Rediscovering Paul Mommer

THIS ESSAY HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN THE MARCH 2016 ISSUE OF ACES MAGAZINE

On view at the Islip Art Museum is a retrospective exhibition highlighting the many artistic styles of the Paul Mommer (b. Luxembourg, 1899 – 1963), a premier artist of the early to mid twentieth century. Despite a pedigree résumé, boasting exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan, the artist fell into obscurity after his death only to re-emerge 51 years later. The exhibition offers a re-examination of the artist’s artwork and life, exhibiting works of art that have not been on public display for half a century alongside historical documents that pertain to the artist’s life and his placement in the art world.

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Paul Mommer, Studio Interior, 1950, Courtesy of Islip Art Museum

Over the course of his thirty-two year career as an exhibiting artist (1931 – 1963), Mommer’s technical style varied from Romanticism to Abstract Expressionism. Despite this, his paintings are usually noted for their moody, earth-tone color palettes. One such example is Studio Interior, which depicts the artist busy at work in his studio. Browns and reds dominate the palette as Mommer opens the composition with hazy whites and hints of blue. The painting holds no uniform perspective, allowing the artist to deconstruct his painting, which warrants closer observation from the viewer. The lack of depth is further enhanced, as objects are broken down to their basic geometric forms and colors, as only the artist himself appears slightly modeled on the extreme right of the composition. These abstract qualities make it unclear whether the cityscape in the background is being depicted from through a window or hanging on the studio wall as another work of art.

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Paul Mommer, Sewing Machine, 1946, Courtesy of Islip Art Museum

Taking inspiration from analytical cubism, Mommer’s Sewing Machine abstracts the subject matter to the point of un-recognition. The artist utilizes shape and form, in varying degrees of ovals, rectangles, and triangles, to represent his monochromatic subject matter. Mommer contains his abstracted subject matter by filling the boundaries of the canvas with a cool grey-white border. It is apparent that Mommer strives to make the representational un-representational through abstracted forms and perspectives.

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Paul Mommer, Stone Quarry 1, 1950s, Courtesy of Islip Art Museum

Several paintings dating to the 1950s finds Mommer pushing the boundaries of representational art. Entitled Stone Quarry 1 and Stone Quarry 2, this pair of paintings finds the artist juxtaposing black against white. Despite the representational titles, the paintings are purely abstract in execution and presentation. Strong vertical and horizontal lines converge and diverge across the entirely of the compositions as areas of dark oil paint pool in complimentary balancing sections of each composition. The cool color palettes of the paintings compliment the stony aesthetics each title implies. Upon closer observation, the viewer will be please to find hints of blues, reds, and browns that Mommer skillfully lays underneath the final layer of paint.

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Paul Mommer, Stone Quarry 2, 1950s, Courtesy of Islip Art Museum

The abstracted natures of these works are manifested in Black and White Abstraction taken from the same period. As in the Stone Quarry paintings, Mommer contrasts the dark against the light. The cool tonal variations of white, with hints of yellow and blue, compliment the heavily applied sections of black paint which appear almost like shadows that are casted upon the surface of the canvas. Where there was a general sense of flow and airiness among the Stone Quarry paintings, Black and White Abstraction feels condensed, solidified by the strong vertical forms and gestures created by the artist.

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Paul Mommer, Black and White Abstraction, 1950s, Courtesy of Islip Art Museum

The exhibition Transformations of a Visionary: Paul Mommer came into fruition at the inquisition of Jessica Ruppel who had an interest in acquiring more information on the life and artwork of her great-grandfather. A student of the exhibition curator Loretta Corbisiero, Ruppel presented her mentor images of Mommer’s artwork, along with important historical documents pertaining to his life that led the pair to his rediscovery.

Transformations of a Visionary: Paul Mommer was curated by Loretta Corbisiero and features an in-depth analysis of the artistic career of one of the early 20th century’s forgotten artists. The exhibition runs in conjunction with the Museum Shop exhibition Caché: New Works by Debra Rodman-Peck, curated by Beth Giacummo. Both exhibitions are now on view at the Islip Art Museum until March 13, 2016.

Jay Schuck


Further Readings
Corbisiero, Loretta, Transformations of a Visionary: Paul Mommer, East Islip, NY: Islip Art Museum, 2016, Print.

Images Courtesy of Islip Art Museum