Nature frightens. No slow early autumn walks in the country for me. Nature is a mother with a knife, ready to pounce on us without warning. Mountains collapse, rivers reclaim, skies open up and caves swallow. But there is also a beauty in this destruction. Keeping myself far away from all things that are natural is what I have a sweet tooth for. The landscapes of my mind reach out for other minds in beautiful acts of aggression.
The earliest piece of existing sculpture that I did was in 1958. I was very young. The piece is made of white interlocking plastic building blocks that I always played with. For me it was more than just play. The piece has some similarities to my present concerns. It looks like a building or a structure or a ruin. I glued the individual blocks together. Even at this early stage, I was concerned with making a permanent work of art. I found this lost and forgotten piece in 1971 at the home of my parents in a box of old things of mine that my mother had kept for all those years. The piece was broken into four sections, but it was not difficult to repair, because the parts fitted together like a puzzle.
In 1968, I started to fill small black sketchbooks with collages. I thought of them as intimate objects to be looked at by one person at a time. I never ripped out pages. I did these books for about a year when I decided I had accomplished at that time what I wanted to do with collage. In early 1969, I wanted to expand my ideas of collage, to break through the paper and get to the other side. It was at this point that I started small-scale sculpture, miniature environments and landscapes.
My training had been in commercial art. I began working in the advertising field in 1966, upon completing a 2-year course at New York City Community College, as it was then known. I had little trouble in finding jobs. However, these jobs depended on skills that I really didn’t have, and my heart was not really in the ad game. I wanted to be an artist. At night, I took drawing and illustration classes at The School Of Visual Arts, which made me want to be an artist more than ever. Finally, in 1967, I stopped working in advertising and from that time on I have devoted my life to being an artist.
Growing up in New York gave me easy access to all the museums and at an early age. I started to go to The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum Of Natural History, The MOMA, and The Whitney. The one work that stands out as having an impact on me as a child was Ernst’s “Two Children Are Threatened By A Nightingale,” because of Ernst’s use of strange perspective, bright almost acidy coloration, and the three-dimensional miniaturization of a gate and house. Some other influences were amusement parks – notably Steeplechase Park – movies, Times Square, and the artists Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson. Knowing their work from an early age was an education. Seeing what they (and others) had done with assemblage was inspiring and made me realize that although their accomplishments were magnificent, there was room still for an original new voice to be heard.
The first box I did was in 1969 and was made of cardboard, which was completely covered with a photographic reproduction of a landscape. Inside the box, I placed a cardboard backed cutout photograph of the artist Toulouse-Lautrec as a child, surrounded by his family. Unfortunately, part of this box was destroyed.
The first landscape boxes I did were also done in 1969 and were a series of “New York boxes.” They were small with diorama backgrounds of the city skyline in the 1900s along with loose material usually gravel or sawdust dyed to represent earth. It was also during this period that I actually burned many of the miniature buildings I was using. I was altering, changing, and manipulating my found materials as modern artists have done since Cubism. The action was just as important to me as the outcome of the work and the reactions the work would invoke. I think nature has a tendency to reproduce itself in miniature. A twig, a small stone or a puddle of water when separated from its natural environment and isolated can resemble a tree, a boulder or a lake.
I want my art to go through slow constant changes, but at the same time I want vast abrupt changes. Nature does the same. Since 1969 I have been making small scale sculptures and miniature environments that have been boxed, floored and walled. Within these small spaces, a wide range of images has been constant & consistent: houses, mountains, trees, bodies of water, and landmasses. My work over the years has changed, as I’m always experimenting with my language.
In 2001, after living in my loft for 31 years, I was forced to move because my landlord, out of pure and simple greed, wanted to get more rent than I was paying. I had to move 31 years of my art into storage and leave Manhattan and move to Brooklyn where I now have a 2-bedroom apartment. This is a small apartment, and I am using one of the bedrooms as an office-studio space. It was hard at first, but I soon got back to my personal and creative life and slowly, I started to make art again. I began to make sculptures along with large collages. The shock of losing my studio was extreme, but I was pleased that I started to make art again, and I realized that no matter what, I will never stop making art.
Ira Joel Haber was born and lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is a sculptor, painter, book dealer, photographer and teacher. His work has been seen in numerous group shows both in USA and Europe. He has had 9 one man shows, including several retrospectives of his sculpture. His work is in the collections of The Whitney Museum Of American Art, New York University, The Guggenheim Museum, The Hirshhorn Museum, and The Albright-Knox Art Gallery. His paintings, drawings, photographs, and collages have been published in over 100 online and print magazines. He has received three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two Pollock-Krasner grants, the Adolph Gottlieb Foundation grant and, in 2010, he received a grant from Artists’ Fellowship Inc. Currently, he teaches art at the United Federation of Teachers Retiree Program in Brooklyn.