A Life in Art, Essay from 1996


The following appreciation of Shirley Moskowitz’s life and work was written nearly 12 years before her death, on the occasion of the exhibition:

Shirley Moskowitz at Seventy-Five
January 19 to February 9, 1996

Haviland Hall
The University of the Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Shirley Moskowitz has been making art for sixty years. She still remembers her eighth grade teacher, Miss Rebecca Henry,

Shirley at the 1996 exhibit

Shirley at the 1996 exhibit

teaching about “dominance and subordination, balance, rhythm and harmony”. When she was a teenager she knew she would be an artist – happily skipping school to deliver to Nelson Eddy a portrait she had done of him (not from life, uncommissioned).

Now, at age seventy-five, she doesn’t need to skip school. With few distractions, she is busier than ever. This exhibit surveys the artist’s accomplishments over a half-century, focusing especially on her newest work. Moskowitz continues to develop her art in new and exciting ways, and without dismissing her earlier work, we can say that her best work is her newest work.

Warmth and intimacy pervade Moskowitz’s work. In the several modes in which she works, her favorite subjects have remained her family, and especially the landscape and buildings around her. As a young artist she depicted the bayous of her home town of Houston, and later the industrial and suburban landscapes around Philadelphia, where she moved in 1948. Beginning in 1959, when she traveled to Europe for the first time, the scope of her world widened, and her paintings increasingly drew on European landscape some famous, such as Montmartre, and others obscure, like the Czechoslovakian towns of Kytlice and Kutna Hora. Since 1970, the major emphasis of her work has been the depiction of the landscape and rural Italian life where she now spends much of her year.

Moskowitz was born in Houston in 1920. She studied art in high school and at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. At 17, she enrolled at Rice University, graduating in 1941, when she entered Oberlin College, receiving an M.A. in art in 1942. The instruction at Oberlin was conservative, and as Moskowitz relates, the “word abstraction was not known at Oberlin in the academic year of 1941-42.” In 1943 she studied at the Morris Davidson School of Painting in New York.

While at Oberlin, Moskowitz met Jacob Gruber and they were married in 1946. In the years to come Gruber’s career, especially his anthropological and archaeological work, would allow Moskowitz to travel extensively, and the depictions of these travels are a major element in her art. This year marks the fiftieth year of their partnership. In the summer of 1946 the newlyweds were in New York City, where Moskowitz painted a series in oils of neighborhood streets. These works already demonstrate much of her mature style-a full canvas, an active picture surface, and attention to details. Most important, a feeling of joy in the scene pervades these paintings, as in her most recent collages. By 1948 Moskowitz and Gruber had moved to Philadelphia, where Gruber began teaching at Temple University. shirleyselfp60Philadelphia has remained their home ever since. After a year, the couple moved to Plymouth Township, outside Norristown, where they lived until 1967 and where Moskowitz established herself in an active group of local artists and raised a family of three while continuing to make art.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the artist frequently painted her children and domestic scenes. She regularly went on field trips, painting old barns (“I must have painted every old barn in Montgomery County-and there were a lot of them then”), but preferred industrial scenes of Conshohocken and Manayunk. In 1953, Moskowitz was invited to join the Philadelphia Watercolor Club on the basis of Bridge at Conshohocken (1953).

By the end of the decade two developments led Moskowitz into new directions. In 1959, she moved with her family to England for seven months. She also travelled to Brittany and Denmark. In all these places she was attracted by the effect of “stones on stones,” a theme she continues to explore. This trip, followed by summers in Europe in 1962 and 1966, greatly expanded her repertoire of painting subjects, establishing themes of urban rooftops, chimney pots, ceramic tiles, and old cemeteries-which will continue to attract her. She also filled sketch books and made watercolors, all of which would provide material for larger oil paintings at home.

Back in Norristown, Moskowitz joined a group of artists which met every week; beginning around 1960, at the sculpture studio of Hans Huneke. These weekly meetings became an important fixture in Moskowitz’s life, and over seven years she produced a series of increasingly ambitious wood carvings. Some of these, such as Rabbi (1962), and Olenu (1963), deal with Jewish themes, but most focus on figural groups reflecting the emotional and physical ties of family. In the 1960s Moskowitz produced other works on Jewish themes, including a number of woodcuts and lino-cuts, but as her world expanded with her travels there were fewer demonstrably Jewish works. She has returned to this theme in the 1990s, however, encouraged by the work in Eastern Europe of her daughter Ruth, a writer, and son Sam, an architectural historian.

