Still Life With Jack Ceglic

The real revelation was the subject matter — still lifes of fruits and vegetables, cooked food, and even the remains of meals eaten in his studio
Jack Ceglic in his East Hampton studio Jennifer Landes

    Those who saw Jack Ceglic’s work at Ille Arts this summer would have been surprised by the most recent projects in his East Hampton studio last month. Although the familiar revealing and colorful portraits of friends and neighbors were well in evidence, hanging on the walls and most available surfaces were compositions expressed in the blackest of charcoal pastel.

    The medium was not that surprising. Mr. Ceglic has worked in monochromatic and black and white drawings before. The real revelation was the subject matter — still lifes of fruits and vegetables, cooked food, and even the remains of meals eaten in his studio.

    The artist said he began carrying food out of his kitchen and into his next-door workspace late last year, still not sure just why he felt compelled to do it. He was inspired by the feelings and smells around food and the question of how to capture that abstraction. “When I bring in a cooked chicken, I’m reacting to the smell as I’m drawing it. It has a form and shape but what I think about is the smell and why do you react to that smell.”

    These were not fully formed ideas. “I don’t know where they are going,” he admitted. “I would have tried to hide them, but I haven’t sprayed them yet,” in order set them. Still, they pleased him and he does plan to show them, which is a good thing, because they are quite powerful.

    Slightly abstract and personal or more faithfully rendered, the pieces of fruit, fish carcasses, and shank bones have a resonance far beyond the Sunday painter’s exploration of comestibles on hand. It is clear something deeper is going on here, a respect for life and the many hands of growers and fishermen that helped bring these items to the table.

    This concern with food, its procurement, and its preparation and enjoyment stems from a long past involvement that began with a grocery store his mother owned and continued through his own association and partnership in Dean & DeLuca, a store that he helped found in 1979 and gave its iconic visual identity in the original stores and a series of early offshoots, including one in East Hampton from 1986 to 1990 in the space now occupied by Theory on Newtown Lane. (Mr. Ceglic has had a place in East Hampton since 1980, beginning with a small house on McGuirk Street and then his current house and studio on Huntting Avenue.)

    The years he spent with the store, where the typeface “Ceglic” was made from his handwriting and is still in use there to this day, put him squarely in the design field. Yet from his early days at Parsons, he spent most of his career balancing a more commercial pursuit of his artistic ability in fashion illustration and design with a devotion to portrait painting in his spare time.

    “I did some group shows early on and had my first show in 1960 at the Greer Gallery, which was where MoMA has expanded to today.” Then as years went on, he starting examining and studying architecture, which led to his own building designs and even garden design.

    The steel structure that serves as his studio looks cold and drafty from the outside. Inside, however, the foot-thick walls keep the heat in tight and even on a dark snowy day the wide glass windows and garage-style glass doors keep the space light and bright, seeming at once part of nature, with deer peeking in, as well as a sturdy and tight refuge from the elements.

    It’s his own design and an aesthetic that over the years has attracted friends and associates like his former business and life partner Joel B. Dean (who died in 2004) and Joe Mantello, Ron Rifkin, and Jon Robin Baitz. They wanted a sleek look that still reminded them of the vernacular architecture of the region, not unlike the new Parrish Art Museum, Mr. Ceglic said, although his house designs precede that colossal rendering of similar ideas by a decade. “I have a very simple idea about architecture that I love and architecture that I make. I don’t want them to say ‘this is a Jack design,’ I just want them to be happy in the space.”

    When he was designing the Dean & DeLuca stores, he worked with existing spaces and would research their previous uses. “Every space felt like Dean & DeLuca, but respected the space. The East Hampton store felt like East Hampton and not like New York City. When I went before the Washington, D.C., design review board, because we were converting an old market, I told them that when Dean & DeLuca leaves, you will never know we were there.”

    His most recent and final architectural project was in Sagaponack, where he helped restore and renovate a historic structure with his current partner Manuel Fernandez-Cas­te­leiro, keeping the facade intact as well as its traditional finishes while bringing it up to date in form and function. He said he chose to walk away from architecture to pursue his artwork completely.

    One of the projects he was working on that day in the studio involved a conceptual installation he is preparing for a future show at Five Myles, a Brooklyn exhibition space. It will also rely on the abstract associations of food and is inspired by his mother’s store. “I want to recreate the idea of what I felt about it.” He had an open notebook at his desk where small drawings of butter and eggs along with the handwritten words were taking shape.

    “My mother’s store was where a lot of images I used for Dean & DeLuca came to me.” His design concepts for the store did not end with building structure and layout. They continued with seasonal themes he developed for featured products. “One year I thought of Diamond Jim Brady and his girlfriend Lillian Russell. I pictured them coming to the store in their carriage and thought about what they would like for the holidays.” That year the store featured oysters and copper butter warmers, which came from that inspiration.

    “The still lifes I did for the store were not about making something pretty or ‘look at me,’ but about telling a story. I like to tell a story.” These were never overt. The customer never knew that the pretty copper butter warmers were chosen with Russell in mind, but the hint of old New York was there along with the aroma of the oyster stew the store’s chef was composing in the kitchen.

    In a way, it was like portraiture. “People were always part of it in the way they move and how they live. My interest in portraiture comes from my interest in people. I would watch them and the design became what they were.” He said Dean & DeLuca, for him, was also about putting “Joel and Giorgio’s ideas into three-dimensional form so people could say ‘Oh, that’s what they like,” whether it was French cookware, specially sourced and roasted coffee, extra virgin olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, or artisanal cheese that most Americans were seeing for the first time.

    Mr. Ceglic’s work can be seen at Lyons Weir Gallery in Chelsea today through Feb. 22 in a group show also mentioned in this week’s Art Scene. His portraits can also be seen in the book “Jack: Drawings and Paintings of Jack Ceglic,” which was published in September by Pointed Leaf Press. The imprint was started by Susie Slesin, a former guest editor of The Star’s Home Book supplements, one of which featured Mr. Ceglic’s house on Huntting Avenue.

Two works from Mr. Ceglic's "Sienna" series done in pastel and oil slick from 2011.Pointed Leaf Press