Treasures from the Vault: Leonardo Nierman

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

For over 40 years, Leonardo Nierman, often celebrated as Mexico’s Jackson Pollock, never planned on being an artist. In fact, it wasn’t even his second or third choice. In the end, however, his interests and skills helped him to see and create art in a unique style all his own. Because Mexico was not considered a hub for contemporary art, Nierman is not as recognizable of a name as Jackson Pollock or Robert Motherwell. Instead, he found his own path and managed a quiet, yet successful, career.

An enlarged portion of Nierman's painting "Eternal Fire" shows the long, differently sized drips pouring down the canvas like lava against a deep, blue/black background.
Why was Nierman likened to Pollock? Take a look at this close-up of Eternal Fire. Does the dripping technique look familiar? Photo courtesy of FWMoA. Leonardo Nierman, Mexican, b. 1932. Eternal Fire. Oil on board, 1969. Gift of the William Donahue Estate, 1972.10.

Born in Mexico City in 1932 to European immigrants, Nierman’s first love in life was his violin. He said, “Music is a window through which God enters. It can move the human being at fantastic speeds through time and space projecting him into any country, any culture, any mood. Music is the greatest gift that mankind has received in terms of art.” He spent two decades as a violinist, attending the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico and was the lead violinist for the Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He eventually gave up the violin after comparing a recording of his playing to Yehudi Menuhin, a well-known violinist and conductor.

After Nierman left music he became fascinated with color and art. He picked up painting as a hobby, but didn’t quite have the confidence to practice it professionally because of his lack of formal training. Despite his love for the arts, he graduated from preparatory schooling with a concentration in physics and mathematics. He then graduated from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México with a degree in business administration. His art career began when he was approved by the dean of the business school to create a mural. Unfortunately, the mural was later destroyed when the building underwent renovation.

Nierman had painted for a few years when he was invited by Raquel Tibal, a curator, writer, and art historian of Mexican art, to display his work at the Centre de Deportes Isreali in Mexico City. He accepted, but said that if he did not sell any of his paintings, he would quit (what is it with this guy and quitting?!). Two paintings sold, and the owner of a successful Washington, D.C. gallery was in attendance who took an interest in his work. Nierman’s works were displayed in Washington, D.C., launching his career internationally. He has had over 100 exhibits across the world and his art resides in museums and galleries all across the globe.

Nierman experimented with different types of mediums: painting, drawing, sculpture, and even tapestry! His predecessor, Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo Corandó), considered the founder of contemporary Mexican art, was an important influence on Nierman’s work. Nierman worked more abstractly than Dr. Atl, but the landscape perspective is present. Dr. Atl was well known for his obsession with volcano paintings, a scene visible in his everyday life. This reference is in Nierman’s work, and is seen in our own permanent collection painting. In certain works you can see the volcano flow and lava pouring down the image. Nierman was also influenced by artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró, with traces of Cubism and Surrealism.

Images from nature like wind, fire, lightning, and water are all evident in Nierman’s work. He said:

“For me to invent a world is to take the elements of nature and reorganize them according to my fantasies, my instincts, and my dreams. Logic is absolutely not important. I don’t mind if the volcanoes are in the bottom of the ocean, if the waterfalls are made of fire or moonlight, or if there is lightning where it does not belong. I just take random elements of color and reorganize them until something new is born; it can be the wings of a bird, a leaf in a storm, or an explosion in the bottom of the ocean.”

Let’s take a look at the works featured from the museum collection. Do you see the inspiration from nature and his dreams coming through? The wonderful quality about abstract work is that you get to create your own narrative. In this case, with Nierman’s work, the titles give away some information as to what we are looking at. In Sunset Wind, there is a sense of a deep vivid sunset being blown across the evening sky, as the title would suggest. But what do you think you would see if it were called Untitled? Do you see an oil slick rolling down the river? Maybe a campfire at night? A close up biological rendering? We get to play with this concept a little more with Eternal Fire because it is fantastical in comparison to Sunset Wind. When I look at this painting, I see a volcano and fire eruption, smoke billowing at the foot of a volcano, lava pouring down the side, and dramatic energy and movement. What is it that you see?

This abstract painting is darkly colored, with deep blues, greens, and blacks filling the background. In the center, however, is lighter yellows, oranges, and reds, as if a sunrise is appearing.
Leonardo Nierman, Mexican, b. 1932. Sunset Wind. Oil on board, 1967. Gift of the William Donahue Estate, 1972.11. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
The full version of "Eternal Sunset" shows the lava cascading down the right of composition against a deep blue background. The foreground is lighter, greens, yellows, and oranges that hint to tree like shapes and hills.
Leonardo Nierman, Mexican, b. 1932. Eternal Fire. Oil on board, 1969. Gift of the William Donahue Estate, 1972.10. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A point not obvious at first, but an up close detail will show, Nierman never mixed colors out of fear of dulling the pigment. This would explain why the colors in his paintings are so bright and vibrant! A close up will also show the amount of layering created. Lightly brushing on a darker paint over top develops a printmaking quality that you would see when crosshatching in an etching.

A closer look at a portion of Sunset Wind, the colors are celestial, brighter blues and softer yellows are surrounded by greens. Against this is a reddish-orange flow of color. Each color is it's own, they don't mix.
A close look at Sunset Wind. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Throughout researching Nierman’s work, an obvious crossover between multiple senses became apparent with his art. Synesthesia, a newly recognized condition being researched rapidly, is when one sense is perceived by one or more senses. Nierman often discussed the “feeling” of color, and he may have synesthesia himself. His art visually connects lyrical abstraction with bright colors. You can almost hear a dramatic symphony playing while looking at his work, perhaps with him on violin!

Despite Nierman giving up his violin and physics/mathematics for his art career, you can see the influence it has on his work. Each painting is well composed, similarly to music, with highs and lows, rhythm and flow, tempo and energy, all dominated by Nierman’s interpretation of cosmic landscapes.

Nierman found a way to incorporate his interests into his artwork, a true STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) representative.

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