Second vision for artists losing sense of sight

Serge Hollerbach touching up a painting in his studio in Manhattan last month. The 94-year-old has painted throughout every aspect of his vision loss caused by macular degeneration.
Serge Hollerbach touching up a painting in his studio in Manhattan last month. The 94-year-old has painted throughout every aspect of his vision loss caused by macular degeneration.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Pablo Picasso probably was not thinking about macular degeneration when he remarked: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up."

But the statement has more than a grain of truth in it for Serge Hollerbach, 94, a Russia-born artist in Manhattan.

Hollerbach painted throughout every aspect of his vision loss caused by macular degeneration, a disease that often affects people in their twilight years - typically depleting their central vision and leaving most legally blind, but with some remnant of sight.

Can they stay creative? As Hollerbach's vision began deteriorating in 1994, his work shifted from realism with a dose of expressionism to something more abstract.

Defined shapes made way for something looser. Colours shifted gears from muted to bright. Hollerbach's rigid perfectionism also dropped off as his sight blurred, "like water in the eyes after taking a swim", he said.

"There is such a thing as a second childhood," he added, explaining how his paintings changed. "To be playful, you have nothing to lose. Nothing to lose is a kind of new freedom."

The pre-and post-macular degeneration works of eight artists, including Hollerbach and the late Lennart Anderson and Hedda Sterne, are the focus of The Persistence Of Vision, an exhibition at the University of Cincinnati.

It explores the versatility of the artists - shown in early and late works - as they adapted their styles to vision loss and, in cases like Hollerbach's, experienced a personal renaissance.

"The late works are gorgeous," said Mr Brian Schumacher, a curator of the show at the Philip M. Meyers Jr Memorial Gallery within the university, where he is an assistant professor of design. "They stand on their own as viable, legitimate and beautiful works of visual art."

Hollerbach's response to his disease was a turn towards playfulness - perhaps a reflection of a relentless optimism that had helped him survive Nazi labour camps, where he was confined as a teenager during World War II.

His work continues to reflect a bend towards social justice and his fascination with everyday life through crowded New York street scenes, including the city's homeless.

On a Sunday afternoon in his studio, he held a plastic cup up to within an inch of his face.

"That's blue, isn't it?" he asked himself. Yes it was, and he would go on to create water in a crowded beach scene.

It was a back-and-forth process as he placed the canvas on a flat table to apply the acrylic paint so it would not run.

"I can't really see what I am doing," he admitted, adding, "I will look at it later."

He placed the canvas back on the easel and took a long squint at it. He did not seem overly impressed.

"But that's the freedom of it," he said, as he continued painting.

Among the show's other artists is the late David Levine, whose The Last Battle is an incomplete work that followed his vision loss.

Instead of detailed faces like those in earlier depictions of Coney Island beach scenes, he stuck to silhouettes and skipped the details on clothing.

Charcoal lines were drawn and redrawn as he struggled with his new limitations, said his son, Matthew. He watched the piece take shape around 2004 as his father's vision retreated.

"He became more and more obsessed with trying to draw those figures and less and less happy in his ability to use line."

The exhibition is an extension of the larger Vision And Art Project, a research and curatorial project funded by the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.

"It is good for other artists to know that there are these resources available, so they don't feel isolated," said Ms A'Dora Phillips, director of the project and the show's other curator.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2018, with the headline 'Second vision for artists losing sense of sight'. Print Edition | Subscribe