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George Deem

(George) Deem, best known for his breathtakingly vivid re-workings of classic images from art history, died in 2008 at age 75, after a fifty-year career as a painter, spent almost entirely in New York City.

All artists rework the art of the past, at times imitating, at times extending, and at times rejecting the work of artists they admire. Deem moved the process of homage and change into uncharted territory. Art historian Robert Rosenblum has called Deem’s unconventional thematic choices “free-flowing [fantasy] about the facts and fictions of art history.” Writing in ARTnews, Robert Ayers praises Deem’s “unusual intelligence” and his acute awareness “of the artistic possibilities of his own and postmodern times.” Critic Holland Cotter notes the artist’s “uncannily faithful versions” of Old Master works which “establish an ongoing creative reciprocity between past and present, and render distinctions of send-up and homage inseparable.”

“Deems’ towering technique,” writes Steve Starger in Art New England, “allows him to pull off what seems like an audacious act of ego: Imagine having the chutzpah to think you can ‘redo’ Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Thomas Cole, or Vermeer. Then imagine having the technique and imagination to pull it off. Deem has copious quantities of both.”

Midwestern origins
George (Charles) Deem Jr. was born in 1932 in Decker, Indiana, where he grew up and often worked alongside his cantaloupe-farmer father. He attended Catholic parochial schools and the local high school before matriculating at nearby Vincennes University.
According to his New York Times obituary, Deem always knew he wanted to be an artist but found he mostly encountered art in churches. As a teenager, he spent time at a Benedictine abbey in (St.) Meinrad, Indiana, where a cousin was a monk. The cousin recognized Deem’s talents and urged his family to send him to Chicago for formal art training. In 1952, Deem enrolled in the widely-respected School of the Art Institute of Chicago, located within the leading midwestern art museum, whose galleries he visited every day.

Drafted into the army in 1953, Deem was stationed in the historic German university town of Heidelberg with its elegant Baroque and Rococo architecture. During his two years in service, he was able to visit many of Europe’s leading art centers, including Florence, Venice, Paris, and London. He returned to Chicago in 1955 to complete his studies at the Art Institute, where he studied with
Paul Wieghardt, teacher of such leading post-war American artists as Leon Golub, Robert Indiana, and Claes Oldenburg. He also took numerous art history courses with the artist and art historian Kathleen Blackshear and adopted Helen Gardner’s classic survey text, Art Through the Ages, as a personal reference he would use for the rest of his career.

New York Career
Following his graduation in 1958, Deem moved to New York City where he remained for most of the rest of his life and career. He took a job in the display department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and began to paint in earnest. Deem’s early New York paintings were, as he described it, “calligraphic images of cursive script”-- abstractions that resembled lines of old, illegible handwriting. They have been compared to the semi-calligraphic work of the American abstract artist Cy Twombly and to the lettering on ancient manuscripts.

Images began to appear with the “texts” in these works and gradually Deem returned to figural painting with what he called “Compositions with Illustrations.” Deem wanted the images he used to be easily recognizable so he chose famous paintings by such European masters as Chardin, Millet, and Goya, or borrowed images of George Washington from iconic works by Emanuel Leutze or Gilbert Stuart.

In the early 1960s, when he began exhibiting in New York with artists like Larry Rivers, critics tend to class Deem with Rivers and other young New York painters as a “Pop” artist. “[W]hat soup cans were to Andy Warhol...” David Dearinger writes of these early critical assumptions in his (George Deem: The Art of Art History), “famous paintings from the past were to George Deem.”

Vermeer and “School of”
Fascinated by the two great artistic discoveries of the Renaissance, oil paint and one-point perspective, Deem lovingly re-imagined and re-organized masterworks he admired into entirely new paintings while, as his New York Times obituary put it, “uncannily recreating the style, the light, the brushstrokes, as well as the details of artists he loved.”

In “
Sargent Vermeer” (2007-08) … one of many variations Deem painted on famous works by Vermeer, he removes the Dutch master’s original models and replaces them with one of the young girls from John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” Sargent’s famous canvas of 1882, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Deem also places a version of Sargent’s painting in the background. In other variations, like “The Art of Painting” (2002), Deem eliminates human figures altogether. In still others (“The Red Chair” (2002)), he focuses on a single piece of furniture from Vermeer’s original.

For many works playing on themes from American art, Deem sets the scene in a classic American schoolroom with rows of wood and cast-iron desks and blackboards. The “School of” in the title of many of these works is a play on the art historical term for a work that (pays) homage to an important master.

“This is me, in my schoolroom,” Deem wrote about one of his schoolroom paintings. “I can even tell you where I sat, it’s so close to historic reality… It was in this schoolroom that poetry, magic, sex--- everything--- developed in this quiet and inexpressive way.” In works ... like “
Hudson River School” (1995), “School of Sargent” (1986), and “School of Winslow Homer” (1986), Deem blends visual elements associated with leading 19th-century American artists with this autobiographical schoolroom image.

