If you go
What: ‘Salad Bar,’ an exhibition by Sebastian Spreng
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; Noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Always Available by Appointment
Where: Kelley Roy Gallery, 50 NE 29th St., Miami
Info: 305-447-3888; www.kelleyroygallery.com
By Tom Austin
Special to The Miami Herald
Since he can no longer use an easel, Sebastian Spreng paints on a flat table created from an unfinished door. Holding up his arms and reaching across a broad canvas have become too difficult. His left hand, with which he paints, is held aloft by a strap. Born with multiple dystrophy, Spreng developed trouble walking at 4 and has been confined to a wheelchair since he was 12. He’s getting weaker every year, and Salad Bar, his new show at the Kelley Roy gallery in Wynwood, reflects the increasing severity of his condition. The exhibition’s 250 tiny paintings — entailing Jim Dine-style hearts, Rothko-esque striations of color and somber abstract landscapes that recall Ross Bleckner — range in size from five to eight square inches.
“I had to reduce the size of my canvases out of need,” Spreng says, “but it’s also pushed me to concentrate the drama and energy in the paintings.”
Days earlier, at the gallery, Spreng had imparted his usual dose of whimsy in an explanation of the exhibition’s title.
“I was going to call the show Smorgasbord,” he had said, “but since it’s summer in Miami, Salad Bar worked better: Ensaladas is Spanish for salad, and also a musical term for polyphonic music, which is playful Spanish music from the 16th century that’s a mix of everything. The prices of these little pieces start at $500, which is very affordable, but can I afford so many pieces of me leaving my studio?”
On a bright morning in his home studio set in an ordinary high-rise condo overlooking Biscayne Bay, the 55-year-old artist is taking in the sharp light on the water and his treasures. On one shelf, lined with many classical music albums, is a photograph of him with the renowned baritone Thomas Hampson. The opera star used one of Spreng’s paintings for an album cover. A fixture on the local classical-music scene, Spreng writes about music for his blog Miami Clasica and El Nuevo Herald.
Down a hallway painted red and lined with more of his landscapes is the living room, furnished with comfortable white sofas and equipped with opera DVDs and books, from The Andy Warhol Diaries to Serious Games: The Shape of the Romantics, a catalog published by the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich. The walls are adorned with more dark landscape paintings. Despite Spreng’s sunny nature, his work often features solitary trees, roads to nowhere and empty horizons.
“Dennis Hopper came from Kansas and as a kid knew the world could not possibly be as boring as that flat Kansas landscape, so he moved to New York and Hollywood as soon as he could,” Spreng says. “I felt the same way about my hometown of Esperanza in the Argentinian Pampas, the middle of nowhere.”
To be a child with muscular
dystrophy in a place like Esperanza “was to have a childhood shaped by solitude. My parents were very supportive — I also have a sister — and we had a comfortable and cultured middle-class life. My father was a businessman and my mother a fourth-generation schoolteacher. Art was always a biological need for me, as important as water and air, and constant work allowed me to build my own universe, a way of survival. That loneliness back then is why so much of my work is dark, and also it’s probably why I’m so gregarious now.”
Spreng began his flight from the Pampas at 7 when his family moved to the coastal town of Mar del Plata to be near a medical facility. When he was in high school, they moved again, this time north to Buenos Aires. In 1973 Spreng was in a group exhibition at the city’s Fundacion Lowe, followed the next year by a solo show at the Martina Cespedes Gallery. In 1982, he visited a friend in Miami and never left.
“You have to be careful about inviting me anywhere,” he says. “I’m like the Man Who Came to Dinner.”
Spreng is a cultivated sort, and his work has a gentle quality reflective of the 19th century, when visual art, music and poetry were combining to produce big, earnest art with ennobling ambitions for educated patrons. Music is always part of the equation in Spreng’s world. Apart from Salad Bar, the Kelley Roy Gallery has several pieces from Spreng’s Liederkreis, a series inspired by Robert Schumann, who created 140 l ieder (art songs) between 1839 and1840. Schumann’s pieces were based on the work of the romantic poet Joseph Eichendorff, who was given to rhapsodizing about “secrets behind the myrtle trees.”
In 2009, Spreng had an exhibition at Kelley Roy featuring his painting Liederkreis Opus II, a visual impression of the composer’s Opus 39, a 12-song cycle. At the show’s opening, Spreng’s work was highlighted with a chamber-music performance by Orchestra Miami. To Elaine Rinaldi, the orchestra’s artistic director, working with the paintings added new dimensions to the classical music.
“We like to do chamber-music concerts as a way to promote awareness of the orchestra, and performing the Schumann cycle in front of paintings that are so moody and dark made the music even more evocative,” she says.
“All art is interrelated, and that was a stunning evening, like being back in a turn-of-the-century salon in Vienna.”
Now that Spreng can no longer create big pieces, his larger paintings — included in the 2009 book Speak for the Trees edited by Andria Friesen and also featuring work by David Hockney and Robert Longo — have an added poignancy. A 1985 visit to Berlin produced Berlin, Berlin. Now on hand at Kelley Roy, the foot-square work is a study of the then-divided city, an empty road to nowhere bisecting a field of West Berlin greenery and the drab worker housing of East Berlin.
(One of Spreng’s more ambitious projects, on view at the Miami-Dade Government Center, was commissioned in 1994 by Metro-Dade Art in Public Places. The nine-piece installation of paintings — Nonet for the Long Journey — is a tribute to South Florida activist George Armitage, an Americans with Disabilities Trailblazer who fought for wheelchair ramps and handicapped access. The installation entails figurative images of swimmers going from dark water to pure light. )
Spreng is also good at the social aspect of art. To watch him in action at a party celebrating his work is to witness a Puckish creation expertly wheeling around in his motorized chair and dispensing a sound bite to his tribe: “Miami is like a rebellious teen. Sometimes you want to kill her, but in the end she’s always good.”
Over the years, Spreng has seen everything in Miami: “The art world here is over-hyped, not unlike any other city.” He’s has had his share of local acclaim. In 1995, he was part of a Studies of Nature show at the Americas Collection in Coral Gables. Carol Damian — now director and chief curator of the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University – described his work then in Art Nexus as the “essence of simplicity, visual abstractions of form and color; however, upon close examination it is quite evident that technically they are anything but simple.”
Dennis Scholl, vice president/arts and Miami program director of the Knight Foundation and also a prominent collector, considers Spreng a unique Renaissance personality.
“His deep knowledge of painting and music allows him to seamlessly travel across both disciplines and use one to inform the other,” Scholl says.
In 2003, Spreng was featured in the show Paradise Lost at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum, an historical overview of what paradise means to artists. The exhibition also included Roberto Matta’s industrial landscapes and Tomás Sánchez’s pristine portraits of abandoned oil cans. “His landscapes, with all those soft pastel colors, are so impressionistic and quite moving,” Brian Dursum, the museum’s director and chief curator says. “It may be old fashioned, but sometimes old fashioned is nice.”
Spreng is an odd fit in Miami, an old-fashioned man in a steamy, new city, but he has made his peace with the place.“When you have [muscular dystrophy] , cold is very bad for you. So, I spend my time in a hot climate listening to — and writing about — cold music, swimming in the warm ocean and soaking up the sun like an iguana. But [muscular dystrophy] is not my life. It’s just an anecdote in my life.”