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Max Spivak

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Max Spivak (1906 - 1981) was a Polish-born Modernist painter, muralist and mosaicist. Spivak was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, and his wife, Lee Krasner (who apprenticed under Spivak), Eugenie Gershoy (with whom he collaborated on selected works), Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky (a teacher and mentor to Spivak), Mark Rothko, Ibram Lassaw (with whom he shared a New York apartment on 9th Street), and other modern and abstract artists who rose to prominence in New York City during the early-to-mid twentieth century. Spivak was a noted member of the New York School of artists at the center of contemporary art in the early 1940s.

 

EDUCATION AND EARLY CAREER

Spivak attended New York’s Cooper Union, where he was exposed to art in a formal, academic environment. He went on to study accounting at City College of New York. After graduating from CCNY, he made his living as a bookkeeper. 

 

Spivak's intent to become a professional artist led him to Paris in 1924. There he took classes from Arshile Gorky, who would become recognized as a major influence on Abstract Expressionism.

 

Determined to pursue his interest in art, he joined The Art Students League of New York. He practiced art with other aspiring artists, often getting away from New York City to paint landscapes in nearby Staten Island.

 

 

EXPERIENCES IN EUROPE

Arriving in France in 1924, Spivak began to paint Parisian city scenes and landscapes of southern France. He remained in Paris for three years. Along with a group of friends from Lyon, Spivak would attend the Bal des Quatres Ardents in Paris each year. Concerning his experience in France, Spivak said, in a 1963 interview with Harlan Phillips for the Smithsonian Institute Archives of American Art, that France "absolutely colored and changed my life completely[1]."

 

In 1930, Spivak returned to Europe, traveling in Italy and France. He came back to the U.S. in 1933 at the height of the Depression, around which time he moved into an apartment overlooking the East River on 55th Street in the Sutton Place South neighborhood of New York City. There, he painted local scenes, including landscapes along the East River. But, unlike places in Europe, which he appreciated for their cultural history, he found landscape painting unrewarding in New York and decided to paint in a studio instead.

 

"Europe is paintable; it's been molded; it's been touched and waxed and caressed and loved so that it's paintable. Anything you look at forms its own kind of coherence, a new kind of creativity of pleasure, of warmth, of sensuousness,” Spivak said in his 1963 interview with the Smithsonian.

 

Starting in 1934, Spivak served on the editorial committee of Art Front, an art magazine co-founded by the Artists' Committee of Action and the Artists Union in New York, which was influential in establishing the Public Works of Art Project in December 1933. 

 

In 1935, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Spivak was able to support himself as an artist. Many artists who became widely respected in the art world worked for the Federal Art Project. 

 

Spivak was politically active and vocal. He became part of a small group of Marxists linked to the WPA, including Stuart Davis, James Brooks, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Harry Holtzman, Ibram Lassaw, Lee Krasner, and Harold Rosenberg, all of whom had Trotskyite leanings and countered the antimodernist position of the party. Spivak and Lee Krasner, for example, were targeted as “Trotskyites” at the meetings of the Artists’ Union of New York, an offshoot of the John Reed Club (1929-1935), an organization that appealed to Marxist writers, artists, and intellectuals.  Even though Spivak joined the party, he soon learned, like Krasner, that it was not open to ideological differences[2].

 

Later on in his successful career as a public art muralist and privately commissioned artist, Spivak was a featured celebrity designer for Suntile, a ceramic tile manufacturer. In 1956, Progressive Architecture magazine published a special advertising section on Spivak's designs[3].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTABLE COMMISSIONS AND EXTANT WORKS

Some of Spivak's mosaic murals, produced under the auspices of the WPA, have been preserved: 

 

5 Bryant Park, Manhattan, NY: The large, ceramic tile mural was featured in the New York Times in 2015 after it was rediscovered behind a facade during renovations of what was formerly the Union Dime Bank building[4]. 

 

Calderone Theater, Hempstead, NY: Large mosaic mural installed in the main lobby of the Calderone Theater. The theater opened in 1949 and was the Streamline Moderne design creation of architect William Lescaze, who frequently collaborated with Spivak, Hans Hofmann, and other artists[5]. 

 

New York Public Library, Astoria Queens: A mural painting by Spivak was commissioned in 1938 for the New York Public Library branch in Astoria, Queens. The mural depicts whimsical circus and opera puppets. It was done initially in five parts, along with polychromed figures, by the sculptor Eugenie Gershoy.[6]

 

JHS 189, Queens​​ NY: Tools of Education, 1956: Mural works at J.H.S. 189–Daniel Carter Beard - a highly rated public school in Flushing, NY.[7]

 

Broadway & West 104th St., NY: Mosaic column remaining from a larger mural installation for Riker's Restaurant, now occupied by Ben & Jerry’s: “Spivak’s mural recalls a Miro-style whimsy and is an unexpected note of artistry... The once elegant building opened in 1923 as the Broadway View Hotel, renamed the Regent in 1933.” [Hidden Gem, May 18, 2022, Landmark West https://www.landmarkwest.org/hidden-gem/] In the late 1940s, Architectural Record magazine criticized what it called the decade's ''orgy of abortive misuse of glass mosaic'' but praised Spivak's work ''in spinach green, carrot red and butter yellow,'' even saying that he had ''an imagination like Miro and a sense of color precision like Stuart Davis.''[8]

