Montclair Art Museum

Montclair, NJ


The following essay was written by Gail Stavitsky as a catalogue essay for the Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America exhibition which premiered May 23, 1999 at The Montclair Art Museum and toured to Knoxville Museum of Art on September 24, 1999. The exhibition was organized by The Montclair Art Museum and is reprinted with permission of the author and the Museum.


Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America during the Twentieth Century

by Gail Stavitsky, Ph.D., Chief Curator


Since the Renaissance, no other painting technique has been subject to such zealous and detailed attempts to explain its methods, materials, and utensils as the encaustic technique of antiquity [1]


Encaustic is now undergoing another revival fur its use in easel painting. Its effects, its visual and physical properties, and its range of textural and color possibilities make it eminently suitable for use in several different contemporary styles of painting that are not adequately served by our traditional oil-painting processes.[2]

During the twentieth century, the availability of` electrically heated equipment and commercially prepared materials has greatly facilitated the use of the ancient wax-based medium of encaustic. A major figure in its early revival was Karl Zerbe, Head of Painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1937 to 1955. Soon thereafter, Jaspcr Johns revolutionized the possibilities of this ancient medium with his seminal collage paintings of 1954 and beyond. Brice Marden and Lynda Benglis created highly influential paintings during the 1960s and '70s that further extended the parameters of encaustic and wax-based media. As an unpredictable, organic medium, encaustic has especially been embraced by a generation of process-oriented artists reacting against the industrial, prefabricated mediums of Minimalist and Conceptual art. Today, at the end of the century, many artists find encaustic to be uniquely appropriate for the communication of a vast array of spiritual, philosophical, environmental, and painterly concerns. Functioning as a seductive skin or membrane, encaustic is an unusually malleable and mutable medium that evokes bodily sensations, emotions, alchemical transformations, religious rituals, layers of history, and the passage of time.

The history of encaustic art in the early twentieth century is closely related to research of ancient painting techniques. In 1904, Frederic Hamilton Jackson authored a book in London on mural painting (reissued in 1905 by Scribners' in New York) with chapters devoted to the use of wax from antiquity to the late 19th century. Also that year Ernst Berger in Munich contributed Die Maltechnik des Altertums with quotations from Pliny the Elder (ca. 25-79 A.D.).

After World War I, Berger's colleague, the Munich painter Dr. Hans Schmid, further advanced the use of the medium through various publications and his encouragement of the manufacture of encaustic colors and electrically heated palettes available for purchase. After thirty years of research and experimentation to reconstitute the ancient encaustic technique using modern methods, Schmid spread the message of the fast-drying medium's permanence, flexibility of manipulation, optical power, and suitability for large mural decorations or for small paintings on canvas.[3]

Dr. Schmid promoted what he regarded to be the most perfect of mediums in an important article of 1933 in which he proudly announced having received such distinguished and enthusiastic American visitors as the Director of Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, Edward W. Forbes and its painter-conservator Arcadius Lyons (the latter learned the technique from Schmid who exhorted all painters to try it).[4] The following year, a translated summary of Schmid's article was published in the Fogg Art Museum's Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts. Renewed awareness of the medium was also heightened by other articles in the 1930s concerning the encaustic technique, particularly as revealed in die Greco-Egyptian Fayum portraits.[5]

Yet another individual from Munich would play an even more fundamental role in the dissemination of knowledge about encaustic and wax-based mediums -- the German artist Max Doerner. His classic study of 1921, The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting, was translated into English in 1954 and thus became a standard manual in America, as well as abroad. Doerner's book served as the primary source for leading American modernist Arthur Dove's experimentation with wax in the 1930s and '40s, as evidenced by such works as Sunrise IV, 1937 and Morning, 1940.

Throughout his career, Dove was an innovator who explored a wide range of mediums to convey his vision of the underlying material and spiritual essence of nature. Dove's quest for sound craftsmanship and his friendship with Georgia O'Keeffe led him to Doerner's book in 1935 whereupon he began to use white beeswax in two forms: dissolved in turpentine and mixed with oil or tempera paints or as wax soap or wax emulsion. Dove employed Doerner's formula for the latter which is a variant of the encaustic technique.[6]

Dove's heavily annotated copy of Doerner indicates that wax-based mediums held a special attraction for this master of subtle yet rich color relationships and surface textures. Varied descriptions of oil and wax-based paintings possessing "a misty, pleasingly dull and mat [sic] appearance...great brightness and clarity....a wonderful softness, and enamel-like quality" most likely appealed to him.[7] Indeed wax emulsion became one of Dove's principal paint media during the last eleven years of his career when he explored a range of media compatible with oil.[8] He consulted other books for wax emulsion recipes, including Hilaire Hiler's The Painter's Pocket Book (which he first read in 1939) and Ralph Mayer's landmark text The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques in 1941, preferring the formula of the former.

