Noah Breuer is an American artist and printmaker. He recently installed his latest exhibition Bohemian Showroom in the window display at SPACE. In this reclamation project, drawing inspiration from sampled material from his families factory located in the early 1900s, Breuer has created his own vision of a Carl Breuer and Sons retail display here in Maine. Between installing his work and his artist talk at Pickwick Independent Press, Noah found time to sit down with me and talk about his family history, the context of his latest installation, and what's next for Carl Breuer and Sons.
So, obviously, you draw a lot from your heritage. Americans often seem to have a certain fixation with discovering their roots. When exactly did you start digging into your families history in Bohemia and what were you looking to find there?
Good question. My family owned this factory in Europe and they were Jews, and they fled during the Holocaust. That story has been known to me my whole life, and frankly, it’s kind of painful and not necessarily something I have ever been excited about making work about, and have almost shied away from. So, I knew the story my whole life but I never had seen any of the visual material. We literally had never seen anything that was produced at this factory that was run by our family for four generations before 2014. So, I became aware there was this museum collection that had all the original textiles and I was able to see this stuff.
Where was the Museum?
So, it's this place called the Czech Textile Museum. It's sort of in the middle of nowhere Czech Republic and they have this big archive of swatch books and sample fabrics and full bed sheets and table linens. So, I went there is 2016 and they gave me great access to all their stuff. Then it really clicked and I was like ‘Oh.. okay.’ I went there because I thought this was kind of going to be a project, but I didn't know until I was standing in front of six boxes of material. I was like, ‘Oh… Well you know I am like a trained printmaker person...I do know how to make this stuff if I wanted to.’ And then it was very obvious that that needed to happen.
Is that the first time you had been to the Czech Republic?
No. I had actually been there and I’d even been to the factory because the building is still there, but it’s just nothing now. It was all kind of depressing. I was there as a teenager and it was depressing because the history is depressing, but also like so many ex-Soviet bloc countries it just is grim. It's kind of on the up and up, but still. So, that was my first impression in 2000. I didn't even know there was a museum there. So I found out about the museum, went to the museum, and then was like ‘Okay were actually dealing with some visual references.’
That's so fortunate that they have the museum.
Well, the story is interesting. A lot of people have asked me questions about reparations. There's a long history in Europe of art that was stolen from Jews, that was then stolen by the Nazis, and then the Nazis had it stolen from them by the Soviets. But the provenance of these sample martials from the museum is not that they were stolen from the family. They were actually donated by the family, by the factory, in the ‘10’s, ’20s’30s‘30’s. This 150 years old. So, while the factory was still running, the Breuer family was actively donating to the museum and it was the only way that anything was saved.
Do you feel that in some way your art was in a way, born inside of you from previous generations? Or that in some way you were drawn to this form because of your family history?
I mean, if you believe in this kind of thing, which I'm not sure that I do. There does seem to be some fate, or serendipity involved in the fact that I went to art school, was a printmaking major and learned how to do this stuff. I definitely wasn't consciously thinking about this history at all, and it wasn't something my parents encouraged. Believe me, my parents didn't talk me into going to art school. But it's kind of there, right? There's like serendipitous vibes of family tradition, printing, that's in the blood if you believe in inherited memory. I'm going to abstain from a definitive answer.
Your work, aesthetically, is very beautiful, full of color and life. But when you look at the back story, it there’s some darkness there. Do you think that adds another dimension to your work or some type of undertone?
I think for a long time I consciously didn't want to dig too deep into family history because it's such a bummer. The thing that is attractive to me is obviously is that it's a family project and a reclamation project; resurrection of the factory project, but the designs are actually really cool. The visual focus is on the beauty and designs of the ‘10’s, the ’20s and 30s, and less, at least visually, about persecution and the Holocaust. However, it adds to the story. I wouldn't wish for it to happen again, but without that [story] I don't exist, and I’m not this American from California so it just sort of is.
People often say "art is in the eye of the beholder and everyone will have their own interpretation." However, is there any particular message you're trying to get across to your audience?
I think that this is very narrative heavy work. The narrative is what it is, and it’s pretty straight forward. It's less about art history or moves within an art tradition than it is about this narrative history. I am really interested in German-Austrian design histories. In fact, in this installation, the image with the trees that’s on my poster image is very, very much designed with the Secession in mind. My image is just green and made up of all these trees with triangles composed of all Breuer family textiles but it’s entirely reshaped to resemble one of my favorite Secession posters by Ferdinand Andri. So, In that way, it's riffing on design history and those were contemporary things going on. My joke about the work that the family made in the textile plant was that its much more JC Penny than Louis Vuitton because it's just not rarefied stuff. It’s nice, but it’s for the proletarian. It’s not high fashion in the way that Ferdinand Andri, Koloman Moser, and Otto Wagner designs are like….
Gucci. Exactly. And this is Marshals, you know? Or Ikea? It makes me uncomfortable to says this out loud, but maybe I'm trying to kind of elevate the stuff. Though the resurrection, I'm bringing it from this mass produced, for the proletarian product, into fine art. It’s in the fine art world now, so maybe I’m adding value.
Besides drawing from your family history, are there any recent trends or events that are currently inspiring you? Any new projects on the horizon?
This is where this specific show fits in. I’ve been thinking a lot about context. I’m not designing this stuff for mass production, which the source material certainly was just volume. This is obviously a fine art context, and I’ve shown this work now in different venues. This installation called ‘Bohemian Showroom’, are designed from Bohemi’, the conceit is that this installation is like the factory outlet store here in Maine. I mean, it’s a little bit of a fantasy, but it’s all apart of this reclamation of taking the factory back. It's my company. I am the scion of the company. I literally am the only ancestor, the only person, the air of the factory, and this is our Maine outlet store. That’s what I’ve kind of conceived, at least for this incarnation, maybe speaking some of those languages, for better or for worse of “retail”. I hope it doesn't look exactly like Urban Outfitters out there, but I think it kind of speaks some of that retail, New York window display language. I’ve tried to take on this window gallery show the opportunity to think about that context and how the CB&S work looks in that context.
So any chance you're going to move into retail or maybe open up a real shop?
Well, it’s definitely on my summer to-do list. I’m going to open an online Carl Breuer and Sons. There will be prints for sale and maybe some other stuff. I have no problem with being a capitalist. My rule that I always tell my students is that you can't be mad at artists who figure out a way to support themselves and make their work as long as they're not doing it for the department of defense or something. So, yeah, I think I’d like to figure out a way to have my cake and eat it too a little bit. I think it would be fun and exciting to take back the factory and have it be an LLC and sell work, and potentially even license it to some retail store who would want it. That would be something I'm not necessarily against at all.