Ivan Chermayeff: Collages and Small Sculptures
In 2007, the galleries of Pera Museum welcomed the work of the remarkable artist, Ivan Chermayeff. From the mid-1950s until the end of his life in December 2017, Chermayeff practiced as a graphic designer, in New York with his partner Tom Geismar. His collages, which he produced for over forty years, utilizing the everyday ephemera collected in different parts of the world where he had worked and traveled, have been exhibited and published in the United States, Europe and Japan. He saved the envelopes received from friends and colleagues, who sent him abandoned gloves, discarded candy wrappers and other visual delights to add to those he had picked up on the streets of the world.
“A collagist working from a pile of debris that he has collected over several decades, Chermayeff abstracts materials from their original context, and casts them into figurative shapes of great character and representational specificity. The collages are at the same time abstract, figurative, materialist, objective, subjective and disarming.”
“Always in Chermayeff’s framed collages, and now, more recently, in free-standing collage sculpture, the New York artist and graphic designer fuses charm and wit in inimitable mixed-media inventions. But if we are seduced by the unique fusion, and delighted by a cast of characters straight from his own bestiary of imaginary creatures, we too easily overlook the depth of a vision that Chermayeff has evolved from influences rooted in the great Modernist revolution of the early twentieth century, in which his own father, Serge Chermayeff, took an active role through the Bauhaus and later Yale University.”
“Picasso always strived to sustain the inner child in his art, and Chermayeff’s works succeed in Picasso’s aim: they have the freshness of a four year old painting his heart out at the easel. Chermayeff’s inner child is alive and well, and the adult has channeled that spirit onto these mixed media collages.”
“Most of Chermayeff’s collages, even the very simple compositions, maintain an active surface that holds and then propels the eye. But his works are multi-dimensional, too: they keep the mind moving through strata of concepts, each tipping toward others. The surface image is simply the dominant text, within which there are subtexts that enrich the work with layered meanings.
…The materials that he uses also contribute their own autobiographies to the portraits and open the collage to associations that lie outside the frame. Pieces of the collage are recognizable and add notions of provenance…”
“These objets trouvés, found in the gutters of New York, or in the office mail, or on trips, take on new meanings when juxtaposed to each other. The blue sky on a stamp relates to a square of flat blue by implying celestial depth, and the depth punches a hole in the otherwise flat colours surrounding the blue square.”
“This master of collage backed into his art through a fear of drawing, ‘a neurotic fear,’ he says. In the early 1950s, Chermayeff left Harvard to instead study at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. He attributes his attraction to what the French call trouvailles the unexpected find, to the photographs of Aaron Siskind, a member of the ID faculty, whose lens sought out peeling paint in the cityscape. ‘I liked to make the same kind of discoveries.’ ”
“Chermayeff is one of the enthusiastic epicures of New York’s rubbish, a devoted collector of the confetti of daily life that rains on the city regularly but unpredictably. In Ulysses, James Joyce made a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom into an epic of mundanity, and Chermayeff is Joycean in the same ability to collect the small talk of daily life and transform it into tableaux of surprising beauty and meaning. He makes art out of the very ordinary.”
“Chermayeff builds character both in the portraits, and in the quality of his art. He never starts a portrait with a specific kind of person in mind, and he does not try for the ideal or the generic but, buoyed by a process of discovery as he relates piece to piece, he shapes eccentric and exceptional character. A few loops of strings might suggest a mouth, and the mouth might suggest a cigar:
?‘I do think about these personalities with a certain amount of comic realization,’ he says. ‘It’s funny to see a character emerge. I push it.’ What results is a menagerie of eccentrics, over-the-top, slightly preposterous characters who are fluttery, enigmatic, lugubrious, repressed-the sluggard, the boulevardier, the school girl, the spy. Like a playwright, he invents people, and his dramatis personae are endowed with humor and bonhomie.”
“Having cultivated spatial depth in several ways in his collages, Chermayeff has inched off the surface with objects that turn the collages into reliefs: he breaks the plane of the two-dimensional sheet with gloves and other flattened objects that start to move into the space of the viewer. Recently, he has taken the next logical step into real space, producing collage sculpture, free-standing figures that are equally as charming, and deftly drawn, as his collage portraits. As in his paper collages, he uses an economy of means and witty juxtapositions of odd materials and objects to create character-old toys, mallets, river stones, sandpaper, brushes, and gourds usually attached to a torso or head of antique barn beams. The texture of the wood, its grains, whorls and knots, forms a background whose energy and variation bind all the addenda that define the character of his slightly mad eccentrics. The wood confers a sense of age and authenticity.”
Quotations: Joseph Givannini
Ivan Charmayeff Sculptures
Ivan Chermayeff: Collages and Small Sculptures