Hiler, himself an American expatriate painter who returned to the States in 1934, offered the discredited theory that wax emulsion paintings were completed in ancient times with the addition of heat provided by a cauterium (basket containing charcoal) close to the surface.[9] Having experimented with various wax processes, Hiler recommended their revival. He also observed that "modern examples of encaustic are rare" despite the "apparent great durability of the process, and the beauty of the colors."[10] Hiler attributed this lack of popularity to the cumbersome heat requirement although he found the Muntz method to be sufficiently practical."[11]

Concurring with Hiler's observation was the artist and paint chemist and paintings conservator Ralph Mayer whose comprehensive up-to-date book of technical information was the first geared specifically towards American artists. Referring to the necessary manipulations as "too clumsy to allow of its application to the average requirements of modern paintings," Mayer observed that electrical heating devices "would facilitate the application of wax colors if the process were widely used today."[12] By 1938 Ralph Mayer could testify to "a small but growing, present-day revival of interest in this ancient method" because of the distinctive "brilliance, color, and textural effects" which "lend themselves well to several modern tendencies in art."[13]

The experimentation with wax-based and other types of media by Dove, Doerner, Hiler; and others was, according to Dove's son William, very much "in the air'' during the 1930s.[14] The stage for this activity had been set to some degree by the technical innovations of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera amid David Alfaro Siqueiros. In the early 1920s they were engaged in creating encaustic mural paintings for the National Preparatory School, employing blowtorches to fuse the wax into the resin layer below. The slow, laborious technique prompted them and others to drop the use of encaustic in favor of fresco. Nevertheless, Rivera continued to work in encaustic for easel paintings throughout the 1920s, considering it to be "the most solid of the painting processes...except for fired enamel."[15] Siqueiros became a pioneer of the use of synthetic paint media for public spaces who launched an experimental workshop in New York in 1936, attended by Jackson Pollock and other young Americans interested in learning about such new products as Duco (nitrocellulose-bascd automotive lacquers and industrial paints).[16]

The emergence of technical issues in America has been closely linked to the New Deal public art projects of the 1930s. Beginning in 1933, the American government's patronage of many artists enrolled in a plethora of programs resulted in a widespread demand for cost-effective, quality materials. New standards of professionalism were manifested by the rise of New Deal technical support units, laboratories, and publications. Jack Levine, an artist employed by the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project in Boston in 1935, observed in an essay of that era that many painters were preoccupied with searching for "more satisfactory methods of painting than the prevalent 'straight-oil' technique," assisted by Doerner's manual.[17] In the 1930s Lcvine experimented briefly with encaustic, as did Hyman Bloom.[18] Both are commonly associated with Karl Zerbe as leaders of Boston Expressionism who, by 1940, sought to transform nature-based imagery into symbolic representations of deeper expressive content.[19] Although Levine and Bloom did not continue their experiments, Zerbe is commonly credited with almost single-handedly reviving the use of the encaustic medium through his teaching and well-publicized exhibitions of his work during the 1940s.

The Berlin-born Zerbe trained as a chemist in Frankfurt and studied art in the 1920s in Munich where he absorbed German Expressionism and the New Objectivity movement. In Munich, Zerbe may have heard the technical lectures of Max Doerner at the Academy of Fine Arts. Establishing his reputation as one of the most promising younger painters of Germany, Zerbe had his first one-man show in America at Harvard University's Germanic Museum in 1934. That same year, he escaped Nazi Germany, having secured a teaching post at the Fine Arts Guild in Cambridge. Soon thereafter, in 1937, he became head of the painting department at the Boston Museum School where he found himself preoccupied with problems of structure, design, and technique.[20]

Frustrated by the slow drying properties of oil paint, Zerbe had painted primarily in gouache until his search for a more permanent medium led him to experimentation with Duco after exposure to Siqueiro's work during visits to Mexico in 1936 and 1937. In 1936, Zerbe came across some incidental references to Fayum portraits and became excited at the possibility of updating the ancient encaustic technique. Finding that there was little published on the subject, he began his own experiments, beginning with a pie pan on a kitchen stove. He proceeded to experiment with various types of waxes, resins, and oils in many combinations and temperatures, even enduring the cracking of some early examples.[21] Zerbe eventually found the right mixture: ninety percent beeswax and ten percent of sun-thickened linseed oil, heated to 225 degrees Fahrenheit on a thermostatically controlled electric palette. For the burning in process, he employed electric heaters, such as diathermic hand-lamps and blow-torches.

The handling properties of fast-drying encaustic suited Zerbe's self-professed impatient temperament and became indelibly associated with him for the next decade.[22] In 1941, Zerbe was praised by the prominent art historian H. W. Janson for his rediscovery of "this almost forgotten technique...developed to a degree of flexibility that permits him to achieve any desired effect, from the most transparent glaze to the thickest impasto, from surfaces as smooth and shiny as enamel to rich granular textures."[23] He noted that the medium as used by Zerbe "combines the possibilities of all other media with its own peculiar advantages such as maximum chemical stability and a limpid clarity of tone impossible to attain by any other method."[24] Janson rightly concluded that Zerbe's rediscovery "may well be his most lasting contribution to modern art."[25]

