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 Ed Garman  (1914 - 2004)

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Lived/Active: California/New Mexico/Connecticut      Known for: geometric and other abstract painting

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Ad Code: 3
Ed Garman
from Auction House Records.
Untitled (No.255)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An artist whose modernist style grew during the Depression and World War II eras, Ed Garman had several experiences that directed him to his signature style of Geometric Abstraction, which he called Dynamic Painting.  In 1933, he studied modern stage design at the University of New Mexico with Adolph Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, who were pioneers in stark, simple theatre sets.  Several years later, working as a WPA artist (Federal Arts Project) with Edgar Hewett, archaeologist, he became fascinated by pottery shards and Indian craft designs. Assigned to determine which shards belonged to which tribe, Garman would arrange random shards that became, to him, fascinating abstract and colorful designs. This experience also turned his interest from the social issues of the Mexican muralists to the reverence for history and tradition held by the Indians.  Another influence towards modernism was a 1935 retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1941, he joined the Transcendental Painting Group---the last member to join--and by this time had formed a close friendship with New Mexico modernist Raymond Jonson and with Bill Lumpkins, both members of the Transcendental Group. However, Garman's art focus, like that of so many artists of that era, was interrupted by service in World War II.

Ed Garman was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut to a mother from the Lehigh River area, 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia and a father who worked on the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  His parents were working in the munitions factory of Bridgeport during World War I when they met, and shortly after he was born, his parents separated and his father disappeared.  Garman was raised by his mother in Jamestown, of eastern Pennsylvania where the Lehigh Valley had its railroad yards and where the people were mostly Pennsylvania Dutch.  However, his mother spoke only English to him, so that he would not be confused. During his childhood, he had much freedom to roam the countryside in the hills of Appalachia.  He graduated from high school in 1933, and when it came time to go to college, he chose the University of New Mexico because it was economical and he was very poor.  There he revelled in the clean air, much different that the pollution from railroads he had experienced in his home area, and he loved the vast, unsettled landscape.

Of this decision to head to the western United States, he later wrote:  "The Lehigh River, black with coal dust from the coal mines upriver, ran through the valley.  The valley air, too, was perfumed with sulfurous odors and was filled with smoke from coal-burning railroad locomotives running on tracks that paralleled the river.  Except for summer, the low-flying clouds of the sky were wet and heavy in their gloominess.  Thus the significance of my move to the West. . . .The awesome quality of New Mexico space and light, together with the geologic structure of the terrain, left an impression that influenced my art when it flowered." (Blankenship, 48)  He studied theater design and was active with the Albuquerque Little Theatre.  He also read deeply, building on his interest in history and the historical development of theatre including the work of Adolph Appia in Switzerland and Gordon Craig in England.  Both of them advocated extreme simplicity in stage design including abstract elements and special lighting features that brought visual focus to the actors and actresses.  Then, in his landscape, still life and portrait painting, Garman applied these theories, which resulted in his creative dedication to abstraction and non objectivity.

However, he had to leave the University because of the Depression times, and even found food by fishing in the Rio Grande River.  This change in circumstances from academia also meant he left behind his classes in stage design in which he had majored at the University.

In 1935 at the Art Institute of Chicago, he saw Improvisation, a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, Russian Non-Objective painter, and this work plus further reading about Kandinsky's theories reinforced his own developing ideas, which were running quite counter in the United States to the popular American Scene subjects and realist style.  In 1935 and 1936, he traveled extensively in Mexico to study painting by the nationalist muralists including Diego Rivera and Clement Orozco.  However, he was not impressed by the direction of their work and was also taken with the comments of Orozco who indicated that abstraction was the style that he thought would sweep aside the progandizing realism.

Returning to New Mexico, Garman began the defining time for his art and his career.  In 1937, he married Coreva Hanford, a philosophy student from the University of New Mexico, and she influenced him to think of idea before fact, a Platonic concept that much affected his abstract approach to art.  Explaining his developing ideas, he quoted from Plato's writings:

"By beauty of shape I am not thinking of certain pictures but of a straight line or a circle and resultant planes and solids produced on a lathe or with ruler and square. . .in my view these things are not, as other things are, beautiful in a relative way, but are always beautiful in themselves, and yield their own special pleasures." (Blankenship, 49) 

On his way to devoting his work to non-objectivity, Garman studied Piet Mondrian's theories of relationships and Kandinsky's exploration of instinctive action.  His conclusions were that his painting need only convey to the viewer what it stood for by itself---totally distanced from moral or theoretical concerns.   In turn, this platform gave the artist complete freedom from agendas or biases.

In the late 1930s, Ed Garman, working on a National Youth Admnistration Project near Jemez, New Mexico, met William Lumpkins, an abstract New Mexico painter much influenced by John Marin.  In turn, Lumpkins told his friend, Ray Jonson, with whom he had formed the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG), about Garman, who was completing a significant body of non-objective paintings.  In 1941, the TPG invited Garman to become a member, the last person to join the group, which had formed in 1938.  However, Garman was not active with them for long because the next year the group disbanded from working together due to World War II.

Garman was drafted into the Navy, and served from 1943 to 1945 in San Francisco.  After the War, he and his family settled in Imperial Beach, California.  Although he had other work to earn money, he continued his painting, which was an ongoing exploration through color and shapes and their relationships.

Of Transcendental Painting, he said:  The Ideal-modern (TPG) work of art is in effect an icon of quality with a sacred value, non-religious of course.  You may look and enjoy it for its art values but the painting is also looking back at you asking if your life values are equally clear."  (Blankenship, 50)


Tiska Blankenship, Vision and Spirit: The Transcendental Painting Group, Exhibition Catalogue of the Jonson Gallery, University of New Mexico Art Museums, May 27-August 15, 1997.

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