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Born in Cologne, Germany, to art historian and journalist Louise Straus-Ernst and prominent Dada and Surrealist artist Max Ernst, Jimmy Ernst was in his early years intrigued by the art world but turned firmly against an artistic profession out of resentment for his father. His parents separated early in Jimmy’s childhood, and Max left his son for a new life in Paris. In adolescence Jimmy visited his father and new wife, who entertained key artistic figures such as Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, Victor Brauner, Joan Miró, André Masson, René Clair, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, and Louis Buñel. Ernst was privy to an exclusive screening of Buñel’s film L’Âge d’Or, and his father provided his first exposure to American jazz. In Cologne, Ernst had taken great interest in Gothic architecture and the stained glass of local churches, and was taught by his mother about Matthias Grünewald’s 1515 Isenheim Altarpiece. During his time in Paris, curiosity for the work of his father awoke, and he began to closely observe him at work in his studio.
Ernst returned to Germany in 1961 after receiving a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He traveled throughout Europe and participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Exchange Program in the Soviet Union. In 1967, he received an Andrew Carnegie Foundation grant for a study and report on “Freedom of Expression in the Arts, ” completed for UNESCO. Ernst continued to paint and exhibit widely, and in 1983 became a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York. His autobiography, which detailed his early years and relationship with his famous father, was published in 1984. That same year, on February 6th, he passed away in New York. Ernst’s lifelong investigation into the meaning and power of art produced dynamic and vigorous works, as captivating for their exultation of his influences as for their reflection of the extraordinary life of the artist.
With the rise of the Nazi regime, Louise Straus-Ernst faced investigation as a Jew and well-known intellectual, and she soon relocated to Paris for work. Jimmy began an apprenticeship in typography with the J.J. Augustin printing firm in Glückstadt while attending the Altona School of Arts and Crafts. His instruction in school, however, remained confined to mechanical work such as typesetting. Two years later, his artistic revelation occurred when he encountered Picasso’s Guernica at the Paris World Exposition. Ernst later recalled, “Suddenly, I was not at all certain that painting did not have the potential of transforming an external event or idea into attestation of one human being’s universality.” 1 Together with the Grünewald altarpiece that influenced Picasso, Guernica inspired Ernst with the communicative powers of art, and he resolved to become an artist himself.
In 1938 Ernst departed Germany one week prior to Kristallnacht. He arrived in New York on June 9th and entered the care of his sponsor J.J. Augustin, who briefly employed him in his publishing company’s New York branch. While working menial jobs, Ernst explored his interest in modern art and became a frequent visitor at Julien Levy’s gallery at 15 East Fifty-seventh Street, where Max Ernst and many in his circle exhibited. His acquaintance with Levy soon helped him into a job at the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library. Once again immersed in the world of the avant-gardes, he associated with artists such as Carl Holty and Joseph Cornell and became reacquainted with Surrealist and modernist émigrés. As Ernst worked to secure travel to America for his parents, he began to produce paintings using leftover mailroom cardboard and poster paints, moving next to oils and prints made from linoleum tile.
Max Ernst arrived in New York in 1941 accompanied by Peggy Guggenheim, who he later married to avoid deportation. Jimmy took up a position as Guggenheim’s secretary-assistant, responsible for keeping track of her art collection. A year later, he was appointed director of Guggenheim’s newly opened Art of This Century Gallery. Ernst moved on to open the Norlyst Gallery in New York City in partnership with art dealer and painter Elenore Lust, using the space to host his first solo exhibition. His artwork at this time was heavily influenced by Surrealism, but Ernst took special interest in the unorthodox directions of Roberto Matta, Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes, and others. Ernst found these artists to be heavily motivated by an interest in gesture and the act of painting, rather than the theoretical discussions that preoccupied the older generation of Surrealists. He developed a close friendship with Baziotes, and spent time in Matta’s studio studying automatism along with young and experimenting painters such as Jackson Pollock. Ernst’s love of jazz music also bound him to this younger generation of artists, and he eventually produced works that for him explored the connections between music and painting through the inspiration of players such as Montana Taylor.
