Ukrainian American, 20th century.
Born 1895, Skole, Ukraine; died 1998, Brooklyn, New York.
Aaron Birnbaum was born in 1895 in the small town of Skola, in that part of eastern Europe that has changed hands repeatedly in the twentieth century - initially part of Austria-Hungary, then in quick succession part of Poland and the Soviet Union, recently becoming part of the newly independent Ukraine. The geographic chaos of his birthplace was reflected in the early years of his life: fear and unease due to the marginalization of the Jewish community in Skola, his father Josef's immigration to the United States, apprenticeship to a tailor at the age of thirteen, working 17-hour days, six days a week. With war on the horizon, the Birnbaum family left Europe in 1913 for the United States, rejoining Josef who had settled on the lower east side of Manhattan.
New York in the teens was a place of opportunity for those who had escaped from war-torn Europe. On their arrival, Josef moved with his family to Brooklyn, buying a house with an attached store that became a tailor shop. Birnbaum began working as a tailor with the rest of his family, eventually enrolling in design school in 1918. He soon opened his own apparel store, followed by a design and manufacturimg business, specializing in women's sportswear and dresses. The enterprise prospered, eventually having 30 employees, and was sold on his retirement in 1957.
After retiring, like many people who have labored day in and day out for a lifetime, Birnbaum was at a loss. "I was alone in the house and I didn't know what to do. I had gone to school for designing and knew how to sketch, so I figured I will start to paint. I bought brushes and paint, and all this here. And I started painting. I made the first picture. I figure, I'll paint it and I'll throw it out." Fortunately, Birnbaum's daughter Lorraine saw the first attempts and was delighted. Soon the entire family was requesting pictures.
Being in the clothing trade, Birnbaum not only drew designs for garments, but also made cardboard templates used to cut the complex pieces that formed an article of clothing. These design techniques from the clothing business became the basis for this approach to painting. "The only thing in designing, you have to put on a little pepper and salt. The same way with a picture. A picture tries to beautify. So you have to put on a little pepper and salt for people to like it." Birnbaum began to cut cardboard templates of the images that he would repeat in his pictures, including houses, animals and birds. The use of these forms led to many of the paintings acquiring a strong graphic quality. Given Birnbaum's frugality and idiosyncratic nature, most of his pictures have been painted on found panels, such as scraps of masonite or plywood, or more eclectic surfaces such as wood serving trays and the reverse side of game boards. Working initially with oils, the artist gradually favored acrylic paint as a medium, with a final coat of commercial varnish. Depending on the underpainting and the varnish used, the works either have a brilliant glazed appearance, or a yellowed, aged look that the artist often prefers. The paintings are frequently completed with found frames - from simple wooden strips to baroque excesses - giving the works in Birnbaum's opinion a "finished" quality.
Birnbaum refers to his vibrantly colored paintings as "remembering pictures" because they are never painted from observation, but represent a lifetime of recollected experience, stretching from his childhood in Europe to recent observations of life in New York. The paintings of memories from his youth are generally more romantic, falling in the contemporary categorization of "folk art." These idyllic scenes of life in a small town, views of farms, forests, and lakes, are brightly colored and lack the "sophistication" of rules of perspective. The works that represent his adult life are often more complex, combining details of lived experience with visual information culled from contemporary graphic sources, such as photographs in magazines and newspapers. These works have been responsible for Birnbaum receiving attention as an "outsider" artist, a limiting label that simplistically divides art into "high" culture (created and promoted by the critical, academic establishment) and the world of unrestrained natural expression. Recently, however, the art establishment (including museums such as this one) have come to support what artists from Paul Gauguin to Jean Dubuffet have advocated - that the art of untrained individuals cannot be separated by formal beauty or emotional and intellectual truth from that created by those in the world of high culture. The appreciation of outsider art is frequently reinforced by the story of its maker, and certainly the narrative of Birnbaum's life is captivating. But the ultimate significance of the artist's story lies in the paintings themselves. Birnbaum has incredible facility as a painter - his ability transcends any label or art world categorization.
In 1995 Birnbaum celebrated his one-hundredth birthday with a part at the Museum of American Folk Art, New York. His work was recently included in the exhibition Flying Free, 20th Century Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Ellin and Baron Gordon at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fold Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia. The recent attention he has received has not affected his spontaneous and unselfconscious nature. "Most of my pictures are from memory." The artist has stated. "I come from a small town and every few months we have a rainbow, so I remember that. I can never forget how that looks." After 102 years Birnbaum still delights in simple observation, incorporating his insights into optimistic images filled with spirit, authenticity, and humor.
- Courtesy of KS Art, New York
2015, The Good Earth, Kerry Schuss, New York
2010, The Museum of Everything, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin
2003, Remembrance and Ritual: Jewish Folk Artists of Our Time, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
1997, Aaron Birnbaum: Paintings 1960 - 1996, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield (Connecticut)
Museum of Everything, London
The Museum of Everything, exhibition catalogue, Electa & Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, 2010.