Artists Who Lose Their Eyesight and Gain Vision
By Serena Solomon
Pablo Picasso probably wasn’t thinking about macular degeneration when he remarked: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up.”
But the statement has more than a grain of truth in it for Serge Hollerbach, 94, a Russian-born artist in Manhattan. Mr. Hollerbach painted throughout every aspect of his vision loss caused by macular degeneration, a disease that affects 10 million Americans, often in their twilight years — typically depleting their central vision and leaving most legally blind, but with some remnant of sight.
Can they stay creative? As Mr. Hollerbach’s vision began deteriorating in 1994, his work shifted from realism with a dose of expressionism to something more abstract. Defined shapes made way for something looser. Colors shifted gear from muted to bright. Mr. Hollerbach’s rigid perfectionism also dropped off as his sight blurred, “like water in the eyes after taking a swim,” he said.
“There is such a thing as a second childhood,” Mr. Hollerbach added, explaining how his paintings changed. “To be playful, you have nothing to lose. Nothing to lose is a kind of new freedom.”
The pre- and post-macular degeneration works of eight artists, including Mr. Hollerbach, Lennart Anderson and Hedda Sterne, are the focus of “The Persistence of Vision,” a new exhibition at the University of Cincinnati. It explores the versatility of artists — shown in early and late works — as they adapted their styles to vision loss and, in cases like Mr. Hollerbach’s, experienced a personal renaissance.
“The late works are gorgeous,” said Brian Schumacher, a curator of the show at the Philip M. Meyers Jr. Memorial Gallery within the university, where Mr. Schumacher is an assistant professor of design. “They stand on their own as viable and legitimate and beautiful works of visual art.”
Mr. Hollerbach’s response to his disease was a turn toward playfulness — perhaps a reflection of a relentless optimism that had helped him survive Nazi labor camps, where he was confined as a teenager during World War II. His work continues to reflect a bend toward social justice and his fascination with everyday life through crowded New York street scenes, including the city’s homeless.
On a Sunday afternoon in his studio, Mr. Hollerbach held a plastic cup up to within an inch of his face. “That’s blue isn’t it?” he asked himself. Yes it was, and he would go on to create water in a crowded beach scene. It was a back and forth process as he placed the canvas on a flat table to apply the acrylic paint so it wouldn’t run. “I can’t really see what I am doing,” he admitted, adding, “I will look at it later.” He placed the canvas back on the easel and took a long squint at it. Mr. Hollerbach didn’t seem overly impressed. “But that’s the freedom of it,” he said, as he continued painting.
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