Portrait of an artist (as a young man)
Cyril Lixenberg is well-known throughout the world for the abstract metal sculptures and geometric prints he has created in his Amsterdam studio. Many pieces are evident on Grand
Valley’s campuses, including hundreds of gifts of works on paper that established the university’s Print & Drawing Cabinet in 2002. Grand Valley Magazine’s Mary Isca Pirkola spoke with the artist about his early years creating in different medium — paintings and drawings.
A revealing selection of these works will be exhibited at the GVSU Art Gallery in September, in conjunction with Fall Arts Celebration 2013. The upcoming retrospective of his career, spanning more than 60 years, will include many works seen for the first time in this country, and some not seen anywhere in more than 40 years. Often thought of as a Dutch artist, Lixenberg was, in fact, born in London into a Jewish Orthodox family in 1932.
GVM: Would you share some of what your life was like as you began your journey of becoming an artist?
CL: I was the seventh of 12 children in a loving family, living in the east end of London in an immigrant neighborhood. We were all too busy just surviving on the limited income my father made as a milkman, so there wasn’t a lot of individual attention from my parents. By age 14, I was already working in a trade school learning to become a diamond mounter; I made the rings for the stones to be set into.
GVM: What made you decide to abandon that trade?
CL: When I was 17, I learned that I could go to art school, so I did, because when our class visited museums that seemed so exciting to me and I knew then I wanted to be an artist. I knew early on that I was interested in drawing and painting. We studied the works of Picasso, Modigliani, etc. But then you find you’re not like those guys and slowly you try to develop your own style, your own identity.
photo by Anton Haakman, GVSU Cyril Lixenberg Archival Collection; gift of the artist; Cyril Lixenberg is pictured in his studio in Amsterdam, April 7, 1965.
GVM: At what point did you leave London and move to Amsterdam?
CL: I left art school when I was 21 and faced what I call the “white canvas syndrome.” Suddenly there is no one giving you assignments in a given style, no commissions yet to support yourself, so I traveled for several years around Europe and did a lot of drawings. I did a lot of very quick portraits of people sitting in cafes — very impressionistic, I loved doing that. I loved Amsterdam because it was, and still is, a very casual and liberal city. That became my base at a very interesting artistic period when there was a lot of rivalry among the abstract and figurative artists.
GVM: Your early paintings include portraits, landscapes and still lifes, but then there is a period in the 1950s and ‘60s where there is a marked change in your work. It includes a lot of contrast of light and dark, becomes very gestural and very free with the use of paint. What influences brought on these changes?
CL: Sometimes I almost forget what was there. It’s part of a story that I talk very little about, it’s very unclear for myself but I know among the things that affected me was war. I remember as a child being separated from my family in the London bomb shelters during World War II. But then the family got together when we were evacuated to a house in Market Harbor until the end of the war, when we went back to London, to Hackney.
GVM: How did that experience influence your work?
CL: While working in Amsterdam I realized that I lived near what used to be the Jewish neighborhood, and knowing what happened there, particularly at the end of the war with the discovery of the concentration camps and the Holocaust, that was really shocking. I discovered these houses, which were empty, in the area where my studio was, literally. “Jewish wide street” is what it was called, and there was nobody there after the war. Holland lost, percentage-wise, the most Jews in all of Europe. I think it’s something that I really don’t know how to express because it’s a very emotional thing. What I’m saying is I did not suffer in the war. I was in England and we didn’t know what was happening in Amsterdam.
That had a strong effect on me and my work in the 1950s, and that was combined in the 1960s with the aggressiveness of the Vietnam War, which I felt was another pointless war. It’s never something that you know you are working through at that moment. I hardly ever speak about that because it sounds like exaggerated emotions. You know, what have I got to do with the war? But it’s part of the background, and maybe that’s part of what an artist can do. So then once you start painting — I don’t paint just one, I’m not an illustrator in that sense — so you paint a series, a period in your life, and you’re not aware that you’re going though it. You know, you just do it.
photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker
Cyril Lixenberg poses with his sculpture “Magela-S,” on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus. It was donated to Grand Valley for ArtPrize 2010.
GVM: After a number of years you then began to experiment with printmaking. And these also show a lot of energy, strength and anger as you were really working through this.
CL: It was a slow process. My paintings were getting what I would call muddier. I thought, I must stop this and I went to a graphic studio. I started experimenting with mono-prints, where you make only one print from a plate. The compositions on these became simpler — they had all of this energy, but they became more spare in their compositions reduced to simple geometric forms. Then I started doing multiple prints with slight variations, and that was so logical, doing a series, making an edition of five or six. The next period was silk screens. Then I could say from that period it was really the beginning of my own identity. Even in that period of course it changed. I hope I’m still changing.
GVM: That’s what is so exciting about the upcoming exhibition. For the first time we are going to see these transitions and your development into the artist that we know now: one who works in very simple, very elegant, and yet, complex geometric forms. Do you see yourself
still changing now?
CL: I don’t want to say, “Oh yes, my work is changing because I’m getting older.” I don’t know what the consequences are, I’ve never been in my 80s before.
Page last modified May 9, 2013