Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Antonio Salemme Gallery of Allentown is an Impressive Space

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Allentown Art Museum of Lehigh Valley and a six-woman show at the Antonio Salemme Gallery a few blocks west.

Antonio Salemme was an Italian-born, Boston-raised sculptor and painter who lived and worked in the heart of the N.Y. Greenwich Village art scene from 1920's through the fertile 50's into the emerging Pop 60's. He and his wife Martha then moved to Eastern Pennsylvania for their golden years. He lived to be 102, having passed away in 1995. The gallery I visited is a gift to the community of Allentown and the arts by way of the Antonio Salemme Foundation.

The gallery caught my eye by means of an article in the local Allentown Morning Call covering some of the city's current arts activities. That evening there was going to be a play in the space called Parallel Lives, but I was especially interested in the women's show as well as how the Salemme Foundation came to be here in Allentown. You can see how the media plays a role in helping bring visibility to the arts as I was only planning to visit the museum and the newspaper blurb piqued my interest.

Though I was aiming to see the women's work, I was pleasantly surprised to have been escorted into the history of the gallery and the life of Antonio Salemme. My guide was the gallery and foundation director Joe Skrapitz. 

The current exhibit is called WOMEN’S WORK: AN ART EXHIBITION, featuring diverse creations by six Lehigh Valley artists: Janet Barna (mixed-media assemblages), Alison Bessesdotter (contemporary quilts and wearable art), Eileen Cressman-Reeder (polymer clay sculpture), Marilyn Hazelton (photography with poetry), Maryann Riker (mixed-media artist books and collage) and Susan Weaver (jewelry).

Though the current exhibition brought me to this obscure second floor space, it was the Salemme story that captured my attention, this excerpt taken from the website:

Bust of Ethyl Waters
At the age of thirteen he began his studies at the Eric Pape Art School and continued later at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School studying with George L. Noyes.

While in Boston he began to study sculpture, and, in 1910, continued his study in Spain and France. He then studied in Rome in 1912 as a protege of Angelo Zanelli. From 1915 to 1919, Salemme served in the Italian Army and returned to the United States at the end of the war. He worked exclusively as a sculptor until the 1930´s at which time he again took up painting in addition to sculpting. He received the Guggenheim Fellowship for sculpture in 1932 and 1936. During his first fellowship, Salemme studied for two years in Paris and at the Salon des Tuilleries exhibited his ´´Negro Spiritual´´ for which renowned actor Paul Robeson posed. French sculptor Despeau deemed the piece a ´´superior work of art.´´

The nude Robeson statue (not pictured here) caused a great controversy in its time as it may have been the first black man sculpted in this manner in American history. A number of Salemme sculptures adorn the space including a wonderful bust of Ethyl Waters. But the paintings were also fascinating to me. This one (left) has an eerie Magritte-like surreal feeling. The painting at the end of this blog clearly shows Matisse's influence.

For students of modern art history, it is easy to imagine the privilege he had to witness the transformation of the New York art scene during this spectacular four decades that included working alongside the likes of Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, to witness the emergence of abstract expressionism and ground-breakers like Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg as well as the culture shifting Pop scene. At this point Salemme was ready to retreat to the countryside and settle down, continuing to paint and sculpt for yet another thirty years in a quieter environment.

I enjoyed looking at the works of women's exhibit, especially Janet Barna's assemblages. But Salemme's images left a deep impression and for this reason I recommend going out of your way to make your acquaintance with this masterful artist's work if you are in the vicinity of Allentown. Here's a link to the Antonio Salemme Foundation website where you can find more information regarding gallery hours and the life of the artist.

As for the Allentown Museum of Art, I have far too much to say about the cool stuff I saw there... so I will wait for another space in time.

This painting by Antonio Salemme has a Matisse feel.


Maryann Riker said...

Thanks so much and viewing all of the women's work this past year. The space is wonderful and has some great exhibits! Stop by again and love the fact that the Allentown Public Theater utilizes the space.

ENNYMAN said...

Thank you. I am not in the vicinity often but I do return now and then because I have family there. I will return.