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Karl Zerbe

Clown and Ass

An influential teacher, Zerbe was also the central figure in a group of Expressionist artists known as the Boston School that included Hyman Bloom, Kahlil Gibran, and Jack Levine. Zerbe began experimenting with encaustic painting in the late 1930s in Boston. The encaustic technique dates to antiquity, but its use had long fallen out of common practice, due in part to the complicated formulas of melted beeswax, oils, resins, and powdered pigments that make up the process. Yet, encaustic’s painterly effects cannot be matched by other media, allowing a range of surface treatments—from thin glazes to heavy impasto and enamel-like finishes to rocky textures—while maintaining a rich clarity of tone. To the erstwhile future chemist, the arcane technique presented few difficulties, and Zerbe led a revival of its practice from his studio and classroom.

Clown and Ass is a prime example of Zerbe’s distinctively modern use of this ancient medium. Its titular elements represent the very abandonment of logic and convention. The clown’s crossed arms make a gesture of misdirection, and his made-up face offers less insight for the viewer than the expression of the puppet ass.

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