John Urbain

We watch the painting of John Urbain and see notation of a soul dancing through a life, we learn a language that develops there, a signification of experience with a continuity through history and we see the challenge of the surface met with truth and beauty.

Carl Hecker, Martha Jackson Gallery
Notes on John Urbain 1982

JOHN URBAIN 1920 - 2009

John Urbain was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1920, The Urbains came to the United States in 1922, and settled in Detroit.
Although they struggled in their adopted country, it was a household in which art, music and intellectual pursuits were appreciated and encouraged. John's artistic talent was recognized at an early age , lacking the funds for art school, his father posed for drawing classes at the Cranbrook School, Bloomfied Hills, Michigan so that John could participate. His father also arranged for him to attend Cass Technical School in Detroit, Michigan where he continued his focus on art.

Urbain served in the Army from 1941 to 1945. At Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan, his artistic abilities were quickly recognized and he was assigned to the Army Illustrators. He was later transferred to the front, saw action in the ETO and was wounded in the Black Forest of Germany.

After the war, on the recommendation of Ray Johnson, John attended Black Mountain College, Asheville, NC using the G.I. Bill.
It was while at Black Mountain that he met and studied under Joseph Albers who would prove to be a major influence on the artist. His exploration of line, space, color, materials and surfaces and the manner in which each affects the other became the dominant perspective from which Urbain would approach the making of art throughout his life.

In 1950 John and his wife, Elaine Schmitt Urbain, moved to Paris, France where John continued his studies at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and the Academie Julien.

Upon their return to the United States in 1953, John became Art Director for Philip Morris Company and helped them to acquire an outstanding and diverse art collection. John continued his work with Philip Morris until his retirement.

Urbain was a working artist all his life. The work was always more important then commercial success. He was continually excited by the process and had a way of making his work personal, almost magical without being sentimental.
True to his Black Mountain roots Urbain was also a poet, published in small magazines and the New York Quarterly

John’s works are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY, NY, the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, the Detroit Museum of Art, Micigan, Houston Art Museum, Texas, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC, Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, Asheville, NC, The Asheville Art Museum, NC and numerous private and corporate collections in the United States and abroad.

Here we have written of the dates, places and events of John Urbain’s life, the spirit and intellect of the man is not so easily expressed. In 1995 for a retrospective he wrote “I offer here a portrait of my life — not as a finished piece, but rather as a work in progress — not so much about what I have produced as it is about the journey itself.”
Urbain’s art and poetry is a reflection of his life’s journey.



May 23, 1920–April 8, 2009


Born Brussels, Belgium, 1920

Detroit, Michigan, 1922–1941

U.S. Army, 1941–1945

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1947–1950

Paris, France, 1950–1952

New York, New York, 1953–2008




Academie de la Grand Chaumier, Paris, France

Academie Julien, Paris, France

Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, North Carolina

with professor Josef Albers

U.S. Army, Fort Custer Army Group, Battle Creek, Michigan

Cass Technical School, Detroit, Michigan

Society of Arts and Crafts, Cranbrook School, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan




