Monday, February 8th, 2021

Bringing Ideas to Life: Marc Zimetbaum, 1943-2020




The loudest, most boisterous among us often garner the attention. But sometimes it is the quiet, unseen, yet powerful, undercurrent that most profoundly shapes us.

Marc Zimetbaum with one of his small figure sculptures
Marc Zimetbaum with one of his small figure sculptures

Much of Marc Zimetbaum’s life was under the radar. But his impact on others, whether they realize it or not, was enormous. Some may remember him for his major role in the foundation of the New York Studio School, which for more than half a century has impacted the lives of so many. Others experienced his love for sculpture during the summers he taught at Chautauqua. Or perhaps you knew him and didn’t realize it, simply through the many years he worked as the third floor manager of that mecca for artists, Pearl Paint on Canal Street.

On December 20th, 2020, Marc Zimetbaum passed away peacefully in Eger Nursing Home from Covid-19. Fifty-seven years earlier Marc, then a junior at Pratt Institute, read a 1963 ArtNews article written by Mercedes Matter entitled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools”.  Years later he wrote, in an unpublished manuscript:

We didn’t want a degree. We didn’t want grades. We only wanted to study with artists we respected, to spend eight to twelve hours a day in the studio, to have time to grow individually and stylistically without an instructor hovering over us, to be in a place where there was art talk, intelligent visiting faculty and lectures. We wanted to look long and hard at ourselves and our relationship with the history of art and the art world of today.

Along with his friend Chuck O’Connor, Marc met with Matter. Leading a group of disgruntled students, they decided to start an alternative kind of art school with no grades or distractions, only a powerful ambition for their work as artists. There were several meetings in the Chelsea apartment of Louis Finkelstein and Gretna Campbell. After talking with Mercedes they named it “The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture”. The Dean at Pratt said their new school wouldn’t last six months. In the Fall of 1964 the school opened. The original faculty included Matter, Charles Cajori, Sydney Geist, George Spaventa, and Meyer Schapiro. Their visiting faculty included Edwin Dickinson, Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Earl Kerkam, and John Heliker. Many of us who know and love the Studio School may not know this, but without the faith and Herculean efforts of Marc and Chuck at the beginning, that article written by Mercedes would have remained no more than a critique in an art magazine.

Zimetbaum in 1963 at a Ban the Bomb protest at Pratt Institute, the same year he first read Mercedes Matter’s “What’s Wrong with American Art Schools” article in ArtNews
Zimetbaum in 1963 at a Ban the Bomb protest at Pratt Institute, the same year he first read Mercedes Matter’s “What’s Wrong with American Art Schools” article in ArtNews

Mercedes told me many times that she adored Marc, that he was a critical backbone keeping the school alive in its early years. Marc had been a straight A student in high school, third in his class of 500 at Weequahic High School (then ranked the top high school in New Jersey). He was elected Senior Class President and became Editor in Chief of their literary publication, Ergo. Marc’s mother wanted him to go to an Ivy League School. Instead he chose the struggles implicit in the life of an artist. He would have remained closely involved with the Studio School, but life had other plans. In his twenties he suffered the first of what were then called “nervous breakdowns”. These would periodically haunt him for the remainder of his life, interrupting his long stretches of stability. Despite that enormous obstacle, Marc always remained passionately optimistic, and repeatedly pulled himself back in unexpected ways. There is a lump in my throat as I write that there is a lesson in that for all of us. He never gave up.

Recovering from one of these episodes he became well known as the third floor manager at Pearl Paint for many years. Later he managed the Studio School’s art store, Manet On Eighth. For eighteen years, Marc worked as a sculpture instructor at The Art Lab School at Snug Harbor and at Wagner College he was most proud of a group he created for sculptors who shared the cost of a live model. They met on Saturday mornings and he always looked forward to working and talking about art with his friends there.

In the early years of the new millennium, I invited Marc to teach figure sculpture in the renowned Chautauqua Institution summer program. He taught there until 2014. He collaborated with other faculty and students, exhibited his work, and made work in his studio. He was proud to be a part of the 100th Anniversary Chautauqua School of Art exhibition at Denise Bibro Gallery in 2010. A mutual friend, the potter Polly Ann Martin, summarized the shared experience that many of us had with Marc in this latter phase of his life by saying In distant memory, it was a divine summer shared in collaboration with my throwing vessels and his endless passion for drawing on them with many a raku firing. Polly shared the image of a piece on which he drew and gave to her, going on to say simply I have never found myself tired of looking at this work as it has…become part of our home.

Zimetbaum was the recipient of a grant from the Rothko Foundation in 1974, and the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2001. In 2005, at the suggestion of his dear friend Harriet Vicente, he applied and received a grant from The Harriet & Esteban Vicente Trust in order to write a book about his experience during the early years of The New York Studio School. Although left in manuscript form there are plans in place for its completion.

cover artwork for the DVD on Zimetbaum by Mark Ozz and Erick Emerick
cover artwork for the DVD on Zimetbaum by Mark Ozz and Erick Emerick

A biographical film entitled Marc Zimetbaum: Journey of An American Artist,  by Mark Ozz and Erick Emerick (available at Amazon)  offers a lesson to all of us who have faced what we may think are impassable obstacles. He was a living example revealing that it isn’t what happens to us that defines us. Instead, it is how we respond to what happens to us that defines who we become. A few years ago Marc wrote “I’ve been involved, all my artistic life, with the figure, with trying to create an image that grows out of perception, in an attempt to capture a particular model in a particular pose, without slavish preconceptions or reliance on anatomy that tends to dehumanize, rather than bring a figure to life.” Marc didn’t just bring a figure to life. For many of us he made our own lives richer through what he gave of himself.

Marc is survived by his sister, Lisa Max Zimetbaum and her husband Philip Popkin, his former wives Nancy Lewis, Eve LeBer and Janet Rispoli, his daughter Erica Zimetbaum and her husband Guy Johnson, his daughter Ruby Zimetbaum Oyola, his son Red LeBer, his niece Rebecca Royen, and granddaughters Sylvia Johnson and Sienna Oyola.