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A Portrait of the Artist
Reinventing the gift of life
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A major exhibition of Harvey Breverman’s work opens October 1 and runs through December 31 at two UB locations. Humanist Impulses: Selected Paintings, Drawings, Prints comprises art created from the 1960s to 2003, close to 200 pieces in all.

Paintings from three series are on display at the Art Gallery in the Center for the Arts. The Mystery of a Prayer Shawl and the Jacket series both feature wrappings absent a figure, representing what Breverman calls “an enclosure around a void” that serve as the wearer’s surrogate.

The Nightworks series includes numerous mixed-media works that depict Breverman’s colleagues past and present. Many of those he renders are viewed only from the neck up, surrounded by cryptic symbols wrenched out of context: old synagogue ground plans and elevations, Hebrew illuminations, Masoretic texts, Czech folkloric embellishments, folds of vertically striped cloth, barbed wire.

Commenting on Nightworks, New Mexico State University professor Stephanie Taylor wrote, “…the rich surfaces of Harvey Breverman’s drawings are infinitely attractive, bordering on delicious, and they engage us utterly.” Breverman, she notes, “makes connections in his drawings between the personal and the historical. It is through this fusion that he creates possibilities for the inclusion of the past in our contemporary lives.”

The UB Anderson Gallery is exhibiting a select survey of Breverman’s prints from 1964 to 2003 on the second floor; on the first is a series of large drawings, paintings and pastels. Collectively titled Figures in Context, they document UB’s intellectual community over the past two decades—persuasive evidence, as poet Robert Creeley once put it, that Breverman has made his mark as “the deft and perceptive recorder of our various presence, seeing us both as one and many.”

The exhibition’s opening receptions take place October 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Center for the Arts and from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Anderson Gallery.

A panel discussion takes place at 3 p.m. October 2 at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. Panelists include Douglas Schultz, retired Albright-Knox Art Gallery director; Nancy Green, senior curator of Cornell University’s Herbert Johnson Museum of Art; Endi Poskovic, art professor at Chicago’s Columbia College; and Taylor of New Mexico State. Moderator is Douglas Dreishpoon, senior curator at the Albright-Knox.

Duncan: The Schwa Vowels, 1999, pastel and oil stick
(click for larger image)

Doorway in Jerusalem I, 1991, oil on canvas
(click for larger image)

Interior: Studio Group II, 1991, oil on canvas
(click for larger image)
  A Portrait of the Artist

Story By Nicole Peradotto

Photography by Mark Dellas

Harvey Breverman steeps himself in his art, often putting in 16-hour days in his studio.

While on a recent trip to Scotland, where he had been invited to conduct research at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Whistler Studies, UB art professor Harvey Breverman noticed an elderly couple painstakingly boarding a city bus after him. Struck by their wrinkled faces, and by the world of experience contained in each crease, he proceeded to draw them.

Because he didn’t know when they would disembark, Breverman worked with a sense of urgency. As he furiously attempted to capture their features, his wife, Deborah, exhorted him to put his sketchpad away. “We’ve got to get off soon!” she reminded him.

Like the motifs that resurface in unexpected contexts throughout Breverman’s oeuvre, this scene, with variations in location and subject, traverses the spectrum of his creative existence. On a park bench outside Prague he produces his pad to draw a holocaust survivor he has just met. He does the same in the back room of a Parisian gallery, taking advantage of a chance encounter with the sheet-metal fabricator for several of Picasso’s sculptures.

“It’s almost as if I’m trying to grab that fleeting moment that won’t ever play itself out again in the same way, and fix it for all time,” Breverman says. “That’s part of the challenge—to get an essential moment and to arrest it. I love doing that.”

Closer to home, the most senior faculty member of the UB art department carries his pad with him to every lecture in the university’s annual lecture series. Tim Russert, Ken Burns, Madeleine Albright, Alice Walker—all share residency on the pages of Breverman’s notebooks. In fact, he acknowledges that one of the choicest perks of being a Distinguished Professor—the highest rank in the SUNY system, conferred on him in 1999—is that he’s guaranteed a seat close to the stage.

“For me, it’s not entertainment. It’s tense. I use my eyes, and my ears stay open. But if you ask me to remember the verbal stuff I would really have trouble. The looking is so intense that, even if I may jot notes down, I can’t remember a thing.”

