CHAIM KOPPELMAN: Pioneering Printmaker & Teacher
On December 6, 2009, the noted American artist and educator Chaim Koppelman died in New York City, at age 89. Greatly admired for the originality, power, and humanity of his work, he was described by gallery director and critic Sylvan Cole as “an innovator, not only technically, but in the scope of his subject matter, the depth of his seeing.” He is known particularly as a printmaker, and his prints are in the collections of major museums in the United States and abroad, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, Whitney, Brooklyn, and Metropolitan Museums in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The acclaimed painter and printmaker Will Barnet said of Koppelman:
“He was brilliant, both in printmaking and painting. His work has a sense of darkness and light that is unique, and of what is going on in life in general—an observation, that is unusual and exciting, of what takes place between people. He was a very excellent graphic artist, with a very fine technique that varies from idea to idea. There was this profundity in him, and this sense of humanity. And it was developed through Aesthetic Realism. He was a vital force in the art community for many years.”
Chaim Koppelman was one of the earliest artists to see the value, for both art and life, of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism. He began to study with its founder, the poet and critic Eli Siegel, in the 1940s. And in the catalogue for his one-person exhibition at the Beatrice Conde Gallery in Chelsea in 2000, Koppelman wrote:
“I am grateful to Eli Siegel for teaching me and the world the enduring criterion for judging what is beautiful in art and good in life: ‘All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.’ Continuing to study and teach this mighty principle is an honor and a pleasure; it has given coherence to my life, made me more imaginative, deeper, and a kinder person.”
A member of the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts since 1971, Chaim Koppelman was also a Past President of the Society of American Graphic Artists (SAGA), which presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
He represented the US in Documenta II, in Kasel, Germany, was awarded two Tiffany Grants, and received numerous awards for his drawings and prints. In 1992 Chaim Koppelman, Robert Blackburn, and Will Barnet received a New York Artists Equity Award for their dedicated service to the printmaking community.
Koppelman was also loved as a teacher, and known for his ability to bring out sincere and original expression in his students. He founded the Printmaking Division at the School of Visual Arts in 1959, and taught there until 2007. Earlier, he taught at NYU and at SUNY, New Paltz. On the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, he taught artists what he had learned: how to have the art purpose in everyday life as well as in the studio. He also taught there the popular course “The Art of Drawing: Surface and Depth.”
Chaim Koppelman was born in Brooklyn in 1920. He studied art in WPA classes, and studied lithography and painting with Eugene Morley and Carl Holty at the American Artists School, sculpture with Jose de Creeft, and etching with Will Barnet and Martin Lewis at the Art Students League.
In 1943 he married painter Dorothy Myers shortly before going overseas with the Army. He was proud to have been part of the Normandy invasion, and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Returning to New York, he enrolled, under the GI Bill, at the Amédée Ozenfant School and became Ozenfant’s assistant. Koppelman later started the Broome Street Etching Workshop.
In 1955 the Terrain Gallery opened, with Dorothy Koppelman as director and Chaim Koppelman as print curator. Eli Siegel’s historic 15 Questions, Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?, were the critical basis for groundbreaking exhibitions in all media, as they continue to be today.
In 1957, Bennett Schiff, New York newspaper critic, wrote:
“There probably hasn’t been a gallery before like the Terrain, which devotes itself to the integration of art with all of living…. The gallery was organized and launched about three years ago by a group of young, cultivated persons including writers, artists and teachers, all of whom held a fundamental belief in common. This was the validity of the theory of Aesthetic Realism as developed by Eli Siegel, whose work has received growing recognition by such people as William Carlos Williams…. It is a building, positive vision.”
In 1967, for instance, the Terrain mounted the exhibition “All Art Is For Life and Against the War in Vietnam,” with work by 100 artists, which raised funds to aid children burned by napalm. Chaim Koppelman was a passionate critic of that war. In the book American Prints and Printmakers, Una Johnson, then Curator Emeritus of Prints and Drawings at the Brooklyn Museum, wrote of “his compassionate concern”:
“He has harnessed his skills and his unblinking imagery to the troubled, often controversial problems of our times, [as in] his embossed intaglio Murdered Vietnam. Koppelman is not alone in his visual and partisan demands for humanistic values; nevertheless, he is one of the most eloquent.”
“One of the most crucial things I learned,” the artist wrote, is about the interference to art, and to our lives: the principle of contempt, described by Aesthetic Realism as ‘the lessening of something else as a means of self-increase as one sees it.’ I have said for many years that contempt is the greatest enemy of art and of life. And Aesthetic Realism is the greatest enemy of contempt.”
An incisive, often satirical critic of humanity in his art, Koppelman is never bitter or cynical; he is kind—and his compassion is in his technique. This can be seen, for instance, in his series of color lithographs, Closeness and Clash in Couples and Domestic Life, for which he received a CAPS grant, as well as in his many prints and drawings on the theme of Napoleon.
Greg and Connie Peters' insightful essay about the artist can be viewed at The Art of the Print.
He is the author of Four Essays on the Art of the Print, published in 2004, and co-author of We Have Been There: Six Artists on the Siegel Theory of Opposites. Essays by him on art and life, such as “Power and Tenderness in Men and in Picasso’s Minotauromachy,” and “Satire: Mockery and Compassion as One in Honoré Daumier & Duane Hanson,” are published in the Journal of the Print World.
Carmine Branagan, Director of the National Academy, wrote of Chaim Koppelman, “We are so sorry to hear of [his] passing,” and noted:
“[He] conducted many Master classes and was also extremely generous in donating work…. He was part of Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17 in the early 1950s and then part of Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. Koppelman was credited by Blackburn for saving the workshop when it was struggling financially and as a result, it continues to this day. His relationship and history with the Academy was long and accomplished.”
A poem that Chaim Koppelman cared for greatly is Eli Siegel’s “The Print.” “It gets to the heart,” he wrote, “of what has impelled me and other printmakers, with beautiful precision, depth and music”:
Can dark and light
Show wrong and right?
—And round and straight
Show love and hate?
—And dim and clear
Show hope and fear?
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