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Mort Künstler: One Man's Adventure

M ort Künstler is now known as America's foremost historical artist, but over the course of his 50-year career, he also achieved many other distinctions. His name is well known to the publishers of illustrated books and magazines, and to the art directors of advertising agencies because Künstler first made his mark as an outstanding illustrator.

After studying art at Brooklyn College, UCLA and Pratt Institute, Künstler began working for magazines such as Reader's Digest, Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post, American Weekly, Good Housekeeping, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and the men's adventure magazines that gained popularity after World War II, including True, Argosy, Stag, For Men Only, MALE, Adventure, and SAGA. Künstler and fellow illustrators such as Tom Lovell, James Bama and Frank McCarthy illustrated tales penned by young writers such as Mario Puzo and Michael Crichton, who used pen names. It was during this period that he earned the sobriquet of the "King of Men's Adventure." "The magazines were a training ground for an awful lot of famous artists and writers," Künstler says. "I could not do today what I do without that background. We told stories directly and immediately. You learned composition and color. You had to be creative and you had to meet deadlines."

Künstler completed at least three cover illustrations and two inside illustrations every month, for Magazine Management alone. It's the main reason he used pen names such as Martin Kay and Emmett Kaye. "The editors didn't want it to look like one person was doing all the art."

In the past 20 years, Künstler has focused on historical subjects, recreating important events of America's Civil War. In 1992, he was commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to complete a painting for a stamp honoring the Buffalo Soldiers, the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular U.S. Army. In 2002, Künstler became the first artist to be honored with a six-month, one-man exhibition at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa. Recent works have sold for up to $250,000.

"The men's adventure magazines from the late 1950s and 1960s were among the most popular magazines of their time," says Heritage illustration art specialist Ed Jaster. "Mort Künstler was among the greatest illustrators of that period. Now, with his focus on the American Civil War, he is considered by many to be the country's premier historical artist."

An Early Start
Künstler's parents, Tom and Rebecca, recognized his talent even before he start school. "My father was an amateur artist," Mort recalls. "He gave me art supplies and drawing lessons before I entered PS 215 Elementary School in Brooklyn. My mother was a schoolteacher, and she would take me to the Brooklyn Museum by subway every Saturday morning for art lessons."

Künstler also developed an interest in sports as a child, and although he was small for his age, he had a natural talent for athletics. He was elected to his high school athletic honor society and graduated at the age of 15. His interest in art was second only to his love of sports, and Künstler eventually became the first four-letter man at Brooklyn College. The only artwork he did at that time was sports cartoons for the college newspaper.

After two years at Brooklyn College, Künstler went to UCLA on a basketball scholarship. While in California, his father suffered a heart attack, so he returned to Brooklyn to help care for him and enrolled at Pratt Institute. He continued to pursue his interests in art and basketball. During summers he worked as a waiter and lifeguard, and one summer at Tamarack Lodge in the Catskill Mountains teamed up with future basketball great Bob Cousy to compete against players for other resorts.

"The resorts actively recruited outstanding athletes like Mort and me because each hotel had a team," recalls Cousy, who played with the Boston Celtics from 1951 to 1963 and was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971. "Mort and I were younger than most of the jocks who were playing basketball that summer. But both of us could handle ourselves well, and we held our own against some of the outstanding players who came up from New York City."

At the start of his senior year at Pratt, Künstler met his wife-to-be, Deborah, a freshman at the school. After graduating, she worked as a textile designer until their first child, David, was born. The couple bought a home on Long Island and converted half of the two-car garage into a studio. The family soon grew to five with daughters Amy and Jane.

His career as an illustrator began to take off in the late 1950s, even though the market had been reduced by the demise of many publications and the increased use of photographs in advertisements. In fact, business was so good that Künstler was almost overwhelmed by the amount of work he accepted. He and Debbi decided to move their family to Mexico for a few years so Mort could relax and spend more time with his wife and children.

As much as the family enjoyed Mexico, they missed the excitement of New York. In 1963, the Künstlers returned to Long Island, and Mort began creating the kinds of historical paintings for which he is so well known today. Assignments from the magazines like National Geographic and Newsweek and for movies such as The Hindenburg gave him a chance to research his subjects and use that information to compose dramatic depictions of important historic events.