When Breverman steeps himself in his art, conversations go unfinished and coffee goes cold. In his home studio he frequently puts in 16-hour days. During these stretches he won’t listen to music and rarely answers the rotary-dial phone that hangs from the wall like a relic. Even the nearby clock, stopped at five minutes to six, gives the impression that while Breverman’s creative juices are flowing, everything surrounding him is suspended.

“Here you’re left with some very basic elements: your own sweat, your own odors, the noise outside and the materials,” Breverman observes, rifling through a stack of drawings with bandaged fingertips, the casualties of a long-ago decision to frame his own art.

“And when I’m sleeping I’m even thinking a little bit. I’m able to resolve some difficult passages in my work while I sleep, so that when I wake up I can’t wait to get in the studio to attack them.”

One hesitates to use “in the zone,” or any other phrase of the moment, in conjunction with Breverman’s artistic purposefulness. After all, it doesn’t jibe with a man who has never bothered to learn how to use a computer, who has no interest in navigating the Internet (“e-mail would clutter my mind,” he contends) and who invested in an answering machine years after it became a standard household gadget.

And yet, how better to describe an artist whose wife rings a cowbell to rouse him for lunch?

“It’s obsession,” Breverman answers, shrugging his shoulders. “I guess eating is a low priority.”

Early years

While Breverman’s lanky frame carries the weight of the typecast starving artist, he’s anything but. A prominent figure in drawing, painting and printmaking circles, he has been placed on the creative continuum with Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. Acclaim from critics includes praise for his ability “to convey his intimate understanding of his subjects without directly revealing them.”

Breverman’s work is included in the permanent collections of more than 150 museums and galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. He has had more than 70 visiting artist positions and more than 80 solo exhibitions, the next taking place in Western New York this fall (see related story). Breverman has participated in international print biennales around the world and received grants from, among others, the Tiffany Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; he received two awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

All this comes from a man who didn’t even enter a museum until his 20s.

Doing so would have meant riding a bus on the Sabbath, forbidden in the orthodox household of Breverman’s youth. Growing up in a three-room flat in Pittsburgh’s multiethnic Hill District, he learned to speak and write Yiddish before he knew English. Although his father’s salary as a shoe salesman was modest, his parents hired a tutor to teach their only son Judaic studies before he was old enough to participate in formal religious instruction.

Of his childhood, Breverman, who was born in 1934, says simply: “It was a hermetically sealed world that didn’t open up until later.” And when it did, Breverman played sandlot baseball. Although years would pass before he started juxtaposing secular and sacred imagery on canvas, at this formative stage of his childhood he already had one foot in both worlds. Indeed, when Breverman’s rabbi learned that his reliable young Torah reader had a passion for the sport, he took him to several Pirates games.

However, unlike baseball, where the trajectory from gifted athlete to professional player was an obvious, albeit unobtainable, goal, Breverman couldn’t fathom how he might parlay his late-night drawing sessions on the kitchen floor into a bona fide profession. “I loved to draw, but I had no sense at all then, nor was there help about the issue, of what a life in art might be,” he recalls.

That wouldn’t happen until several years later, as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, then Carnegie Tech. After two years of military service in Korea, Breverman completed a master’s degree in fine arts at Ohio University and continued as a full-time instructor in drawing. Then, in 1961, he was hired at UB, the first studio professor in the department with a postgraduate degree.

Three years into his tenure at UB, Breverman was invited to participate in the 28th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Delighted to discover his nearly 8-foot-high painting displayed between works of Hopper and Rico Lebrun, he was doubly honored when then-UB President Clifford Furnas requested the painting for his office, where it remained through his and a subsequent administration.

“This modest episode highlights UB’s longstanding commitment to hire a wide spectrum of artists, writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers and actors, and to accommodate their varying ideologies and eccentricities within the academy,” Breverman says. “For all of us, then and now, it provided an opportunity to teach, to engage young minds in the pursuit of creative discovery and, in the process, to find our individual voices.”

During the same era, art department chairman Philip Elliott asked Breverman if he was interested in teaching art history. As an alternative, he pointed to an antiquated etching press that had been gathering dust in the basement of Foster Hall and suggested that perhaps his new hire could establish a printmaking class.

