On the evening of February 3, 2022, the Catskills were in the grip of an ice storm that would strand many for days. In hospice care at his home on California Quarry Road on Woodstock’s Overlook Mountain, Manuel Bromberg passed away peacefully at the age of 104. His younger daughter Tina, who had been caring for him for many years, opened a window, reassuring him, “It’s okay to go.” And then the lights went out.
According to Tina — an artist like both her parents — Manny Bromberg’s approach to life was “very solo.” He had been a fixture in Woodstock since 1941, when he and her mother, Jane Dow, impulsively hitchhiked to the town from New York City to get married by a justice of the peace. Locals got to see his work at a solo retrospective show at the Woodstock Artists Association in 1992 and a solo exhibition of his cliff sculptures at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in 2015 [https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2015/04/30/at-98-manuel-bromberg-wont-give-an-inch-2/]. But Manny “kept to himself,” a devoted husband and family man, and wasn’t really much engaged in the social whirl of the local art scene. He spent most of his time from 1957 to 1979 teaching in the Art Department at SUNY New Paltz and stayed on long afterwards as professor emeritus.
His iconic Cliffside sculpture, mounted on an exterior of the SUNY Humanities Building above a staircase heavily used by students, was a tribute to the recently assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. [https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2016/06/08/suny-new-paltz-rededicates-manny-brombergs-innovative-cliffside-sculpture/]. To create it, the artist developed a novel moldmaking technique using layers of spray-on urethane and foam backing. Then he needed to identify just the right cliff face to make a mold — one that not only looked right, but also allowed space for a cherry-picker truck to be parked off-road underneath it. He found what he was looking for on Route 23A in Palenville.
Photographer Jack Murphy takes up the tale: “I was hanging around one of the studios in Smiley Arts Building on the New Paltz campus one day in late winter 1970, when Manny came into the room. He saw me, and said ‘Murph, I’m glad I’ve found you. I’m rounding up a few people to help me break open the mold of my casting of the mountain this weekend. Are you up for it?’ It might have sounded like a strange request, but I knew what he was talking about, and was more than ready to join him… Manny had recruited a ragtag gang of art students and professor friends to help birth the cliff. Bob Schuler, Bob Sedestrom, Michael Zadro, Gary Allen, Fred Hoffman, myself and a few workers from the shop where the casting was done were the midwives. Manny was the expectant father, pacing back and forth, worrying about his creation. It was both a delicate and physical job taking the mold apart and releasing the fiberglass replica of the stone face of the cliff, and Manny was running around like a madman, shouting instructions. All of a sudden, the cliff was free.”
Many SUNY students from that era who went on to distinguished art careers of their own also claim Manny Bromberg as a mentor and inspiration. “He had an amazing teaching style that pushed you to a mind-jogging level which took you and your personal style magically much further. Imagine dancing with a brush,” says Cynthia Winika, who studied advanced oil painting with Bromberg in the 1960s.
Gary Allen, one of the crew who freed Cliffside from its mold, recalls some useful critique he received in a graduate-level painting course: “At the time, I had come up with a way of painting blocks of wood in different colors and fitting them together tightly in a frame — essentially treating the joints as lines in the paintings’ compositions. He looked at them, and said, ‘You realize that this isn’t painting. It’s sculpture.’ But he gave me an A anyway. Considering the fact that his work skirted the boundaries between painting and sculpture, it makes sense to me today…He left excellent footsteps.”
Judith Mogul agrees: “He shared his abundant knowledge and experience freely…His impact would find its way into every teaching experience, art commission, painting, sculpture and film I did and continue to do,” she writes. “Mr. Bromberg gave me the tools and confidence that it took to sustain such a life.”
“I never studied directly with Manny, but felt he was part of my artistic lineage, in a way,” says Josephine Bloodgood, former Executive Director of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, who didn’t come under his influence until Bromberg was in his 90s. “Manny didn’t hold back and he could be very tough, so if you earned his praise, you knew you’d done something right…Manny was a force of nature, and that power permeated his sculptures and paintings.”
