Artist Raphael Soyer, the 81-year-old printmaker and painter who has spent his life portraying his family, his friends and his fellow artists, has given a complete collection of his graphics to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which now owns an unparalleled collection of his work.
There are 192 etchings, lithographs and drypoints in the Soyer archive. A number are unique impressions, some are artist's proofs. The oldest is an etching, a portrait of the artist's father, made in 1917; the newest is a street scene of embracing lovers dated 1981. The gift was made in honor of Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn. Soyer is a man who does not forget his friends.
Soyer and Al Lerner first met in New York in the 1930s. "I was working on the Art Project, and so was Moses Soyer, Raphael's twin brother," Lerner said yesterday. "I you knew Moses, you knew Raphael. The two were inseparable. The world was smaller then. Artists knew each other. It wasn't style that we shared. Raphael Soyer never turned to abstract art, but his artist friends included John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, and [Willem] de Kooning. It was a love of painting that bound us to each other. And poverty as well."
Soyer made the gift in recognition of "the sensitivity, care and appreciation [that Lerner] has shown artists, and for the fine work he has done as the first director of the Hirshhorn Museum." It "also expresses my admiration for Joseph Hirshhorn, who put into the collection . . . some of my major works," said Soyer. "I have known Joe for many years and have appreciated his enthusiasm."
The museum owns 28 Soyer paintings. Most are gifts from Hirshhorn. They include a cafe scene of 1925, "Farewell to Lincoln Square" (1959), "Homage to Thomas Eakins" (1964-65), and a then-new portrait Soyer gave the Hirshhorn in 1979. The Soyer exhibition that opened there that year was called "A Birthday Celebration." It marked the artist's 80th.
"The astonishing thing about Raphael," Lerner said, "is that he says eternally youthful. In fact he seems to get younger. He has in some magical way preserved a close bond to the young. His studio is still filled with young people who show up to pose or watch him paint. His art stays youthful, too. Every year it seems to grow lustier, more vigorous. Soyer's newest oils are painted in bright colors. His early works are brown."
Soyer was born in Russia in 1899. He came to New York as a child. During the Depression, he portrayed the unemployed, the street folk of the Lower East Side, laundresses and shopgirls. But, despite such subjects, his work seemed apolitical. His life drawing is spontaneous. His art has always seemed melancholy, intimate, and, in a sense, conservative. Soyer said in 1979, "If nonrepresentationalism is the only art of our time, I'd rather not belong, artistically, to our time."
Soyer's prints are being catalogued. They will be shown at the Hirshhorn in 1982.