A reputation that has defied classification
Deem’s work has proved difficult to pin down. He has been classified as a Pop artist, a Figurative Realist, a Deconstructionist, a Proto-Post Modernist, a Post-Modernist, and even as a Post-Post-Modernist. His fragmentation and re-blending of art history has been called quotation, paraphrase, collage, montage, and appropriation. Although he began his New York career during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, his paintings seem to have affinities with work by “appropriation” artists a generation or so younger, including Sherrie Levine, Yasumasa Morimura, and Cindy Sherman.

"George Deem (1932-2008) explored issues of representation through carefully composed variations on art historical subjects. In contrast to many contemporary artists who are engaged with “art about art,” George Deem’s reconstitutions of the works of Old and Modern Masters occurred squarely within the arena of painting. His was not the revitalization of meaning obscured by mechanical reproduction, but rather the construction of meaning through the act of painting. His unique brand of conceptual realism pointed to an understanding of painting as both a physical and historical process, collapsing traditional notions of time and space. The older painting by an earlier artist was reworked through the imagination of the later artist until in the new painting by Deem what was original once before becomes original again."
(Exhibition Catalogue, One Of A Kind: Unique Artist’s Books, curated by Heide Hatry, Pierre Menard Gallery, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011; Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2012)

"There are at least two special reasons for my being excited by (your Vermeer paintings). One I think I mentioned: the fairly external consideration that a critic pleased me by saying of some of my philosophical work that as in a Dutch landscape the roads led to real places over the horizon. More substantially, because I happen to be completing at long last a book on Descartes, and not only did he inhabit the same world (practically the same place in fact), but also I feel in a way my relation to Descartes' arguments not totally unlike yours to Vermeer's spaces -- extending and reflecting them, and in ways which though grounded hopefully in an understanding of what he was doing then, could not themselves have been available before now."
Bernard Williams, letter to George Deem, September 26 1973)

"(George Deem) paints versions of Vermeer, but not in the usual, and by now superficial, postmodern sense of "quoting" or "appropriating" the Dutch master. Rather, he skillfully executes a Vermeer, but without the people present in those lush, redolent interiors, as in An Allegory of Faith (2000), or he shows us what would be read as a "detail" of a Vermeer masterpiece, as in Woman with a Water
 Pitcher (2002), as if resting comfortably on the page of an art history textbook.  In a sense he is creating what I would call a temporal collage....Deem uses our memory of the "true" Vermeer as a present absence to qualify what we are seeing. But as with the well known use of modernist collage, the irony cuts both ways.  We "see" a Vermeer that is not there, and we see a Vermeer-like effect that is altogether there.  Deem's great technical skill -- which he himself mocks or self-criticizes by painting in test patches or uneven, roughly executed borders -- allows for something like a negative dialectic. If Deem can in fact paint like Vermeer, and the memory activated by such skill is fully estheticized, then why should we accept the usual sense of "Time's arrow," the belief that art history, like the larger history on which it is often parasitical, must be ineluctably one dimensional and future oriented? ...In what we can call "temporal collage" (as opposed to the spatial variety), we see two differently temporalized images.  The historical context of one image, or its partial representation, is being juxtaposed against another historical moment, or against the "now" of the painting. ...In the "now" of the painting that uses temporal collage we experience a framework that appears folded against itself, or is like two facing mirrors.  The original Vermeer, or rather our memory of it, is what gives the Deem work its temporal definition as an echo or recovered memory, even as it reassert the historicity of the Vermeer, which our recollection has presented to us less as an historical object that as a memory that is both willfully invoked and involuntary. ...This is not simply a case of Deem taking up "raw material for sophisticated horseplay," as one critic put it, but rather a working out of the negative dialectic of history by an ironic use of collage.  History, like memory, is a losing struggle, and sometimes our only victories over it come from our ironic restatement of it."
Charles Molesworth, "How To Live in an Image World: The Strategies of Memory," Salmagundi: A Quarterly of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, Summer-Fall 2003).

