Painter Ed Mieczkowski influenced thousands of students while teaching at CIA from the Eisenhower administration to Bill Clinton’s second term.
Painter April Gornik was in Ed Mieczkowski’s creative drawing class at CIA back in the 1970s. He asked the class to draw only the edges and corners of the still life in front of them and to ignore everything else.
“He could make a relatively mundane art problem much more interesting,” Gornik remembers.
It seemed to her that even as Mieczkowski was pouring awareness and inspiration onto his students, he was drinking it right back in from them. “He was a hungry person, an engaged person, a seeker,” Gornik says. “He was at a bit of an angle from other people that I knew at that time.”
Angles, edges, corners, shapes – they helped Mieczkowski ignite the op art movement of the 1960s and cement his legacy as an important artist of the 20th century.
Mieczkowski, 87, died June 23, 2017, while in hospice care in Newport Beach, Calif.
Born to Polish parents in Pittsburgh in 1929, Mieczkowski earned his BFA at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1957 and his master’s in painting and printmaking from Carnegie Mellon in 1959.
He returned to Cleveland to join the faculty at CIA, where he would remain for 39 years.
In 1960, Mieczkowski, along with artist friends Ernst Benkert and Frank Hewitt, formed the Anonima Group, a collaborative that pushed back on the art world’s post-war penchants, namely abstract expressionism and what the group called “the cult of the individual ego.” Instead, the artists focused on studying geometric shapes, hues, grids, perspective and how the optics of the human eye and perception of the human mind take it all in.
“We thought Anonima would make a cool name, and it was close to the word ‘anonymous,’” Mieczkowski told Geoform.net interviewerJulie Karabenick in 2012. “We used the name ‘Anonima’ to indicate, among other things, that we wouldn’t sign our paintings on the front and we would seek alternate paths to the traditional commercial gallery system.”
They would not be anonymous for long.
The Anonima Group rented out a former dress shop on Euclid Avenue for their studio and gallery. Shows in Cleveland were followed by a show in New York in 1964, which won positive attention from the New York Times.
In October 1964, Time magazine published “Op Art: Pictures That Attack The Eye,” featuring a full-color reproduction of a Mieczkowski painting titled “Adele’s Class Ring.”
"Op art is made tantalizing, eye-teasing, even eye-smarting by visual researchers using all the ingredients of an optometrist's nightmare,” wrote author Jon Borgzinner.
In 1965, the Museum of Modern Art in New York transformed op art from curiosity into craze with its groundbreaking exhibit The Responsive Eye, which included pieces by Mieczkowski, other Anonima members and fellow CIA faculty member Julian Stanczak.
But as art itself heated up, Mieczkowski stayed tepid about the moniker.
“I have always favored the term ‘perceptual abstraction,’” he told Karabenick. “I didn’t really mind the term ‘op art,’ but I certainly didn’t intend my work to be optical demonstrations. I was far too ingrained as a painter.”
The art world soon moved away from op art and on to other trends. Mieczkowski, who received the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1966, moved to New York, kept working, experimenting and growing — moving to three dimensions and other materials.
“I played fast and loose with the various dogmas of painting,” he said. “I felt I didn’t want to hobble myself with any of them.
“Behind it all is simply an everlasting love of painting and of making art.”
Mieczkowski worked deep into his 80s and was able to witness a rediscovery, new appreciation and strong market for his work.
Just as important: the legacy Mieczkowski left on the thousands of students he influenced while teaching at CIA from the Eisenhower administration to Bill Clinton’s second term.
Students remember him as passionate, energetic and dynamic, just as likely to engage students over a drink in the Brick, a nearby tavern, as he was over their work in the studio or classroom.
“It felt like his had flown in from another place or another planet,” remembers Gornik. “He felt like someone who was familiar with foreign lands.”
His dedication and unyielding work ethic extended into his lessons. Despite living in New York and also teaching at the Pratt Institute, he remained committed to CIA, commuting to Cleveland weekly to continue teaching here.
Jim Seegert, who earned his BFA in photography and painting from CIA in 1976, says one of Mieczkowski’s lessons remains vivid in his mind today, more than 40 years later.
He had him for a drawing class, first thing in the morning. This particular morning, the weather was rough and the classroom was only about half full, even 10 minutes after the top of the hour. Mieczkowski grew agitated.
When the tardy students arrived, he asked each of them about their commute to class that morning. After about a half hour, with the classroom now full, he told them about his commute.
“He told everyone that he had woken up at 3:30,” remembers Seegert. “He started in the Bowery, took the train to Queens, took the bus to LaGuardia, took the first commuter flight out to Cleveland, took the rapid transit to University Circle, walked to school and got to class in plenty of time.”
He then lectured on the importance of always showing up and always showing up on time.
It’s something Mieczkowski did for CIA’s students for four decades.
The CIA Masters Series represents artists who are not just accomplished professionals in their field, but individuals who have helped define their fields.