists before him, Ronald Weintraub’s work is strongly informed by the study of semiotics. In his studio, Weintraub employs paint and collage to build mixed media collections of signifiers and the signified ideas they represent. The artist’s work explores the complexities of symbolic language through abstraction and metaphor; however, the visual conundrums he arrives at pose more contradictions and questions for the viewer, rather than dictate a solution or outcome. Laden with a multitude of clashing cultural symbols, Weintraub’s mixed media collages pulse with the energy of the information age.

“My desire is for slow looking, for the viewer to participate and get involved with the work,” explains the artist. “I want to make the viewer think and puzzle. Ultimately, their conclusion is up to them, but my goal is to engage them.”

Unlike most emerging artists today, Weintraub began his art practice at the age of fifty-five, after a successful career in business where he was CEO of a successful family business and later founded Harmon Publishing Company. When he decided to pursue a studio practice fulltime, Weintraub applied the same intensity that yielded results from his business practice, studying at Parsons, the Art Students League, the National Academy School, and individually with painter Ross Neher. Subsequent solo exhibitions include Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, Ellen Liman Gallery, and a group show at the Katonah Art Museum.

Weintraub initially focused on representational drawing and painting, but found early on that he preferred the freedom and metaphor found within abstraction. Working in series, the artist explored a number of modernist painting styles, which resemble, alternately, Pointillism, Post-Impressionism, Colorfield, and Abstract Expressionism. Regardless of approach, all of Weintraub’s paintings employ color to emotive effect, contrasting warm and cool mark in patterned systems, which curb expressive effects into harmonious compositions.

As a Semiotician and consummate collector of images, it makes perfect sense that Weintraub has recently moved away from painterly abstraction into the realm of appropriation, pop culture, and collage. Although their technique and visual effect is quite different from previous painted series, the reliance on warm and cool color contrasts, pattern, layering, and accumulation is commensurate with the artist’s former practice, and evidence of past cycles of experience, thought process, and inspiration. It is the collection and assemblage of image based signs that allows the artist to effectively channel contrasting elements and directions all at once, similar to the layered thought process required to navigate the constant barrage of images from media and in popular culture.

Many of Weintraub’s recent compositions resemble patchwork quilts and feature layers of pattern, scraps of pop cultural images, and actual objects layered into the surface, creating a relief sculpture rather than the flat plane one would expect. In “Heroes,” the artist layers actual action figures over images of comic book heroes, packaging materials from the toys, and decorative paper. Rather than uniting these elements through color or one organizing visual principle, the artist arranges them to allow the characteristics of each hero to contradict and compete with the others in a dizzying array. Like the closet, or brain, of a pre-teen boy, “Heroes” presents a melee of veneration and power, where individuals are simultaneously lost and found. Despite a barrage of cheerful primary colors, there is a perplexing and sinister effect achieved through the presentation of so many conflicting, yet similar, elements. Although each superhero is a signifier, representing a specific identity or ability, the image as a whole comes to represent the collision of fantasy and reality and neutralizes the unique powers which each possess into a homogeneous crowd.

Further compounding the vision, Weintraub borders the collage with two deep red panels to form an asymmetrical triptych. The intense flat color contrasts with the dense activity in the central panel, and compresses the action into a finite segment. Viewed as a whole, “Heroes” addresses the disappointments of late childhood, a time when heroes were plausible and play was still encouraged, but the weight of adult knowledge has begun to set in that superpowers will wane in the face of a burgeoning understanding of commercialism, reality, fantasy, and irony.

“I am constantly thinking in different directions all at once,” explains the artist whose Water Mill, NY studio is a menagerie of images collected over twenty-five years. “My studio is filled with boxes full of old stuff. I don’t use found objects – I find the objects I need. Then, I put these things together, and everything is there for a reason.”

This accretive process, where a variety of elements are accessed at once, figures strongly in “America America.” In this collage and paint diptych, photos of actual cowboys and Native Americans form a patchwork grid with fictional images and movie still portraits, like a bulletin board gone awry, with a bold yellow painted panel to one side featuring two gray feathers and a star, graphic symbols of both sides of the conflict. Breaking the picture plane, a small Lone Ranger action figure floats next to his likeness on the board, and appears to be conversing with John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, and Ronald Regan, all dressed in cowboy garb. Despite a proliferation of images, the cowboys and Native Americans are strictly segregated to the right and left, with a vertical stripe of historical photos of American military leaders, including General Custer, creating a central divide.

