Monday, January 18, 2010

Antonio Salemme feature in Morning Call

Antonio Salemme, a noted artist whose nude sculpture of actor Paul Robeson shocked the 1930s elite, lived and worked in Williams Township for a third of his life. Now, his art has a permanent home in downtown Allentown.

Bathed in the light from a magnificent 18 foot-wide arched window overlooking Hamilton Street, a half-dozen figure studies stand or sit in repose, the brick façade of the Hotel Americus across the street glowing softly behind them. A life-sized female nude, in the Greco-Roman style of a classic Venus, stands solemnly next to a seated bronze athlete, his muscles glistening. Smaller sculptures surround them -- some in clay, some in plaster, some in bronze.

Along the walls, shelves are teeming with more than a hundred smaller sculptures, in various states of completion. Busts of Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and jazz icon Ethel Waters rub shoulders with more abstract pieces. Nearly two dozen paintings, in styles ranging from the elusive spontaneity of Cézanne and the Post-Impressionists to the vibrant colors and seductively distorted perspective of Matisse, hang on the dove-gray walls.

This is the new Antonio Salemme Foundation on the second floor of 542 Hamilton St.. There is so much remarkable about the space. First, it represents the work of a supremely gifted artist.

Antonio Salemme was a prominent sculptor/painter who spent half of his creative life at the center of the teeming arts scene in New York's Greenwich Village from the 1920s through the 1950s, working with artists such as Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorkey. His most famous piece is a controversial nude sculpture of actor Paul Robeson.

In 1959, Salemme and his wife Martha, also an artist, purchased an old schoolhouse in Williams Township, Northampton County, that the couple converted into a home/studio. He worked there until his death at the age of 102 in 1995, and Martha until her death nine years later.

As remarkable as Salemme was, equally remarkable is that their prodigious collection of art found a home in Allentown. That story goes back to 1982, when the couple formed a nonprofit foundation with the dream of establishing a museum to display their work. 1982 also was the year that Joseph Skrapits, an artist, freelance writer and contributing editor to American Artist magazine, met the couple.

''I first met Antonio through an article I was doing for Philadelphia Magazine on his famous Paul Robeson sculpture,'' says Skrapits, a native of South Whitehall Township. ''When I first met him, I was just bowled over -- here was this very vigorous man, 90 years old, who started talking about Greenwich Village, his friendship with Paul Robeson, and all these people he knew like [Abstract Expressionists] Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. But it wasn't like he was name-dropping -- he was just talking about his life.''

Skrapits also had the itch to paint, and Salemme became his teacher and mentor. ''Over the 11 years I knew him, he became a sort of grandfather/big brother -- a really splendid person. Just before he died, I promised him I would see that Martha was OK. I didn't have any thought of becoming involved in the foundation until she passed away in 2004,'' he says.

The couple had amassed a lifetime of work and had no family or children to bequeath it to, so it went to the foundation. ''There was the house and a studio full of artwork. Some of us -- former friends and students -- looked at each other and asked ourselves, 'Well, now what?' '' says Skrapits, now president of the Antonio Salemme Foundation.

One day soon after Martha's memorial service, Skrapits, who lives in downtown Allentown, discovered there was a small space available at the new Musselman Arts Development Center at Sixth and Hamilton streets. With money from the sale of Salemme's Williams Township property, the space was secured in 2006.

''Basically, our endowment was what we got from the sale -- there was nothing else,'' Skrapits says. ''But I was still looking for other possibilities, and found a bigger space -- 1,200 square feet -- at 542 Hamilton, in what had been the old Empire Beauty School. We moved everything into it in October.''

''This new space is a tremendous advancement in the cultural revitalization of downtown Allentown,'' says Bob Metzger, interim director of the Allentown Art Museum. Metzger had visited Salemme's studio and met Martha. ''Here we have the work of an artist of the first rank, known and respected to many within the art world, but unfortunately relatively unknown to the general public. This long overdue recognition is warmly welcomed, and will give the opportunity to let him be known to his own community for the first time.''

Skrapits, a volunteer like all the members of the foundation's board, is committed to telling others about Salemme. At this time, the foundation space is planned not as a traditional museum or gallery, but as a place to study Salemme's art. It is now open weekends and a formal opening is scheduled for late March. The group also has an impressive Web site.

