Mort Künstler would be a neighbor of Teddy Roosevelt’s, were the 26th president of the United States still alive. So it’s not surprising that Künstler is known as a painter of historic scenes. But as the exhibition opening Friday at the Long Island Museum vividly attests, he’s an artist who cannot be so easily niched.
“The Art of Adventure,” which originated at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is a lifetime retrospective on the career of one of Rockwell’s greatest admirers. As a docent in his own home, overlooking Oyster Bay from a perch rivaling that of nearby Sagamore Hill, Künstler points out several Rockwell paintings that would be there except they’re on loan to various museums. “That’s why my painting is here instead,” Künstler says, as if apologizing for the substitution.
As we ascend to his third-floor studio — the 88-year-old navigates stairs as effortlessly as one decades his junior — he stops at a poster commissioned by a different Rockwell (no relation). Rockwell International, later subsumed by Boeing, was a space-industry corporate pioneer. His “Launch of Space Shuttle Columbia” illustration bridges divergent aspects of the Künstler genre — from advertising and promotion to fine-art historical paintings.
A Brooklyn native, Künstler is an artist for life, though at first, he says, it was tough coming out of Pratt Institute postwar. “Television was taking over and magazines like Collier’s” — those that commissioned illustrative work — “were folding.” But a new print medium emerged. “Lots of guys thumbed their noses at advertising, macho magazines and movie posters.” (Künstler’s “Poseidon Adventure” is among the images in the show.) “I didn’t care. I loved to work. I also liked a warm, dry place to live.”
While he found work at Mad Magazine and such adventure titles as Outdoor Live — his “Revenant”-prescient “Shy Killer” involving bear and man is in the show — Künstler’s big break would come in the Bicentennial run-up when he was commissioned to paint “Washington’s Crossing,” also in this show. A few years later, on the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, his painting was unveiled on the battlefield site, generating hundreds of thousands in print sales. Künstler — the German name translates as “artist’ — has since been known primarily as a painter of Civil War scenes.
“Mort Künstler: The Art of Adventure” provides a broader perspective, ranging from illustrations (subsequently autographed) of his Brooklyn Dodger heroes — he hasn’t been a fan since they moved to Los Angeles — to his iconic “Absolution Before Victory” Civil War painting.
“I love painting,” he says, standing in his studio with the turntable that points toward the best available light. “It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a girl holding a bar of soap or a soldier with a rifle.”
By the way, you’ll recognize the street corner in Oyster Bay as Teddy waves to his admirers in “Teddy’s Fourth of July.”