art for everyone. every monday morning.
Vanity and Time.jpg

Gary Erbe • American: B: 1944

Vanity and TimeOil on Canvas 30” x 40”

At age 21, Gary Erbe didn’t know enough about art to know he wasn’t an artist . After only three months of self-instruction, he quit his $10 a day job as a construction laborer and set out to become a great artist. Three months later the money ran out and Erbe found himself asking for his old job back. This was perhaps the most predictable thing that ever happened in Erbe’s life.

Who would’ve predicted a 16 year old high school dropout, abandoned by his mother would someday have his work featured in leading art galleries and museums. In 1960 he was unwanted, uneducated, unnoticed, and indefatigable.

He began teaching himself to paint. Not in a paint-by-numbers sort of way, but rather by carefully looking at famous paintings and trying to figure out how to create great art. He was taken with the Trompe L’Oeil (fool the eye) artists of the late 19th century. Building on their hyper-realistic vision he developed his own style, naming it Levitational Realism because objects seemed to float over abstract backgrounds.  

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Talk to Gary Erbe, today, and you’ll hear a rapid-fire string of fascinating life-stories told in a broad Jersey accent. The time he survived “the one week endurance test for artists” and sold his first major work in the 11th hour of the final 11 hour day. The time he turned down $1 million for future work because he didn’t want to lose creative control. The one about taking his paintings out of a seedy Soho gallery because he felt he belonged on Madison Avenue. 

But, every story is really about a scared 16 year old kid alone in a small furnished room who grew up to become a famous artist without ever taking an art lesson. A man determined to be noticed, respected and live life on his terms. He created frames to control how his paintings were shown and left galleries to gain more control over his art. He lived large in Manhattan and boomeranged back to Jersey where he now lives in an 1840s house on a street known as “Artists Row.” 

Now, after a half century as a self-taught artist, the rest of the world believes what Gary Erbe always knew … he belongs on “Artists Row.” 

Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection • Gift of Gary T. Erbe in Memory of Muriel Koestler, 2012.14


4 Ways to Sound Smart When Viewing at The Canton Museum of Art

“Gary Erbe’s mother abandoned him at 16. He worked at a string of $10 a day jobs and taught himself how to paint.”

“He coined the term ‘Levitational Realism’ to describe his unique painting style that bridges Realism and modern art styles, including Abstract Expressionism and Cubism.”

“He only paints 2-3 pieces a year because he spends so much time constructing models by precisely arranging objects to his liking.”

“Erbe once turned down a million dollars for future work because he wanted to maintain creative control. That’s how you know you’ve made it.”


Erbe Timeline. Scroll over images to see timeline.