Saturday, September 25, 2010

Irwin Greenberg (1922-2009)


On Tuesday September 21st a memorial Service was held at N.Y.C.‘s Art Students League for Irwin (Greeny) Greenberg (1922-2009). Greeny taught at the High School of Art and Design, then at the School of Visual Arts and finally at the Art Students League, all in New York. During his time at Art and Design Greeny, along with painter Max Ginsberg ran an early morning paint group where students came voluntarily to paint from a model. The teachers worked alongside of the students and also made their rounds  instructing each one.
The group was duped the “Old Hats Club” by some other instructor because it concentrated on drawing and painting from the model in a traditional, classical vein which was out of vogue from the time they started the group and beyond the time I attended (1983).
At the memorial service many former students stood up and spoke about Greeny. They spoke about his kindness, patience, his ability to inspire, encourage and about how he thoughtfully formulated a plan to reach even the most difficult and challenged student that walked in his classroom. They shared how they were inspired in a way that lives with them today. Greeny was a very rare and special person, a special encounter, a lucky find. Many of his students went on to professional careers, and though he knew many will not go on to a career as an artist he gave everyone the same time and attention. He once said that even if a student never develops into a professional artist they would have had the experience of having struggled and accomplished something with their art and they can carry that experience and that pride into whatever else they do in life.
I sat listening to the speakers wanting also to tell of my experience at Art and Design in Greenys class. I didn’t get up to speak, maybe because I was too busy listening to all the wonderful stories or I was too chicken to share my own experience. If I had spoken this is what I would have shared:
One of the things that I heard different people get up and say was how their life would have been so different If they hadn’t meet Greeny. He definitely enriched a lot of lives, helped people turn a lot of corners.
Growing up in my home my Mother mostly spoke Spanish and her schooling only went as far as the 3rd grade in Puerto Rico, (she stayed home to help my Grandmother out in a household of ten children). I spoke mostly English. My Father was between households, sometimes he would spend the night other times he would show up and then leave and then there were days out of the week he wasn’t there at all. If he stayed three days out of the week that would be typical. I remember asking my Mom, “Where does he go?’, but she would just shrug her shoulders and avoid answering the question. I went through school with very little homework help, ( now that I have two children of my own I realize how much further along I would have been If I had parental help ). The language problem was not so insurmountable If only education were valued more, which was not the case.
I tried out for the High School of Art and Design and was accepted based on the portfolio that I showed, but my grades were so terrible I was actually supposed to have been held over. I spent half the year at Art and Design before the mistake was realized. When I was sent back to my Junior High school I considered just dropping out all together but for some reason I hung in there, graduated and made it back to Art and Design.
That first time I was admitted I was really trying to be a good student, this time all my bad habits stayed with me and by the end of the school year I was sent back to my zoning school in the Bronx. But just before that happened I met Greeny. For the first time I had a teacher who really tried to pull something more from me. Greeny had a plan of what he was going to teach a class then he got to know each student and figured out what he needed to do to reach that student. He would pick one student to sit for the class for about twenty minutes, ( as the year progressed students would pose longer ), while everyone painted in watercolor and as we worked he would stop by each student and instruct them individually. We had two periods of this. Between periods Greeny would call everyone to a back table and he would share a book about one of the masters or some great illustrator. I went from being an uninterested terrible student to really trying to learn how to paint and I also developed an interest in art history. I had Greeny’s class for only about three months that year before I was sent back, but before I left Greeny made the rounds with me from Principal to Guidance councilor and managed to secure a promise that If I were to make up the credits I owed I could be readmitted to Art and Design. By that time I was very determined to return and learn how to be an artist. I went to a prep school attached to Monroe High School in the Bronx, I also went to summer and night school at Roosevelt High School also in the Bronx. I went Back to Art and Design and after a little difficulty was readmitted, ( with Greeny’s help ). From that point my grades were good to excellent.
Again in Greeny’s class I took up where I left off, learning how to paint and learning about the old masters. Greeny got me my first art book, a book about the painter John Singer Sargent, ( a book which I still own today ). Now I have more books then I have shelf space for, because part of what was instilled in me was an appetite for learning about art and art history. We also learned about great illustrators in his class and from the stories they illustrated I became interested in reading more. I remember Greeny loaned me a copy of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and in his class he spoke about Shakespeare and Tolstoy. I was also a part of the Old Hats Club where students, ( very serious students ), arrived at 6 A.M. to paint from the model under the instruction of Greeny and Max, ( Max Ginsberg ) and latter Irv Doktor also joined them. There were a number of visiting former students who were either in college or had gone on to professional careers or simply continued to paint after they graduated. I learned from the visiting students as well and they were also an inspiration for the rest of us who had not graduated yet. It was a great place to be, a great place to learn and though I went on to college at Parsons School of Design I had not been a part of anything like that since.
There are many people who have a story to tell about the time they were privileged to be apart of this group or have gone through Greeny’s class, What I had to say is not so unusual for someone who had been a part of that group, but It was a great experience that I continue to draw inspiration and direction from today. When ever I lose my way thinking about that time fills me with purpose and keeps me going.
I understand now when people say that someone does not pass when they live on in your memories.



  1. Wow awesome.. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Wow Gil! Thank you, thank you, thank you! So glad you directed me to this piece so full of your struggles and how Greeny had a lot to do with over-coming them and beyond. Awesome.....we have very similar "takes" on Greeny. Still one of my greatest mentors today and he did so mainly as an ambassador of Art & Life with the way he did things.