A Timeless Vision – artist Malcolm Liepke

A Timeless Vision – artist Malcolm Liepke – Brief Article

Vanessa Silberman

It’s not every day that one happens upon an art opening and discovers the majority of works on view have sold out a mere 10 minutes after the exhibit officially opened. But then again, it’s not every day that collectors are treated to a one-man show by artist Malcolm Liepke, whose classically inspired figurative paintings mesmerize even the most discriminating eye. His sold-out exhibitions from New York to Hong Kong attest to the popularity of his oil paintings, and Liepke’s self-published, limited-edition stone lithographs, which are distributed exclusively by Arcadia Fine Arts in New York, are just as sought-after.

Upon viewing Liepke’s work, one might not surmise the artist was born and raised in Minnesota (where he currently resides with his wife and two sons) and is only 47-years-old. In fact, Liepke admits that “when people first look at my work, they imagine I am much older than I am and that I am from a foreign country.”

Indeed, there is a certain timeless quality to Liepke’s work–one that transplants viewers to a bygone era of beer halls and couples lingering in smoky rooms, and yet retains a distinct contemporary flavor. The sublime beauty of his subjects, often women lost in contemplation, are imbued with a sense of melancholy. His wet, juicy brushwork and lush colors make the canvas come alive. “I look at my own world and paint it,” said Liepke, “but I also want my paintings to be ultimately timeless. I’m a channel to express the human condition.”

A Lifelong Pursuit

Liepke’s fascination with art began at a young age. During his senior year of high school, he realized that being an artist was the “only thing I was cut out to be.” So he packed his bags and headed to sunny California where he enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. However, he soon became frustrated with the curriculum, which emphasized abstraction and conceptual art. After a year and a half, he dropped out. “They weren’t going in the direction that I wanted to go,” he explained. “They were promoting superficial and trendy techniques. I wanted to learn from the masters that I saw in the museums.”

Liepke, who was and continues to be drawn to the work of 19th-century masters, did just that. He headed to New York’s finest museums where he studied the work of Sargent, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard, absorbing technique and discipline while developing a unique vision all his own.

From the beginning, Liepke was drawn to the figure. “It’s not really like anything else,” he explained. “In landscapes, there can certainly be a great deal of emotion, but it is a different kind and not as strong to me as looking at the figure.”

“There is a very timeless quality to figurative painting that I really enjoy. If I look at a Rembrandt, [the subjects] obviously have some funny clothes on, but the people are still the same. They haven’t changed in hundreds of years. The emotional contact you get from looking at someone’s face is what inspires my work.”

To make ends meet, Liepke began working in illustration, and by the early 1980s, he had earned an award-winning reputation as an illustrator with works appearing in magazines like Time and Forbes. Over time, Liepke grew tired of the lack of control in terms of subject matter, and by the mid-’80s decided to strike out on his own and become a full-time artist.

Liepke’s commitment to traditional figurative painting coincided with the resurgence of figurative painting in general. “I came at a pretty good time. It wasn’t as difficult to find success painting figures in a realist style during the ’80s as it would have been during the ’50s or ’60s. Artists like Lucien Freud helped carve some paths, which helped me enormously.”

Still, Liepke displayed concern about the response from American art critics towards traditional fine art. “I never ran into a lot of resistance, except maybe from art critics, who always and still do embrace abstract art. I find this amusing, since our society embraces other classical forms of art, like ballet and opera, but they don’t accept classical fine art as being contemporary,” he said. “Here, unless you are doing some sort of abstraction, classically-trained artists are sort of left in the dust.”

But not by collectors. At his first show in 1986, Liepke’s most expensive painting sold for $3,000. Today, a Liepke painting sells for $60,000 to $70,000. Certainly this is a sign that the attitudes and valuation towards traditional figurative painting are changing. As Liepke commented, “Collectors know my work and they know that it isn’t cheap. But they know that if they wait, it will only get more expensive.”

Painter by Day, Stone Lithographer by Night

When Liepke isn’t working on a canvas, he is likely to be found working on a stone lithograph. “About 12 years ago, I realized I couldn’t reach the number of collectors I wanted to with originals alone, because I don’t create that many a year. Whereas with lithography, I could make a few hundred in an edition and price it so that most people could afford it. This really appealed to me.”

Each lithograph by Liepke is an original, hand-drawn image and isn’t based on a pre-existing painting. “It is still a medium that I am exploring and trying to get better at … Stone lithography is open to a huge amount of possibilities–it’s just a matter of what you want to do with it.”

At the atelier [S.sup.2] in New York, Liepke has had the great pleasure to work on the same Voirin presses Toulouse-Lautrec worked on. And at Akasha in Minneapolis, Liepke has recently completed some monotypes.

Today, Liepke says his determination to paint in a style true to himself, even when it was unfashionable to do so, has paid off. “I decided that I must stick to my guns, paint what I love and let the chips fall where they may.” The chips have fallen, sir, indeed the chips have fallen.


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