 

Statler Hotel, Los Angeles: Spivak created a mosaic mural for the lobby of The Statler Hotel in Los Angeles, pictured in the August 7, 1952 edition of the Los Angeles Times.[9]

 

Pfizer Research Campus, Groton, CT: Since 1960, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has maintained an expansive research campus in Groton, CT. The entrance to one of the on-site facilities, Building 118, was adorned with a glass mosaic mural by Spivak. The mural comprised a variety of scenes depicting the progress of biomedical research.[10]

 

American Lines–S.S. Constitution and S.S. Independence: On Feb. 11, 1951, Aline B. Louchheim critiqued Spivak’s work on the S.S. Independence in a New York Times article[11]

entitled Art Afloat in Functional Unity, S. S. Independence:

 

Yesterday, the S.S. Independence, America's newest, fastest and most luxurious ocean liner - a 25-knot, 1000 passenger ship departed from New York harbor on her first scheduled cruise. It seems to me indisputable that the greatest kudos belong to Max Spivak, who has provided the mosaics for the swimming pool and soda fountain cafe. Spivak has mastered his medium and exploited its special possibilities in a sun-lit area. He has adjusted his backgrounds-dark green-blue and tawny tans-to near and far space. And on these rich backgrounds swim a delightful school of fantastic fish, more wonderful even than those strange varieties which plunged on to the Kon-Tiki raft. One feels a distinction here between whimsicality and fantasy. There is not a minnow's worth of cuteness. The scale of these marine creatures to the wall areas and the little circular table tops is excellent. Their variety is fascinating. The design is pleasing without becoming boresome, interesting without becoming insistent or annoying. A similar mosaic spreads over the deep end of the oval swimming pool like a jeweled carpet. Throughout the relations between decorated and plain areas of wall and the way in which the mosaics follow around a curved wall to integrate the section with the deck give evidence of a calculated scheme. This is modern architectural decoration at its best.

 

Spivak's work was included in two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): New Horizons in American Art in 1936 and Painting and Sculpture in Architecture in 1949.

 

Other sites featuring Spivak's artwork: Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, NJ; BMA, Newark, NJ; Ft. Hamilton High School, NY; Spuyten Duyvil Library, Bronx, NY; General Wingate High School, Brooklyn, NY; Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Co., Morris Plains, NJ; Textile Center, NYC 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PERSONAL FACTS

Max Spivak was born in Poland and moved to the U.S. as a child with his parents, residing in New York State throughout the remainder of his life. In September 1941, Spivak married Florence Borghese, a 1st generation Italian-American. The couple have a daughter, Nora. The Spivak family lived in Stuyvesant Town at 365 East 14th Street (Avenue C) while frequently visiting and spending summers at their country home in East Fishkill, New York, 70 miles from their New York City apartment. The family moved to East Fishkill in 1968. 

 

Max and Florence moved back to Manhattan in the late 1970s and lived on West 28th Street for several years before Max Spivak’s death on December 5, 1981, at the Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan, New York.[12]

 

REFERENCES

 

  1. Interview with Max Spivak by Harlan Phillips for the Smithsonian Institute Archives of American Art, 1963: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-max-spivak-12105

  2. Harold Rosenberg: A Critic‘s Life: https://dokumen.pub/harold-rosenberg-a-critics-life-9780226740201.html

  3. Progressive Architecture magazine, 1956: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossettlibrary/5740451795

  4. Spivak’s ceramic tile mural in New York’s garment district: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/nyregion/uncovered-in-a-renovation-a-mural-recalls-the-garment-industrys-heyday.html

  5. Spivak’s ceramic tile mural in the lobby of the Calderone Theater: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2012/08/24/arts/24ANTIQUES2_SPAN.html

  6. Spivak’s painting in the Astoria Queens branch of the New York Library: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/29/arts/design/on-a-treasure-hunt-for-art-stashed-among-the-books.html?_r=0

  7. Spivak’s ceramic tile mural in JHS 189, Queens, NY: http://www.nycsca.org/Community/Public-Art-for-Public-Schools/Collection/ID/513

  8. Spivak’s murals for Riker's Restaurant at Broadway and West 104th St., New York City: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/31/realestate/streetscapes-regent-family-residence-for-homeless-formerly-broadway-view-104th.html

  9. Spivak’s ceramic tile mural in the Statler Hotel, Lo Angeles, CA: https://sfmosaic.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/black-gold-mystery-mosaic/

  10. Spivak’s ceramic tile mural at the Pfizer Research Campus in Groton, CT: https://evergreene.com/projects/max-spivak-mosaic/

  11. Spivak’s ceramic tile works for the S.S. Independence: https://www.nytimes.com/1951/02/11/archives/art-afloat-in-a-functional-unity-mosaics-and-map-refregier-and.html

  12. Max Spivak’s Obituary in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/14/obituaries/max-spivak.html 

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