Meet the Artist
Abe Fagenson’s art is unlike that of any other painter. The centuries-long tradition of trompe l’oeil taken to an entirely new level.
Abe Fagenson has boldly transformed the way we experience fine art by employing three dimensional, stereoscopic methods—previously seen exclusively in the realm of film and photography—in the one-of-a-kind acrylic canvases he paints. Abe follows the stereoscopic method called “Cross Eye Viewing.” This involves creating two nearly identical images—one for each eye—which are then merged by the observer into a single, “third” image. With very little effort, this can be achieved with the naked eye. Abe’s subject matter includes abstract designs, realistic subjects, and even a combination of the two, such as abstract florals against a realistic background.
Abe Fagenson’s art is unlike that of any other painter.
Though he follows in the centuries-long tradition of trompe l’oeil muralists, who developed a means to “trick the eye” by suggesting spatial depth in their works, his work is different.
And though he has been influenced by the Cubist work of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, the groundbreaking Op-Art of Victor Vasarely and the mind-bending technical prowess of the illustrator M. C. Escher—all of whom experimented with the viewer’s perceptions of space—he has taken their methods to an entirely new level.
Abe Fagenson has boldly transformed the way we experience fine art by employing three dimensional, stereoscopic methods—previously seen exclusively in the realm of film and photography—in the one-of-a-kind acrylic canvases he paints.
How he came to be the world’s most singular exponent of this style is the fascinating story of a man whose artistic talent was discovered and developed—but then detoured for many years into a field that ultimately helped re-shape his approach to art.
Abe was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1923 to parents who were neither artists nor artistically-inclined. Part of the great Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, they were simple folk. He was the middle child of three sons and grew up helping out in his father’s dry cleaning business while attending school.
In 1943, Abe joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Iceland with the Combat Engineers, the advance guard that builds bridges and other infrastructure to pave the way for the infantry. Stationed in Iceland and waiting impatiently for his company to be deployed, Abe became inspired to pass the time sketching portraits of fellow soldiers and townspeople in pencil and capturing the Nordic landscape with colored crayons. When the Allied invasion finally occurred, Abe’s company was assigned to duty in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and Germany, ultimately meeting up with the Russian Army. Lacking time to continue his sketches, Abe recalls that he created only one drawing during combat duty, in pen and ink, of a felled Nazi soldier.
World War II came to an end, and Abe returned home to Detroit from the Army determined to become an artist. Impressed by his portfolio of sketches, the renowned Art Institute of Chicago accepted Abe as a student in 1946. Surrounded there by one of the finest collections of art in the world, Abe studied with master teachers and honed his craft. He also met a fellow art student, Margaret, who became his wife in 1947. In 1950, after receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Art Institute, he and Margaret moved to Los Angeles to join her family.
Abe hoped at first to become an art teacher, but learned it would take him six months to receive his teaching credentials and couldn’t wait to secure a job. He found employment as a technical illustrator for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, and his career took a much different direction than he ever anticipated.
After a few years, he left the company to work as a freelance draftsman, designer and aircraft engineer with a variety of companies, creating modifications to airplanes, notably innovations for firefighting aircraft. During this time, he and Margaret moved to Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley, where they raised a daughter and two sons. Today the Fagensons live in Granada Hills and have 9 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren.
Amidst the hubbub of family life, Abe maintained his craft by painting portraits in oil and acrylic, but it was not until 1992, when he retired, that Abe finally had the time to experiment with his vision of a new way of painting.
“I was always fascinated with stereoptics, but in a photographic way,” Abe explains. Like many, he hopped on the Viewmaster craze of the 1950s, with its stereoscopic viewer and the doubled slides on a rotating wheel that enabled you to see “the wonders of the world” in three dimensions. In fact, Abe was more than a little attracted to the medium, purchasing a stereo camera so that he could take his own 3-D photographs. During this process, Abe says, “I began to realize that the two pictures are actually different.”
Applying his highly developed “left brain” analytics with his “right brain” artistic talent, Abe was well positioned to invent a new style that merged what he knew about stereoscopic photography with painting.
According to Abe, many earlier artists “would overlap two-dimensional images in order to produce a three-dimensional feel, pulling some parts of the painting forward, others backward, trying to make it move, but they never went far enough.”
In the 1990s, the computer-generated optical imagery of The Magic Eye appeared. “You would stare at a picture and you would see something in it. That further motivated me to find the principle involved in what made things stereo, and I discovered piece by piece how to do it,” Abe says.
Abe follows the stereoscopic method called “cross-eyed.” This involves creating two nearly identical images—one for each eye—which are then merged by the observer into a single, “third” image. With very little effort, this can be achieved with the naked eye.
Each image is positioned differently on the horizontal plane, but must be positioned identically on the vertical plane. Varying that horizontal distance between the two images alters the viewer’s perception of their depth. “The greater the distance, the further forward it will appear than another object relatively, while a closer distance will drive it deeper,” explains Abe.
Abe’s subject matter includes abstract designs, realistic subjects, and even a combination of the two, such as abstract florals against a realistic background. Several weeks of work go into each painting, and Abe prefers acrylic as his medium because it dries quickly and can be easily overpainted.
About his paintings, Abe says “I generally don’t sell them because I use them as ideas for the next painting,” so he retains most of his dozens of canvases as studies for his continually evolving work. Nevertheless, Abe’s paintings have been included in a number of exhibitions of stereoscopic art—where he is always the only painter in the show, since everyone else works in photography.
But the remarkable work of Abe Fagenson will soon be available in reproductions for the public to collect.
As for Abe’s other pursuits, he has taken up playing the piano at age 85 (“everyone in my L.A. family is a musician except for me, so I decided it’s time”), and he has a passion for roses which he indulges by tending his garden every morning and attending rose shows and festivals as far away as Japan.
Now that he is immersed in a world of three dimensional painting, Abe says, “I find it boring to paint anything else. I can go to a museum and close one eye—so many of the works I wish I could see in 3-D.” But about his work, Abe also likes to remind us, “Of course, it’s really just an illusion, it’s what your mind thinks is 3-D.”
Ah, but what an illusion!