"The artist George Deem (1932-2008) had a unique relationship to and vision of the masterpieces of the past, especially the landmarks of Western painting that date from the Renaissance to the modern era.  As Deem himself acknowledged, his abiding interest was in the two quintessential characteristics of Western art: first, the use of oil paint as a medium; and second, the development of a convincing system of perspective.  From Raphael to Ruscha, from Watteau to Whistler, from Bingham to the Bauhaus, Deem meticulously reconstructed and reinterpreted the art of the past with insight, originality, and wit …  In his analysis and interpretation of works such as these, Deem made his own, important contribution to the history of art.
      Between the time he arrived in New York City in 1958 and his death fifty years later, in 2008, George Deem's work attracted the attention of prominent critics and art historians as well as that of major collectors and New York art dealers.  At the same time, attempts to place Deem within the context of late twentieth-century art have had diverse results.  He has been classified variously as a Pop artist, a Figurative Realist, a Deconstructionist, a Proto-Post Modernist, a Post-Modernist, and a Post-Post-Modernist.  His compositions have been said to result from quotation, inspiration, paraphrasing, and incorporation; and his methodology has been described as collage, montage, and appropriation.  His work has been appreciated for its humor and theatricality (Edgar Buonagurio); and he has been praised for his "polymorphous sense of play" and for eschewing "the satiric and the caustic faces of wit in favor of the winsome and gracious" (Charles Molesworth).  His thematic choices have been called "free-flowing (fantasy) about the facts and fictions of art history"(Robert Rosenblum),  and have been evocatively defined as "a recycled time-bending, painterly chopping-up (or more refined blending) of previous art" (James Mann).  Obviously, critics and art historians have been unable to pigeon-hole George Deem into a single, simply defined topical or stylistic category.
      This is all to the good.  The most interesting artists are those who keep us guessing -- those who, to borrow Stephen Sondheim's phrase, "give us more to see."  They are the ones, too, whose work is most likely to endure. George Deem surely belongs among this elite group. "
David DearingerGeorge Deem: The Art of Art History, Boston: The Boston Athenaeum, 2012. 11, 32-4)

About George Deem

Born August 18, 1932, Vincennes, Indiana
Died August 11, 2008, New York

Father: George Charles Deem, born February 7, 1898, married Laura Bobe, January 2, 1929, died September 30, 1960 (heart attack).
Mother: Laura Bobe Deem, born September 24, 1897, died January 19, 1937 (tuberculosis) 
Sister: Selma Lucille Deem, born September 17, 1930, died April 26, 2004, married William Schulze, June 1951. 
Identical twin brother John Robert Deem, born August 18, 1932, died April 7 or April 23, 1938 (encephalitis and measles)

George Deem’s father, George Charles Deem, owned a 65-acre farm in Decker, Indiana, a rural township adjacent to Vincennes. Cantaloupes were the major crop.  George grew up on the family farm working alongside his father until he was 20 years old.

St. Thomas School (Benedictine nuns). First grade through eighth grade (1938-46)
Decker High School, Decker, Indiana. Class of 1950.
Junior year at St. Meinrad Benedictine Archabbey, St. Meinrad, Indiana. Oblate George studied calligraphy, Christian symbolism, drawing and painting. 
Vincennes University, Vincennes, Indiana, 1951-52
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, BFA 1958 
Ox-Bow Summer School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Saugatuck, Michigan, 1957, 1958

Military Service
U.S. Army 1953-55. Rank, Corporal, assigned to Military Police, U.S. Army Headquarters, Heidelberg, Germany.

Old Decker Road, Decker, Indiana, 1932-1952.
35 Avenue B, New York City, 1958-1959
65 Fulton Street, New York, 1960-64. Rented entire fourth floor, a  commercial loft space in a 4-story building. Obtained New York City A.I.R. (Artist-in-Residence) certification. Moved when the building was sold for demolition.
61 West 74th Street, New York, 1964-1970.  Rented a 7-room ground-floor apartment, a “professional” apartment certified for living/business use.
3-a Sydney Close, London, September 1966-November 1967. Rented a studio in a South Kensington mews building where he lived and painted during a year of teaching in Leicester at the College of Art and Technology. Returned to New York in November 1967.
Il Palazzone, Cortona, Italy, November 1970 – October 1977. Rented a farmhouse from Lorenzo and Lyndall Hopkinson Passerini on the estate of the Villa Passerini, Il Palazzone.
Westbeth Artists Housing, 463 West Street, New York, October 1977 - March 1979.  Rented loft/living space from Benny Andrews for duration of the lease on the space.
10 West 18th Street, New York 1979-2008. Rented entire fifth floor, a commercial loft space. Obtained New York City A.I.R. (Artist-in-Residence) certification.

1965-66. School of Visual Arts, New York. Taught painting part-time.
1966-67. Leicester College of Art and Technology, now De Montfort University. Taught painting part-time, commuting two days a week from London.
1968. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Spring semester, taught painting two days a week, commuting from New York. 

Artist-in-Residence, Evansville Museum of Arts and Science, Evansville, Indiana, June 1979
Visiting Artist, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, October 1982
Artist-in Residence, The Branson School, Ross, California, January 1995
Resident Fellow, MacDowell Colony, December 1977, January 1978, July 1979.
Secretary, Executive Committee, MacDowell Colony Fellows 1982-84.

Vincennes University Faculty Citation for Outstanding Alumni, Vincennes, Indiana, November 20, 1981

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Worked collating Christmas cards and in the display department at the Metropolitan Museum, 1958-60  

Farewell George Deem

Peter Cherches.