“Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent, with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” ~Henri Matisse
Ronald Weintraub became an artist by an uncommon path. He was a prominent entrepreneur with multiple careers including leading a 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!” This was a critical turning point because of his involvement in army life with a wide range of US and Japanese. 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 participations both in business and art.
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 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 explored the connection amid artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertisement that thrived in the 1960s. Living through this era 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 a theoretical approach and the rise of a new middle class audience. The barrier that once divided fine art and popular culture began to vanish affording artists freedom to appropriate objects and references from widespread visual culture. Artists’ openness to disparate sources of content and methods undermined not only Clement Greenberg’s narrow definition of formalist abstract painting, focusing merely on the elements of painting  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.
Prior to the 1990s, Weintraub had little interest in the arts except casual visits to New York museums and galleries and to foremost international sites. However, a transformative trip to Turkey in 1990 occurred when he experienced lectures of noted archeologist Iris Love about art and culture. Shortly after Weintraub closed the business chapter of his life and went on to pursue being an artist. He took art classes at Parsons, the National Academy School and drawing at the Art Students League. He became fascinated with color, form, and texture, realizing how commanding art could be. Even though gaining new awareness about painting, he found classroom learning too slow, therefore hired the Color Field painter Ross Neher as a private teacher who encouraged Weintraub to freely experiment and investigate diverse methods. Recalling a conversation Weintraub had with Neher: “He said persistence is more important than raw talent and practice is vital.” 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.”
The eclecticism found in Weintraub’s art demonstrates his knowledge of the Modernist canon as well as how Post-Modernism further liberated artists from constricting norms about art. It expanded the field of painting in which artists became freer to employ dissimilar visual languages and disparate materials in an 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 language and he has evolved into a painter primarily concerned with the interactions between color, line, and form. Nevertheless, the marks and shapes he makes in some compositions are suggestive of body parts, landscapes, and other objects however his compositions appear to be improvised.
Weintraub’s early paintings evince an astute understanding of the effective power of color and its relationship to activate space across the composition. To achieve this, he abandoned figurative references and used dramatic color to first produce a multi-layered color field inspired by an amorphous concept. Subsequently when the canvas dried, a type of ritual of mark making would commence. Referring to these marks that he intuitively added he said, “The best analogy is improvisational jazz. It is the spontaneous, improvisational marks and their place that bring harmony to the finished work.” Weintraub does not instigate any work with an intentional direction or statement. Each painting is a gestalt resulting from his unrestricted engagement with color and his state of mind of the moment. Working non-figuratively affords him a freedom to take imaginative leaps since there is no definitive narrative in his art.
For a period of time he explored painterly arrangement using diverse color and textures. Bursts of multicolored shapes and specks appear to dance care freely against saturated color fields of red, orange, and dense blue. The piece Contradiction in Red 2004 is a nocturnal blue arrangement 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 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.”
In 2013 Weintraub’s began a new distinct body of work that would evolve over several years. The multi-component compositions reminiscent of enigmatic diptychs demonstrate a significant departure from his previous single panel, vibrant abstract arrangements. Most of this work contains contrasting 48 x 36 inch panels. Each pairing is a combination of minimal abstraction along with figurative references to daily life taken from American popular culture. In each paired set he 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.
Weintraub in each tableau, filled with contradictions, essentially used diverse forms and materials. In view of the freedoms artists inherited after Post-Modernism he obliterated 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 linked 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. Each composition reveals a new way of recognizing everyday objects and invite viewers to navigate the dense terrain of three-D artifacts, varied patterns and fields of color that resemble a type of operative stage set. When asked how he views this body of work he refers to the three-dimensional paintings as “mixed media collages.”
Weintraub joins two disparate styles to create an atypical amalgamation of collage and painting tackling memories about beliefs and iconic objects that were once prevalent in another era. When viewing these idiosyncratic constructions, one needs to think of them as a visual culture three-dimensional tableau. 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 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. The iconic assemblages spark a connection to popular culture in the late 1950s and 60s.
The piece Les Animaux comprised of a photographic chart of animals, miniature plastic animals, mixed pattern paper swatches, and imagery of corporate logos is a fascinating accumulation of references. Weintraub builds into this work references from decades of corporate practice of using animals in logos and as symbols for distinct branding through creature identification. 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 of Esso. This complex piece, the only triptych of the series, packs a powerful punch as one scrutinizes imagery and dimensional replicas of real animals as well as famous commercial logos including the Playboy Bunny, Firefox, Jaguar and Lamborghini. This work discloses Weintraub’s awareness about corporate identity. Claude Levi-Strauss said, “Animals, are good to think with” since the cave art at Lascaux humans have been using animals as symbols in persuasively varied ways.
Nippon perhaps is the most personal and it reads as a type of unique self-portrait of the artist. Having spent time in Japan after World War II, he was invested in its reconstruction. This mixed-media constellation of historic photographs, ready-made design backgrounds, textures and objects blur the lines between collage, assemblage, painting, photography and sculpture. The work alludes to being a composite of time past; evidence is observed throughout the allegorical panel 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 Katsushia Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa.” What enforces this diptych is its contiguous abstract panel, an intense orange field radiating red oval pulses from a central fragmented circular shape signifying a rising sun.