There are approximately thirty-five small portraits in this collage, but it is important to note that each is cropped and neatly separated from its neighbor. The artist leaves clear margins of patterned paper in between each image, reminding the viewer that his vision is selective and based on personal visual biases, memories, and interpretations of history. The artist’s particular arrangement of image and pattern renders each person an island unto himself, despite inclusion with a number of would-be teammates or enemies. Like “Heroes,” this image blurs fact and fiction into a multifaceted vision of American history informed by childhood stories and movies, and both sides of the conflict are romanticized. “America America” presents a number of individuals, transformed by historical and fictional dress and visual context, into a complicated, layered narrative, which questions the easy stereotypes created in pop culture and addresses the revisionist nature of history dictated by the winners.

Continuing to present fact and fiction in an interchangeable narrative, “Les Animaux,” is a multifaceted patchwork of exotic creatures from all over the world, combining historical illustrations of animals with children’s plastic figures, fictional beasts, and popular animal logos. Like sifting through an outdated Encyclopedia Britannica, reading this image disassociates popular beliefs of these animals with any authentic or scientific human understanding of them. In the center of the collage, a grid of historical illustrations depicts the way citizens of Western culture learned about exotic animals from across the globe. At one point, the illustrative, quasi-scientific images were believed to represent factual information, but the collage questions their validity, and reminds the viewer of man’s complicated, convenient, and predatory relationship with such animals. Around the outer edges of the collage, forming a border designated by a patterned paper background, “branded” animals from advertising hover, like the Jaguar logo jaguar, the 20th Century Fox lion, The Firefox fox, the Bacardi bat, and the Playboy bunny.

In “Les Animaux,” Weintraub playfully explores the conflicted relationship between humans and animals, exploring each as a cultural signifier, an object of desire, and a child’s toy. This piece reveals that humans possess a limited knowledge at best of the reality of any of these animals, but that they resonate powerfully as in our collective cultural history and identity regardless. Further illustrating the idea of an animal as a brand, the artist places two additional painted panels around the first that contrast visually in every way possible: a neon orange and black painted tiger stripe design, the Warhol equivalent of animal beauty. Viewed as a triptych, the tiger design references fashion trends, human’s willingness to use and change an animal for commercial reasons, and the simple understanding we assign to non-human animals, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Over the twenty-five years that Weintraub has pursued a visual art practice, his materials have evolved but his core beliefs about art, semiotics, and culture remain the same. Whether he is painting in oil or composing three-dimensional collages of collected ephemera, Weintraub feels strongly that the artist’s role is to be an intentional provocateur and that the viewer should contribute significantly to the process of understanding his narratives.


Defining Style: The Paintings of Ronald Weintraub
Ross Neher

It is possible to define any style in art today by appealing to Post-Impressionist archetypes. There is nothing in contemporary art that cannot be traced to the work and influence of either Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin or Seurat. Indeed, what has been termed “pluralism” is little more than the mainstream’s acceptance of competing points of view that have their antecedents in Post-Impressionism. Ronald Weintraub’s painting is new to the art-viewing public. A strict, stylistic analysis of his work in relation to these known historical markers will provide insights that a more casual approach may not disclose.

On first viewing, a large portion of Ronald Weintraub’s work can be described as “Pointillist,” relating the work to Georges Seurat. The division of color into its constituent hues and its reconstitution by means of an optical mix of tiny dots of primary color was Seurat’s attempt to refine the atomized yet haphazard stroke of Monet, to make Impressionism “scientific,” so to speak. With Seurat, we have the artist who plays the role of the prototypical researcher at work in his studio/laboratory.
In analyzing Weintraub’s work, note his use of the mark and its relation to the ground. Even within this selective exhibition, the facture is not uniform but is highly dependent upon scale. The gamut of marks runs from the smallest of dots to ovoid shapes roughly an inch long. The scale of the picture determines the scale of the mark, with the smallest pictures consisting of dots similar in size to those in a Seurat painting.

