Sy Mohr (1923-2016) is a contemporary American oil painter best known for large mural-like depictions of people, their architectural environs and activities. His 150 paintings celebrate the cultural and ethnic diversity of people in many parts of the world – U.S., Carribean, Haiti, Mexico, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Israel, etc. Nearly always the people are set in a place – be it city, town, or neighborhood – which speaks of them as richly as their clothing, shapes, complexions, races, groups, gender, and expressions.
Numerous Mohr works honor people of African and Spanish descent. They stand in rebellion against the forces of conservative ethnocentrism, totalitarianism, hate, bigotry, holocaust and war of the 20th Century. They signal the determined egalitarian multiculturalism that lies ahead as the world shrinks and people draw together. In this regard Sy Mohr paints a prototype of what the United States is at its best, and must be in the future. And in the face of repression, depression, evil, and prejudice, and the steel gray of poverty, crime and despair in urban life, Mohr responds with a rainbow, an irrepressible joie de vivre, and a contagious love and acceptance of people.
Stylistically, Mohr was influenced by the glowing colors and thick, dark outlines of Fauvist painters like Georges Rouault (The Old King), which bring to mind stained glass in cathedrals. Bright colors fill Mohr’s works and add to their zest.
One also sees Cubist influences in Mohr’s work, in the geometric shapes and lines in faces and shadows and architectural surroundings. His brush even seems to accentuate and exaggerate the differences between people. Shapes and faces are disfigured and misshapen. Beauty is not on the surface. It emerges from within. The people Mohr paints shout out they are beautiful too – in who they are and how they act and what they do. They dare anyone to speak otherwise.
Mohr paintings are also filled with the sounds of polyglot conversations, accents, island rhythms, guitars, jazz saxophones and trumpets, Jewish clarinets playing fast minor scale melodies, and laughing children. You can smell the curry, Italian sausage, fried chicken, hot peppers and apple pie cinnamon. There is salt water and bare skin and salt water taffy. People gather and celebrate, dance, and sway to the music. They play cards, watch kids play basketball, gather sailboats in harbors, and work together. Portraits of his wife and daughters show both the artist’s outrageous wit and solicitous fondness for his family.
Influence of the great muralists is evident, too. Many of Mohr’s paintings are on a grand scale – large enough to fill a wall. Houses and stores, factories and streets cascade down canvases in towns and cities. Congregations of people move as a single mass across the canvas. Mummers flow through the heart of Philadelphia. Anxious throngs march for peace in Washington. Thousands celebrate at Woodstock.
Some have described Mohr’s work as folk art, because many of his paintings are in a flat, vertical perspective, use strong colors, and do not realistically depict human forms, color, light and perspective. Mohr, though rooted in the folk art tradition, shows extensive knowledge of the principles of art, gained through a lifetime of independent education. He is in his words “deliberately primitive,” seemlessly fusing the amateur’s eye with the master’s hand.
Early Career. Mohr was born the Bronx, N.Y., where he grew up in semi-poverty. His paintings seem to be a reaction to the hard, gray textures of the city, yet are fed by its vibrant diversity. Mohr’s father was a Jewish dry cleaner, and his mother a Russian immigrant.
When he was 13, he painted a watercolor of Sunny Side, Long Island, which won first prize in an art competition. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia presented his prize. His talent was recognized by other New York artists including Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe. Stieglitz put Mohr’s work in his Manhattan gallery. Thus encouraged, Mohr went on to study art at New York Textile High School.
In the Army in World War II Sy made camouflage clothing and taught soldiers how to hide. After the war he painted backdrops for a theater, an activity that led him to paint primarily large canvases.
In 1947 he married Berenice Drucker, a Fifth Avenue designer and stained glass artist. They moved to Lancaster, Pa., a sharp contrast to the Bronx. In Lancaster they had two daughters, owned and operated a fabric store and deli for 40 years, and became friends with local Amish and Mennonites. Many of his paintings are of the Amish and rural Lancaster. Then, circumstances forced the Mohrs to close their businesses. It was a time of profound depression for them. They moved to Bowie, Maryland in 1981 to be near a daughter, and started an interior design business. All the while, Sy kept painting. This, and Berenice, continued to provide him with joy and hope. Berenice Mohr died in 2003.
Later Career. In 1989 Mohr had a debilitating stroke which affected his speech and took away his ability to read. This brought renewed depression. It has also brought increasing joy and hope, however, as Mohr has fought back to regain his ability to speak. While still in the hospital, he went to a blackboard and wrote the word “Joy” in the center of it. He has refused to give up his painting, and through this lifelong pursuit of his craft, continues to express his creativity, joy and hope, his love of people and love of God.
The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC selected Sy Mohr’s painting “The Pope of Life Today” for display at the entrance to the exhibit A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People, September 14, 2005 – January 15, 2006.
In January, 2002, the Art in Embassies Program (AIEP) of the United States Department of State requested the artist’s “participation for exhibitions we are curating…of original artwork by American artists in the residences of the United States Ambassadors worldwide. The exhibitions become a part of the Ambassador’s cultural mission at Post…” The artist loaned selected paintings for a period of three years. “The Peace March” was on display in the embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, and “Indian Festival” and “Indian Wedding,” in the embassy in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. In February, 2008, AIEP accepted Sy Mohr’s painting “Monhegan Island” (Maine) for display in the U.S. Embassy in Banjul in The Gambia, a small nation along the Gambia River in western Africa, which is surrounded by Senegal. In his 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte traveled from The Gambia to slave auction in Annapolis. Sy Mohr continues to paint and exhibit in the Maryland- Washington, D.C.- Pennsylvania area.
(AIEP) was created in 1964 “to promote national pride and a sense of the distinct cultural identity of America’s art and its artists…to provide a visual experience and tangible example of the depth and quality of our nation’s artistic heritage, and…to enhance the physical beauty and representational functionality of embassy residences.” Through loans from museums, corporations, galleries, individual artists and collectors, “AIEP provides a visual experience of the cultural and artistic heritage of the United States.” Artists whose works have been exhibited recently include Milton Avery, Maya Lin, Eric Fischl, Joan Mitchell, Pat Steir, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, David Bates, Claes Oldenburg, Harry Gordon, Joel Shapiro, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau, Grace Hartigan, Reginald Marsh, Vannoy Streeter, Charles Webster Hawthorne, Jasper Cropsey and Robert Rauschenberg.
Sy Mohr passed away Saturday November 5, 2016.