Jewish Cemetery Tarnow, Poland I, monotype, 1993

Jewish Cemetery Tarnow, Poland I, monotype, 1993

A striking series of watercolor and monoprints of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues resulted (Tarnow [Poland] Cemetery IV 1993).

A major step was taken in the early 1960s when Moskowitz began tearing up water- colors and putting them back together to make paper collages. Many of her first works, such as Nautical Abstraction (c. 1961), utilized a multi-layered technique in which the primary picture surface was cut in places to allow images to appear behind, while an overlay of applied paper and other materials built out the picture surface. The primary images of these works were still executed in watercolor, with collage acting as a highlight, adding texture and depth.

With collage, Moskowitz also created highly detailed realistic landscapes, usually based on on-site sketches or watercolors from her diverse materials for the collage is astonishing, and adds a rich surface. Another series of imaginative collages utilizes hundreds of cut pieces of paper to create a single image, and each piece of paper itself contained a smaller image-either photographic or drawn. These works, such as The Land of Egypt (1965), often used images from magazines and travel brochures. Moskowitz returned to this method in the mid-1970s, producing Israel (1975), The Eternal City (1975), and other works. It was also in Czechoslovakia in 1966 that Moskowitz began to work extensively in pen and ink-first with India ink and sepia washes, and later with colored inks.

Moskowitz moved with her family to Center City Philadelphia in 1967 and since then has produced a body of work celebrating the city, but in 1970 a dramatic event hap- pened in the family life. They moved to Rome for three years where Moskowitz, in addition to painting scenes of Rome in the tradition of vedute artists such as Piranesi and Rossini, discovered a theme that has informed much of her work ever since-small town and village life in Italy. This has resulted in a series of striking watercolors from the 1970s and early 1980s.

While in Italy, Moskowitz also expanded her activity as a printmaker, producing etchings and aquatints. Back in Philadelphia, she studied printmaking at The Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts) from 1974 to 1976 and in 1977 purchased her own etching press. Many of her etchings, such as In Back (1980), depict Philadelphia scenes. She now regularly produces monoprints and incorporates these into larger multi-media works. Of equal importance are the photographs she takes herself which serve as basic documentation for her collages.

In 1983, Moskowitz and Gruber bought an old farmhouse in Umbria, a region of rolling hills and medieval hilltowns in Central Italy, and her focus shifted to this locale. The artist now spends half of each year in the village of Morruzze, and more watercolors and collages evoking the landscape and its people have celebrated this part of Italy.

Shirley and Jake in Morruzze, 2004

Shirley and Jake (and Lorenzo) in Morruzze, 2004

Through the mixed media of print, painting and collage, these works document-in much the way –a medieval book of hours did-the seasons and festivals that pervade Italian rural and small town life throughout the year. Into this setting, in a whimsical way, Moskowitz has increasingly superimposed her own life and history, incorporating images of friends and family at what otherwise would be remote and exotic events. Unlike an ethnographer who strives to distance herself from the subject of her study as Moskowitz often did in her landscapes and cityscapes through the 1970s–she now fully immerses herself in her subject, blurring the line between familiar and exotic, past and present, family and strangers. In Moskowitz’s recent work family is extended–both to unknown people, and to distant and historic settings. The process of personal integration involves no homogenization – quite the contrary, as Moskowitz scenes are active to a degree of discordance. Like the cacophony of a Brueghel village scene, everything is included and anything is acceptable.

