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Comments (9) Posted 01.30.12 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter One

Ezra Winter
Ezra Winter working on the Rockefeller Center murals, circa 1932

The Ezra Winter Project

What follows is an experiment in visual biography.

For the next twelve months, I will post a chapter each month in an ongoing project which, while comprised of pictures and words, I am reluctant to call a book.

Though biographical in nature and likely to be organized, from time to time, in a narrative form that befits a classic biography, there is nothing classic about this story. It will not be delivered in sequence, and the conclusions it draws are unlikely to relate to chronological discovery, either my subject’s or my own.

While it is based on — and to a large degree, tethered to— true events, there may be interpretive choices that lend it, from time to time, a sense of the fictional. Likewise, there may be seemingly incongruous tangents that present as narratives of their own, yet which connect rather critically to the main action. There will be media — included, but not limited to photographs and ephemera, film clips and sound bytes, ancillary bits and pieces intended to circumscribe and by conjecture, illuminate the broader experience of such an unusual story. Finally, while my subject arguably warrants careful examination within the context of art history, this too will be incidental: where the work itself is concerned, I will include examples where relevant, with links to further reference as appropriate.

This is the story about a person, not about the work he produced. It is the tale of one man’s life of stunning focus, a half-century of unwavering determination made all the more astonishing because it coincided with an era of immense artistic turbulence. From Fauvism to Futurism, through the jazz age and into the machine age, this man bore witness. Yet through it all — in spite of it all — his own perspective remained firmly planted in the previous century.

What follows is a story of one man’s magnificent odyssey. A farmer by birth and an engineer by training, he was, first and foremost, a painter. But he was also a dreamer, and an actor. A traveler, and a teacher. A player. A lover. And tragically, in the end — a martyr.

He was also quite possibly the most famous artist you’ve never heard of.

And his name was Ezra Winter.

Ezra Winter
Ezra Winter, in his Connecticut studio, circa 1948

The Ezra Winter Project
Chapter One:  Shotgun

On April 7, 1949, shortly before one o’clock in the afternoon, Ezra Winter walked out into the woods behind his Connecticut studio, pointed a double-barreled shotgun at his left temple, and fired. He was 63 years old.

He left no note.

Winter’s story is at once a parable and a paradox, perfectly played out on the cusp of the modern age. He rose as if from nowhere, a farm boy from rural Michigan — self-taught, fiercely driven, tall and handsome and unequivocally ambitious. He married, started a family and won the Prix de Rome just before the First World War, and spent the next half-decade immersing himself in the bounty of European grandeur. Following his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Winter toured Greece, where he steeped himself in the antiquity that would, both conceptually and formally, come to influence his work for years to come.

But the arc of his career would prove inversely proportionate to the evolution of a fiercely new America: as the nation grew more modern so, too, did Winter more firmly inhabit an inert, if classical world. As the practice of modern building became more streamlined, Winter’s deference to classical architecture intensified. And as the ideals of a new democracy beckoned, Winter’s regal panoramas further cemented his imperialist leanings. He believed in — and painted with — a kind of majestic sense of nobility, a hopeful, if arcane sort of wonder in the mystical power of visual optimism.

Such optimism was at odds with the harsher realities of life in America both during and between the wars, and on some very basic level, Winter knew it: indeed, his personal life was perhaps equally challenged by paradox. Divorced by his first wife on the grounds of cruelty and abandonment, he remained a loving and devoted parent to his three daughters, and a generous son to his ailing Mother. Plagued by enduring financial worries, he nevertheless managed, at the height of the Depression, to travel, entertain, and even purchase a somewhat rare Marmon convertible. And when it came time to find a new studio, Winter — by now a dyed-in-the-wool, classically-minded urbanite — built himself a decidedly stark, Bauhaus box on a rural mountaintop in New England.

Such fundamental tensions would come to frame Winter’s life both in and out of the studio, offering a critical framework within which to reconsider his legacy, a legacy which has everything — and for that matter, nothing — to do with his actual painting.

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Comments (9)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

I'm very intrigued. Looking forward to the next chapter. I'm also curious to see how this "visual biography" will take shape.

01.31.12 at 11:00

Curious of the magnificent odyssey.

01.31.12 at 12:46

looking forward to more chapters

01.31.12 at 01:07

I am Very excited to continue reading this story! I know nothing about this mans life. However, Ezra painted one of my favorite murals dedicated to the state of Michigan, in the Guardian Building, downtown Detroit.

01.31.12 at 05:12

Nice beginning, and I'm really looking forward to this.

02.02.12 at 09:12

I'm looking forward to this as well. Dickens-like installments for the digital age? Brilliant idea.

02.03.12 at 10:30

My father Michael Francis Kelly worked as a studio artist for Ezra from 1920 to 1938 or 1939 or so. He worked on murals in NYC and in Rochester NY. My mother...Rosa Schulz Kelly....worked for Pat Winter in Cannan Ct at the House of Herbs in the very late 30s. She and my father met there and married. I am the only son but we have 4 children and a growing number of grandchildren.

02.03.12 at 04:51

I'm hooked!

02.21.12 at 09:46

What a fascinating person! So beautifully written, I'm eager for the story to unfold.

03.01.12 at 08:10

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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
More Bio >>


MORE ON The Ezra Winter Project

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Twelve
In the end, Ezra Winter was a man whose devotion to the classical world virtually underscored his every move: it explained his ineffable pursuit of youth, his enduring worship of women, his unyielding obsessions with fantasy and grandeur, lyricism and scale, theatricality and costume, fable and myth.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Eleven
The 1930s would prove to be an enormously fertile period in Ezra Winter’s life: following the success of the Radio City murals, the artist embarked on major commissions for the United States Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve Building and the Library of Congress, and in 1939, he debuted his mural for the New York World's Fair.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Ten
In April, 1933, Ezra Winter delivers a fifteen-minute live radio talk on the subject of mural painting in relation to modern life, in which he tries desperately to convince himself that he has embraced the modern world.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Nine
The Fountain of Youth would be Ezra Winter's greatest achievement, an enduring cultural icon in the city he loved — and on every possible level, a simply insurpassable feat: it is an extraordinary painting precisely because it is so unbearably autobiographical.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Eight
The Spanish dancer Carola Goya falls in love with Ezra Winter, and almost ruins her career.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Seven
As the gulf widens between the aspirational and the real — between the projected self and the authentic self — Ezra Winter immerses himself in all that is beautiful and lyrical and dream-like, including and especially the women with whom he surrounds himself.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Six
In the Spring of 1926, publisher George Palmer Putnam organized an 8,500 mile expedition to Greenland in quest of specimens for the then-new Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History: the ship’s roster included an eclectic mix of specialists, including an ichthyologist, a taxidermist and an artist by the name of Ezra Winter.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Five
In 1920, Warren Harding was elected President on a “Return to Normalcy” platform. But for Ezra Winter, nothing was normal.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Four
Ten months before the 1929 stock market crash, Edna Murphey was one of America’s foremost experts in health and beauty: she was also extremely wealthy. Three years later she became Mrs. Ezra Winter.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Three
In his first post-Academy professional pursuit, Ezra Winter is hired to design camouflage for the United States Shipping Board, using a reductive visual vocabulary of bold stripes and patches of solid color that is far closer to the language of Klee and Kandinsky than of the Renaissance masters he loves.

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Two
Chapter Two, Pilgrim : In 1911, Ezra Winter marries, wins the Rome Prize, and heads to Europe for three years of study and travel.

BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

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