"Image Scape 29", 1962 | 15"x21" Oil painting on masonite board

During this period Ernst worked in a linear and geometric style. His works are in fragments and pieced together to form a matrix. Ernst did several images entitled and numbered “Image Scape” which were possible geometrical structures of the cosmos that were drawn from the subconscious. Here gestural black scaffolding divides the canvas into three structures. These black bold calligraphic strokes against the white and gray background possess an architecture in which webs of fine lines interweave with a horizontal and vertical grid. It suggests that the images are separate but also connected through a matrix of energy.


Born Hans Ulrich Ernst, he was the son of Surrealist painter, Max Ernst, and art historian/journalist, Louise Straus-Ernst. After his parents divorced when he was two, his father relocated to Paris where he visited him and his second wife on a school holiday in 1930, meeting leading Surrealists Luis Buñel, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti, André Masson, Jean Miro, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy. During that trip he also heard American jazz for the first time at a Paris music hall that later influenced his work as a professional artist. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, his mother moved to Paris to find work and he was sent to live with her father. She died in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1944.

After attending the Lindenthal Real Gymansium in Cologne (1932-36), Ernst became apprenticed to the printing firm of J.J. Augustin in Glückstadt where he set type for anthropological studies on American Indian sand painting, kachinas and decoration arts. When the firm was threatened with the loss of Navy printing contracts if it retained Ernst (who was half Jewish), Augustin family members worked secretly to obtain an American visa for him through the firm’s New York office.

Arriving in New York at age eighteen, he started working for the Augustin’s branch there under the sponsorship of anthropologists Franz Boas and Gladys Reichard. With Reichard he traveled by car to the Southwest in the summer of 1938, visiting the Hopi and Navajo reservations in Arizona. Native American motifs later appeared in his work in the 1980s.

At the suggestion of New York art dealer, Julian Levy, he was hired to work in the mail room and then the film library at the Museum of Modern Art. He subsequently organized Peggy Guggenheim’s collection, becoming the director of her Art of This Century Gallery when it opened it New York in 1942. 

He moved on to help Eleanor Lust organize the Norlyst Gallery on West 57th Street that hosted his first one-man exhibition in 1943. Seven years later he joined the “Irascible Eighteen” protesting the anti-abstractionist bias of the Metropolitan Museum, and also participated in the Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 preceding the groundbreaking 9th Street Art Exhibition, the public’s introduction to the work of the New York avant-garde. In 1950, too, Ernst signed up with the Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York where he had one-person exhibitions from 1952 to 1976.

In recognition of his stature as an outstanding American artist – included in the “Young American Painters” exhibition at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum (1954) -- and his academic affiliations with the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, and the Department of Design at Brooklyn College, the University of Colorado at Boulder invited Ernst to teach at summer course in 1954 under the auspices of its Creative Arts Program. In addition to teaching, he had a one-man show at the university museum and presented a public lecture on campus about the character and the aims of Abstract Expressionism. The Gilpin County Art Association sponsored his lecture, “Images of Our Time,” in its gallery in Central City and also hosted a dinner in his honor at the Teller House during the town’s summer opera festival season.

His teaching and lecturing activities as a visiting artist in Colorado in 1954 were so well received that two years later CU invited him back a second time to participate in its Creative Arts Program. Prior to coming to Boulder in 1956, he completed a mural commission from noted architect Eero Saarinen for the General Motors executive dining room and his work was selected for the American Pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale. While at CU one of his black-on-black paintings was exhibited there, examples of which are now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. At the university he gave a public lecture entitled, “Will Modern Painting Spoil Contemporary Art?” expressing his concern about the apparent artificiality of the appreciation of contemporary painting and the lack of intelligent art criticism at that time.

In 1957 he had a one-person exhibition at Brandeis University, recognizing him with the Brandeis Creative Arts Award. A year later he was included in the “17 Young American Painters” at the Brussels World’s Fair in Belgium. Having received the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1961, he traveled throughout Europe -- including his native Germany – and participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Exchange Program in the Soviet Union. In 1967 he received an Andrew Carnegie Foundation grant for a study and report on “Freedom of Expression in the Arts” completed for UNESCO. He continued to paint and exhibit widely, elected in 1983 to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York.

Shortly before his death in New York in 1984, he saw his published memoir, A Not-So-Still Life. The following year CBS Television aired “A Tribute to Jimmy Ernst” on the Charles Kuralt Show and the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton, New York, presented his posthumous one-person exhibition. He is also the subject of a monograph by Donald Kuspit, Jimmy Ernst, with an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut, published by Hudson Hills Press in 2000.

Museum Collections:  Metropolitan Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Corcoran Gallery of Art, all in Washington, DC; Harvard Art Museum, Boston; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Art Institute of Chicago; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Texas; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.