Cavalier Galleries, in Greenwich, Connecticut, recently hosted a solo exhibition (May 10–30, 2013) of seascape paintings by Edward Minoff. The remarkable views range in subject from sunsets over placid waters to roiling waves pounding the beach shore. These are not sentimental pretty pictures, but well-researched analyses of the sea, conducted by the artist over a decade. Before the exhibition opened in early May, I visited the artist’s studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Most of the paintings were still in the studio, located on the third floor of a handsome nineteenth-century yellow wooden building. Minoff had raised the roof almost two feet above the supporting walls and installed a horizontal window to allow northern light to illuminate the working part of the studio. His family occupies the first two floors of the townhouse.
In the center of the studio was a large easel with a seascape titled Triad (2013). Minoff had just finished reworking a small, but important section of the painting. The composition is deceptively simple: a body of ocean water gently crests against the side of a giant rock, breaking into white foam and spray. A much smaller outcrop of rock creates a second ripple of foam. Beneath the placid water, one can see a submerged body of rock descending into watery darkness, extending almost to the bottom of the painting. The word triad, Minoff said, refers to the three states of water he has depicted: the foamy surface breaking against the rock, the expanse of water that covers the main body of rock, and a pale grey reflection of the sky on the water’s surface in the foreground. Because the reflection is fragmented, one gets glimpses of the rock below. Three sections of rock are separated by three sections of water. Yet, before the paintings were installed in the gallery, the artist chose to add a thin crease of light to the surface water which covers the rock. Minoff ’s decision to break up the massive shape of the rock, seen clearly through the water, is an aesthetic decision. Without this adjustment, the massive weight would bring the viewer’s eye too quickly to the bottom of the canvas and thus unbalance the composition. It is such subtleties that separate the work of a good painter from a very good one.
Minoff recalls his first experience of a Michelangelo statue, at the age of eight when his mother took him on a tour of Italy. He remembers vividly his reaction to the master’s perfection of his craft. Realist art is not mimesis. Without the aesthetic beauty the artist brings to a subject, however accurate the depiction, realism fails. Minoff has several reproductions of Michelangelo’s sketches for the Sistine Ceiling. Bernini’s art is another inspiration for Minoff. Both artists represent the highest perfection of realist art, yet they invariably took liberties with the figure to perfect the formal qualities. Minoff studied at several art schools and ateliers. Graduating with honors from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City and later attended the National Academy of Design. He was concerned about his ability to earn a living by painting. He worked briefly for an animation studio, but then traveled to Italy and enrolled in the prestigious Florence Academy of Art, where the curricula focused on the human figure. Returning to New York, he continued his studies at Vassar College, which included several courses in the humanities. About this time, he discovered Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier. Collins is one of the best painters working today, and he has a well-rounded academic background that makes him an enormously talented and inspirational teacher.
During the summer, Collins and his staff conducted plein-air painting classes in the highlands overlooking the Hudson River. Minoff delved into the landscapes and seascapes of the Hudson River School, and on several occasions he visited the Newington-Cropsey Museum of Hudson River School Art. He was attracted to the guiding message of those nineteenth-century artists—that nature is the expression of God. Minoff ’s studio abounds with small plein-air studies. He rejects the use of photographs to capture his subject, instead painstakingly recording the movement, light and texture of water with sketches, notes and topographical analysis. He often visits the ocean, where, he has said, he delights in the “warmth of the light, the crash of the waves, and the smell of the salty sea air.”1 Minoff eventually joined the staff of Collins’s group and now teaches at the Grand Central Academy. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University.
Minoff and Collins are attempting to raise the student’s level of craftsmanship and sensibility. To engage the soul is the ultimate objective, but without a nurturing environment, a proper education, a cultural consensus—if only among an elite—students are left to produce the mediocrity and kitsch that fill the art world today. This is what the return to realism is about—a return to aesthetic beauty, craft and excellence.
Vision requires more than craft or even aesthetics. As a craftsman, Minoff has few peers. His still life Citrus No. 3 (2013) is a beautiful arrangement of fruit, bowls and blue fabric. The background—a plastered brick wall with a craggy pocked surface—presents an arresting contrast in tone, color and texture to the bright fruit, ceramics and fabric, which unifies the composition. Minoff has done a study of the same part of the wall. Alone, it becomes a self-sufficient abstract composition. He knows his craft. The reflections on the wooden pepper grinder and the ceramic bottle are wonderfully accurate. Still, the artist brings his greatest passion to his seascapes. It is almost as if the sea itself has its own narrative, its own myth, that appeals to his soul.
