At 98, Manuel Bromberg won’t give an inch

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Manuel Bromberg needed a cliff. It would be a grand sculpture.

It was the mid-1960s and the artist, a professor of painting at SUNY New Paltz, had just been awarded a grant for Distinguished Research, he remembers to be about $14,000.

“So I applied to do this, a combination of a sculptural thing based on strata and architecture, some bullshit, y’know just words…and I get it,” says the 98-year-old artist from his Woodstock home. “They give out four of them. Wow, I’ve got this thing, and now I’ve got to do it.”

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Ideas kept striking him, environmental issues, notions of art’s relationship to nature, and he kept thinking about a wall mural that he had done while teaching at North Carolina State University College of Design (where he collaborated with Buckminster Fuller…) a 10×40 foot piece constructed of colored plaster abstractions in strata layers.

“You don’t suddenly get up in the morning and go to a cliff,” he says. “It’s another way of seeing a landscape. It’s a continuity, not just a gimmick.

Manuel Bromberg, Winged Victory. Fiberglass, polyester resin, wax, marble dust, from his solo show opening at the Kleinert Saturday, May 2.

Manuel Bromberg, Winged Victory. Fiberglass, polyester resin, wax, marble dust, from his solo show opening at the Kleinert Saturday, May 2.

“So, I’m going to do a cliff…where am I going to do it? You have to bring in a crew. You can’t be on the thruway and get your ass knocked off it…and I’m told about riverbeds somewhere. I go to all these places, drive miles and miles and I’m looking at them all, looking at caves…trying to find a cliff that will allow me to park trucks, keep the workers safe. Finally driving down 23A toward Catskill, I see a cliff set in off the road. But there is a private road into it and there’s sort of a tank there. It’s owned by a plumber, David Smith, and its private, it’s almost like a stage set, it’s a beautiful site. It settled a huge problem…now I can come down 23A, turn into this private road that there’s my cliff, set in off the road. I ask him if I can do this cliff and he says of course.”

And thus began an enduring portion of a career for this artist who had already been acclaimed for his WPA post office murals in the 1930s; won a Legion of Merit award for creating an extraordinary graphic record of World War II, created from photos he took in the European Theater that themselves are remarkable; was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Painting, and held various posts to colleges and universities.

Some of these natural pieces are now included in a solo exhibition at the Byrdcliffe Guild’s Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, Manuel Bromberg: Cliff Sculptures, which presents, according to the Guild, “a focused scope of the artist’s fiberglass cliffs produced between 1968 and 2010, examining his innovative idea of reimagining the scale and weight of rock formations in nature.” The show, curated by Portia Munson and Jared Handelsman, will open with an Artist’s Talk with the near-centenarian at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 2, followed by an Opening Reception, 4 p.m.-6 p.m. at Kleinert/James, 34 Tinker Street in Woodstock.

The Guild tells us that Bromberg “is an original participant in what has come to be known as the Woodstock Art Colony, the term used to describe artists who, working in a combination of realist American Regionalism and/or European-based abstraction, settled in Woodstock in the wake of the establishment of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, the Maverick Colony, and the summer school of the Art Students’ League.”

Most of the rest are long departed. The lineage stretches back to the early 20th Century and includes names like Fortess, Cramer, Chavez, Bellows; Bolton Brown, Carlson, Dasburg, de Diego, Fenton, Kuniyoshi, Malkine, Linden, Pike, Ruellan, Winslow…and on and on…

“I’m probably the last remaining person of an era…Jane (Dow Bromberg, his beloved wife, a fine artist, who passed away in 2008) was very popular and was given the town award and loved by all the women and started many of the things we take for granted. We had many, many friends, but they’re all gone now. The last one that was close to me was Sara Mulligan, the actress, Jim Mulligan’s wife. I used to take her out to lunch and we’d talk, always the actress, with her hair and makeup…”

He talks of his introduction to Woodstock around 1940.

“This one guy, Arnold Blanch, and Doris Lee, they’re living on the Maverick and I’m doing this mural competition that I won, a Post Office mural of Cowboys, six feet by 12 feet [in Colorado], and they’re knocked out by it, and I’m totally innocent that they’re knocked out by it. They make Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney Museum, who lived here, too, come and see it, and I’m getting press that I never thought of or knew about.

“Arnold asked me if I would come to live in Woodstock. After I finished that mural and another, that’s how I got here. Twelve hundred bucks I got for it, that was a lot of money. I came to New York City, stayed for a short time on Bank Street. Then I went to Woodstock and I lived in a shack on the Maverick Road…not a house, a shack in the woods. With the wind blowing through it, no insulation. I was so cold there that I got married.

“I married this beautiful girl that had come to Colorado…this is her work up here [he points to a long wall filled with beautiful paintings and drawings]. So we got married by a justice of the peace, Shultis, another Shultis. When I proposed it was on the sixth of December. On the seventh, it was Pearl Harbor. We didn’t get married until the 25th of December. On the following April 15, I’m in Saugerties getting inducted. We were living on the Riseley farm in a little house, no water, no heat, $5 a month. Lucille Blanch drove Jane to Saugerties so she could say goodbye to me. And that was it. So I’m gone from Woodstock until the war ends. Jane went back to her mother, moved to Florida.”

Jane was pregnant when Manuel went into the army. “So I’ve got a three and a half year old daughter…when I came home.”

He began his teaching career in North Carolina, won the Guggenheim award; they spent some time in Virginia and a year and a half in Europe.

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