Tutankhamen is a quiet work purporting to be a celebration of a once great culture. With its association to ancient Egypt with its wondrous pyramids, it manifests a hushed 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 abstract graded sand-like panel that brings to the fore the underlying narrative of this diptych.
America, America, reads as a double edge sword seemingly celebrating the myth of the cowboy and the Wild West—free from social restraint. The cowboy was the essential symbol of America as a radical alternative to the constraints of Europe in the 19th century. This work not only depicts pictures of cowboys from different eras, including a dynamic portrayal of the John Wayne with a gun, embodying the “Idyllic Hero” and defining the male American for much of the 20th century, but also 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. Compassion for the Native American is sensed in Weintraub’s diptych because his choice of portrayals that convey stoic pride and self-assurance. It is the adjoining buttery panel showing a Texas Lone Star, along with two floating feathers, seems to summarize a struggle which neither the state of Texas nor the Native American ever achieved.
After exploring American icons for several years he reached a point to move on. In 2018 Ronald Weintraub returned to making single panel paintings and simplified his process. He revisited investigating color and mark making and became focused on generating captivating compositions devoid of narrative. Nevertheless, this time Weintraub was not a neophyte but an artist who for many years had tackled painting. Clearly his practice had become more sophisticated, demonstrating a deliberateness of structure, gesture and color. The abstract shapes display an elusive ambiguity that lets the viewer use their imaginations to finish the work. Three distinct categories of paintings have emerged.
Weintraub refers to the first category of his new work as an updated “Pointillist” series that is an expansion of his original style in which he delved into ovals and varying color combinations. White Fury is an assortment of colorful painterly marks, alternating from warm to cool colors with a floating textural white organic shape interrupted by five colors alike to the marks in the outside field. This is a mysterious alluring composition.
Swirl displays this artist’s acute understanding of how warm and cool colors can powerfully resonate throughout a field. A type of spinning vortex reminiscent of a hurricane’s eye, that small zone of calm in the center of chaos, is the focus of this painting. However, filled with bright orange color and golden marks against a circular organic form along with turquoise blue dots, this carefully organized painting— it does not convey a message of doom, instead is an inviting intriguing image.
Dissimilar to others in this series is Orange Crush with its overall red and orange field of color is reminiscent of a raging fire. Unlike his more restrained and carefully placed marks, one sees an overall impasto-like field of multilayered pigment. In this expressive painting the viewer see spontaneous brush strokes and a glowing enigmatic sub-field in which white and black marks emerge.
The second category is titled Moon Series. This group evinces a relationship to the earlier mixed media collages although he’s simplified the composition by only attaching a single object. Each painting has a circular canvas form affixed to the upper left corner of the abstract field below, differing in hue, marks and gesture. White Moon (2020), right, is a distinct work with its splotch-like colorful dots framed with floating white organic shapes against a charcoal black background. The warm white moon form in the upper corner is more dimensional and appears to be a force activating the pageant below.
The third category signifies a further shift in Weintraub’s artistic evolution. The work portrays a new method not only in organizational structure but also in application that now appears more effortless. He said, “They are more intuitive and spontaneous.” Each work is unlike the other revealing a newfound confidence.
Zombies, is a poignant painting depicting ghost-like figures and skulls floating in fluid translucent bands of yellow, blue, red and orange. The washes of paint veil sketched spirits entrapped in striated color. This eccentric piece is a melding of figuration and abstraction rendering a simplification of humans, where only the essence of recognizable forms remains. One wonders, did the enormity of the pandemic inspire this painting?
The most commanding image is Beyond the Garden Wall, 2018. A synthesis of multiple ideas and techniques appear to co-exist in this vigorous work that discloses throughout the painting’s surface a masterful method of pulling together blended colors and linear groupings. Although on one hand the painting appears more controlled and on another a delicate under painting is veiled beneath filled with rough strokes, combinations of warm colors, and eminent light accenting the exterior surface. An intriguing depth pervades this canvas created by a submerged glow of red, orange and yellow radiating beneath the cooler outer surface, drawing the eye to the central segment. Color fluctuates amid the saturated warm tones and oppositely reduced splattered outer areas––a high-spirited sensibility is achieved. Clearly this is breakthrough work in Weintraub’s oeuvre; this trajectory is promising.
Weintraub is an artist who creates abstract puzzles and over years of fortitude has become astute with the language of abstraction resulting in his personal brand of art. It is essential to keep in mind that his work does not purport to be either a social alarm system or a theatrical spectacle reverberating with psychological intensity. Ronald Weintraub’s non-objective work for the most part does not contain decipherable subject matter but rather is a manipulation of the elements of art—color, shape, line, form, space, value and texture. It is not a vehicle for social or political change instead it is something to be enjoyed and experienced as one might do when listening to opera, jazz or other forms of music. In a time of extreme ideology and social strife it is refreshing to see art that is open-ended.
By Elaine A. King, Contributing Editor