Artist- Educator- Advocate
by Erin Keever
Leonard Lehrer likes to talk. He readily admits his gift of gab, and those interested in the visual arts would be advised to listen. As an orator, educator, advocate and artist, Lehrer expresses a deeply felt and infectious passion for printmaking and indeed, an overall enthusiasm for life.
Lehrer grew up in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. He has fond memories of his life there, and says his first two true passions were art and baseball. While his baseball career didn’t pan out, he was hooked on art after beginning art classes at the Philadelphia Museum. In a recent visit with the artist, he reminisced about his old stomping grounds and his early exposure to arts:
“It was a really a very special way to grow up. I was about twenty minutes by bus from the Philadelphia Art Museum. I got to know people there, and they would find me wandering around and ask, “What are you going to see today, Lennie?” I would tell them because I knew all of that stuff. In high school my art teacher gave me a list of slides he wanted me to borrow from the Philadelphia Museum’s slide library so he could lecture to the class. I loved it because he had such confidence in me. He’d say, “Okay Lennie, suppose you bring in a whole selection of slides on the Barbizon School. I’ll do the notes, you bring the pictures.” I didn’t flinch. You know fifteen-years-old, and I get to go look through the Barbizon. But that was the norm and it was heaven.”
After receiving an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, Lehrer taught at what was then the Philadelphia College of Arts (PCA). There he was instrumental in setting up the two-dimensional portion of its foundation program. But perhaps his most life altering decision was to accept a position as the Chair of the Art Department at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He says,
“They are asking me to come out there and I am asking myself, “Am I going to do this and leave everything I’ve ever known? Where am I gonna get a cheesesteak?” To my credit, I said yes, and it was without any question the best and most extraordinary thing I could have done. I went at it, never looked back and have been smiling ever since.”
Lehrer’s move coincided with a significant shift in the field of printmaking. This was when the renowned Tamarind Institute (formerly Tamarind Lithography Workshop) was relocating from Los Angeles, California to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
It was at Tamarind that Lehrer learned to treasure working with master printers.
“I was good at printing, but I never loved it like printers love it. I moved there and became head of the art department; Clinton Adams was the head of Tamarind and was also the Dean of Fine Arts at UNM. My responsibilities in terms of Tamarind were to integrate guest artists into the department. That was how I was introduced to so many people from the West Coast, which was extraordinary. I was working at Clinton’s invitation with master printers. I just salivated and dug in and went totally bonkers. I had the greatest printers in the country printing my prints.”
Having traveled widely throughout Western Europe, Lehrer was introduced to the ordered realm of formal gardens in France and England and was particularly moved by the Alhambra’s gardens in Granada, Spain. In the 1970s he received a travel grant to study the formal gardens of Russia and Eastern Europe. Now he would revisit his family’s roots, photographing gardens and cityscapes to use in his lithographs. His sweeping View of St. Petersburg (1978) was created as a result of these travels. Recently the artist has been revisiting the work, hand coloring it, creating a fresh view of the skyline, and in a sense experiencing it all over again. Of course without Lehrer’s original strength of vision, clarity of composition and skillful execution, this new version would not be possible.
In the mid 1970s Lehrer moved to Texas to set up The University of Texas at San Antonio’s art program. Three years later he went to Arizona to be Director of the School of Art and Director of Visual Arts Research Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe. In Arizona, Lehrer had the opportunity to work closely with Jules Heller, who “was the heavy duty person in printmaking. I had met him at Tamarind when he was a guest there and I had hit it o with him. I had a grand time in Arizona.”
In 1991 Lehrer was offered a position in New York as Chair of NYU’s Art Department. It was in New York that Lehrer met Anne Coffin who founded the International Print Center New York (IPCNY) in 2000. Lehrer is a Founding Trustee of IPCNY. He remembers when he got that first call from Coffin, “She explained that there was room in New York to set up an International Print Center of New York, where there would be a sharing of the love of the fine art print. And now, there’s nothing like it in the world…it’s a fantastically successful thing.”