In a marvelous suite of pictures that take as their inspiration charts used to detect color blindness, Pointillist is an apt description of the technique Weintraub uses to create them. These fourteen by eleven inch pictures have about them a mechanical aspect that does indeed remind the viewer of Seurat and his epigones. But is that comparison a valid stylistic assessment? Only superficially, for the aloof and dispassionate manner of Seurat is foreign to Weintraub’s sensibility. The artist himself insists that his paintings are not “neat” in the perfectionist’s sense and careful inspection reveals the undisguised mask of a human hand. Nevertheless, even with this apparent, but significant, conflict between method and intent, this group of pictures must be judged a formal success. The color is particularly clear and vibrant.

Stylistically then, the kinship with Pointillism must be considered important only insofar as it conjures in the mind a familiar pictorial trope. We must look further to determine the source and meaning of Weintraub’s style.

The predominant force in contemporary art is, without a doubt, conceptualism. Marcel Duchamp’s status as founding father of Conceptual Art is well-known, but before Duchamp there were Paul Gauguin and the Symbolists. Their preoccupation with signs and referents and their general disregard for the sensate world and its reproduction in paint have become commonplace in art nowadays. The heirs to Gauguin and the Symbolists are numerous. They range from Andy Warhol with his iconic images of celebrities, to Jasper Johns with his targets and flags, to Joseph Kosuth with his dogmatically conceptualist installations.

The will to image-making goes as far back as prehistoric cave drawing. It is interesting to note that the images of animals in prehistoric art were realistically rendered while those of the figure were rendered in stick forms similar to those found in children’s drawings. We do not know why this is so but the distinction between mimetic image and symbol appears at art’s very inception. In the series of small paintings cited above, Weintraub embedded images, some organic, some geometric, but unlike symbols, they do not allude to anything beyond themselves. Weintraub’s style owes nothing to Gauguin and the Symbolists.

The only figure who truly strove to continue the concerns of Western painting was Paul Cezanne, who attempted to make something “solid” of Impressionism. One can trace Cezanne’s influence through early Cubism, Mondrian, and certain Abstract-Expressionist works, such as de Kooning’s splendid Door to the River. Of the painters working today, it is the realist Racksaw Downes, with his disciplined technique and his Cezannesque return to the familiar motifs, who most deserves to wear the mantle of Cezanne. Either abstraction or representation may be conscripted as a suitable vehicle for painting. Common to all of the above, however, is the concretizing of sensation.

Even though Weintraub has painted figuratively, representational painting is peripheral to his focus. His forms lack the requisite solidity and instead have a sense of disembodiment characteristic of retinal painting. Consciously or unconsciously, Weintraub has rejected Cezannean influence.
By process of elimination, then, we are left with the expressionism of Vincent van Gogh. Initially, Weintraub’s work, with its more rational demeanor, appears to be at odds with the intense emotionalism associated with the Dutch artist. However, correspondences do exist.

The “hot” colors, orange and red, have been described as connoting such feelings as anger, rage and passion, most likely because as “advancing” colors they appear more aggressive than their cooler counterparts. Van Gogh put great store in the notion that specific colors could elicit specific emotional responses. He would often compose his pictures with the spectator’s emotional vocabulary in mind.
Ronald Weintraub has gravitated naturally to hot colors and to orange in particular. During the mid-’90’s, Weintraub completed several predominantly orange paintings that were notable successful. In this exhibit, a vertical painting with a bright orange-red ground merits discussion. In a previous iteration, a form consisting of red ellipses snaked diagonally down the painting from the top left. Not satisfied with the prominence of the image, Weintraub, in repainting the work, integrated the image with the surrounding marks almost to the point of obliteration. This decision turns out to have been most effective, in that a subliminal presence contributes to the painting’s mystery and power.