Minoff ’s Monolith (2012) consists of two pier poles embedded in the ocean bed. Sky and water meet at the horizon, barely distinguishable except for the thin, wavering line of a distant shore. The stark simplicity of the merging mist, between air and water, evokes comparison with the Luminist seascapes of John F. Kensett. “I am always struck by a sense of awe when I stand on a beach and stare out at the ocean,” said Minoff, who has been studying the sea since he was a child. “Finding organization in the chaos of a constantly changing, churned and windswept sea feels like an eternal challenge,” Minoff explains. He tries to identify components of the chaos and reassemble them into a new format: “The result is a work of pure fiction.” When we look at Michelangelo’s sketches of the human figure, we note that the power of his vision always supercedes whatever was observed. It is the power of the vision Minoff wants to recapture in his art.
Minoff ’s working process is complex, involving drawings, plein-air sketches and intuition. A large painting such as Ember (2013) begins with a series of thumbnail sketches. When Minoff settles on a general concept, in this case a scene of a sinking sunset on the horizon of the ocean, he turns to plein-air studies of sunsets in his files. Slowly, he constructs a general mood. Ember refers to that last moment before a fire is extinguished. There is a mood of melancholy and beauty, as a small flame glows in the distance before darkness closes in. In the twilight, a foamy ocean wave rolls up across the sandy beach, grey at that time of evening. The artist has steeply angled the long strip of sand in the foreground, to give dramatic tension to the overall composition. He avoids horizontal, monotonous parallel lines to the waves. Minoff works out the details and position of the smaller waves in another series of sketches, the placement and proportion of every ripple and swirl of foam. In subsequent drawings, he explores each swell, peak and shift of the water: how the waves relate to one another and how the roiling wave with its churning foam is about to break over the beach. The dark body of water between the waves and the horizon forms a second triangular shape, which parallels the angular shape of the sandy beach, pushing a series of foamy riffs toward the shore. A thin wet strip of damp mud, between the ocean and the sandy beach, catches the last fiery reflection of the sinking sun. Once again, as in Triad, Minoff uses light as a compositional device, to move the viewer’s eye around the painting, to connect all the individual fragments of research into a holistic work. I would compare the process to the technique used by the director Alfred Hitchcock, who compiled hundreds of separate shots to create the one-minute-long shower scene in Psycho. Minoff gives some credit to his training in film animation.
I ask him why so many artists have shed the postmodern sensibility—often after years of “study” and indoctrination at expensive universities—to become realists, to start again like acolytes in a new approach to art. His response is not unlike those I have heard from other gifted artists. Modernism, Minoff reminded me, achieved two important goals. It cleared away a lot of shallow thinking and out-of-date icons, and it restored the importance of aesthetic composition—form, color, line and craft, the important components of visual beauty. Minoff also cites the contribution of the breakthrough book Beauty—The Values of Values by Frederick Turner.
According to Minoff, something is drawing artists away from the vacuum of contemporary culture. We are moving through a paradigm shift in values and perception. The focus upon beauty demands judgmental standards at every part of the creative process. Neither the slight imbalance Minoff saw in Triad, nor his last-minute decision to add a few thin white brushstrokes to correct it would be obvious to everyone, including critics. He says, “I am keenly interested in how the human eye perceives and the mind deciphers the visible world.”
In 2007, Minoff joined the plein-air fellowship co-founded by Jacob Collins, as an extension of the teaching at the Grand Central Academy. The objective is to learn to paint nature, to train the eye to see and experience what is important about nature. Every summer, academy staff, students and interested artists spend time retracing the steps of the original Hudson River School painters. It is almost 200 years since Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, painted his first works of the “wilderness” he discovered overlooking the Hudson River. M. Stephen Doherty, editor of PleinAir magazine and a fine artist, accompanied the group on several occasions. In the Fall 2011 issue, he wrote a detailed article about the goals, philosophy and working process of its activities. He had noticed that each artist had his own particular way of approaching the subject. Most of the artists he interviewed described the “transformative” experience of working directly in nature. Minoff, in his own written accounts, has described a sort of spiritual growth he experienced studying the motion of the ocean: “All of my understanding of waves comes from a lifetime spent sitting on the beach and watching, taking notes and drawings.”
Another artist in the group ventured that painting from nature conveys a psychological and spiritual intensity, comparable to working from the human figure. But there is a universal quality that connects all these artists together—beauty. Beauty is the victim of much contemporary art, and it is the absence of beauty that separates postmodern art from the seminal work of pioneer modernists such as Cézanne, Degas and van Gogh. My long conversation with Minoff confirmed that beauty is central to realism, that realism is a human approach to the creative spirit of the universe. The experience of pursuing this genre, we agreed, benignly changes the physical mechanics of the brain. Abundant tests have illustrated the improvement in the human brain when subjected to the arts, architecture, music, poetry and dance. When Minoff refers to something “new” in the air, he is referring to something more important that merely a change in style. It is a change in the way we view the universe, our nation and our humanity.
Cavalier Galleries, 405 Greenwich Avenue, Greenwich, Connecticut 06830. Telephone (203) 869-3664. cavaliergalleries.com
1. All artist’s quotes are taken from Edward Minoff, “Challenging the Ocean” in the online magazine Artists-on-Art, pp. 7–9.