IPCNY’s mission is to foster understanding of the fine art print through exhibitions, publications and programs; in doing so, the non-pro t has partnered with e University of Texas at Austin’s Printmaking Convergence. Lehrer, together with Ken Hale, Professor of Printmaking and Senior Associate Dean for Academic A airs–College of Fine Arts, led the Printmaking Convergence program. In addition to advancing the appreciating of printmaking, the program makes personal and professional connections among students, printmaking studios, collectors, curators, and artists.
Lehrer says of the two organizations, “I set them up to do things in concert with each other.” For the past two years the Printmaking Convergence has hosted IPCNY’s annual New Prints exhibition at UT’s Visual Arts Center. They also offered programming for print enthusiasts, such as this past March’s panel discussion at the VAC. Lehrer also teaches a “Careers in Art” class for undergraduates to prepare them for what’s ahead. And after many moves, notable positions and accomplishments in academia, Lehrer feels most fortunate, acknowledging, “Academics fed my habit. It allowed me to make my images and to travel.”
Lehrer’s work is highly regarded. While he has worked in a variety of media, it is his lithographic prints that allow his formal structure and sense of order to shine. His subjects lean towards classicism; he has a well-documented interest in formal and so-called paradise gardens, focusing on flowers, statuary, sculpted putti, urns and ornamental fountains. His latest work employs digital tools to review and recombine snippets from his massive personal image bank.
Garden V is a wonderful example of his new vertically oriented digital prints. In it the artist stacks layers of imagery in horizontal bands like architectural friezes. The top register contains a crisp image of a blue fountain centered on the page like a crown. Underneath, saturated photographic slices of gardens are alternated with semi-abstracted material from nature. Clarity is juxtaposed with painterly layers obscuring foliage, water and fish. The kaleidoscopic facets are capped and stabilized at the bottom with another photographic detail of garden surroundings, including blue walls mirroring the vibrantly blue fountain at the top.
Many of Lehrer’s works address the theme of paradise. Whether careful compositions of idyllic travel spots or works with Arcadian themes, each suggests a cultural Eden.
“What I learned early when I first started to be aware of the formal garden was that this was a culture’s way of establishing its collective view of what paradise on earth was. ere was a precious little Eden that cultures went to regularly. Maybe because I grew up next to a park in the middle of a city I had an intuitive reaction, asking why in the midst of this tremendous compression of row houses is there a sense of total peace when you go into the park??
Lehrer’s latest prints are loaded with ideas from earlier work and nostalgic details from a life well lived. It’s as if he has come full circle and is now being drawn back in time to the first place he knew, the Philadelphia immigrant community of Strawberry Mansion.
“It all comes together and is my sense of self.”
Recollected visual imagery has been spliced and re-sequenced in View from Strawberry Mansion, a digital work done in collaboration with Neal Daugherty, Digital Art Foundations, The University of Texas at Austin. The underlying geometry is akin to antiquity’s golden ratio. Lehrer credits the book, The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art by Charles Bouleau as particularly in uential to him. Lines frame brightly colored panels like lead framing stained glass windows. Exterior sections reveal architectural details and historical sculpture from around Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s grounds as well as scenes from snapshots in Italy. Not surprisingly interior images feature family members and those dearest to the artist including his daughter Anna who suffered from a terminal illness and he says “is at the center of it all.” In the uppermost rounded arch are two images from the Alhambra in Granada: one is the Courtyard of the Lions and its famous fountain, and above that the stalactite-like Muqarnas dome in the Hall of the Abencerrajes.
The main triptych shape is mounted above a trapezoid that extends downward into a prismatic reflecting pond of sorts, dotted with koi and layered to create semi translucent veils and swaths of blue- green color punctuated with orange dashes. Like a textile, this print will hang unframed. It reminds one of a carefully ordered yet richly expressive autobiographical fabric.
The artist says his formal arrangements don’t re- order nature in any attempt to perfect it. Rather, “I am celebrating what’s there as I understand it.” Referring to his synthesis of images, memories and dreams, he says, “It all comes together and is my sense of self.”