As stated earlier, the scale of the painting determines the scale of the mark. Accordingly, the marks in this five by four foot painting are not tiny dots but elongated ellipses that resemble rice kernels in shape. What is of particular interest is the manner in which they were painted. Unlike the dots in the colorblind chart pictures, whole texture appears textureless and crisp edged, these ellipses are actually brushstrokes of appreciable material substance. Weintraub, here, betrays a certain impatience in execution, so that the term “expressionist” is validly descriptive. The simultaneously contrasting play of cool ellipses on a warm field recalls Larry Poons’s Colorfield paintings of the 1960s. But whereas Poons plotted the location of his ellipses according to a predetermined geometric pattern and painted them with surgical precision, Weintraub strews his irregularly sized and shaped ellipses according to the dictates of his intuition. Much the way van Gogh borrowed Seurat’s divisionist technique in order to heighten the emotional impact of his painting, Weintraub appropriates Poons’s stylistic stratagems for his own emotive purposes.

The other large, warm-hued painting in the exhibition is the first in this series. It, too, is painted on a bright red field. Here the marks are more indistinct and form clusters reminiscent of iron filings in a magnetic field. In terms of facture, the picture occupies a position between the work analyzed above and the smaller, pointillist paintings. Ominous and brooding, the painting seems about to erupt. As the generative painting to which the others in the show owe their existence, metaphorically, it does just that.

Weintraub has stated that he wishes his work “to express complex feelings” and that he is opposed to “a bloodless, clinical look,’ sentiments that affirm a stylistic reading of Expressionism. He delights in giving his paintings a “sense of dynamism” and “movement,” important qualities in Expressionist art. But deeply felt work need not be overtly demonstrative; it can also exhibit measured restraint. Any method of pictorial atomization such as the one Weintraub employs will push the artist in the direction of allover patterning. At he “allover” end of the spectrum is one of Weintraub’s most successful works. A horizontal painting measuring three by four feet, it consists of a solitary, cool gray field. A top layer has been added to neutralize a more aggressive ground. Small oval shapes quietly nuzzle each other and play peek-a-boo with the spectator. The gray field undulates softly and the picture projects a reserved elegance evocative of Whistler. The emotionalism of expressionism is held in check, but the painting is no less expressive because of it. A painting of quiet repose, it is profound in its simplicity.

Having traversed the formal terrain of Ronald Weintraub’s work, it is time to synthesize the findings. On the basis of both the artist’s statement and the physical evidence, the expressionist impulse runs deep through Weintraub’s art, though the immoderate emotionalism characteristic of expressionist art is countered by patterning devices that mute the unduly disruptive. The technical requirements necessary to achieve a perfectionist’s ideal in painting (of the sort Seurat himself achieved) imply a mechanistic sensibility at odds with a humanist ethos. One way allow for the pursuit of technical perfection in smaller works where the intimate scale enhances a jewel-like quality but in larger works such attention to detail would seem overly restrictive and inhibiting. Freedom, Weintraub seems to imply, is the consequence of enlarged boundaries.

That this exhibition of Ronald Weintraub’s paintings permits such rich and varied interpretation is a testament to his seriousness and to the breadth of his endeavor. Far from being formally circumscribed, Weintraub’s work offers the viewer multiple realizations, each affording its own particular pleasure.

Ross Neher is a painter and author of Blindfolding the Muse: The Plight of Painting in the Age of Contemporary Art, Prenom Press, New York, 1999.


A Conversation with Ronald Weintraub 

By: Jeffrey Hoffeld
Private art dealer and writer
March 2005

JH:      How did you decide to become a painter?

RW:     In August 1990, along with four other couples, we chartered a boat to cruise around Turkey. We invited Iris Love, the noted archeologist who knew Turkey well, to join us. I had the opportunity of spending the first day alone with iris in the archeological museum in Istanbul and then listened to her lecture during the next ten days of our trip. When I returned to New York I was so inspired by her ideas of art and culture that I began making collages and eventually began painting the backgrounds. I enjoyed the process but realized I knew nothing about painting, so I took a beginner’s course at the Parson School, and then a semester of Saturday classes of drawing at The Art Students League.

The classroom environment was too slow for me, so I found a teacher who would come to my home to teach me in an accelerated manner. The teacher was Ross Neher, who is an artist and also teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Pratt institute. At first I was painting in our kitchen, but eventually my wife objected to the smell of the oil paint, so I rented a small studio apartment on 73rd street just down the block from our apartment. During the next three years Ross came once a month. I had recently sold my business so was able to devote almost full time to painting. In 1996 we bought a house in Water Mill, a small town near Southampton, and when my lease was over on 73rd street, I moved my studio to Water Maill where I have painted ever since.

