NEW YORK—Waves permeate the universe—light waves, sonic waves, gravitational waves, electromagnetic waves, brain waves … ad infinitum, and water supports life. Edward Minoff can’t think of a more important thing to paint than ocean waves—truthfully. His passion was palpable in every tiny brushstroke he made while painting a seascape that he started about four months ago.
He’s been living there temporarily with his wife and two children while waiting for his home in Brooklyn to be renovated. A portrait of him that Lehman painted about 20 years ago hung on the wall—reminiscent of the days when they were starting to seriously hone their skills and eke out a space for their survival as traditional artists. They would take turns posing for each other, along with a dozen other artists galvanized by Jacob Collins, the painter who would later found the Grand Central Atelier.
Minoff composed the horizon line of the seascape he was painting to go straight across the canvas. The height of where the sea meets the sky at either end of the painting matches perfectly. If joined up, it would form a ring, signifying infinity, he explained. A couple commissioned the painting in celebration of their wedding anniversary.
Each Minoff seascape has it’s own backstory and mood—ranging from powerfully dramatic and menacing, to delightfully amiable and peaceful. One can almost see the waves building up, drawing you in to hear them crashing onto the sand. He hopes the viewer will feel enveloped, and be able to even smell the salty sea air.
After finishing each painting, he comes up with at least 10 new ideas that he wants to put into the next one—perhaps a different way to apply the paint or a different way to think about water.
“As the wave starts to lift up and curl and get a little bit glassier you get these reflections of the sky … that reflection has fascinated me for years,” he said.
Just painting water is challenging enough, let alone waves in perpetual motion.
Minoff said he’s driven by the idea that if every color, value, tone, and brush stroke is exactly right and in the right place, it will create something perfect that will make the world better. “The idea that you will never get there is kind of defeating, but also inspiring,” he added.
While his paintings are remarkably realistic, he never uses photographs because that would freeze the motion and the experience he wants to convey. He does not paint from life either. Instead he relies on his notebooks.
“That scene never existed anywhere ever. It’s not necessarily a particular place,” Minoff said pointing at his painting. Created from his memory and imagination, his seascapes have a dreamy quality about them.
For about four years he just spent countless hours on the beach taking notes and sketching waves, foam, and sand, meticulously studying and dissecting the anatomy of the ocean. He would repeatedly look at just one part of the waves until he understood it and then move on to the next part—frame by frame like an animation filmmaker.
The paper of his notebooks was softened by the humidity of the ocean, leaving his penciled sketches and notes ever so lightly marked. Yet they are a treasure trove of his detailed studies and analyses of how light reflects on and transmits through water, on hydrodynamics, and on the physics of waves.
Artists infuse who they are, their beings, and life experiences into whatever works they create, which often show hints of their own characters or physiques and the general emotional state that they were in during the creative process. While that is more readily obvious in portraits, the waves in many of Minoff’s seascapes match the rhythm of his wavy hair, the color of the water echoes the color of his eyes, and the simplicity in his compositions reflect his easygoing, openhearted demeanor.
Currently Minoff is working on three commissions, including a portrait of the former director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, Sarah Thomas. She was the first American and first woman to direct the Bodleian in the library’s 400-year history, and Minoff is the first American painter to be commissioned to create a portrait for Oxford.
Although Minoff receives plenty of commissions and there is a high demand for art created by highly skilled contemporary artists of the atelier art movement who’ve been trained like the old masters, the extent of such reverence to beauty is not readily acknowledged in the mainstream art world.
“There are not many outlets that are interested in this kind of art; it’s a little bit weird,” he said.
As mainstream art is more about the cult of the personality or of concepts that require convoluted justifications and spin doctors to explain why it should be considered important, Minoff’s sentiment is more akin to anonymous graffiti artists who paint for the love of doing it rather than for hyped up fame.
Minoff wishes incredibly gifted artists creating realist art would be more present in the mainstream art world along with other contemporary artists. “You can do anything you want, you can throw eggs up and let them fall on the floor and that is ‘art,’ or you can paint a canvas and poke a hole in it. You can do whatever you want as long as its not a beautiful painting of a sunset. You are never going to see that at Art Basel or at the Venice Biennale. The big mainstream art shows are never going to show that,” he said.
Invigorating a Timeless Tradition
In his 20s Minoff was actually a graffiti artist, painting large pieces in the train tunnels of Manhattan. That’s where he met his friend and fellow artist, Tony Curanaj. Instead of talking about the risks of lingering in train tunnel territory, they talked about how they would love to paint like Rubens and Michelangelo. Having been discouraged by some art teachers in school, just the idea of drawing like the old masters seemed ironically subversive.
A few years later they both worked on animation at MTV for some time. Minoff then started his own animation company, AMPnyc, yet at the peak of his success in 1999 he decided to give it up for painting. At that time they were learning from Jacob Collins at the Water Street Atelier in DUMBO, Brooklyn, which later would become the Grand Central Atelier of today in Long Island City, Queens.
That was a milestone for him, just to see Collins’s work and lifestyle, and to see that it was possible to continue creating in the art tradition that he loved. The drive for excellence, the romance, and idealism of it all resonated deeply with him.
“When you passionately want to do something with your life and you find it, it’s an incredible feeling. Then you want nothing but just to do that and never be interrupted,” he said.
Besides painting, Minoff now teaches at the Grand Central Atelier and at Columbia University. When he used to interview prospective students at the atelier he would actually try to talk them out of it—as a favor. Artists live with the uncertainty of whether their works will sell enough to sustain them, and it’s even more uncertain for marginalized artists of Minoff’s ilk.
“You have to do it only because you love doing it. It’s too hard. … You feel like Sisyphus. You just keep pushing the boulder up and it just rolls down,” he said.
Yet Minoff is fascinated by anyone else who would do it too. Out of that fascination, together with Curanaj, he started a podcast in February 2014 titled, “Suggested Donation.” It grew from wanting to expand their phone conversations, while they were painting in their respective studios, to a broader milieu. So far they have recorded 23 episodes, each one is a lively concoction of conversation and banter about the creative process, recent and ancient history, and hopes for a brighter future that exalts skillful art, nature, and above all beauty.
Edward Minoff will be giving a lecture, free and open to the public, on March 11 at 5:00 p.m. at The Florence Academy of Art at Mana Contemporary, 888 Newark Ave. Jersey City, NJ.