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Robert Birmelin

b. 1933

Robert Birmelin is an American figurative painter, printmaker, and draftsman. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in the nearby town of Bloomfield. With the encouragement of a teacher at Bloomfield High School, he attended Cooper Union. He then went to the Yale School of Art, where he got both a BFA and an MFA. While Josef Albers was personally responsible for admitting him to Yale, Bernard Chaet and Gabor Peterdi served as Birmelin’s most important mentors there. In the years between earning his BFA and MFA, he studied figure painting with Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students League and served in the U.S. Army.

Birmelin received a Fulbright Fellowship to the Slade School of the University of London, followed by a Fellowship at the American Academy of Rome. He has also received National Endowment for the Arts and Tiffany Foundation grants. Beginning in 1964, he taught for more than thirty years at Queens College of CUNY. He has served as a visiting artist and lecturer at dozens of art departments and art schools throughout the United States.

Birmelin’s paintings, drawings, and prints are in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Since about 2016, Birmelin has had no central vision in his left eye due to macular degeneration. He relies on his right eye almost entirely, though it, too, is affected by macular degeneration.

Because of his difficulty distinguishing tone and color, he has given up painting in acrylics after being unable to finish paintings he started in 2016–17. Instead, he is drawing with a black pen, whose marks, in contrast to the white paper, he can clearly see. He sometimes still uses color, though in a limited way, adding gouache and watercolor to more linear underpinnings, thus doing things, as he says, that “hang between drawing and painting.”

Robert Birmelin in his studio in Leonia, New Jersey, in 2023.
Photo by Brian Schumacher for the Vision & Art Project/AMDF.
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