I have learned a great deal from Ross during the past twelve years. When we started he gave me a reading list which included Ralph Mayer’s The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception, Richard Wollheim’s Painting as an Art, and others. He also advised me to buy and use Color Aid paper which I have found very useful in creating colors. I also have attended some classes at the National Academy School to supplement my education, especially in portraiture and still life.

Prior to 1990 I had little interest in art, although we had purchased a few paintings and had visited galleries and museums. Ever since starting to paint I have made a point of visiting museums and galleries in various cities in America and overseas including Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Rome, Basel, Cote d’Azur, Brussels, Barcelona and Copenhagen, and have read extensively.

Early in our relationship, I mentioned to Ross that I lacked talent; he said persistence is more important raw talent and practice is vital. I have an abundance of persistence, so during the past 14 years I have made hundreds of paintings, made thousands of mistakes, destoyed more paintings than I’ve saved, and learned by practicing. Also, I have a high degree of self-confidence, no fear of making mistakes, and no concern for the opinion of others, so I kept on making paintings until I reached a point where I now think I have some worth showing.

JH:      Is there a relationship, in your view, between decision-making as a business executive and the decisions you make as a painter in your studio?

RW:     Decision-making in business usually involves having a staff gather information, using market research, having a team discuss alternatives and then making an informed, rational decision. One never has complete or perfect information, so intuition and subjective judgement are required. Making a painting also involves intuition and subjective decision-making at every step: the size of the support, the type of canvas, wood or paper, the subject, the selection and mixing of colors, etc. Every stroke of the brush is a decision. To quote my teacher, Ross Neher:

…a successful painting is a record of decisions correctly made. The ability to make visual decision derives from the painter’s capacity to discriminate – to see a difference that would escape the layman. Taste is acquired by having to make subtle discriminations over and over and over again and justifying the decisions they provoke.

In business I am very comfortable making decisions. As an entrepreneur I am accustomed to taking risks, dealing with change, following non-traditional paths. These attributes have served me well as a painter.

Also, I believe there is no reason why painting or any artistic endeavor need be the exclusive province of those who come to through traditional means, that is, attending art schoo, earning an MFA-degree, building a track record of group and solo shows at galleris, etc. The need for self-expression and there is room for everyone.

JH:      Compared to the life of a busy publisher of manufacturer of consumer products, the life of the artist working in his studio is a very solitary one. Has this been a difficult adjustment for you?

RW:     A chief executive works with teams and many decisions are arrived at by consensus. However, there often are decisions which must be made by the top executive and the process of analyzing information and considering alternatives is done in private, so working alone is not new to me.

Painting is certainly not a team effort and I am very comfortable working by myself. My concentration is highly focused and often I lose track of time when I am “in the zone,” that is, totally absorbed by the work so that I lose track of time and awareness of my surroundings.

I maintain some business activities including serving as a trustee of a large trust and find I am able to easily from working on a business problem with a team of lawyers to being alone in my studio. Physically going from New York City to suburban Water Mill facilitates the transition from business to art.

JH:      How do you go about making one of your paintings?

RW:     Sometimes I make a small sketch on paper or rough painting on canvas to see what the final composition may look like but usually I being with just a vague idea of what I want to achieve. I will paint a ground color of two or three coats and let them dry before making the first marks. Most of the marks are added intuitively. The best analogy is improvisational jazz. It is the spontaneous, improvisational marks and their placement that bring harmony to the finished work. The nervous twitch of the artist, the emotion flowing through the hand, defines the individually and uniqueness of the work.

Working in oil allows changes to be made. Often I will paint over one color or a series of marks in order to achieve a better balance or a more harmonious look. Sometimes the changes are visible as pentimenti. I am willing to let changes show; I don’t strive for neatness or a smooth, slick look. Often a change of one color necessitates changes of other colors as each interacts with the others; because of this some paintings take months to complete.

JH:      Does your work contain veiled references to goings on in the world around us, or is it a world unto itself, devoid of such references?

RW:     Every artist in one way or another reflects his/her time but I am not consciously striving to capture the feelings and events of my time. My artistic concerns are about art itself and the way in which painting can communication emotion irrespective of current fads, fashions and events.