In 1945 Ernst learned of the death of his mother, who had been transported from a detention camp near Paris to the Auschwitz concentration camp in the summer of 1944. After receiving the news Ernst traveled to Amagansett, New York, where his father was living among other Surrealists. He moved with Max and his mistress Dorothea Tanning to Sedona, Arizona, and in the following year married Warner Brothers talent scout Edith Dallas Bauman Brody. Ernst held a job at Warner Brothers as an assistant to the art director of advertising through 1951, but he remained heavily involved with the New York avant-garde scene. In 1950, he participated in the “Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35,” and joined the “Irascible Eighteen” in protest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s bias against abstraction. A balance of life, work, and art continued as Ernst took up teaching jobs at the Pratt Institute and Brooklyn College, completed various visiting artist positions, produced sculptures for television shows, published articles for College Art Journal and Art in America, and became a U.S. citizen and father of two.
Written and compiled by Zenobia Grant Wingate
1Jimmy Ernst, A Not-So-Still Life, 87.
1920 Born June 24, Hans-Ulrich Ernst in the Kaiser-Willhelm Ring, Cologne, Germany
1922 Parents separated, Jimmy stays with mother
1933 Mother investigated by new Nazi regime, and leaves for Paris to find work; Ernst lives with maternal grandfather, visits Paris twice a year
1935 Apprenticeship as typographer with J.J.Augustin printing firm in Glückstadt; studied graphic arts at Altona School of Arts and Crafts
1938 Departed Germany one week prior to Kristallnacht; worked in NY branch of J.J. Augustin Publishers
1939 Hired by Museum of Modern Art for work in mailroom and Film Library
1941 Worked as Peggy Guggenheim’s secretary-assistant
1942 Appointed director of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery
1943 First solo exhibition at Norlyst Gallery
1944 Mother killed in Auschwitz concentration camp
1945-1951 Art director assistant at Warner Brothers
1947 Married Edith Dallas Bauman Brody
1948-1950 Taught evening classes in painting at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn
1950 Joined “Irascible Eighteen”
1951 Taught in the Department of Design at Brooklyn College
1952 Moved to South Norwalk, Connecticut; became U.S. citizen
1953 Birth of daughter Amy Louise
1954 & 1956 Visiting artist position at University of Colorado, Boulder
1955 Visiting artist position at Yale University
1956 Artist-in-residence at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; birth of son Eric Max
1961 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship
1963 Appointed full professor at Brooklyn College
1965 Artist-in-residence, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida
1966 Visiting artist at the Des Moines Art Center
1969 Moved to East Hampton, Long Island
1976 Death of father, Max Ernst
1980 Built winter home and studio in Nokomis, Florida
1982 Awarded honorary Doctorate from the Southampton College of Long Island
1983 Elected to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York
1984 Published autobiography A Not-So-Still Life; died in New York, February 6
1949 Juliana Force Memorial Award, purchase prize Personal History
1954 Norman Weil Harris Prize (Bronze Medal), Art Institute of Chicago
1957 Brandeis University Creative Arts Award for painting, first recipient with Stuart Davis
1948 Laurel Gallery, NY
1950 Robert Carlens Gallery, Philadelphia
1951 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, NY
1953 Obelisk Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1954 Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
1955 Silvermine Guild of Artists, Norwalk, CT
1956 Philadelphia Art Alliance
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1957 Art on the Campus, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
1962 Obelisk Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1963 Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, Germany
1963 Detroit Institute of Arts
1965 Städtisches Kunsthaus, Bielefeld, Germany
Amerika Haus, Berlin, Germany
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, FL
1966 Des Moines Art Center
1968 Arts Club of Chicago
1970 Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY
1972 Galerie Lucie Weill, Paris
1974 Riva Yares Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ
1981 Harmon Gallery, Naples, FL
1984 Armstrong Gallery, NY
1985 Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY
1986 Century Club, NY
Galerie am Schloss in Ausstellung der Stadt, Brühl, Germany
1987 Retrospective; Harmon-Meek Gallery, Naples, FL
Corbine Gallery, Sarasota, FL
1988 The Forgotten Mural, Hofstra Museum, Hempstead, NY
1988 Univeristy of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