“I didn’t hesitate,” Breverman remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about etching or printmaking, but I’ll give it a shot.’ So I went to the Library of Congress for days on end, and the Met, and I looked at prints until I was blue in the face. I just immersed myself in prints. At the same time I was setting up shop in one tiny room with no air-handling system—nothing. But with my students, we moved forward on it. We did amazing things, not knowing much and learning from each other.”

One of those students, Evan Summer, studied with Breverman from 1970 to 1973. To this day, he still talks to his mentor a dozen or so times a year. “Before I started taking classes with him I heard stories of him starting his class at the assigned time, locking the door so nobody could enter and keeping his students there,” recalls Summer, now an art professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. “By the time I got there that had been relaxed, but he was very demanding in what he expected.

“He wasn’t just somebody looking at a picture, being analytical about it,” Summer continues. “He was that, but he would also be really animated in class, very excited. And he was not always nice to people. He was more critical than most faculty members, but when there was something he liked he was more outspoken, too.”


In 2003, the College Art Association recognized Breverman’s significant classroom contributions by selecting him to receive the Distinguished Teaching of Art Award. While Breverman was surprised and thrilled by the award, whose past recipients have included such towering figures as Josef Albers and Philip Guston, one gets the impression that he’s most proud of his students, four decades of whom have gone on to impressive art careers in their own right.

“Life in the studio is what I enjoy most, and yet I will never begrudge going in to teach—I never have,” Breverman emphasizes. “I find that’s an equally exciting life via the students who keep me on edge as they reinvent themselves.

“They’re so ingenious. They’ll do things and I’ll say, ‘My God, that’s terrific! Pursue it! Let’s see where it takes you!’

“Encouragement and risk-taking I find most important. At the same time it’s got to be a rigorous activity with certain standards upheld, and you must develop a disciplined work ethic. They all have different thresholds, but I try to insist on that,” he adds, attributing his own self-discipline to the lessons and rituals of his religious upbringing. “If I’m there on time—and I’m never late—they are there.”

Within the university Breverman has earned a reputation as a professor who’s fully engaged in the academic community, one whose steadfast commitment to his students is matched by a tireless devotion to his art.

According to art professor Anthony Rozak, “Harvey as an artist is really very determined to do his work. It’s hard to separate him from the work he does as an artist. It’s always Harvey sketching at faculty meetings, and you wonder what’s going through his mind. If you take a look at his triptych in the atrium (of the Center for the Arts), it’s clearly sketches of faculty he’s been on committees with.”

Rozak is referring to Cabal II, a pastel, 4-by-21-foot long, featuring 26 current and former faculty members, among them, novelist Ray Federman, poet Jorge Guitart, Women’s Studies professor Liz Kennedy and the artist himself, shown from the back. As in other treatments, this work stays true to Breverman’s artistic mission to explore the human condition, “particularized by the figure in all its frailty and grandeur.”

When asked why he’s drawn to his colleagues as subjects, Breverman replies, “I find them interesting as characters, as personalities. I’m not with them that much, but when I am they ask probing questions about what I’m doing, and I’ll ask them. I’m much impressed by what they do and write and say.”

While he’s on the topic, he wants to clarify several points. First, he only sketches at meetings to the extent that he can—he’ll never draw during discussions on tenure or promotions, for example.

Second, he makes it a habit to attend fellow intellectuals’ lectures, to follow their endeavors and to read their writings as a way of informing his own art. Sometimes a fragment of that scholarship will creep into the canvas. In Duncan: The Schwa Vowels, for example, several cryptic markings hover near the head of Robert Duncan—markings Breverman observed while poring over the poet’s notebooks.

And then there’s Breverman’s third point: He doesn’t do portraits.

“I think that word almost fixes in the viewer’s mind conventional portraiture, which is supposed to be the model sitting on the chair all ‘dandied’ up. I’ve never accepted a portrait commission. I want to make my kind of likeness rather than have to get paid to satisfy someone.”

Come the first of October, when Breverman’s exhibition opens at UB, on display will be dozens of these likenesses, with many of their flesh-and-blood counterparts in attendance to honor the artist. At the thought of his artwork and its inspiration sharing the same space, a broad grin stretches across Breverman’s face. One wonders whether, on that occasion, he’ll be able to resist the temptation to reach for his sketchpad.

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer and editor.

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