Here’s how Bromberg himself described his teaching style: “I’m a combination of a loving friend, a psychoanalyst and an old veteran who has been through the minefields and knows where they are. You have to know how to parcel out information when the time is right. You have to help the students come to terms with their own feelings, give them courage and encouragement to experiment. And an artist must learn to ‘think’ abstractly, but ‘do’ concretely. You have to be cool and hot at the same time.”
“Cantankerous” is one of the adjectives that Tina Bromberg uses, with great affection, to describe her father’s “larger-than-life” personality. “He didn’t have a stable family upbringing. He carved out his own way from a tender age.”
Born in Centerville, Iowa in 1917, at the age of two Manny moved to Cleveland with his older brother Erik and his strong-willed single mother Matilda, who made part of her living sewing burial suits for dead gangsters, according to Tina. His mother enrolled him in Saturday violin classes at the age of 10, but Manny throve better in the visual arts from the get-go. By age 16 he had won First Prize in a national high school art competition, the George Bellows Award. Manny turned down the prize of a year’s scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York City, opting instead for a full four-year working scholarship to the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art.
Upon graduation, Manny hitchhiked to California, worked briefly as an animator with the Walt Disney studios, then set up a successful caricature kiosk on the Venice pier. At 20 he caught a freight train to the Broadmoor Art Academy (now the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center) and showed up unannounced at the studio of renowned muralist Boardman Robinson, with whom he wanted to study. “Boardman made him draw something in front of him. Then he made Manny his assistant, on the spot,” Tina relates.
Robinson was well-connected with the Art Students League; Colorado Springs, like Woodstock, served as one of its summer campuses in the 1930s and ‘40s. It was there that Manny met and fell irrevocably in love with fellow student Jane Dow, and there that he eventually got recruited to relocate to the Woodstock artists’ colony by Robinson’s former students Arnold Blanch and Doris Lee. But first, he was to attain national visibility, chosen to participate in the WPA Easel Program under the juried Federal Arts Project at age 20 — the youngest artist in the program to be assigned to create a mural.
Bromberg made his mark with a mural of Indigenous boys playing lacrosse for the Tahlequah, Oklahoma Post Office in 1938, won a national award for his Cowboy Serenade mural in the Greybull, Wyoming Post Office, was invited to exhibit work at the 1939 World’s Fair and at the Whitney Museum of Art’s annual exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1940. His third federal mural, Fish Fry, followed at the Geneva, Illinois Post Office.
Meanwhile, he was courting Jane Dow. They married and moved to Woodstock in the same month that Pearl Harbor was bombed, and in April, with Jane pregnant with elder daughter Susan, Manny was inducted into the Army. His reputation had preceded him, and he was quickly appointed an official war artist for the European Theater, sent to make sketches and take photographs and then return to studios in London and Paris to transform them into paintings. Tina credits art historian Sir Kenneth Clark — then head of the war artists’ program in England — for saving her father’s life, by insisting that he be sent to document Omaha Beach six days after D-Day, rather than 20 minutes after the troops landed, as initially planned.
It was still a nightmarish assignment, a “junkyard of dead bodies,” as attested by the boxful of some 400 photos that Tina recently discovered in Manny’s studio. He followed in the wake of the advancing Allied soldiers through Normandy into Alsace-Lorraine and Germany itself, capturing powerful images of devastation, and eventually covered the VE Day celebrations in Paris. During his European sojourn he met the Queen Mother Elizabeth when she opened a showing of the American War Artists’ paintings in Westminster Abbey, made the acquaintances of Henry Moore, Picasso and Cocteau and acquired hard-to-find cigarettes for Braque. Seeing their Modernist work was the beginning of a shift in his own style from representational to the more abstract. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his war work in 1944. Manny was one of the subjects of a 2000 PBS documentary, They Drew Fire: The Combat Artists of World War II, and the last of them to die.