His paintings also attracted the attention of gallery owners, private collectors, and museum directors. Through the 1970s, Künstler's artwork was exhibited at several galleries in New York, at the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Fla., and at the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, Ore. In 1977, he had his first exhibit at Hammer Galleries and began a relationship that continues to this day.

Historical Painter
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Künstler's career continued to blossom, with major commissions from private collectors and corporations, more one-man shows with galleries, and the publication of books reproducing his paintings. In 1979, Abbeville Press published Mort Künstler's 50 Epic Paintings of America, with text by the distinguished American historian henry Steele Commager.

Beginning in 1985, there was an explosion of interest in Künstler's work from television and movie producers, book publishers, art buyers and military buffs.

Book publisher Harry N. Abrams released The American Spirit: The Paintings of Mort Künstler in 1986 (updated edition, Rutledge Hill Press, 1994). Künstler's first Civil War limited edition print, High Water Mark, was published in 1988. It was an immediate success. Later that year, Künstler painted Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and it was purchased by Wil Feltner, then chairman of Winchester, Virginia's F&M Bank. This painting started a new genre in contemporary Civil War art by showing women and children for the first time in Civil War scenes.

The popularity of Künstler's first "Stonewall" Jackson painting and print resulted in a second Winchester-based commission by Feltner, Until We Meet Again, which became the most popular print ever produced by Künstler. The Feltner Museum in historic downtown Winchester is now home to 13 original Civil War Künstler paintings.

Several more books on Künstler's art followed, including Images of the Civil War: The Paintings of Mort Künstler (Gramercy Books, 1992); and Gettysburg: The Paintings of Mort Künstler (Turner Publishing, 1993). The Gettysburg book was published as a companion to the epic film Gettysburg.

More recently, collections of Künstler's paintings have been included in books published by Rutledge Hill Press, including: Jackson and Lee: Legends in Gray; a pair of books, Mort Künstler's Civil War: The North and Mort Künstler's Civil War: The South; and another pair, Mort Künstler's Old West: Cowboys and Mort Künstler's Old West: Indians.

Images of the Old West: The Paintings of Mort Künstler was published by Park Lane Press, and in 2002, Greenwich Workshop Press published Gods and Generals: The Paintings of Mort Künstler to coincide with the release of the major motion picture, Gods and Generals, from Ted Turner Pictures. Künstler's work for men's adventure magazines is prominently featured in It's A Man's World: Men's Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps (Feral House, 2003).

Standing Alone
There is probably no other artist in our nation's history who has recorded so many events in American history, and certainly no one who has painted them with the extraordinary authenticity and drama as Künstler. In 1998, the Nassau County Museum of Art recognized those distinctions by unveiling a major exhibition of more than 130 paintings, drawings and sculptures. Titled The Civil War - The Paintings of Mort Künstler, the seven-week exhibition attracted more than 40,000 visitors, surpassing the previous attendance record set with an exhibition work by Pablo Picasso.

In the catalog for the Nassau County Museum of Art exhibition, director Constance Schwartz writes: "From a historical point of view, Künstler is an heir to the European academic tradition and is, perhaps, a late 20th Century counterpart to the great American realist Thomas Eakins. He certainly carries the banner of art history and portrait painting established by Gilbert Stuart. The Civil War paintings of Winslow Homer are an obvious influence. There is a similarity also to the tradition shared by the American frontier artists, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell."

As he looks back on his accomplishments and tries to explain with he has always been known as a fast, dedicated, thorough artist, Künstler draws an analogy between himself and a player on a baseball team.

"The attitude you need for success in sports is really the same attitude you need for success as an artist," Künstler says. "I think of a ballplayer out in the field who sees a ball being hit in his general direction and starts sprinting toward it. He starts out thinking he doesn't have a chance in the world of actually catching the ball, but he runs as fast as he can so he'll be as close as possible. As he gets closer he starts to think he might actually have a chance. At the last second he leaps at the ball, and sometimes he catches it. That's how great catches are made. When the same kind of attitude is applied to art, great paintings are made. I've always tried to run a little harder and stretch a little farther to make the best pictures I can, and I think that many times I have succeeded."

Mort Künstler: One Man's Adventure

New York:
Wednesday December 3 - Wednesday December 17
Reception and book signing: Wednesday December 3

Beverly Hills:
Monday January 5 - Friday January 16
Reception: Thursday January 8

San Francisco:
Monday January 26 - Wednesday February 4
Reception: Thursday January 29