The Art of Anna Meltzer



The single work of art, like a sentence in a book, is part of a longer story - the story of the individual's creative development, - and if it is lifted from that context, it is as subject to misinterpretation as are the words of speaker or writer. But while literary men grow vocal in protest, hundreds of artists suffer annually from critical judgments based on single examples of their work, seen in scattered exhibitions.
Some artists mature early, but do not grow. Their work today differs little from what they were producing ten or even twenty years ago. Such painters are easy to evaluate, and remain conveniently in a pigeon hole. But there are others who never stop growing. What they did five often years ago appears, on the surface, at such variance with current output that it might have been produced by a different person. The discerning student, however, does not take a picture out of its life context. He goes behind it to discover the creative continuity tat serves as the thread upon which beads of growth are strung.
There is an unfortunate tendency today to worship illiteracy in art. A man who first touched a brush two months ago is too often hailed as a spontaneous genius. What he does may be instinctive and naive, but, when weighed against the serious growth experience of twenty or twenty-five disciplined professional years, it serves only to confuse the student and the public.
It is, therefore, doubly important in an era of snap judgments, to focus attention, not upon the latest creation of a particular painter, but upon the chain of circumstances, experiences, and technical experiments that went into its making.
From this point of view nothing is more revelatory than a show devoted to the work of an individual artist, such as the invited exhibition that Anna E. Meltzer is holding this fall at French and Co. Galleries.
Ten years ago Anna E. Meltzer was working from models, and transferring to canvas a design-conditioned factual account of what she saw before her.
Today she has discarded the model, and works toward ail idea rather than the projection of facts. "I want to express what I feel about people," she explains, "not just what is before me." But her ability to do so has been a matter of evolution, and is the result of hard work, and a mind open to suggestion and to change.
Anna E. Meltzer has in her family background a rich reservoir of creative activity.
Her parents, however, did not look with favor on their youngster's determination to become an artist. They preferred music as a profession, and, it. is probable, that Anna Meltzer's stress on tonal values is the direct result of an early training balanced between music and art.
Today she is studying intensively the relation of forms in art to forms in music which, as an accomplished pianist, she experiences emotionally. And it is her musical education that has given her insight into the world of the abstract.
One of her recent paintings, the study of a quartet, experiments with visualization of sound. Swirling around the players, who are stripped to the waist, are bands of color that change as they cross each other. Springing from the fingers, the ears, the instruments of the performers, these sound-colors dominate the musicians, themselves. The painting is reproduced on the cover of this month's Design.
Thus, Anna E. Meltzer, academically trained at Cooper Union, after twenty-five years of experience, combines in her work the real and the unreal - the body of the musician, and the abstraction of sound.
"Ensemble music," she says, "has a great deal of color. You hear the individual instruments and follow their patterns. Symphonic music, on the other hand, you do not hear as many instruments, but as one. It is a synthesis, and must be so interpreted."
Colors in the quartet canvas change as sounds change when they cross each other, or meet, and go on together.
\What Anna E. Meltzer senses in music she senses also in the human being. The individual, to her, is not unlike music, where emotional forms meet, cross, blend and change.
It is interesting to trace in her work her own shift in pictorial emphasis from the good-humored caricature of "The Pretzel Woman Depositing Her Savings" to the revealing
emotional intensity of "Confused" , the study of a young girl whose bewilderment creates the focus of the composition. The instant you look at the canvas you feel a deep mental and
emotional anguish. Since the essence of the picture lies in its human analysis it is simply expressed, the confusion emanating from the personality, itself. Pigments, also, are directly applied.
In a more recent composition, however, "The Big City". Miss Meltzer paints a different sort of confusion.
Focusing interest on the close-up of a handsome young woman in a large hat, she paints as background environment a complexity of figures, - all the little people who mill in and out of a great railway terminal in a large city. Each has its own little life story. There are nuns with children; country folk; city commuters; a glamor girl ogled by a hick, and myriad other folk caught here and there in the controlling light pattern of a spacious architectural interior.
Simplicity is abandoned for complexity that follows the thought trend of the canvas. The directly applied pigments of "Confused" are replaced by an over-all color impression built of many colors; while the tiny figure suggestions, and the carefully directed lighting, give conviction of space and distance.
In such a composition the confusion is less psychopathic than actual. Thus, in "Confused", the painter visualized mental maladjustment; while, in"The Big City", she shows on the face of the close-up girl a perplexity induced by external confusion. So deep is Anna Meltzer's sympathy of people that, as a painter, she sometimes infers on canvas emotions which she, herself, is unaware exist in the individual she is painting. Her oil of a young receptionist whom she knew only as a sweet, attractive girl, when completed, drew from a friend the instant exclamation: "Why, you've painted Madame X !" Miss Meltzer protested the interpretation, but. not long afterward, discovered its truth. Similarly, she caught in the expression of another young woman the emotional thrust of marital difficulties, entirely unknown to the painter at the time.
Anna E. Meltzer's art, in fact, has marked a steady advance from material acceptance of objects to the projection of ideas in which realism blends with abstraction. She has never followed any one trend, such as impressionism, cubism, abstraction, but if a trend best expresses what she has to say, she makes use of it. As a painter she has found from experience that the most realistic subject has undertones of abstraction, and that the most abstract somewhere in its formulation touches the real. To her, therefore, mature interpretation of life demands a fusion of the two. This fusion, however, is both visual and technical.
