Ed Garman was born in Bridgeport,Connecticut, but grew up in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. In 1933, he entered the University of New Mexico. While working for the university theater, he discovered the work of Adolph Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, turn-of-the-century pioneers of modern stage sets whose stark, simple designs opened Garman’s eyes to the dramatic possibilities of structural form. Later, working for a WPA project, Garman sorted pottery shards at an archaeological dig and became fascinated with the patterns and arrangements of Indian designs. These two discoveries shaped his growing enthusiasm for abstraction, as did a 1935 retrospective of van Gogh’s paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Shortly thereafter, Garman completed his first group of semiabstract paintings. Yet Garman was not convinced that his own future lay in abstraction. Consequently, he went to Mexico for six months in 1937 to study murals by Diego Rivera and Clemente Orozco. He found himself unimpressed, however, by the nationalistic context of the Mexican muralists. He turned instead to art history, seeking in the art of the past the clues that would enable him to better understand his own reactions to his environment.
Garman was fully conscious that becoming an artist in the 1930s was a risky decision:
“The Great Depression was in full swing. Contemplating going into the arts as a lifetime profession was the ultimate in an irrational hope and a guarantee of economic and social suicide. Then, of all things, to choose an area of interest inpainting that was so coldly received as was abstract painting was yet another step into the twilight zone.”(1)
Yet the challenges were exciting. Garman compared them to the feelings of a scientist “discovering an improbable life form that seemed to contradict all other forms of life and yet lived. Abstraction was like that — it lived.”(2)
Garman joined the Transcendental Painting Group in 1941, several years after the group’s formation. By this time he had become close friends withRaymond Jonson, who encouraged the younger artist to continue with his painting and his ideas. But World War II intervened, and in late 1943 Garman left New Mexico to serve with the U.S. Navy in California. Despite little time to paint, his ideas about abstraction continued to germinate, fueled in part by the progressive exhibitions he saw at the San Francisco Museum of Art. By the mid 1940s, Garman had developed a sophisticated theory he called “dynamic painting” in which varied empathetic responses could be stimulated through elements of movement and its counterpoint, rest.
The war had a tremendous impact on Garman’s artistic ideas: “[It] has shown me more than ever the terrific need for anidealism that is truly transcendental. It has shown me more than ever the poverty of spiritual beauty in the world. “(3)
In contrast to Raymond Jonson, who worked intuitively, Garman conceived his paintings in intellectual terms, using geometries, rather than sinuous, rhythmic forms as the structural basis for his work. In Composition #261, for example, brightly colored geometric shapes dance in a yellow field, creating rhythms through color rather than through directional form.Garman described his artistic development as steady and consistent. His paintings evolved “from a highly simplified and almost primitive realism through the various shades of the abstract to the nonobjective.”(4) In his later work he has continued to explore movement and rest through geometric form and has retained the vitality of color so important in his paintings of the 1940s.
1. Ed Garman, letter to Virginia Mecklenburg, 15 February 1988, in the curatorial files of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
2. Ed Garman, letter to Virginia Mecklenburg, 15 February 1988, in the curatorial files of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
3. Ed Garman, letter to Raymond Jonson, 10 April 1946, Raymond Jonson Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., roll RJ3: 1774.
4. Undated biographical statement prepared by Ed Garman for Raymond Jonson, Jonson Papers, Archives of American Art, roll RJ3: 1769.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930 – 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)