It is an event Seymour Fogel himself most likely would have shunned.
In fact, the artist would probably be better known today were it not for his intense independence and passionately private nature. Art historian Greta Berman has said of Fogel (1911-1984), “He didn’t ‘play the game’ and he never promoted himself. He didn’t go to openings.”
You, however, will be glad somebody took the time to find Fogel at the first major academic showing of his works since his death. The exhibit, which opened last week in Decatur at Millikin University’s Kirkland Fine Arts Center, may bring to light the reasons the artist has been called an overlooked American master.
The exhibit is the result of a serendipitous meeting between Ed Walker, chairman of Millikin’s art department and associate professor of art, and Charles McCracken of Hilton Head, S.C., co-author of a recently published book on the late artist.
When the two met at a conference two years ago, McCracken’s monograph was still a work in progress, but Walker was compelled by the images he saw on the tear sheets.
“I saw potential in it, an artist with substance,” Walker says. He also saw a rare opportunity.
In conjunction with the release of his book, McCracken was seeking national exhibition opportunities for Fogel’s work. When the subject of venues arose, Walker suggested Millikin.
“It felt right; it looked right,” Walker says. “I knew it would be a challenge — but a good challenge.”
McCracken was receptive to the idea and quickly decided on the Kirkland Fine Arts Center as the launch pad for the entire exhibit.
Thus began two years of preparation for a show that would bring back to life works seldom seen since the artist’s death. The Art of Seymour Fogel: An Atavistic Vision features nearly 50 Fogel pieces, some of which you can take home — if the price is right.
“There will be a wide price range on the Fogel artwork — everything from $4,000 for a drawing to $48,000 for a large painting,” says Walker.
The exhibit is the first national retrospective of Fogel’s art. As Walker says, “It’s like a coming out party for his work.”
The prolific Fogel explored many styles in his long career, moving from social realism, through expressionism into abstract, and ending his career in a transcendental phase. His talent in an array of styles and media made Fogel difficult to define.
“His story reads like a ‘who’s who’ in midcentury American art,” says Walker of Fogel’s education, body of work, and contemporaries such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Philip Guston.
Fogel worked through many distinct periods in history. Some of his most notable works were created during the Depression, as part of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration, a program that helped fund talented but struggling artists.
A restless soul, Fogel left New York in 1934 to journey through the South and Southwest, chronicling the plight of the average man — from miners to sharecroppers and American Indians. Always sensitive to issues of race and gender, Fogel did not shy away from raw depictions of the violence and misery that plagued the country at the time. His painting of a lynching in the South, still shocking today, was even more so in the era it was painted.
“He covered all aspects of life,” Walker says. “You can learn about history from his art.”
Fogel also stirred controversy in Safford, Ariz., with the mural he was commissioned to paint in the town’s post office. The unveiling revealed the painting’s sole subjects to be the region’s original inhabitants: the Apache. To Fogel’s great disappointment, the town’s citizens ultimately demanded a new mural portraying the pioneers and founding fathers they had originally expected, not a single American Indian among them.
Over the years, Fogel’s interest in objective realism lessened as he was drawn toward more subjective abstract styles and transcendentalism. Describing his own work, Fogel once said: “A man’s soul and inner being are as vast as the universe itself. It would be a shame to close the door and only look upon the physical shell.”
His last quarter-century on earth was rich in experimentation, self-exploration, and mysticism. More and more, Fogel drew from within for inspiration. These years were also characterized by a greater interest in texture, which he explored through such diverse media as candle wax, glass shards, sand — even glue-soaked bed sheets stuck to the canvas.
The Kirkland showing offers a rare glimpse into the mind of this American master. Still, Walker realizes that art must compete for the public’s entertainment time and money, so he asks families to consider trading movie night for a trip to Millikin.
“Instead of a passive form of entertainment, you can engage with the artwork and the people standing next to you,” Walker says. “It sparks your own imagination.”
“Fogel was the quintessential midcentury modern artist,” Walker says. “Most of us will never get the chance to see this again, especially right here in central Illinois.”
Along with the art aficionados who come to savor the scenery, the art world as a whole will eye the exhibit with interest. Fogel’s talent is not in debate, but the market for his work has not yet been tested because so few of his works have been sold since his death.
As the name of the exhibit and monograph suggests, Fogel is admired for his “atavistic vision” — the ability to create art from a primitive place in the psyche, going with the natural flow of creativity expressing itself.
“Late in his career, he would sit down at a canvas and free-form it,” Walker says. “He could put his mind on cruise control, searching for a well of creative energy to put on canvas.”
As the artist himself said late in life, “I . . . began pursuing the forms wherever they led. Suddenly I realized that I had my answer.”
Some of those answers will be on display through November at the Kirkland.