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JOSEF PRESSER (Poland, Lublin 1909-1967 / act: USA & Paris)

Josef Presser Josef Presser was born in 1909 to Russian-Jewish parents in Lublin, Poland. At the age of 12 he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and received a scholarship to attend the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts - BMFA, under Bryant Baker, Henry Hunt Clark, Philip L. Hale, and William James . At school he was recognized as a boy genius. His teacher, Philip L. Hale, son of Everett Hale, was quoted to have said, "I have a genius in my class and I don't know what to say to him." Presser's four years at art school was followed by a four-year sojourn during which he studied at the great museums of France, Italy and Belgium. Upon his return to America in 1931, he settled into his studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his concern for the poor and socially deprived grew with the urgency of the Great Depression. In 1940 Presser moved to a studio on 14 th Street in the Union Square district of New York City. In 1941 he married Agnes Hart and they acquired summer studios in Woodstock, New York, becoming members of the Maverick Artist Colony and the Woodstock Artists Association. Presser spent his last three years living and working in Paris. § His work has been exhibited at various institutions, including the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1965 he became an Honorary member of the "Cercle Royal Gaulois Artistique et Littéraire", in Brussels, Belgium, and was also a member of the Philadelphia Watercolor Club and the New Haven Paint & Clay Club. He spent his last three years living and working in Paris. Presser's artworks can be found in the following institutions: the Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania; Amherst College, Massachusetts; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC; La Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; the Lyman Allen Art Museum, Connecticut; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Syracuse; the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; the Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island; the Sheldon Swope Museum, Indiana; Skidmore College, New York; Smith College, Massachusetts; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; The American College of Greece, Athens; the Louvre, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Newark Museum, New Jersey; the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; the Ulrich Museum of Art, Kansas; and the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, New York. [Megakles Rogakos 01/2009]

Emigrating to Boston in 1913 from Poland with his Russian-Jewish parents, Josef Presser was admitted in 1921 at age 12 to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (BMFA) with a full four-year scholarship, the youngest student ever accepted at the school. The lack of challenge for the boy who could draw everything with ease set the stage for Presser's search as an adult for new forms and styles of expression. § After completing 4 years at BMFA, Presser's boundless curiosity led him to Europe in the late 1920s, signing on as a crew member of a freighter, jumping ship in Hamburg, and working on horse-drawn canal barges in Belgium and France and with small traveling circuses. It was at this time that Presser began reaching for new ideas of expression while still embracing the "old world masters." In Paris, his studies of Renaissance painters in the museums of Europe are reflected in "Cybele." His first major painting sale was brokered by the director of the Louvre. § The artist settled into a studio in Philadelphia upon his return to America in 1931, where his concern for the poor and socially deprived grew with the urgency of the Great Depression, eventually earning him a decent living painting WPA and private murals, as well as a fast-selling body of more intense personal paintings. § In the mid 1930s Presser moved to New York City, where he met and married fellow NYC artist Agnes Hart, with whom he would have a tempestuous relationship until his death. They lived and worked in a loft over bustling 14 th Street at Union Square. He painted prodigiously, often paying off bar tabs and butchers with a painting, a quickly drawn portrait. § Presser was manic-depressive and the inherent symptoms of a cycle, ranging from an extreme high to the crash of depression, enhanced the richness, depth and variety of his work while he suffered through the stages. § Presser and his sketchpads would be found in Union and Washington Squares but more often, near the waterfront, Fulton Street, the Battery, South Street and the Bowery, not painting the elegant passenger ships but the longshoremen and the down-and-out claimed by the Great Depression. § In 1940, Presser and his wife purchased studio/camps in Hervey White's Maverick Artist Colony in Woodstock, New York. Here and at Yaddo, he spent time in the stables and paddocks at nearby Saratoga racetrack, where he mingled with the trainers, jockeys and stable hands. § He became especially well-known for his drawings and paintings of horses; one of his most important commissions was for Riddle Stables, of a champion stallion sired by Man o' War, the most famous race horse of the time. After completion of the portrait, Presser lived in the stable barns for another 3 months, sketching the thoroughbreds and their grooms. § Art dealer and Presser biographer Raymond Tubbs notes even though Presser was meeting and getting to know artists like de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko, he never formally joined their movement, even though he was one of their group as they "fed off of each other in pushing their work to its limits." At the forefront of Abstract Expressionism, Presser's continued emphasis on the human figure nevertheless kept him from becoming a complete abstractionist and a part of the "New York School" of the late 1940s and 1950s. § Following severe episodes of bipolarity that landed him in St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, Presser moved back to Paris in 1964. Although he had periods of great output, he returned to the safety of what always was present in his work, the Renaissance form, especially the head. Among Presser's enormous output are hugely successful portraits of individual and groups of children. The sweetness and paternal love he had for "les innocents" show through in both this photograph, taken in the last period of his life among the children of Paris, and in the paintings he produced. [www.JosefPresser.org]

"I have a genius in my class and I don't know what to say to him." ~ Everett Hale, Presser's BMFA Professor

"As a draftsman Presser was probably one of the most gifted of our time and to compare his with the drawing facility of Picasso, may not be an over statement." ~ Martin H. Bush, Founding Director, Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Kansas

"There is no doubt Presser shared the desperation of many of his colleagues and contemporaries about the devastating results of the depression that made misery a commonplace experience in America. His later works... prove he did not lose his sensibility and compassion when times were getting better. He still had an eye for the back streets of the American dream and their inhabitants." ~ Frank Balters, art historian, Cologne

"Presser essentially had a child-like innocence. He was full of faith and love. His tenderness, compassion and love of people was touched with deep sorrow. One can see this in his drawings, especially of children, where the purity and sweetness of his nature is perfectly expressed." ~ Irwin Hoffman

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
ROGAKOS, MEGAKLES Frances Rich - La Gazelle 2010 The American College of Greece - ACG Art, Athens

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