A memorial exhibition for artist and Professor Emeritus of Visual Arts Walter Feldman opened at the David Winton Bell Gallery last Friday. The opening — an emotional, heartfelt tribute to Feldman — included remembrances from his family and a critical discussion of Feldman’s work by esteemed art historian Donald Kuspit.
Feldman taught at the University for 54 years — beginning in 1953 and retiring in 2007. Feldman passed away at the age of 92 in May 2017.
The event began with an introduction from President Christina Paxson P’19. Paxson reflected on Feldman’s effect on students at the University. A particularly poignant example was that of a student from the class of 1959 who credited his late professor with changing the trajectory of his studies and easing his path to architecture in his senior year. This anecdote spoke to Feldman’s sensitivity as a teacher, his talent as an artist and his down-to-earth demeanor as a friend, Paxson said. Feldman’s nephew and godson, author Daniel Asa Rose ’71, celebrated Feldman by speaking to Feldman’s fatherly presence in his life. He read a poem titled “Shifting the Sun” by Diana Der-Hovanessian and reflected on Feldman’s contributions to the world through the lens of the famous Walt Whitman verse from “O Me! O Life!”: “That you are here — that life exists, and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse,” he recited.
“As evidence(d) by the peerless art in these rooms, and enough art to fill a hundred more gallery rooms, we can rest assured that Walter Feldman did indeed contribute a verse, a mighty verse, and we will love him for it forever,” Rose said.
The exhibit includes work spanning 68 years of Feldman’s life. As Kuspit pointed out, he completed more than 2,000 works throughout his career, including paintings in oil, gouache, watercolor, acrylic and stencils as well as collages of handmade paper and wodcut prints. The Bell Gallery’s selected works, curated by Director Jo-Ann Conklin, reflect this range, as paintings and collages are shown alongside glass cases displaying examples of the letter-press books he produced.
“Walter’s work evolved both stylistically and technically over his long career, and always in the service of the yin and yang of subjects that he cared about — those being family, nature, music and poetry, religion and the cruelty of war,” Conklin said.
One of the first pieces displayed in the exhibition is the only realistic self-portrait ever created by Feldman, finished in the late 1940s shortly after his return from World War II. In the portrait, Feldman’s figure is shaded, fading into a muted gray background. His eyes look down behind wide-framed glasses. In an interview with Kathryn de Boer that appeared in “Points in Time: Walter Feldman Selected Works,” published by Ziggurat Press, Feldman said of the portrait, “I think that was how I must have felt inside — gray.”
Barbara Feldman, Feldman’s wife of almost 67 years, reminded the audience that this exhibition “was not meant to be a memorial exhibition, it was conceived of simply as an exhibition,” she said. Feldman had intended to be in attendance, she reminded the audience. “However, I do not wish to imply that he is not with us at this time,” she added, “because the very nature and being of this man — his visual and textual manifestations — are apparent and boldly looking over our shoulders and calling to our sensibilities.”
“The Final Agony,” which hangs on the opposite wall of “Self-Portrait,” was the first woodcut print created by Feldman. According to the piece’s informational plaque, Feldman decided to enter the piece into a competition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on a whim — and went on to win the print prize.
Kuspit discussed a selection of Feldman’s work, emphasizing its range and thematic focuses, while offering his interpretation of some of Feldman’s abstract works. Kuspit touched on “The Final Agony” and another print titled “Expulsion” in his lecture. These were “unequivocal masterpieces, brilliantly conveying the trauma of war and the traumatic effect it had on Feldman,” he said.
Paxson closed her introduction by emphasizing, “Everybody at Brown … is grateful for Walter, for the gifts that he gave to this University over so many years and for the marvelous, marvelous legacy that he leaves to the world and to this community,” she said.