Leonard Nelson’s long career as a prolific artist and influential art educator spanned more than half of the twentieth century, from the thirties to the nineties, and forged close links with the leading artists and movements of that time in American art history.
Although he spent most of his time in Philadelphia, his roots were in New York and in the works he showed in the forties and fifties at the Betty Parsons and Peridot Galleries and at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. They placed him at the forefront of the emerging New York Abstract Expressionist avant-garde. Nelson’s artistic and cultural interests were even wider and more challenging than some of his famous New York colleagues; in his Philadelphia studio he explored avenues as innovative and diverse as welded sculpture, incorporating scrap or found objects, and printmaking, a medium that established him among the leading innovators of the day. He also taught at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia for thirty years, retiring as a professor emeritus in 1977, and concentrating on painting that over the decades underwent a remarkable transformation.
From his pioneering, mid-century figurative studies that are as formidably primitivistic as the early works of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning or the pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb, he progressed to his luminous color-field canvases. By the sixties they had evolved into highly original and varied color expression often in large scale that broke new ground, presaging some of the later work of Morris Louis and Larry Poons. His work was constantly evolving in keeping with his openness to novel areas, techniques and mediums. Not long before his death in 1993, Nelson expressed great pride in his role as an avant-garde force in art education and in his ongoing willingness to cross conventional boundaries, whether in his personal studio work or in his interdisciplinary approaches and public projects.
Leonard Nelson left an extensive body of work in paintings and printmaking, proving how prescient his early vision and stylistic impulses have been and what a quiet, yet formidable, force he became in the evolution of 20th-century American art.