A life in art: SUNY Broome hosts Michael Tanzer exhibit, accepts donated painting

SUNY Broome Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Francis Battisti and alumni Lorna and Conrad Steigenwald unveil a Michael Tanzer painting that the couple donated to the college.

SUNY Broome Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Francis Battisti and alumni Lorna and Conrad Steigerwald unveil a Michael Tanzer painting that the couple donated to the college.

The scene has a slight haze to it, perhaps from the summer heat. The Susquehanna River flows lazily under the Exchange Street bridge, leafed-out trees and the sky reflected in its surface. The occasional car travels the road beside the river, as rooftops shine in the sunlight.

Michael Tanzer preserved this Binghamton landscape from the 1970s in a 6-foot by 8-foot oil painting. And now, it’s been added to SUNY Broome’s permanent collection – a fitting tribute for a beloved artist and professor, who taught Asian art history and studio painting from 1991 until his death from cancer.

“While Michael Tanzer passed away in 2000 – all too soon – his legacy continues in his art, his curiosity and his enthusiasm and generosity,” said Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Francis Battisti. “He truly made a difference in the world of art and beyond, and touched the lives of many of our students and alumni.”

The Tanzer family and the Steigenwalds pose for a photo at the opening of the Michael Tanzer exhibit in the Gallery

The Tanzer family and the Steigerwalds pose for a photo at the opening of the Michael Tanzer exhibit in the Gallery

Conrad and Lorna Steigerwald, SUNY Broome alumni and avid collectors of Tanzer’s work, donated the oil painting to the college. Aided by Dr. Battisti, the Steigerwalds pulled off the black sheet veiling the piece during the opening of an exhibit of Tanzer’s work in the Gallery @ SUNY Broome on June 8.

A native of the Bronx, Michael Tanzer had a deep love of art in all its manifestations. He studied for a year and a half at the prestigious Frank Reilly School of Art in New York, and worked in a variety of media, from oil painting to ceramics, screen prints and etchings. He once dreamed of covering the City of Binghamton in murals – which, in fact, the Binghamton landscape painting might once have been.

Ben Tanzer discusses his father's work.

Ben Tanzer discusses his father’s work.

His family came to the area in the 1970s – which was when the landscape painting was made and, coincidentally, when his family met the Steigenwalds. Michael Tanzer taught painting and drawing at the Roberson center in the 1970s and 1980s, before joining the Fine Arts faculty at SUNY Broome. He also taught in many other settings, including a minimum-security prison for young men, public school classrooms and his own studio, where he invited students and other artists to join him.

“It always struck me how engaging he was and how he really welcomed questions about his work,” said Dr. Battisti, who observed several of Tanzer’s classes.

Michael Tanzer in a self-portrait.

Michael Tanzer in a self-portrait.

His art explored a variety of subject matter, from classical nudes, street life and tattoos to Franz Kafka and Asian themes. SUNY Broome has two other Tanzer paintings in its possession: A scene with a dancing bear mounted in Titchener Hall, and another of jugglers along the Susquehanna River that is part of the Gallery exhibit.

“He had an obsession with performers. He loved sideshows, he loved freaks, he loved outcasts,” his son, Ben Tanzer, explained to visitors during the exhibit opening.

His focus, however, wasn’t to expose or mock. At its core was a commitment to social justice, particularly to peace in the Middle East, but also to the marginalized everywhere. In a way, that was also at the core of his dedication to a community college, which democratizes education and makes it available to all.

“For him, the idea was for everyone to have a voice. Seeing all the work hand together, you see so much how he wanted the oppressed and those who aren’t seen and those who aren’t heard to have a place in the world,” Ben Tanzer reflected at the exhibit reception.

Michael Tanzer taught at SUNY Broome from 1991 to 2000.

Michael Tanzer taught at SUNY Broome from 1991 to 2000.

A Binghamton landscape

The Steigerwalds theorize that the Binghamton landscape painting may have been originally commissioned as a mural, perhaps at Binghamton General Hospital before entering private hands. But that’s just a theory; all the Steigerwalds know is that the painting had been part of a private collection before it ended up in the Mapes auction house and, after bidding, in their home.

“It is truly a Binghamton landscape. He memorialized Binghamton forever and ever,” Lorna Steigerwald said.

But a painting of that size can’t be displayed in a house, at least not in such a way to do it justice. Conrad suggested donating it to SUNY Broome, Binghamton University or WSKG. The college where he inspired countless students seemed the best fit.

Michael Tanzer worked in a number of artistic media, from oil paintings to ceramics.

Michael Tanzer worked in a number of artistic media, from oil paintings to ceramics.

“Mike taught here. He loved to teach here,” Conrad said.

“His students loved him,” Lorna added.

“And he loved the students,” her husband said.

While the college is still finalizing a home for the painting, the hope is that it will adorn the new Paul and Mary Calice and Mildred Barton Advanced Manufacturing Center when it opens this fall, Dr. Battisti said.

A wide selection of Tanzer’s work is on display through July 25 at the Gallery @ SUNY Broome, located on the first floor of the library.

A wide selection of Tanzer’s work is on display through July 25 at the Gallery @ SUNY Broome, located on the first floor of the library.

A wide selection of Tanzer’s work is on display through July 25 at the Gallery @ SUNY Broome, located on the first floor of the library.