Soon after World War II ended, Manny received a Guggenheim fellowship, relocated his growing family to North Carolina and accepted a position as chair of the Art Department at Salem College. Tina was born in Winston-Salem in 1949, and Manny was recruited to join a new School of Design at North Carolina State College (now University of Design). Also on the faculty was Buckminster Fuller, who became a close family friend and collaborator. “Bucky was part of our lives. My father helped him build his geodesic dome in the backyard. Bucky didn’t do it alone,” Tina says, recalling a thrilling childhood memory of riding in the helicopter that transported the dome to the local fairgrounds for exhibition.
Though their home was less than an hour away from the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, their college community was a center of intellectual and political ferment. “Both my parents marched for civil rights in the 1950s in Raleigh. We belonged to the city’s first and only integrated church.” African American artist Romare Bearden was one of Manny and Jane’s friends, and they were “always for social justice, quietly but fully.”
The evolution in Manny’s style of painting that began in Paris took a great multimedia leap forward in 1953, when he was commissioned to create a 40-foot-long mural in the new Erdahl Cloyd College Union building on campus. Watching plasterers at work, he was inspired to incorporate pigments with plaster, carve into it and build up strata atop it. “It had never been done,” observes Tina. He recruited department heads throughout the college to submit symbols representing their academic disciplines to be included in the mural. “I wanted to create a wall like the Lascaux cave drawings, to put down the ‘know-how’ of man as I knew it to be at that time,” Manny wrote. The mural still stands; Tina and Manny both participated in its restoration in 1998.
More “plaster paintings” in the same vein followed — skirting the boundaries between painting and sculpture, as referenced above by Gary Allen. They became influential and collectible. In 1955 Manny resigned from the School of Design and the family sojourned in Europe for a couple of years, during which he sketched the ministerial meetings during which Germany was admitted to NATO. He was the only civilian allowed in the room, and his drawings of the historic event were published in a highly collectible limited-edition portfolio.
In 1957, SUNY enticed Manny to join the New Paltz faculty, and the family moved back to Woodstock. The cliff-molding project that was to launch the last major phase of his artistic career arose out of a wish to surmount the biggest problem of the plaster paintings: that they were too heavy to loan out and move around from their sites of origin. Once again, Manny was driven to innovate. “He didn’t stay comfortable in one niche,” Tina observes. “He kept breaking out and trying new things, when he didn’t even know what he was doing.”
Once the casting challenge was solved, Manny’s cliff sculptures made a big splash, with Ivan Karp, director of the OK Harris Gallery, becoming his broker. The Storm King Art Center acquired one. William Seitz, curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “During a period when nature is being raped and polluted, when our cybernetic buildings make us forget its existence, how admirable it is that one sculptor was moved, and had the skill, ruggedness and determination, to recreate a huge fragment of nature’s randomness and structure and present it before us for meditation and rejuvenation. Such audacity, one feels, would have delighted the souls of William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Cole.”
In his latter years, Manny refocused his gaze on smaller-scale paintings, including many abstracted landscapes and portraits of friends and family. Many still hung in the family home a few weeks after his passing; it will be Tina’s task, mainly, to determine their disposition.Other survivors include her sister, Susan Mesinai; Susan’s children, Maya Draisin Farrah and Raz Mesinai; Maya’s husband, Mike Farrah, and their children, Finn and Elijah; and Raz’s twins, Carys and Rafi. Jane Dow died at home in 2008, four years after suffering a stroke. “My father would sit here at night and hold her hand,” says Tina. “Theirs was a true romance.”
Tina leaves us with a delightful account of a surprise that Manny received on his 100th birthday: a telephone call from Pulitzer-winning author Michael Chabon. Manny had read Chabon’s novel Moonglow, in which a character (based on Chabon’s own grandfather) carried in his pocket a pass signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower that opened doors for him all through Europe during World War II — just as Manny himself had. He enjoyed the book so much, and found it so relatable, that he wrote the author his first-ever fan letter.
Chabon responded with the congratulatory phone call, and was inspired by Manny’s story to write an essay for The New Yorker titled, “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.” You can read it at www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-true-meaning-of-nostalgia. The documentary They Drew Fire can still be viewed in segments on YouTube. Much of Manny Bromberg’s work, along with more details about his eventful life and accomplishments, can be found on his website, www.manuelbromberg.com.