1994 Trials of Silence, Tampa Museum of Art, Florida
1997 Shadow to Light, Sardoni Art Gallery, Wilkes-Barre, PA
1998 The Sea of Grass Series and Beyond, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL
1999 Sprengel Museum, Hanover, Germany
1941 The New School for Social Research, NY
1942 Art of This Century, NY
Marian Willard Gallery, NY
Whitelaw-Reid Mansion, NY
1943 Art of This Century, NY
Norlyst Gallery, NY
1944 San Francisco Museum of Art
1945 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
1946 Pasadena Art Institute, CA
David Porter Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1950 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY (eight times)
Sidney Janis Gallery, NY
Toledo Museum of Art
1951 The Museum of Modern Art, NY
60 East Ninth Street, NY
1952 California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
1952 Stable Gallery, NY (three times)
1952 Toledo Museum of Art (four times)
1953 University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana (three times)
1953 University of Colorado, Boulder
1954 Contemporary American drawings, sponsored by U.S. Embassy, Paris
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1954, 1957 Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
1954, 1961 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY
1955 American section, International Art Exhibition, Tokyo
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg
1956 University of Colorado, Boulder
Nebraska Art Association, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Pasadena Art Institute, CA
American Pavilion, Venice Biennale
1957 Brooklyn Museum, NY
1958 Brussels World’s Fair
Flint Institute of Art, Michigan
1958 American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, NY (three times)
1959 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (three times)
1959 Detroit Institute of Arts
1959-1960 Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service
1960 Art Institute of Chicago
1963, 1965 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1966 Mulvane Art Center, Topeka, Kansas
1968 Honolulu Academy of Arts
Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan
1974 E. B. Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento, CA
1976 Heckscher Museum, Huntington, NY
1976 Rutgers University Art Gallery, New Brunswick, NJ
1977 Hathorn Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga, NY
1980 Phoenix Art Museum
1987-88 Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles
1988 Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas, Canary Islands
1995-96 Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
1998-2000 Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL
1999 ACA Galleries, NY
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, NY
Board of Trustees of Guild Hall, East Hampton, New York American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York
1961 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship
1982 Honorary doctorate from Southampton College of Long Island University
Works by the artist may be found at the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard Art Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Jimmy Ernst. A Not-So-Still Life: a memoir by Jimmy Ernst. New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1984.
David Craven. “Abstract Expressionism and Third World War: A Post-Colonial Approach to ‘American’ Art.” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1 (1991), 44-66.
Donald Kuspit. Jimmy Ernst. Introduction by Kurt Vonnegut, with contributions by Louis Simpson, Louise Scendson, Sondra Gair, and Jimmy Ernst. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2000.
Jimmy Ernst: A Survey, 1942-1983. New York: Guild Hall of East Hampton, Inc. 1985.
The Estate of Jimmy Ernst. http://jimmyernst.net
Carter Ratcliff. The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996.
Mona Hadler. “Jazz and the New York School,” in Representing Jazz, ed. Krin Gabbard. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
Donald Kuspit, Stanley I. Grand. Jimmy Ernst, Shadow to Light: Paintings 1942-1982. Sordoni Art Gallery, 1997.
Jennifer Hardin. Jimmy Ernst: The Sea of Grass Series and Beyond. Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1998.
Matthew Baigell. “Modern Uses of American Indian Art.” Art Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), 251-252.
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. “The Essence of Agony: Grünewald’s Influence on Picasso.” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 13, No. 26 (1992), 31-47.
Werner Hofman. “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in Its Historical Context. Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 4, No. 7 (1983), 141-169.
Martica Sawin. “ ‘The Third Man,’ or Automatism American Style.” Art Journal, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), 181-186.