Several months ago, I was commissioned to write an essay for the monograph Howard Schwartzberg, published by Abstract Room. My focus within this essay was to show how Schwartzberg’s experiential education both as an artist and educator made a lasting impression on his overall aesthetic and personal development.
It was an honor to be asked to write about Schwartzberg’s art because he has been a steadfast mentor to me throughout my own journey in art education. However, due to spatial constraints, only excerpts from the piece were published throughout the section featuring Schwartzberg’s extensive works on paper. I have included the full text of my essay below:
Howard Schwartzberg’s path to becoming an artist assumed a fairly traditional trajectory. He realized his artful acumen early on in his youth and followed it up with a formal education. Throughout his artistic development, Schwartzberg learned all the tricks of the trade, such as how to render realistic images using the elements of art, color theory, and astute observational skills. However, as good artists are apt to push the boundaries of pre-existing rules and principles, Schwartzberg wanted to find his own way to draw, while still working within the confines of the medium. His explorations with mark making and materials, led him to create over forty distinct series of drawings. These drawings prompt us to consider the expansive number of possibilities that are obtainable within one of the oldest artistic mediums.
Each of Schwartzberg’s series branches out from two types of drawing techniques: compositions made by layering text and compositions influenced by ecological processes.
In his text drawings, Schwartzberg incorporates specific words that are both logical and abstract, in order to represent the push and pull that goes on in his mind as he is creating a work of art. Each drawing illuminates an intimate and introspective aspect of the thoughts and physical actions that Schwartzberg engages with throughout the artistic process and the assessment of a finished artwork. Words are repeated as if re-occuring in thought, or rubbed, blotted, and crossed out as if they were a mistake. He overlays, connects, and juxtaposes phrases and text with gestural abstract lines and geometric and organic shapes.
These words and their arrangements hold significance to the maker, however, the viewer ultimately becomes an active and crucial participant in reading, comprehending, and interpreting the piece in their own way. In a drawing from Schwartzberg’s Six months in 1992 series, “words” is repeated 102 times in a gridlike formation. Below the word form, Schwartzberg muses on the impact of language. He ponders the way definitions can shape our individual and collective identities. Words, he writes, “Have meaning, are mean, are mean, mean, mean, mean, meaning us.” This body of work aptly represents the internal process of characterizing ourselves and envisioning how others identify us. We all present ourselves to the public in some manner. In doing so, we become vulnerable. This feeling is universally shared, and is immediately felt via the expressive way Schwartzberg has combined words with elements of art.
In his Sixteenth century treatise on painting, Leonardo DaVinci wrote, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Schwartzberg’s drawings layer and render words as aesthetic forms, as well as poetic devices; a combination of the literary and the visual arts that is both seen and felt.
Schwartzberg’s career as an art educator illuminates his drawing process from another perspective. The text drawings are in line with pedagogical assessment and reflection processes that are necessary for personal and artistic growth. In this regard, his use of visual and literary elements becomes a way to formally assess his own journey and explorations as a professional artist. Schwartzberg’s curriculum, which he taught for over thirty years, is called Reality Art Class. It is an embodiment of social and emotional learning that supports students in gaining skills necessary for achieving empowerment and developing positive relationships within their community. Just as Schwartzberg has coached generations of students to think artistically and utilize creative processes to enhance critical thinking, he too has significantly benefited from the guidance of others.
One of his key mentors was the late artist, Lawrence Carroll. Schwartzberg pays homage to his dear friend and supporter in a series of text and mixed media drawings. These drawings combine Schwartzberg’s text drawings and biologically influenced works on paper. In these compositions, Schwartzberg combines heartfelt messages to his friend along with a floral motif. Many of the drawings contain pressings of wildflowers covered and preserved in wax. This is a notable addition, because flowers frequently appeared in Carroll’s work and encaustic was his predominant medium. The flowers that Schwartzberg incorporates are native to Upstate New York, where Carroll had a studio. The paper for the Dear Lawrence drawings comes from the scrap paper that Schwartzberg’s students used while working with clay. This is significant from both a conceptual art and pedagogical perspective, because it establishes a dialogue from teacher to student and then student to teacher again. It is a cycle that is a metaphor for the learning process and the collaborative and dialectic relationships between students and educators, mentors and mentees.
This hybrid group of drawings is a good segue to discuss the other facet of Schwartzberg’s works on paper, which is his biologically infused drawings. Using natural and organic elements such as dust, dirt, smoke, wax, algae, and blood worms; Schwartzberg manipulates materials in order to create linear spirals, forms, and patterns. Through the arrangement of these natural materials, these drawings reference scientific phenomena and the overall scientific method. Schwartzberg links scientific observations to his own artistic explorations and pedagogical philosophy, as a way to create visual metaphors for humanity’s psychological and physical survival in an ever-changing environment. These drawings are a combination of calculated planning and chance. Schwartzberg sets up the stage for the aesthetic action by carefully choosing materials and substrates, and allows the media and nature to take its course.
Overall, Schwartzberg’s drawing processes incorporate multiple disciplines as a means to promote self expression, empowerment, curiosity, and lifelong learning. Schwartzberg’s combination of conceptual art and education is in tandem with prior artists/educators, such as Joseph Beuys, who stated “To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.” As the architect of Reality Art Class, a methodology for creative thinking, Schwartzberg takes elements and experiences from outside of the traditional fine art canon and brings an artistic discourse into the larger world. His experiential process of turning observations, explorations, and insights from disparate subjects into works of art, is both self liberating and serves as a framework for inspiring others to be self reflective and embark towards new avenues of knowledge.