Jon Imber, who died April 17, left the Boston art community startled by the prolific output and freedom of his late work. The achievement was all the more startling as he lived with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) that claimed his life at age 63. I was lucky enough to know him, and in his emails up until days before “exiting” (as he put it) he expressed with his usual laconic wit how it felt getting to the point where the paintings just flowed.
Imber was a vigorous, committed, lifelong painter and like Willem de Kooning, who was a haunting influence on his work, went on painting when ALS ravaged his body rather as dementia had de Kooning’s mind.
Painting continued as a vibrant language of discovery for Imber even as he lost the use of his limbs. Somehow, with limited physical means and no time or energy to waste, but surrounded by loving help and extraordinary gadgets, his last work achieved the looseness and pungency for which he had always been striving.
Speaking to a group of art devotees in Maine, he said that before he was ill he had wanted his work to be “surprising, risky and full of potential doom” but that now he didn’t have to worry about that as he had “a shitload of doom”. The meeting was filmed as part of “Jon Imber’s Left Hand,” directed by Richard Kane in the Maine Masters series, which premiered at the Independent Boston Film Festival on April 26. [View a six-minute segment here.] Imber’s family life is at the heart of the film, as it was at the heart of his life: there are paintings to document his relationship with his wife, the talented painter Jill Hoy, and the coming of age of their son Gabriel.
As Phillip Guston’s favourite student, Imber inherited not only his paints and brushes but also the master’s strong, opinionated presence in the studio. It created more of a dialogue for Imber than a struggle, visible in the large, clumsy but sensate, cartoonish but painterly characters with which he explored personal stories. But also in the way Imber isolated himself from the rollercoaster worldview on painting that he lived through. In his last year he painted numerous portraits of friends and visitors that are very different from those earlier figures. I am reminded of Emil Nolde’s “snapshot” portraits of South Sea Islanders: fast, intuitive, lyrical painting that knows its job and goes straight to the point. The color is luscious and unexpected, the personalities distinctive and alive.print