Art critic Burton Wasserman once described Mel Leipzig as “New Jersey’s greatest living painter.” Ask anyone at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), where he’s taught since 1968, and you’ll find equally enthusiastic accolades.
Being painted by the professor of Fine Arts and Art History is regarded as an enormous privilege. He’s considered a gem among the faculty.
After teaching there for 45 years, Mr. Leipzig has announced his retirement. “I just want to paint,” says the artist, who turns 78 next month.
“Professor Leipzig has been a treasured member of the Mercer faculty,” says College President Patricia C. Donohue. “Not only has he taught countless numbers of artists who have gone on to professional careers in the arts and to teaching the arts, he’s chosen to make College faculty, staff, and students part of the canvas of his life.”
To say that Mr. Leipzig paints portraits of family and friends hardly does justice to his work or its subjects. This is a unique kind of portraiture, one that captures not only individuals but their entire milieu. He records his subjects relaxing at home, or working in their offices.
His paintings are direct and unsentimental. His peers are the realist figure painters Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, and Philip Pearlstein.
Mr. Leipzig uses acrylic paints, which are brighter and more intense in color than oils, with a palette that he reduced to four colors: dark blue, dark red, yellow, and white in 1990. His paintings, which are done directly from life, have been described as being “filled with vitality and joy of life.”
Asked what keeps his work fresh over a 60-year career, and the painter replies that he has “an epiphany every ten years or so” that usually brings fresh vigor to his work. In 2008, he changed his approach to working directly with paint on canvas. His recent work is some of his best, he says, singling out a five panel painting of Michael Graves. He’s been doing a lot of diptychs and triptychs recently, painting in situ and working fast, he says.
Although his style has often been described as “photorealist,” Mr. Leipzig doesn’t work from photographs. These days he foregoes even using sketches drawn from life that he would once take back to his studio. In fact, these days, Mr. Leipzig says that his studio is more likely to be his subjects’ homes, where he’ll set up for as long as it takes to complete a painting.
“I studied with abstract painters, so I do a lot of things realists typically don’t,” says the artist, noting that he occasionally distorts perspective and uses white paint that most realists shy away from. “I’m a realist in subject matter, I want to do paintings that are scenes of everyday life; the personal environment reveals a lot about an individual.” Focus on context began, he says, in 1991 with paintings of his son and daughter. “My son’s room was covered in graffiti and my daughters in posters.”
“Great figure painting is always integrated into its background,” says Mr. Leipzig, describing his favorites Manet and Degas as “masters of integrating the figure skillfully into context.”
In recent years, Mr. Leipzig has included his MCCC colleagues as subjects, featuring images of people in myriad roles in more than 100 portraits of college faculty and staff.
Take for instance his portrait of Frank Benowitz and Doug Fee of the Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management program at MCCC. They are shown in the space that is so important to them.
“While best known for his painting, he was also MCCC’s specialist in teaching art history,” comments Ms. Donohue. “We will always remember his passion for his teaching and for bringing out the best in his students; everyone here is proud and deeply grateful that Mel chose Mercer as the destination for his professional life,” she says.
With a scholarship to study art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Mr. Leipzig went on to study art at The Cooper Union, at Yale University, and Pratt Institute. He’s had numerous one man shows at museums and institutions and has been featured at the Henoch Gallery in New York City.
His works are part of the permanent collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Yale Art Gallery, the National Academy Museum, Cooper Hewitt Museum, New Jersey State Museum, and the White House Collection in Washington, D.C. In 2006, he was elected to the National Academy of Design in New York.
Before he leaves the college, Mr. Leipzig will present two lectures and slide presentations. The first, “Portrait of a College,” takes place at noon, April 10, in the College’s Kerney Hall at 102 North Broad Street in Trenton.
In the second, “A Lifetime Devoted to Painting,” the artist will review his 60-year career from his high school years to the present day, at noon, April 23, in the Communications Building, CM107, on the West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. This will be his last lecture before retirement.
Both lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, call (609) 570-3324 or visit www.mccc.edu/events.