At 98, Manuel Bromberg won’t give an inch

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

“We were putting it up in New Paltz and some professor came along and sat down on a bench in front of this piece. It was a sort of quiet place near the library in New Paltz, and he said to me — and some of my students were working on it and they were around —what is that? It’s obviously what it is, a sculpture…and I said, it’s a piece of sculpture. He didn’t buy that. So I tried, ‘it’s an abstract piece of sculpture,’ and that made more sense to him.

“One of the students, who will be at the show, said ‘sir, what it really is, a long time ago, millions of years ago, there were these prehistoric birds, and this bird lived in this area, and what you see in front of you sir, is one of its droppings..’ Oh…”

Bromberg will fool you. He’s 98, but could easily be 20 years younger from all appearances. He gets around with a cane, shows a visitor around the house inside and out, and has full command of all his faculties, and by all intents and purposes, hasn’t given an inch on what he believes.

“I missed a great opportunity. I would be very rich and famous now…a piece of that cliff I showed in a huge show in Albany and the person judging the show was the curator of the Museum of Modern Art. And he wrote the forward to the show and it was all about this piece. He went out of his head about it. He wrote beautiful things about it. Said it would have delighted Thoreau and that whole group of people, that it was a way of making us look at nature…In any case, he recommended I go see a dealer in New York.

“I didn’t know anything about New York, I wasn’t playing that game. That was for de Kooning, and artists who really worked that. The art world had now moved to New York. And this dealer he sent me to was the best dealer in New York. He’s the guy who found Lichenstein, Ivan Karp, and had a gallery which he called OK Harris…got the name from a corner in the basement where some electrician had scribbled in pencil on a beam, ‘OK. Harris,’ approving the work.

“So I went in with photos of this piece [the Cliff]. And Ivan Karp looked at it…this is a tough New Yorker, and he says, is this as good as it looks in the photograph? I said it’s better. So right then and there he decided to put it in a show…He put it in the show and it just knocked everyone out. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before. Ivan said we’ll set up a show for you in two years. All the other dealers, Castelli, they all work together, it’s a big conspiracy and they saw themselves making millions.

“For me, I had done that. This [sculpture] is something that I hoped to see, I saw it, I did it…what am I to do? Have a show and make more and more of the same? Plus, my dealer went on, first of all you’ve got to have a loft in new York. I’ve got my wife, my home…he’s building this thing and somehow it scares me. The making of a star and millions and doing the whole thing over and over and becoming a New Yorker…I start going along with the deal and then I decide not to. If I had going along with the deal, I’d be a millionaire.”

Would you have been better off?

“Who knows. Maybe I’m supposed to be here talking to you about it. Maybe that’s as it should be. I just know on the merit of itself, the work isn’t going away. The beauty of it…

“I saw a shift in younger artists’ attitude. I’m telling them about art, about color or some such thing, and [the younger artist] said, just tell me, how do I get into a gallery, get successful…and there’s some change that has happened.

“When I started in art, there was no such thing as success or greatness or money. The best you could hope for, was maybe you could do a cover of the Saturday Evening Post, for which Norman Rockwell got $250. That was it. I’m born at the wrong time. The worst time, that is in America, maybe not so much in Europe, where you had the cubist movement…but my period is a world of art which in America is what? A world of social realism? You’ve got to remember what was going on then…and there were fewer galleries, there wasn’t the art that we have today at that time.

“So now I have to accept what I decided to do. I didn’t expect much when I got into art, didn’t expect millions of dollars. I did a self portrait…maybe the best I could have hoped for would be to become a portrait painter, like John Singer Sergeant. It was very limited.

When I meet Picasso, he looked like a banker. He was all dressed up in a suit in his studio…”

Are you excited by the show?

“I like the space they have there at the Guild, I’m exited to see the stuff together. And it’s actually things people have never seen. They’ve seen paintings and sculptures. As a continuity in art, this is not an idea that starts up with, ‘oh, I’ll do this, so and so is doing that…

“Some of it’s been around for years, since 1962, been around but never been shown, except in private showings, at Storm King, etc. But it’s not been shown, not pushed, no press agents. It stands on its own self.

“The nicest compliment I ever had about this work came from Phillip Guston who said to me, ‘you son of bitch. I can’t go down the Thruway without seeing it differently.’ That was the nicest compliment I ever had.”

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