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Kirk Newman: The Next Step

April 1 - June 18, 2006


(above: Kirk Newman, Trick, 1970, charcoal on paper)


A retrospective of the 50-year career of Kirk Newman will be the focus of an upcoming exhibition at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Kirk Newman: The Next Step opens Saturday, April 1, 2006 at the KIA and continues through Sunday, June 18, 2006. (left: Kirk Newman, Success (detail), 1971, cast bronze)

Kirk Newman has been an influential presence on the cultural landscape of Kalamazoo and the surrounding community for years. Best known as the creator of some of the city's signature sculptural landmarks, Newman has also created a distinctive body of personal work centering on the seemingly nondescript forms of the businessman and people in motion. 

The exhibition, organized thematically, will include works from the 1950s to the present, including sculptures and drawings, as well as prints, photos and maquettes. Many have never been previously exhibited to the public. 

Born in 1926 in Dallas, Kirk Newman spent his formative artistic years in the heady post-World War II period of Abstract Expressionism. Caught up in the spirit of the time, Newman experimented with abstract sculpture and painting. Sensing its limitations, however, he felt the real artistic challenge lay in depicting the human figure in a way that both embodied all the complexities of the modern world while still maintaining a connection with the great sculptural traditions of the past. At the time, this approach was viewed as hopelessly old-fashioned. That Newman had chosen to work in bronze, perhaps the most traditional of all artistic media, only reinforced that notion. 

Newman, however, endured and flourished. His work shows that the impulse for realism, one of the hallmarks of American art, can be expressed in new and original ways that relate to the contemporary world. By bringing to the work his interest in physics and anthropology, as well as his sharp-edged satirical insights into the human condition, Newman has invested his sculptures with both a cutting-edge relevance and timeless sense of mystery. (right: Kirk Newman, People (detail), 1974, cast bronze)

When Newman sought to give his figures a denser meaning, their sculptural form paradoxically became more dematerialized. The figures grew increasingly large and stretched ever further while their bodies grew thinner, more shadow-like. They appeared in extreme perspective, with giant legs tapering into diminishing bodies topped by tiny heads. Distortions increased, as if human evolution were moving ever more quickly away from physical reality. 

Gaining speed, Newman's figures took the form of runners. The idea of rushing, trying to catch up or get ahead, lent itself to a more topical, satirical treatment of the figure. "We live in a fast age," Newman said recently, "and it's getting faster all the time." In addition to the ubiquitous briefcase, the running figures grasp teddy bears, laptops, safety deposit boxes, even a giant pepper. The figures seem pulled forward by the objects they pursue. 

Kirk Newman first came to Kalamazoo in 1949 as an instructor for the Extension Division of the University of Michigan School of Architecture and Design. He later taught part-time at Kalamazoo College, and was a full-time instructor for the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, where he served as associate director of education (1966-1978). 

His work has been exhibited widely both in the United States and abroad. Many of his works are on permanent public display throughout southwest Michigan and around the world. 

Two of his best-known local works are When Justice and Mercy Prevail, Children May Safely Play in Bronson Park, and People, which greets visitors at the KIA's South Street entrance. The nine figures that make up that work are "comic, ample, ridiculous, gangly, absurd, lumpy, buxom and perhaps political, enigmatic and appealing," said the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1974. 

Kirk Newman: The Next Step has been organized by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and Kirk Newman, and is sponsored by Greenleaf Trust. The exhibition is free of charge and open during normal gallery hours at the KIA: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (and until 8 p.m. on Thursday), and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. (left: Kirk Newman, The Accident, 1982, pencil and oil pastel on paper) 


Events related to the exhibition (all free of charge unless otherwise noted):

Kalamazoo Art League lecture -- Kirk Newman, who delivered one of the Art League's first lectures, returns to celebrate the organization's 50th anniversary and his own 50-year career. (Wednesday, April 12, 9:30 a.m. Free for Art League members, fee for non-members)
Art Appreciation class (KIA Art School) -- "Learning to Look: Sculpture and the Language of Form" with Greg Waskowsky and Kirk Newman (three weeks, beginning Wednesday, April 12, 1-3 p.m. Tuition charged)
Art & All That Jazz -- A free, informal, after-hours event that combines great art with live music and beverages and hors d'oeuvres -- with music by the Northside Jazz Quartet (Friday, April 14, 5-7 p.m.)
Sunday Funday -- "People are People" with special guests the Ballet Arts Ensemble. Free fun for families and children! (Sunday, April 23, 2-4 p.m.)
ARTbreak -- "Kirk Newman: Drawing & Sculpture" with Kirk Newman. Join Kirk Newman as he discusses some of the influential ideas that inform his work, including anthropology, evolution and the great art of the past. (Tuesday, April 25, 12:15 p.m.)
ARTbreak -- "Stephen Hansen with Kirk Newman." Master of quirky wit and papier-mâché, Stephen Hansen meets his former mentor in a rare joint appearance to talk over their shared need to make "funny little people." (Tuesday, May 16, 12:15 p.m.) (right: Kirk Newman, Office Series E (detail), 1972-4, hand-colored lithograph) 


(above: Kirk Newman, The Chili Pepper, ca. 1996, cast bronze)

Editor's note:

A May, 2004 Art Business News article by Jenny Sherman (from findarticles.com) adds further insight about the art of Kirk Newman:

"In college, I took way more classes than I needed to in religion and philosophy, and had a big interest in evolution," the forthright, yet modest, 78-year-old Newman said from his home in Kalamazoo, Mich. "I bring that background to the figures that I make. What my work is really about is man on earth at this time in this time frame."

The article adds:

"Speed is such a huge part of the environment we live in," said Newman, who himself doesn't own a cell phone. "But the greater reality is the speed of change. The figures I make are reflecting that."

rev. 3/2/06

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