At first Miss Meltzer found satisfaction in the obvious. When she painted "The Pretzel Woman" she began with an outline pattern drawn with a brush. Then turning to color, she elaborated, adding many details that, in the final analysis, were again deleted. They had, however, served to create a focus in her own mind. Both in the outline drawing and in the preliminary color study two figures were of equal value - the pretzel woman, and a fellow depositor, whose bulk and color-weight disturbed the intended focus. By a concentration of light and a simplification of the immediate background, the painter, in the completed canvas, has left no doubt as to the main actor in this revealing comedy of manners.
Here, also, the control of lighting foreshadowed the more nature development of the recent compositions.
How Anna E. Meltzer progressed from factual statement to the painting of ideas is readily traced in a comparison of '"Girl Filing Her Nails" and "The Big City". In the former the pigments are flatly handled, and pattern interest dominates. In a sense, such canvases have proved the five finger exercises by means of which the painter, like the musician, progresses from simple to complex, symphonic creations.
But it was an opal ring that first stirred in Miss Meltzer a desire to paint the seemingly unpaintable. "That opal ring," she says, "had all the colors with which we work, but it also had depth and distance, - something relatively unpaintable, yet there. So I began to experiment, and found that, by using a palette knife, instead of a brush, I could lay many colors in in their proper key, and at the same time achieve the effect of a single color."
Before Miss Meltzer starts on a canvas she begins by playing with the placement and interrelation of irregular geometric forms in a given space. When she has arrived at the disposition she wants, she turns to a study of light and dark masses, thus tying the masses in to prevent a break-up of the pattern.
Next comes the planning of color masses, without actually painting them; and finally the development of the lighting effect.
The first study of the composition is laid out in a single color, with the addition of a little white to get the proper values. Once this has been achieved, Miss Meltzer feels free to express herself through sensitive value relationships.
Her use of colors within a color, so effective in "The Big City", is the result of a technical evolution that began some years ago in "Girl at the Window", whose yellow blouse is flecked with tiny color particles. The distant landscape seen through the window, however, was flatly painted with a palette knife. Similarly, in "Moses", myriad colors build the foreground figure, while the background is more flatly painted.
In "The Big City", however, Miss Meltzer has developed her background in the same technique as her foreground, achieving thereby a more convincing focus, and an illusion of tri-dimensional form. In contrast to "The Pretzel Woman" , the composition starts with a palette knife outline, which the painter considers stronger and more definite than the brush outline. "But," she warns, "in using a palette knife you have to know just where you are going."
She paints, also, from light to dark, to make sure that, in over-painting, the light comes through, thus guarding against muddiness of color.
Her advice to the student is: "First play with two-dimensional forms within the space of your canvas. Then emphasize something important in the foreground, and take out whatever interferes with that form. As a result you get space going into the picture, and you can add perspective lines for greater depth.
"You can, of course, have a middle as well as a background, always taking out the forms that interfere as you go back."
"Big City" began with an outline drawing of the principal figure, and actual painting started on the head. Next, neighboring values were established, working down and outward, and building from light into dark. The background, with its complex pattern of many figures and suggestion of architectural form grew naturally out of the paint values adjacent to the figure.
In a few color touches Miss Meltzer has given personality to a surprising variety of types. A big city, she feels is a composite of personalities, each distinct, yet each absorbed into the general environment. Thus, she uses value relationship to fit the many parts into a coherent whole; and as she works from light to dark, she also progresses from materialization to abstraction.
But people are her passion. 'When I paint them." she insists, "I go through their emotions with them. I couldn't live without them, and except when I am working, I want them around me.
"I like to go out into the country and look at the landscape, but I come back into the studio and paint people."
Now that she has gained basic knowledge of the figure, living models disturb her.
"Time was," she says, "when I could not work without them. Now I cannot work with them. As a child I was much more creative than immediately after I married, due to a strong factual and photographic influence (her husband, Samuel Meltzer, is a well-known photographer and teacher), and to academic training at Cooper Union. Now, however, I know how to use that training, and at the same time to express my own ideas rather than what I see before me."
Miss Meltzer's own life has been filled with people. She can laugh, now, over her two and a half room apartment, which, she declares, was exactly like "You Can't Take It with You." One closet was used as a dark room by her photographer husband; another as a laboratory by her son. Her younger son, a composer, also had his niche, and she had her easel in a corner. Everything went on at once, and everybody enjoyed it.
From such an environment has come an art of human insight, touched both by humor and idealism.
Courage, Anna E. Meltzer feels, is an art essential. But, for an artist to succeed, something more must be added - public recognition, and the sympathetic understanding of critics and dealers. Only through such understanding, says the painter, can an artist breed self-confidence, without which it is impossible to push on to the goal.


Dorothy Grafly, daughter of American sculptor Charles Grafly, was born in Paris while her father was studying there. She received her B.A. at Wellesley in 1918. Miss Grafly entered the newspaper field as a reporter and art critic for the Philadelphia North American in 1920. She became art editor and feature writer for the Public Ledger, from 1925 to sale of the paper in 1934. The same posts were held on the Philadelphia Record from 1934 to 1942. She was Curator of Collections and Lecturer at Drexel Institute of Technology from 1934 to 1944, and has been o special correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, since 1920. Miss Grafly is a contributing editor to the American Artist. She is editor of Art Outlook, published by Philip Ragan Associates, Inc., for which firm she has served as Director of Research and Art since 1942. Miss Grafly lectures on art in her spare time.