Yizroel Meyer (1944-2013) was an intense and deeply eccentric man and an artist’s model who inspired me with his spiritual presence. As he posed, he prayed or chanted silently, his eyes fixed and his mouth moving ever so slightly. He embodied the human – mortal, frail, vulnerable – reaching out towards divinity. The quality of yearning was so powerful it could not help but manifest in drawings of the man.
I didn’t know him well. He was selective about who he would open up to. With me, he always spoke about great literature, refined music, serious cinema. In his last years he was involved in a deep reading of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, comparing English and German translations with the French original. Earlier obsessions included William Faulkner and Gertrude Stein.
Spring Studio, Minerva Durham’s beehive of seven-days-a-week open life drawing sessions in New York, where Yizroel modeled frequently over a period of twelve years, is hosting a memorial exhibition, with thirty-three artists’ depictions of this unique soul. The remainder of this post is Minerva Durham’s remembrance of Yizroel. Details on how to visit the exhibition are included at the end.
Minerva Durham writes:
“A secret compulsion to touch strangers, sometimes realized silently, sometimes caught out, came perhaps from his having been born in December, 1944, in Heidelberg as the Allies advanced into Germany. He soon became an orphan. He could not have easily thrived, as is the duty of every infant, without parents and with little food.
“He was perhaps brought up by a perhaps Christian grandfather who had perhaps killed a relative with an axe years earlier. He was certainly bullied by more robust boys during his youth. A photo of him as a child shows his delicacy and intelligence and sensitivity.
“As a young man he came to the United States to work in a publishing house. Years of heavy drinking and smoking ended suddenly when a friend took him to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. He converted to Orthodox Judaism and lived in an Orthodox community in Brooklyn, wearing the curls, hats and costumes of the community that he had adopted. But he was homosexual and he couldn’t really be himself there, and the clothes alone could not make him fit in. He slowly distanced himself from that community, but he still prayed as a Jew until he died.
“When he found nakedness working as a figure model he was at last content. How poignant that this man, born Hans Meyer in war-torn Germany, having been born again as an Orthodox Jew, could only become whole by stripping down and peeling away to the state of his original existence, unclothed and vulnerable. And no wonder that artist Jean Marcellino always felt happy when she saw that the model for the long pose was Yizroel.
“His last illness was brief. A year of liver cancer ending in pancreatic cancer and three strokes, each increasing in strength. His friend of many years, George Bixby, saw that Yizroel was taken care of in and out of hospital. Yizroel Meyer was given a proper Jewish burial by the Brooklyn Orthodox community shortly after his death on December 17 last year.
“Yizroel’s poses, as drawn by thirty-three artists, can be seen at Spring Studio at 64 Spring Street through May 11, 2014. The fifty drawings now on display show the intensity of his spirituality. Artist Pat Tobin called him, “my Saint Francis.” You may see the drawings on display Monday through Friday from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm or by appointment with Minerva Durham, Director of Spring Studio, 917-375-6086.
“Artists included in the exhibition are: Akiva AKA Ken Sandberg, Anonymous, Robert Bassal, Lynn Cooper, Robert Dunn, Minerva Durham, Janet Fish, Robert Forte, Audrey Cohn-Ganz, Lyle Gertz, Dan Gheno, Dinah Glasier, George Grammar, Kevin Hall, Susan Haskins, Fred Hatt, Jerilyn Jurinek, Karen Kaapcke, Robin Kappy, Gary Katz, Kimchee Kim, Kyunghee Kim, Mark LaMantia, Berryl Mallory, Jean Marcellino, Rebecca Odin, Denise Ozker, Eleni Papageorge, Alan Schlussel, Pearl Shifer, Jonathan Soard, Diane Van Court, and Bruce Williams.”