In the November 1982 issue of “Arts Magazine,” art critic Anthony Hecht profiled Hartford-born artist Elbert Weinberg, contrasting his artistic range to the “single vein” of artists like Vivaldi, Picasso, Stravinsky, and James Joyce: “[T]here is also another kind of artist, one who is eager to enlarge his idiom so as to cover the widest ranges of experience, to risk new styles and the dangers of experiment, not for the sake of easy adventurism or flashy novelty, but by way of opening himself to large modes of feeling or realms of experience that a mastered but restricted vocabulary would not allow.”
On Oct. 4, the New Britain Museum of American Art will dedicate “The Blind Sister of Narcissus,” a newly acquired bronze work by the late sculptor, who died in 1991 at the height of his renown.
Weinberg created “The Blind Sister of Narcissus” in the late ‘80s, one of many sculptures inspired by mythology, says Kenneth Kahn, president of the Greater Hartford Arts Council from 1999 to 2009. It may also have been associated with an earlier work of Narcissus by the sculptor, part of his “mirror” series, he notes.
The work was installed on the museum’s lawn two months ago, joining several other large-scale sculptures.
“A major objective of the New Britain Museum is to display the finest of our Connecticut artists from the past and present,” says director Douglas Hyland. “Recently, in particular, I have focused on creating an outdoor sculpture park on the two-plus acres of the museum’s beautifully landscaped property. We now have 15 examples in a wide variety of media by Sol LeWitt, Arthur Carter, Howard Fromson, William Kent, Tom Doyle, and other artists from our state as well as by Alexander Archipenko, Nancy Graves, Mariana Pineda and Chaim Gross, among others, from other parts of the country. Thus, it was a great honor when we applied to the Weinberg Foundation and were given the charming figurative work, ‘The Blind Sister of Narcissus.’ It has a sensuous quality and yet is evocative of innocence and gentleness. It is almost life-size and adds another dimension to our ever-growing sculpture garden.”
A native of Hartford’s North End, Weinberg was born in 1928 and grew up on Nelson Street, behind the family’s grocery store. He showed an early interest in drawing and in building three-dimensional objects; as a freshman at Weaver High, he began studying with German sculptor Henry Kreis at the Hartford Art School, housed in the Wadsworth Athenaeum. He graduated from Weaver in 1946, as class valedictorian.
Weinberg enrolled in the art school full time and continued to study with Kreis until 1948, when he transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design for two years. After graduating at age 23, he became the youngest recipient of the Prix de Rome, which allowed him to study abroad for two years. While in Rome, he was visited by West Hartford residents Marcus and Bluma Bassevitch, who gave him his first sculpture commission.
He completed the commissioned piece upon his return to the U.S., having landed a scholarship to Yale School of Design, where he also taught figure-drawing. But he kept the work in his living room, where it was spotted by a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who convinced the museum to buy the sculpture. “Ritual Figure,” a woodcarving of a man blowing a shofar, made the cover of “Art in America” magazine.
That got Weinberg noticed by Grace Borgenicht, a painter and renowned gallery-owner in Manhattan who represented the artist for nearly four decades. “While he was alive, during his heyday, he showed regularly in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, in numerous group shows and one-man shows all around the country,” says Kahn, “He was in the company of A-list artists of the time.”
Weinberg drew national and international attention, landing the first of many commissions from celebrated architect John Portman in the mid-’50s. He returned to Rome on a Guggenheim Fellowship, stretching the one-year sojourn into 11 and becoming Borenicht’s best-selling artist in the ‘60s. He taught at the study-abroad programs of Temple University and Trinity College, returning to the U.S. to teach at Union College in the late ‘70s. He finally came back to Hartford in 1980, working in his studio and teaching at Boston University.
Weinberg’s birthplace is home to three of his large-scale public sculptures: Beth El Temple in West Hartford, the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, and the Hartford Armory. His works can be found at museums, universities, and public spaces across the country, and in private collections throughout the world.
In 1988, Weinberg was commissioned to create a sculpture for the “Art For All” public-art project, sponsored by the Hartford Courant Commission. In a lengthy interview with Courant writer Patricia Weiss, Weinberg explained, “I’m always pushing myself to be inventive. I always wanted to put two words up on top of the studio: ‘What if?’ What if I tried this? What if I tried that? What if I made it out of wood? What if I made it out of marshmallows?”
Weinberg is an “artist’s artist,” says Kahn. “If you look at a painting, if it’s a Chagall, you’ll know it because he did 10,000 pieces that were more or less the same. Weinberg never went with one idea or style. He was prolific in wood, bronze, ceramic, marble; he never had ‘a style,’ but could do it all – Expressionist, Impressionist, classical, traditional. He would sit in his studio day and night, weekdays and weekends, completely devoted to his artwork.”
At the time of his death, Weinberg was being courted by many collectors for commissions, says Harold Lindenthal, trustee of the Elbert Weinberg Trust. He left behind some 100 sculptural works of all materials and sizes, including bronzes and Judaica. Housed in Weinberg’s studio, the art is sold by appointment at the studio and at Lux Bond and Green in West Hartford.
When asked why Weinberg was chosen for the 1988 “Art For All” project, then- Courant editor and publisher Michael J. Davies told Patricia Weiss, “We liked so many things about Elbert, not the least of which that he is a Hartford native and his career symbolizes the Art For All project. His work appears in distant places, but there needs to be a better appreciation of it and better access to it right here at home.”
The sentiment is echoed a quarter-century later by Lindenthal and Kahn, who are beginning to see a growing contemporary appreciation of Weinberg’s contributions to the art world. The New Britain Museum’s acquisition reflects a growing groundswell of activity, says Kahn, which also includes a future exhibition at a local gallery featuring the artist’s animal-themed sculptures.
For more information about Elbert Weinberg and the Elbert Weinberg Trust: www.elbertweinberg.com
To arrange a tour of the Weinberg studio: Ken Kahn, KRKFineArts@me.com / (860) 655-5302
For information on the Oct. 4, 5:30pm-7:00pm dedication of “The Blind Sister of Narcissus” (pictured on the cover of this issue) at the New Britain Museum of Art: www.nbmaa.org / (860) 229-0257