She described the process: …All of my subsequent collages, in contrast to those I did prior to 1978, are based on personal experience and are a controlled mixture of a variety of texture and media, composed in such a way as to affect the viewer from a distance while at the same time inviting him to participate in the action-to experience through color, dynamic contrasts of light and dark, textures and techniques, a reality that may seem fantastic but is still real.” On technique, she explained: “1 tore up three monotypes which I had done of sheep and reassembled the pieces interspersed with cut photos I had taken of the shepherd, thus creating the collage Pastorale ltaliana (1987). This was followed by Processione (1987), based on a procession of the Madonna which I had photographed in southern Italy. Carefully composed and printed as a monotype, it was then embellished with bits and pieces of photos, linoprints, and old chamois rag, sandpaper, a 500-1ire note, and even a gold chain.” Beginning with those works Moskowitz has turned out a steady stream of remarkable compositions – each a full world of its own. These works, which are so full of images and bustle with life, are the result of a long deliberative process-far more complex and time consuming than Moskowitz herself suggests in her description. In most cases, each work is rooted in a real place which the artist knows, has visited, and has drawn. Her sketches are worked up to full scale drawings, then redrawn in ink on glass and printed as monoprints. The monoprint provides the scaffolding on which the collage is built. The placement of each item is planned, and often anticipated before the mono- print is made. Slowly, the surface of the monoprint is built up in collage, often amplified by a bit of watercolor work or pen and ink. The print is layered, adding surface depth to the perspective already incorporated into the original drawn scene. Worked into this assemblage – either as active participants or ephemeral onlookers – are images of neighbors, friends and relatives.

For years Moskowitz has photographed her acquaintances – particularly those who visit in Italy. Slowly, year by year, these faces appear, sometimes in the unlikeliest spots, next to faces of Italian farmers and saints. Her annual exhibitions in Morre, the village near her Italian home, are popular events partly because the local population enjoys spotting themselves in her work. Indeed, the possibility of finding friendly faces in the unknown is calculated, because it encourages the viewer to peer closely at these dense works, and to spend time meandering through them.

If I have neglected to say until now that Shirley Moskowitz is my mother, it is not due to lack of pride in her work. It is because it is easy to write of her career and art standing alone.

Samuel D. Gruber
Syracuse, New York 1995

5 thoughts on “A Life in Art, Essay from 1996

  1. I knew your Mom and Dad in the 1970s when your Dad was excavating a Revolutionary Fort in the Hudson highlahallnds. Years later they invited me to their home near Morre and I spent an unforgettable week there with them. You would find my home a welcoming place as you were greeted by two of her oil paintings, three watercolors, an etching, and a framed print of a carousel in the woods, which she sent as a Christmas card. I wish there were more. I believe she knew how deeply I esteemed her work and valued her.
    I woke rhis morning thinking if her and regretting losing contact, and googled her name. I now know why I could not reach her any more and mourn her loss. I am so pleased that you and Ruth have made her life and work accessible through the web. She Left me a memory of gentleness, kindness, and beauty. Thank you.
    We hope your Dad is still well and send our good wishes.
    Ann Bradley

  2. I grew up in Morruzze and left in 1983 so I never knew your mother though I knew of her through Jack and Corda who live, if it were possible, even further down the hill.
    I have to say the collage Festa at Morruzze, 1988, which I came across by accident gave me quite a turn.
    I see faces in the collage I haven’t seen in a quarter century and likely never will some of them again, as I was rather bad at recording photographically an unhappy moment in my life and there have been a ferw deaths of course in the decades I was in California making a new life.
    “Like the cacophony of a Brueghel village scene, everything is included and anything is acceptable.” I thought this phrase summed up my feelings rather nicely at seeing my old home reproduced with my former nanny standing in front of the well in the piazza and a whole host of people remembered only in my mind. Amazing stuff, as I suppose all greatart should be.

  3. Sam,
    I lived across the street from your parents in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Your brother Frank went to my Bar Mitzvah and as a gift your mother painted a portrait of me on that day. It hung in my parents home until the death of my mother and it is now in my possession.
    I found your site through a recent contact with your brother after 44 years. Just thought you would want to know.

    Marc Sable

  4. Very surprised and pleased to see my father’s portrait on this site. Do you know the circumstances around this painting?

  5. Hi Samuel, I am very impressed by your article about your mother, indeed she was a wonderful woman and artist, can I put in her bio some of your “apercues”, with the mention your name???the bio will be in the 4.volume of my unconventional lexicon, at Hartung/Gorre Vlg., Konstanz, Germany, The name of the Lexicon:Juedische Frauen in der bildenden Kunst” also at:
    Hedwig Brenner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s