JH:      I’ve heard you refer to the emotional aspects of your work. Can you talk about component in your paintings?

RW:     There is an emotional component to every work of art, even the coldest geometric abstraction, because each is made by a human hand. There is an oft-quoted statement that an artist must use his eye, his hand and his heart. The eye can be trained, the hand educated by practice but the heart comes into the picture subconsciously.

I do not, I cannot, consciously strive to insert emotion into a painting. I do, however, paint compulsively, with a passion and drive that derives energy from my emotions. Whether that is perceived by the viewer is an individual matter.

JH:      You readily acknowledge the influence on your work of a number of artists, as well as other types of visual resources. How would you describe more specifically your relationship to these influences? In what sense have these people and materials been influences to you, and in what ways are their presences felt in your paintings?

RW:     In his book The Anxiety of Influence, published by Oxford University Press in 1973, Harold Bloom quotes Goethe: “There is all this talk about originality, but what does it amount to? As soon as we are born the world begins to influence us, and this goes on till we die. And anyway, what can we in fact call our own except the energy, the force, the will!”

Coming to art as a mature adult with a lifetime of experiences, my work reflect many influences. Born in New York City; spent my teens and attended college in Los Angeles; lived 18 months in Camp Zama, Japan, courtesy of the US Army; had two successful careers in business; lived in New York City for 45 years; been married 42 years; helped raise two children and now have four grandchildren; traveled extensively; survived cancer, so I know something about life. Artistically, during the past 14 years, I have studied at excellent institutions and with an outstanding artist, visited many galleries and museums, and made hundreds of paintings. How much of any of this appears in any particular painting or in the entire body of my work is impossible to determine.

I like and admire the work of many artists; some have had a direct influence, others less obvious. My favorite artist is Nicholas de Stael. For fun I sometimes emulate his style only to gain more respect for him when I compare my results to his. Others I admire are Chardin, El Greco, Soutine, Van Gogh, Seurat, Kupka, Leroy, Bearden, Schwitters, Jess, Mitchell, Delaney, and de Kooning.

I have also been influenced by the plates developed by Dr. Shinobu Ishihara as a test for optical color deficiency. These inform my smaller works. I have absorbed many influences, artistic and non-artistic, but it is my energy, my life force and my will that distinguishes my work.

JH:      In the contemporary art world artists are often criticized for pandering to the tastes of the marketplace. Some artists are even accused of deliberately devising strategies of what work to make and how to make it, in response to the interests of dealers and collectors. As someone coming into this world as a financially successful businessman in publishing and the consumer products industry, are you better able to disengage from the commercially-driven atmosphere around the making of art in our time, or do you instinctively formulate strategies for producing work that will be broadly appealing and marketable?

RW:     I have the luxury of being indifferent to the marketplace on two levels. First, I am not concerned about selling, although the gallery probably has a different viewpoint. Second, I don’t require the market for validation as I am quite secure and satisfied to enjoy the process of making art and sharing the results with a small circle of family and friends. On the other hand, a natural ego has impelled me to show to a wider audience, and after fourteen years I believe my work has evolved to the point where I do so with confidence.

Curiosity led me to study and reflect on the art market and I have concluded it is not one I understand. The driving force of the art market ultimately is taste. As there is no predicting taste, there is no way anyone can, by instinct or design, develop a strategy to produce art that is guaranteed to be accepted by the market. Those products that are widely sold, that are deliberately created to feed a market, are commodities, not art, sometimes designed by talented artists but produced by apprentices or reproduce by mechanical means.

I make art that reflects me as an individual and expresses my feelings. This may seem self-indulgent but I believe individualism is more important than any movement or school or other “ism.” In the final analysis, the work speaks for itself.

JH:      Although there are figurative nuances in a number of your paintings, you have obviously chosen abstraction as your visual language. Could things have just as easily gone the other way for you?

RW:     All figurative art is abstract and all abstract art has aspects of realism. I have done some landscapes and a few portraits but I do not have the drawing skill or the interest to pursue realism. I have done some landscapes and a few portraits but I do not have the drawing skill or the interest o pursue realism. Abstraction provides me with unlimited opportunities to create imaginative work unrestrained by what the eye sees. Sometimes deliberately or by accident, figures or patterns appear in my paintings, but they serve to enhance an abstract goal.

