New York painter Norman Kanter B. A. ‘54, M. A. ’55 has been enjoying his views of lower Manhattan since renovations took place on his loft in Tribeca, where he’s lived and worked for more than 40 years. The project, says Kanter, led to some surprising revelations. “I had to move all my work during the construction,” he explains, “and in the process I discovered some of my older pieces stored behind newer ones that are really quite good.” So pleased was he with the newly painted walls and floors and abundance of natural light, Kanter opened his home for a show of his work last November.
His abstract paintings have been shown in galleries in New York, Provincetown, San Francisco, and Paros, Greece, among other places. In his early days in New York, he was one of the original founders of the Area Gallery, one of the famed Tenth Street Co-ops that featured experimental art during the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, Tenth Street gallery shows were happenings, part of the city’s social scene, where avant-garde artists, writers, poets, dancers, and musicians of The New York School would gather and draw inspiration from each other.
“I’ve lived through some interesting periods of the city’s history, had a lot of fun here, gone to lots of parties, and had a really great life as an artist and teacher,” says Kanter. In recent years, he’s watched his Tribeca neighborhood transform from the abandoned warehouses with lofts that once attracted struggling young artists like himself into one of the most expensive addresses in the city today.
A native of Charleston, West Virginia, Kanter’s explorations in art initially took him to the Institute of Design in Chicago, “but the program there was too rational for me, too Bauhaus,” he says. As a matter of fact, a former teacher from the influential Bauhaus school in Germany designed the curriculum.
Kanter left Chicago to enroll in art school at UCLA. “I met some wonderful people there,” he recalls, “but UCLA’s program was too mental for me. I wanted a different ambiance.” He had heard about the art program at UC Berkeley, where a core of abstract expressionists among the faculty had been dubbed “the Berkeley School” and helped give birth to modern art in the West.
“At that time, the leading artists were teaching there,” notes Kanter.“ The Berkeley School had Hans Hofmann and Karl Kasten and people from The New York School. So I wrote to Erle Loran, head of the Berkeley art department, and he replied with a nice note, encouraging me to apply.”
At Berkeley, Kanter studied abstract painting with Karl Kasten, a renowned artist, now a professor emeritus, who had studied with Hans Hofmann. Kasten was a strict teacher and a beloved mentor to many students. He also introduced the first classes in printmaking at Berkeley.
After earning his B.A., Kanter decided to continue at Berkeley for the master’s degree. As part of his acceptance into the graduate program, he received the prestigious Ann Bremer Award. “I was bowled over,” he says. “The award came with a check for $1,800, and at that time it was a lot of money and helped so much.”
He later won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Paris, France. There, he purchased a motorcycle so he could travel all over post-war Europe for the next year and a half. “I visited Amsterdam, Venice, and all the great museums,” recalls Kanter. “It was a wonderful time. I’ve had some great luck in my life, and I’m very grateful to Berkeley.”
After he graduated, he decided to explore the art scene in New York. “I thought everything was happening on the East Coast, where Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and others were.” From time to time, though, he returned to the Bay Area to teach drawing at Berkeley and other area schools and to exhibit his work. “I guess I consider myself bicoastal since I’ve gone back and forth so much.”
Today, he teaches color, drawing, and design part-time at the New York City Technical College, just across the Brooklyn Bridge, where he advises his students to learn to live not only by selling their art but also by applying their talent in graphic design and color design to other kinds of projects. “I designed covers for books for many years,” says Kanter.
Most of his days are spent on his own art, which continues to evolve. “I don’t work in oils as much any more, though I may go back to them,” says Kanter. “They just take an incredibly long time to dry, especially the larger pieces. Recently, I’ve been doing giclée prints. Some of my newer pieces are floor to ceiling.”
Kanter also curates art shows throughout the city and in 2004 invited his former professor, Karl Kasten, to show his work in an event entitled “Mirage & Metaphor” at the Studio 18 Gallery in New York. In addition to Kanter and Kasten, the show featured Ed Clark, Joe Barnes, and Haywood Bill Rivers. Art historian Peter Selz described the exhibit as “recent abstract paintings by five excellent painters who were all in Paris in the post-war years, a time which was full of hope.”
In 2008, Norman Kanter was one of a select group of alumni invited to take part in the “Karl Kasten Retrospective: The Berkeley School 1930-1950, Students 1950-1985,” a show that was held in the Worth Ryder Gallery on campus. Kasten had insisted that his retrospective include works by his former students. Kanter contributed one of his newer pieces, an intriguing pastel and graphite on rag paper called “Blue Resonance.” Kanter was delighted to be able to attend the tribute to Kasten, and they still keep in touch.
Over the past year, Kanter has been thinking about the future and what he calls “the language of art.” He says, “I think that a new paradigm is needed in our time, to overcome the barriers that definitions sometimes erect. We need to find a common language for discovery — for creative work in art, engineering, and other fields. Where we’re going and where we want to be. The language of art has exciting possibilities.”
—by Lisa Harrington (originally published in The Graduate magazine, Spring 2010)