Artist John Clemmer was an active member of the New Orleans art scene from the 1930s-2010s.
Painter John Clemmer became active in the New Orleans art scene in the late 1930s, first as a student at the New Orleans Art School, then as director of the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, followed by his work as a professor of art at Tulane University’s School of Architecture from 1951 to 1978, and as chairman of the Newcomb College Art Department from 1978 to 1986. From the very start of his seventy-plus-year career, Clemmer experimented with various modernist movements. He constantly moved back and forth between the abstract and figurative, the visible and purely imaginative, with forays into cubism, hard-edged geometric forms, the figure, traditional still lifes, portraits, and impressionistic landscapes.
Clemmer was born on July 22, 1921, on a plantation near Donaldsonville. His father was a Wisconsin native who in the early twentieth century migrated south, first to Texas, then Louisiana. There he married Marie Landry, the daughter of an old Louisiana family that had settled in the state in the eighteenth century. In 1928, the Clemmers moved to New Orleans, where young John attended public schools. Following graduation from Fortier High School in 1939, Clemmer received a scholarship to the New Orleans Art School and worked part time at a French Quarter art gallery. During his years at the New Orleans Art School, from 1939 to 1942, Clemmer studied under Paul Ninas, Xavier Gonzales, and Enrique Alferez. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he enjoyed an active life in the French Quarter art world, served in the military during World War II, and had two brief marriages. In the early 1950s, he continued his involvement in the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, the city’s first contemporary art gallery, and served as director of the New Orleans School of Art. There he met his future wife, Dorothy Iker, of Chicago, Illinois. They married in 1953. After the marriage, the couple began summering at the Iker family cottage located just outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan. They later purchased a neighboring cottage, where he built a studio.
From 1951 to 1978, Clemmer taught art at the Tulane University School of Architecture in New Orleans, leaving that year to become chairman of Newcomb College’s famed art department. Clemmer remained at Newcomb, a branch of Tulane University, until his retirement in 1986. While at Newcomb, he became the first recipient of the Ford and Maxine Graham Chair in Fine Art. Long after his retirement, Clemmer continued to experiment and paint at his studios in New Orleans and Sheboygan.
“The range of Clemmer’s work has been extraordinarily diverse, reflecting a restless and highly personal investigation of the modernist enterprise,” wrote Clemmer’s wife and son David for a brief biographical sketch for Clemmer’s website. “Style, subject matter, and media have evolved steadily over the years, and many influences and inspirations have informed his work.”
In 1999 the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) honored Clemmer with the major retrospective John Clemmer: Exploring the Medium, 1940–1999. In the accompanying catalogue, NOMA Director E. John Bullard described Clemmer as an artist who has always left his imagination open to the world around him. “Simply put, John Clemmer is an artist,” Bullard wrote. “Fads, fashions, the rise and fall of one ‘ism’ or another, and declarations of post-this or neo-that do not concern him. What this retrospective reveals is the restless and perpetually inquisitive spirit of an artist who has never lost his fascination with the possibilities of the world, or the opportunity for expressing those possibilities in his work.” Simultaneous with NOMA’s retrospective, the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art held a complementary show, featuring Clemmer’s post-1999 work. In 2010, he received the Delgado Society Great Louisiana Artist Award.
In addition to commissioned works and private collections, Clemmer’s work can be found in numerous corporate and public collections such as the New Orleans Museum of Art, Tulane University, and other locations in New Orleans, including the Jewish Community Center, the International Trade Mart, Price Waterhouse, Pan American Life Insurance Company, and Temple Sinai.
In 2013 Clemmer moved permanently to Wisconsin. Clemmer died on April 11, 2014, at the Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee of complications from a stroke.