Encaustic, as later observed by Janson, is "by its very introspective medium" which "can not be used out-of-doors at all, and even indoors it does not encourage the artist to paint directly from the model."[26] In the 1940s, Zerbe focused on figure compositions, portraits, and especially still lifes. Increasingly preoccupied with the symbolic power of strangely juxtaposed objects, Zerbe created mysterious works such as Still Life with Cock. The disquieting compressed space, linear emphasis of expressionist forms, and dominance of the cock suggest the impact of Picasso, Cubism, and De Chirico, as well as Beckmann and Kokoschka. The somber, almost tragic air of this work is characteristic of Zerbe's wartime production and the encaustic medium was commonly regarded as uniquely suited to his expressive intentions.[27]

During the 1940s Zerbe was repeatedly hailed as "one of the few and perhaps the only man who exhibits widely to work almost exclusively" in the long-neglected encaustic medium. [28] Reviewers of his shows at the Downtown Gallery in New York praised him as "a sensitive and highly skilled painter" who employs the ancient encaustic method "in such fashion as to bring out the maximum of the luminosity the medium affords."[29] Upon the occasion of his show there in 1946, critic Jo Gibbs observed that "not since the 18th century, when further experiments were made and recorded, has the public been so conscious of that difficult, glowing wax-borne medium called encaustic -- largely because of one artist of superior gifts, Karl Zerbe."[30]

Furthermore, Gibbs noted that Zerbe's influence and reputation had grown significantly in the past three years as a result of his shows, representation in museum collections, and teaching which had attracted talented younger artists and established the "School of Boston." Anointed as the chef d'ecole in 1948, Zerbe was credited with contributing both a technical and spiritual precedent to the Boston School, comprising his pupils David Aronson, John Wilson, Esther Geller, Richard Boyce, Bernard Chaet, and Arthur Polansky.[31]

The training offered by "Boston's leading colorist" was characterized as "a curious blend of tangible modernism and subtle classicism" who did not impart all of his encaustic wizardry, even to his students.[32] In early 1949 a growing number of fifth year students were reportedly choosing wax painting as an elective -- "evidence that encaustics may soon have widespread appeal."[33] Zerbe believed, however, that at least a year or two of experimentation was necessary before the encaustic medium would emerge as a technique that would be as easy to handle as any other painting method. Among the relatively few who chose to specialize was Zerbe's teaching assistant from 1944 to 1955, David Aronson, who became one of the master's most celebrated pupils with several of his encaustic paintings featured in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition Fourteen Americans in 1946. Aronson's use of glowing encaustic and gold grounds for his visionary paintings of Old and New Testament subjects (saints and priests, minstrels, musicians) was praised as "peculiarly compatible" for "the antique atmosphere" of his work and it laid the foundation for his continuing application of the medium today."[34] Alter his teaching stint at the Boston Museum School from 1944 to 1955, Aronson chaired the art department of Boston University where he offered demonstrations of encaustic and was joined by another Zerbe pupil, Reed Kay, an expert on materials and techniques.[35]

Mr. Kay has recently recalled Zerbe's program of teaching at the Boston Museum School which he attended in 1941-1943 and 1946-1949 with its unusually strong technical emphasis. During the second year, Zerbe taught a series of Technical Lectures for which, Kay recalls, "he relied heavily on Max Doerner's text which he kept on his desk as he talked."[36] These lectures were accompanied by demonstrations in various media, including encaustic. Actual experimentation with encaustic occurred late in the program. In Zerbe's Techniques course students were required to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and create copies after Old Master paintings, employing various tempera and oil techniques. Finally by the fourth year, students were encouraged to experiment with an alternative technique and a few did original encaustic compositions for which Zerbe evinced enthusiasm. Among the exceptional students was Esther Geller, a painter of organic abstractions whose encaustic technique was featured in 1957 in an interview with fellow Zerbe pupil Bernard Chaet.[37] Kay, Aronson, and Chaet have all attributed this relative lack of interest on the part of students both to the period of apprenticeship the medium required, as well as its relatively cumbersome apparatus. Nevertheless, Kay has observed that Zerbe's interest in encaustic would have been communicated to painters in New York as well as Boston through his shows and press.

In 1949, Zerbe ended a decade of preoccupation with encaustic. His last painting of the era in this medium was Job (1949, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); the agonized subject is a portrait of Zerbe himself facing a personal crisis. Zerbe was increasingly debilitated by bronchial asthma, aggravated by the turpentine solvent fumes generated by his encaustic process.[38] Nevertheless, Zerbe had already continued to explore other mediums and now turned to experimentation with plastic-based paints, especially polymer tempera, and acrylics -- at times reminiscent of his work in encaustic.[39] In
1955, Zerbe became a Professor of Art at Florida State University in Tallahassee. There he occasionally continued to use encaustic, as evidenced by his painting Church at Dawn of 1956, featured in a movie of Zerbe demonstrating the medium as a "controlled accident" process with unpredictable results that can be selectively enhanced.
[40] Right before his death in 1972, Zerbe was trying to develop a "cold wax" encaustic process, as exemplified by his last series of bird paintings which combine that technique with Magna (acrylic resin).[41] At Florida State University, Zerbe was a highly influential teacher for many students, including encaustic painters Nancy Reid Gunn and Robin Rose.[42]

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