''Our mission is to preserve the legacy of an American master, Antonio Salemme, and to educate the public about his contributions to 20th-century art,'' says Skrapits.

The Antonio Salemme Foundation now looks more like an artist's studio than an art gallery. In fact, the place is as much a work in progress as are some of its pieces -- bronze, unfired clay and plaster casts representing all phases of the sculptor's trade. ''We're still in an editing phase, having just recently unpacked more than 120 boxes of sculpture -- about 150 pieces, and that's just the small ones -- and hundreds of paintings. Then there's hundreds of examples of Martha's work, which are mostly watercolors,'' Skrapits says.

Salemme's opus is indeed impressive, and represents a bridge between the Impressionists of the 19th century and 20th century Modernism. Born in Gaeta, Italy, in 1892, he moved to Boston with his father in 1904 after the death of his mother. He began studying art when he was 14, and in 1912 a Bostonian patron of the arts, recognizing his talent, sent him to Rome, where he studied classical sculpture. Returning to the United States after World War I, Salemme established a studio in Greenwich Village.

Salemme became a prominent artist in the 1920s through the 1930s, when his Neoclassical style and reputation as a portrait sculptor earned him one of the first Guggenheim Fellowships, awarded in 1932.

''To give you an idea of how important he was at the time, two of the other award recipients that year were Martha Graham and Lewis Mumford. He didn't even have to apply -- he was invited to take it,'' Skrapits says.

One of his most important, and arguably most controversial works of the period, was his 1926 full-figure nude portrait of the actor Paul Robeson in bronze-colored plaster, titled ''Negro Spiritual.'' The sculpture is missing. Notable pieces on display from Salemme's classical period include ''Seated Athlete,'' a life-size bronze not shown in public since it was displayed at the Whitney Museum in 1936; ''Eve,'' another classic life-size bronze of a standing female nude, and a 1926 bust of Ethel Waters, the prominent Harlem Renaissance jazz/blues singer. Paintings from this period are very Post-Impressionistic, such as his Cézanne-like view of Central Park, with its soft colors and carefully preserved perspectives, or his portrait of British novelist Gerald Heard.

But as the 1930s waned, Neoclassicism was giving way to Modernism, with figures and landscapes becoming more stylized and more expressionistic. What Salemme was doing was going out of style.

''By the time he moved to the Lehigh Valley, he pretty much let his ties to the art world go. His focus was becoming less social and more imaginative and visionary,'' says Skrapits.

The Salemmes discovered Northampton County through Manhattan friends who had a weekend place there. On a visit, they discovered an old schoolhouse that was being renovated into a residence, thought it would make a good studio, and bought it in 1959 as a weekend retreat. In 1962 they made the decision to move there permanently.

His change of focus is evident in some sculptures on display from this period, such as fanciful, heavily textured pieces Salemme called ''environments.'' But many works from the period still preserve his classic quest for realism, such as busts of John F. Kennedy, Einstein and Eisenhower. Not one to be modest, Salemme called his Kennedy portrait ''the finest there was of the man, and no one is more qualified than myself to say so.''

Salemme's later paintings show his drift to a more stylized vision. His world becomes more Matisse-like, filled with bright colors and distorted perspective. A still life of a bowl of green tomatoes becomes a surrealistic study with an imaginary background scene. Portraits of women he called ''imagined portraits'' are created from remembered or imagined details, not from the figures themselves.

''When I met him, it was all about color relationships and almost surreal perspectives -- a more modernist approach. He once told me, 'I did my best work after I turned 70,' '' says Skrapits. ''I mean, here was this guy, 90 years old, just churning this stuff out -- it's like he was still trying to tell us something.''


What: Space devoted to the work of the late painter/sculptor, who worked in Williams Township, Northampton County for a third of his life

When: Open 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, call first; or by appointment. Grand opening in the spring.

Where: 542 Hamilton St., second floor, Allentown

Admission: Free, donations accepted

Info: 610-433-4150,

Steve Siegel is a freelance writer.

Jodi Duckett, editor