2013 Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Asheville, NC  

2012 Yvette Torres Fine Art, Solo Exhibition, Rockland, ME

2009 Gallery 170, Solo Exhibition, Damariscotta Mills, ME

2008 Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Asheville, NC

2007 Gallery 170, Black Mountain College Exhibit, Damariscotta, ME

2004 Weiss Pollack Galleries, New York, NY

2003 Mixed Media Gallery, Block Island, RI

2002 Mixed Media Gallery, Block Island, RI 

2001 Mixed Media Gallery, Block Island, RI

1995 Retrospective, Hurlbutt Gallery, Greenwich, CT

1993, 1994 & 1995 Sea Breeze Gallery, Block Island, RI

1992 Station Gallery, Katonah, NY

1991 Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, NY

1990 Albright Knox Museum, New York, NY

1989 & 1990 Square one Gallery, Block Island, RI

1988 Bard College, New York, NY

1987 Albright Knox Museum, Buffalo, NY

1986 Robeson Center Gallery, Rutgers University, NJ

1985 Hudson Center Gallery, New York, NY 

1982 Impressions Gallery, New York, NY

1978 Barbara Fieldler Gallery, Washington DC

1977 Martha Jackson Gallery New York, NY 

1971 Rizzoli Gallery, New York, NY

1971 Adam Gallery, New York, NY

1971 Rizzoli Gallery, New York, NY

1969 Peridot Gallery, New York, NY

1968 Gotham Book Mart, New York, NY

1967 Weyhe Gallery, New York, NY

1965 Grippi Gallery, New York, NY

1952 Raymond Duncan, Paris, France




Owens Corning, New York, NY, Silk Screen Prints

Neiman Marcus, Dallas, Texas Mural of Colored Glass

International Airport Hotel, JFK Airport, New York, NY, Mural of Colored Glass

Mid City Club, Drake Hotel, Philadelphia, PA, Colored Glass Panels

University of Louisville Library, Louisville, Kentucky, Stained Glass Panel

American President Lines, CA, Colored Glass Mural

Park West Apartments, New York, NY, Mosaic Mural




Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY

Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY, NY

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Detroit Museum of Art, MI

Houston Art Museum, Texas

North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Asheville, NC

The Asheville Art Museum, NC

The Albright Knox Museum, Buffalo, NY

Galerie Pepe Rebollo, Zaragosa, Spain


Numerous private and corporate collections in the United States and abroad.


Kay Liss

The gallery has built a solid reputation for putting on high quality shows since its inception only two short seasons ago. But with its current exhibition, it leaps into another category of sophistication all together. The exhibit, entitled Up From New York, displays some impressive work from artists who were prominent in the New York art scene in the 1940's and 50's and whose work was shown and/or is in collections at such premier institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art (in New York City), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. And at least two of the artists, Joseph Fiore and Charles DuBack, have strong connections to Maine, Fiore having summered in Jefferson with family for nearly 50 years and Charles DuBack summering in Tenants Harbor for a long time. The thread tying together the six artists in the show are that they all studied or taught at Black Mountain College, the iconoclastic school near Asheville, N.C., that was a unique experiment in education from the 1930's to the '50's. Such maverick artistic spirits as Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham in dance and Buckminister Fuller of geodesic dome fame, spent time teaching there. Fiore taught painting and drawing at the college from 1946 to 1956. The show presents a fascinating evolution of his work from the 50's to the present. However, it doesn't follow what one may think of as a logical and typical trajectory - from roughly realistic to abstract. The earliest works are abstract expressionistic in style, then in the 60's he experimented with a more impressionistic style of landscape painting, evidenced in oils such as "Ledges and Stream." From the 70's, there's a medley of styles on display, from the more impressionistic "Woods" to the more abstract and geometric "Sunset Through Cloud Band." In the 1980's, Fiore was playing with shapes and colors, departing from the more rigid Neo-Plasticism ideals of the color field painters like Josef Albers, a Black Mountain teacher himself for many years. Paintings such as "Sikeytaki," from 1984, have a more organic feeling. Many of the works from the 90's continue this style - fun, Paul Klee-like paintings of mysterious markings and figures within curved color field spaces, a wonderful example being "Winter Solstice XI," its glyph-like creatures in a brown-gray background reminding one of ancient cave paintings. John Urbain studied matiere under Albers, an art form using different materials to explore geometric design in a three dimensional expression. Wallpapers, book covers and even metals were combined to create works of rich texture and interesting pattern juxtapositions. Collage works on display are from the 70's through the present and are quite similar in style, except perhaps that later ones, such as "Three Roses" from 2000, are less geometric and more organic. All of this viewer's favorites are from the 80's, in particular "Brown Sun," "Yellow Figure" and "Purple Strip." DuBack, primarily a painter, has mostly drawings on display, from the 1980's to the present. They are dark and dramatic, such works as "Haze" depicting trees wildly swaying in the wind. He also has a number of watercolors in the show representing a more abstract style. DuBack, represented by the Greenhut Gallery in Portland, has shown widely both in Maine and in New York, including at the Whitney and MOMA. Elaine Schmitt Urbain was a student at Black Mountain where she met her future husband, John. She spent time as an artist in Paris and has lithographs on display depicting scenes from her life there. They exude a lively, gay atmosphere in that unmistakably French artistic manner. Elaine's sister, Elizabeth, also studied at the college and met her future husband, Pete Jennerjahn, there. She was probably more involved with dance than with art, studying with Merce Cunningham while there. A large impressionistic oil of hers is included in the exhibit. Similarly, Jennerjahn was involved with music more than art, taking classes from the minimalist composer John Cage at Black Mountain. A few of his abstract paintings are in the show. In conjunction with the exhibit, a poetry reading of Black Mountain College poets will be held Sat., July 21 from 4 to 6 and a documentary, "Fully Awake," will be shown Sun., July 29 at 4 p.m. at Skidompha Library.