JH:      The concept of the beautiful in art has come under heavy criticism in recent years. Are you concerned that your work is somehow antiquated, involved, as it appears to be, in achieving results that are conventionally beautiful?

RW:     I don’t consciously strive for it although there certainly is nothing inherently wrong with beauty. There is no absolute standard; it is, as the cliche states, in the eye of the beholder. My intent is to enjoy myself by engaging in the process of art-making and to give tangible expression to my feeling, to create something others might enjoy looking at and living with, and to leave a piece of myself as evidence of my existence. If some find my paintings beautiful, that’s fine but not essential.

JH:      Reading what you have written about semiotics suggests to me that you have always had a life apart from that of your business – one with a strong intellectual component. Was it required of you, as a leader in your field, as it were, to separate your professional life from your intellectual interests of did you find ways to reconcile, on the job, these potentially conflicting ingredients of your sensibility?

RW:     My interest in semiotics was driven by practical business consideration, namely to help improve the process by which my company created and developed new products. It was a highly effective tool to understanding consumer desires and motivations. I approached it pragmatically rather than theoretically, but the more we used it the more fascinated I became. I attended an international conference on semiotics, wrote a chapter in the book On Signs, edited by Dr. Marshall Blonsky and a foreword to his book American Mythologies, met leading semioticians such as Umberto Eco and Thomas Sebok, and read works by Barthes, Derrida, and others.

I am certainly not an intellectual, just very curious. There is no conlifct in my mind between being successful in business and becoming a painter. The factor that links the businessman to the painter is my intellectual curiosity. Compulsive drive and disciplined work habits also help in both activities.

JH:      In revamping your life, and becoming a painter – nearly full-time – have you had any role models for these dramatic transformations?

RW:     In the catalogue for a show titled “The Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou” at the China House Gallery at the China Institute in America, Ginger Cheng-Chi Hsu wrote about “liberated literati…a new generation of education me in Qing society who believed that a true Confucian scholar could not be considered as having attained independence until he had achieved financial independence.” These men in the merchant class in southeast China in the eighteenth century studied poetry, calligraphy, painting and writing after having achieved financial independence.

I believe each of us has a need for self-expression and given time to study and practice, we can make it tangible whether through writing, composing, singing, painting, etc. If we are fortunate enough to achieve financial independence, we can pursue our passion. This is not a “transformation” in the sense of changing from a working person to a creative/feeling person because each of us inherently has this potential. Many never achieve the required financial independence; others who may acquire it are hesitant to take the first step toward expressing their passion.

I have not been dramatically transformed but rather have made a smooth transition from being successful and creative in business to being a “liberated literati.”

JH:      Given your knowledge of semiotics, is there reason to suspect that the seemingly innocent, often playful markings, shapes, and colors in your paintings are elements of a constellation of signs, with meaning beyond their superficial physical characteristics?

RW:     There certainly is an element of playfulness. Much of the attraction of painting is being able to revert to childlike behavior, to be carefree, uninhibited, unbound by rules, free to express joy unrestrained.

My art can be understood and enjoyed without a semiotic guide book to interpret the signs and symbols. For those wanting to read a deeper meaning into the work the raw material is there. It was not my conscious intention to express ideas or emotions through symbols, nevertheless certain symbols do have meaning. I would not argue with any interpretation nor would I agree with any other than my own, which I decline to reveal. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a circle is just a circle.

JH:      Flaubert advises that an artist be bourgeois in his life, and radical in his art. Your thoughts?

RW:     In mid-nineteenth century France when Flaubert wrote, the bourgeoisie was a merchant class, not the middle class we refer to today. Updating to today’s meaning, I believe Flaubert would advise artists to lead a life of moderation and to focus on work while being highly innovative; to live within the norms of society but paint outside them.

Some artists, not just visual artists, live well beyond societal norms. That is their right and if that drives their creativity, fine, but I believe it is not essential to live to art or dress in an unusual style in order to be a creative person. Neither is it necessary to make bizarre art to prove ones creativity or to stand out from the crowd. True innovation is difficult to describe, but knowledgeable people know it when they see it.