In a gritty Bronx neighborhood, a 91-year-old retired lamp manufacturer pumps out enough ‘outsider’ art for a museum.
Hidden behind rows of shoddy warehouses, auto-repair junkyards and single-room-occupancy tenements, the Museum of the People of the World is largely invisible to the sporadic passersby in its gritty Bronx location, just east of the Grand Concourse and down the hill from the jagged bedrock of Tremont’s Echo Park.
The museum of what, you say? Where?
In a city of museums — from one on sex to one on biblical art — you won’t find this one in any museum index or listing, in print or online.
The quirky, intensely personal museum, which carries the New Age-y subtitle “A Sanctuary for All Who Enter” and only recently opened to the public, is a testament to one man’s creativity, vision and, perhaps, obsession. It houses hundreds of works, in a dizzying array of media, all made by the hands of 91-year-old Herbert Lagin — a tinkerer, inventor and self-taught “outsider” artist. In a huge storage space adjacent to the lamp-manufacturing facility Lagin has owned and operated for the past 60 years, the works memorialize the Holocaust, 9/11 and religious refugees.
A nondescript door marked “4269” leads inside the facility, which occupies the rear of the bright-orange Western Beef factory outlet. Once inside, past the pastel blue corridor, its paint peeling, a sun-filled and brightly lamp-lit section of the warehouse contains tri-fold screens filled with abstract paintings, chain links dangling from the ceiling and original glasswork scattered here and there. Admission is free, and any donations go to various causes around the world, most recently Haiti.
“He actually redesigned the space with all sorts of machinery and everything — it’s really amazing he did this on his own,” says Lagin’s daughter, Robin Langsam, who is one of five children and is a teacher in Armonk. “He created the vision of it and really followed through.”
A widower, Lagin lives in Great Neck, L.I., but drives in to Tremont several days a week to work in his factory-turned-museum. He says he conceptualized this museum just in the past few years, has been creating artwork since the third grade, when he’d reproduce pictures from classroom textbooks. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Lagin graduated from Long Island University while working in a lamp factory and was poised to head to medical school when the Great Depression struck. Foregoing medical school in an effort to support his parents, Lagin continued working at the lamp-manufacturing facility and eventually opened his own factory in the 1950s and purchased other Tremont properties. In addition to his artwork, Lagin has been something of an inventor, acquiring patents for a lamp-mounting tool, a recovery pillow for open-heart surgery patients and forge-proof traveler’s checks, among other items, although never actually marketing these products.
“He’s always been ingenious and creative, even doing something as simple as taking out his little pocketknife and making handles on boxes,” Langsam says. She then maps her father’s artistic trajectory from mixed media to watercolors to copper to etched glass and today, to markers, Cray-Pas and collages.
“You find people who late in their life, when they finish what they’ve had to do for a living, really take on this amazing outburst of original and quite extraordinary artistic expression,” says Selig Sacks, a trustee of the American Folk Art Museum who in 2009 was named one of the top 250 collectors in Art & Antiques Magazine. Sacks examined 40 photos of Lagin’s work, at the request of The Jewish Week.
Near the entrance to the museum, a panel of photographs features twilight snapshots from Lagin’s Great Neck, L.I., backyard of what appears to be the Star of Bethlehem, the star that revealed the birth of Jesus to the magi in Christian tradition. Nearby is a wall spread of framed black-and-white photographs from the U.S. government’s Holocaust archives, to which Lagin has added color and replaced some of the victims’ heads with those of figures like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Islamic terrorists. “That’s [Ahmadinejad] — him as a Jew,” said Lagin, who may well be the only Jewish regular in the largely Hispanic and African-American Tremont neighborhood. “Everybody’s a Jew based on history.”
Around the space hang black chain links symbolic of wartime bondage, and behind the photographs mixed colors of paint trickle down the wall like blood. In a corner hangs a wooden cutout of a man, dangling from the ceiling on a hangman’s noose.
Lagin points to a particularly striking image of a victim of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s twisted experimentations, covered in red paint. “I took the photos and poured blood into everything — to show people terrorism.”
Mounted on the tri-fold screens throughout the museum and along the back walls are perhaps hundreds of abstract paintings, many of which Lagin estimates he painted some 25 years ago. Somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh’s vivid, swirling style, the paintings feature common themes of darkness, dripping blood and engorging flames. In one particularly gripping piece, abstract hands reach up through the flames, desperately trying to reach out to God during the Holocaust, Lagin explains.
“During the war, the blood was coming down on the Earth,” he says. “In all of these [works] you feel movement. I have motion in everything. You want action — if it lays there flat, forget it.”
Lagin also displays handmade glassware from Italy, where he once had a factory, in an effort to include a broader spectrum of the world. “I put in a lot of things to show the art of the countries where I’ve been,” he says.
Back near the front of the museum, Lagin shows off a brass sculpture of the Ten Commandments scene, noting that his statue lacks a back side because people only spend time looking at the front of artwork.
Nestled diagonally behind an artistic replication of the Auschwitz ovens is an area sectioned off to memorialize the victims of 9/11; it is fenced in by gold chain links and a draped American flag. Images of Abraham, Jesus Christ and Mohammed top a shrine of photographs from that day and the mourning that followed, sandwiching an artistic collage of ordinary people and historical figures from all over the world, including Anne Frank. Rows of chairs face a group of World Trade Center models decorated with a Magen David, toy planes and fire trucks — an altar of sorts in this chapel-like room — while stained glass artwork colors the foggy windows.
“It’s supposed to be a place for people to come and reflect and not forget what happened,” says his assistant of six years, Maria Estrada. A Tremont resident, Estrada, 27, helps run the museum and assists Lagin with errands.
Across the room from the 9/11 dioramas, Lagin picks up a magnifying glass to examine tiny photographs of those who died during the attacks. Surrounding these pictures are photos of people in despair all over the world, people “whose homes are apart” but who “dance the same dance” as we do, according to Lagin.
“I am impressed by his ambition and scope of his project,” says Sacks, the outsider art expert. “It is obvious that, while not formally trained, he has schooled and informed himself in modern and contemporary art, as seen from his paintings, photographic work and sculpture. In the South, there is a tradition of ‘Yard Shows,’ where individuals literally transform their exterior environment into a sculpture and art environment.
“Here in New York,” Sacks continues, “given our urban environment, Mr. Lagin has internalized that process in an interior environment, with work that recalls and evokes medieval altar pieces, memory vessels, as well as appropriation and abstraction in modern and contemporary art.”
Until recently, Lagin has lent his work only to family members and to Temple Emmanuel and St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Great Neck.
But he says he would now be willing to part with some of his works to museum curators. He also has sent handcrafted menorahs to former President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and the late Coretta Scott King.
“He really hopes that this is a sanctuary where people can reflect and not forget,” says Langsam, his daughter, who also hopes that the museum will help revitalize this Bronx neighborhood. “His goal is to leave a mark on the world, to make it different so that maybe he evokes some sort of change on the face of mankind.”
Sacks adds, “This is an ambitious and sophisticated project with unique vision and talent. It deserves further study. It is all the more poignant because of the personal and collective experiences of grief and mourning which he evokes.”
And Lagin is not through, still working with a youthful energy on new projects every Sunday and filling his storerooms with pieces that won’t fit in his full-to-bursting museum.
As for what his new pieces might be, Lagin will say only, “I still got some hot ones coming up.”
The Museum of the People of the World is located at 4269 Park Ave. in the Tremont section of the Bronx. Admission is free. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. For more information, call (718) 295-5450.
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