Jimmy Ernst • American (1920-1984)
Untitled Serigraph • Silkscreen 37" x 28"
Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection • Gift of Jack and Ethel Zaratzian, 82.21.4
Everybody’s nerve-endings were shot in 1941. Jimmy Ernst, perhaps, had more reason to be on edge than most. In the space of three short years he fled his German homeland; was chased from his new home in France, leaving his mother behind; resettled in America, barely surviving on menial jobs; learned his mother had died in the Auschwitz ovens. Shortly after, he became stepson to one of the wealthiest women in the world. Stop the world, I want to get off.
Let’s begin our story in New York, 1941. Jimmy Ernst was working as a $60 a week clerk at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). His father, the famed Surrealist and DaDa artist, Max Ernst, was still in Europe, nimbly staying one step ahead of the Nazis who despised modern art. Finally, Europe had run out of places to hide and Max boarded a ship for New York, gaining legal entry only when son, Jimmy, pledged his own meager salary to the court. It must have been an enormous surprise to see his father walking down the gangplank in the company of Peggy Guggenheim, one of the world’s richest women. Jimmy’s circumstances were about to change.
In short order, Max married Peggy, Jimmy became a director of the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art. Jimmy’s real mother, Louise (Max’s first wife,) died at Auschwitz. Max divorced Peggy. Jimmy married Dallas. Jimmy became a leading light among the Abstract Expressionists dominating art at the time.
Is it any wonder Jimmy Ernst’s autobiography was titled: A Not So Still-Life?
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But, while father Max married and divorced five times, Jimmy remained with Dallas for almost 40 years ‘til death did them part. Where Max was a dashing pirate of the art world with a white mane and athletic figure, Jimmy was a balding man with a round, earnest face.
Where the two Ernst’s most resembled each other was in their devotion to pushing the boundaries of modern art. Jimmy became one of the “The Irascible Eighteen”, a group of artists prodding the Metropolitan Museum of Art to embrace abstraction. The group posed for a famous picture published in Life magazine in 1950.
By the following year, Jimmy was named an instructor in the Department of Design at Brooklyn College. As he approached his 40s, life began to slow into the rhythms of fatherhood and established artist. Leaving New York City behind, Jimmy and Dallas summered in the Hamptons and wintered in NoKomis, Florida. At long last, a still life.
At the age of 69 he published his autobiography and promptly dropped dead of a heart attack while waiting for a radio show interview to promote his book. In memory of her husband, Dallas Ernst established an annual award to an artist whose lifelong vision was judged to be “consistent and dedicated.” She knew her husband well.
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““In 1941 he was a $60 a week clerk at the Museum of Modern Art. A year later he was Director at the Guggenheim. Having an oft-married father has its’ advantages.”
“His father was famed Surrealist, Max Ernst, one of the most flamboyant figures in modern art. His mother, Louise Amalia Straus was a Jewish art critic and journalist who died in the Holocaust.”
“IAs a member of ‘The Irascible 18,” Jimmy was instrumental in gaining acceptance for Abstract Expressionism.”
“He titled his autobiography, ‘A Not So Still-Life.’ Because it certainly wasn’t.”