On the morning of Saturday, May 21, more than 50 art-lovers gathered on the campus of SUNY New Paltz to witness an unusual event: the rededication of an outdoor sculpture that had first been dedicated in 1970. More remarkably, the artist himself — professor emeritus Manuel Bromberg — was present, and spoke for 15 or 20 minutes about the circumstances under which Cliffside was created. “While Manny is 99, he’s still sharp as a tack,” noted Alan Dunefsky, chair of retired faculty at the college, who organized the event.
Bromberg, who taught full-time at SUNY New Paltz from 1961 to 1979 and was a visiting professor before that, made a big splash in the art world at any early age. He was awarded the George Bellows Award in a national competition at the age of 16, won scholarships to attend the Cleveland School of Art and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and later a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early 20s, as a graduate student he was recruited, along with his mentor, muralist Boardman Robinson, to work on the Federal Arts Project’s WPA Easel Program. Very much reflecting the Social Realism style of art that was typical of the New Deal era, Bromberg’s murals were hung in post offices in Oklahoma, Wyoming and Illinois.
Bromberg exhibited his works at the 1939/40 World’s Fair and by 1941 had moved to the Woodstock art colony, married fellow artist Jane Dow and been invited to participate in the Whitney Museum’s prestigious Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Painting. He was named an “official war artist” and assigned to “obtain a graphic record of the war… in the tradition of Goya, Gericault and Delacroix,” landing at Omaha Beach six days after D-Day and documentary the Normandy invasion with sketchpad and camera. When Paris was liberated, he met Picasso, Braque and Cocteau.
After the war, Bromberg found fertile ground to pursue more innovative styles of art at the North Carolina State College School of Design. Among its star-studded faculty was Buckminster Fuller; Bromberg became friends with him and worked with him on the development of the geodesic dome. In 1953 he created an innovative 40-foot-long mural, inspired by the Lascaux cave paintings and built up in “strata” of plaster and paint. That work in North Carolina, now designated a historic site, eventually put the artist on the path toward creating his signature “cliff” sculptures, of which the one mounted on the SUNY New Paltz campus was the first.
Bromberg started working on Cliffside in 1967, not long before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to whose memory he decided to dedicate it. Ahead of his time in contemplating the role that art might play in resisting the degradation of the natural environment, he wanted to create sculptures that looked like rock outcroppings but would not be too heavy to transport or mount. So he developed a spray-on plastic mixture backed with fiberglass and went looking for a suitable cliff to make a casting; he found it on Route 23A in Catskill. Cliffside, which is 22 feet in height, made such an impression on legendary SoHo gallerist Ivan Karp that he was soon keeping Bromberg busy with commissions for more in the series. A retrospective “Cliff Sculptures” show was exhibited one year ago at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock.
So the sculpture that thousands of SUNY students pass by each day on the south-facing façade of the Humanities Building is a truly significant work, representing the first step in a novel artistic direction that pioneered new materials and techniques. But why would it need rededicating, a year short of the centennial of the artist’s birth? “The genesis of the event was when I noticed that the original plaque by the sculpture was rusty and corroded, and difficult to see,” recounted Dunefsky, who organized the rededication ceremony. “Then I attended the opening of Manny’s show in Woodstock [in] May 2015. That’s when I got the idea to replace the old plaque with a new larger, more visible one.”
If you missed the festivities, you can still stroll around the campus and have a look at Cliffside as opportunity permits. To learn much more about Manny Bromberg’s illustrious career and impressive body of work, visit www.manuelbromberg.com.