A Kaleidoscopic Merging of Visual Culture and Art

Elaine A. King / Professor, History of Art, Theory & Museum Studies / Freelance Art Critic & Curator / Carnegie Mellon University

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]