When artist Tal Streeter came to Manhattan in February, it was supposed to be a sort of homecoming.
A minimalist sculptor and writer of international renown, he was to be honored as a distinguished graduate of Manhattan High on its wall of fame in the spring, and he planned an exhibit of his works at K-State’s Beach Museum of Art to open in April. He looked forward to giving lectures and talking to students in his hometown, a place that has always been a source of inspiration and an object of affection for him.
At 76, Streeter had had a successful career, with a meteoric rise on the New York art scene in the early ‘60s as one of the pioneers of minimal modern art. His pioneer place was cemented by the installation of one of his steel sculptures in perhaps the most prominent location imaginable: next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Then, a growing fascination with kites led him to travel to Asia and around the world, prompting his authorship of several books that became the definitive Western works on the subject.
So this latest trip to the Little Apple was meant to be a victory lap. Though far from retired, Streeter could enjoy this visit from the comfortable position of a prodigal son, an honored master, before returning to his home in upstate New York.
What happened instead was this: he had a stroke.
Streeter was born in Oklahoma City in 1934, but his family moved to Manhattan when he was just 2 years old.
He always loved the Flint Hills and the wide-open skies, which would become a continuing theme in his adult work. He said he flew kites a lot as a child, sometimes leaving them in the air overnight, tied to a fencepost, flying so high he couldn’t see them anymore.
He went to school at Bluemont Elementary, then Manhattan High, back when the whole school was in the building on Poyntz Avenue that the freshmen now occupy.
He excelled in math and science, but as early as elementary school some of his teachers noticed his facility with art and urged him to pursue it. This early encouragement was important to his later career path, Streeter said.
Active in music and drama, he illustrated the 1952 Blue M yearbook, and graduated that year in a class apparently overloaded with talent. Among his classmates are improviser Del Close, actress Inger (Stensland) Stevens and journalist Dave Dary. Together with Streeter, the members of that one class make four out of the 15 wall honorees from all of Manhattan’s graduating classes.
He married Dorothy Ann Romig, a Topeka farm girl he calls by her maiden name. She is a well-known ceramicist and artist in her own right.
“He was the most interesting man I had ever met, and that’s still true,” Romig said.
He fulfilled his military obligation in the movie section of the Army Signal Corps with Frank Capra, Jr., who offered Streeter a job in Hollywood. But he felt the pull of sculpture, and decided to attend college as planned.
He went to the University of Kansas on an art scholarship and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. He took a teaching job, but soon decided he needed to go to New York City, the epicenter of the art world.
In New York, Streeter worked in his studio and did shows, and soon he became the “golden boy” of the art scene with his welded steel sculptures.
Perhaps one of the biggest moments of his career came when his “Endless Column” sculpture, a 70-foot-tall, deep-red, zig-zagging line to the sky, was installed next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was then and now the tallest piece ever exhibited in the city.
“It was the loudest piece ever shown there,” Romig said. “You stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue, darling. Not many people can say that.”
The piece is now part of the permanent collection of the huge outdoor Storm King Art Center in New York.
His works appeared in many world-class museums here and abroad.
Though opportunities abounded in New York, Streeter left for Korea and Japan in 1969 to study kites on a Fulbright scholarship. He was the first Western artist to write about kites and to make and exhibit them as art.
Since then, he has written several books on kites, including “The Art of the Japanese Kite,” and “A Kite Journey Through India.”
He has also served as a professor and teacher, and founded the sculpture department at New York State University at Purchase.
Until recently, Streeter was working on his latest book and following a circus troupe in India, something he has done annually for many years. He and Romig split their time between homes in upstate New York and Santa Fe.
But for the last six months, Streeter has been in treatment here in Manhattan, working through arduous physical and mental therapy and slowly regaining his ability to move, see, speak and think. His wife has been with him the whole time. Their daughter, Lissa Streeter, a chef and food stylist in Paris, also has spent a lot of time in Manhattan since the stroke.
Streeter was staying with Jim Sherow and his wife, Bonnie, when it happened.
Sherow said they came to know Streeter when they were contemplating renovating the Damon Runyan house at 401 Osage St. in Manhattan.
Runyan was born in Manhattan in 1880 and is known as a newspaperman and writer of short stories, including the one on which the Broadway play “Guys and Dolls” was based. Runyan and Streeter have a lot in common. Both had fathers in the newspaper business: Runyan’s father edited a weekly paper here in the 1880s; Streeter’s father worked at The Mercury. Their sons both are considered multi-talented renaissance men. And, of course, both sons left home in Manhattan and found fame in the big city.
Sherow said Streeter was visiting about eight years ago, talking to people at the Riley County Historical Society, and found out that the Runyan house was under threat of being destroyed. He learned that the Sherows were interested in buying the property, but they were still thousands of dollars short.
“He showed up at our door one day,” Sherow said. “It was huge. He said, ‘If you need the cash to do this, I can provide it.’ Without him, the Damon Runyan birthplace would not have been restored.”
Through their work on the project, Sherow said he got to know Streeter and his sculpture and literature. He said Streeter is “very thoughtful - a humanist in the best sense of the word.”
“I came to appreciate Tal not only for his passion for preserving the cultural history of the community, but also his scale and brilliance as an artist and as an author,” Sherow said. Tal would come into town from time to time and check on the Runyan house. He would stay with us, and we would have lively conversations about art, politics, culture, history. Tal just has a first-rate mind.”
Streeter was staying with the Sherows on his most recent visit, but one morning he didn’t come down for breakfast. Sherow went up to check on him, but he seemed a little groggy.
“I said to Bonnie, ‘Something’s not right with Tal.’ Then I realized that he might have had a stroke. It just wasn’t Tal anymore.”
They called an ambulance.
Streeter’s exhibit, “Lines Traveling Through Space: Ghosts and Shadows” is on display at the Beach Museum though the end of October. It includes some of his earliest work from the ‘60s as well as pieces from this year.
Most of his work is minimalism of the purest kind. It uses simple lines and planes. And almost always, the subject is the sky.
“I just love the sky,” he said. “It’s like a stage for sculpture. It’s not just about kites; it’s kites and the sky. It’s not just sculpture; it’s sculpture and the sky.”
His pieces are of the sort that make some people say, “Well, I could do that,” followed by an implicit, “so it must not be art.”
Jay Nelson, who owns Strecker-Nelson Art Gallery in Manhattan with his wife, Barbara, said he used to have a similar attitude toward that school of art. But Streeter, who has shown work there, helped him understand its value.
“He has been a gentle mentor and led me into another realm of art that I didn’t appreciate,” Nelson said of Streeter. “Art appeals in lots of different ways. For many people, it’s kind of a nostalgic thing, like a painting of a farm that reminds you of your grandparents’ farm. It’s comforting.”
Nelson said Streeter’s work is at the other end of the spectrum.
“His pieces are universal,” Nelson said. “So you take this notion of, you know, color - the formal aspects of a piece of art, color, form, texture, line - and you reduce that to its essence.”
Nelson said modern artists such as Rothko and Mondrian tend to have intellectual rather than emotional appeal. Their art may not make you laugh or cry, but it will make you think.
He said minimalist works “become ingrained in your vision in a way. It’s as if you learned a new letter. Not just a new word, but a new letter that you hadn’t known before. It’s not obvious to you until you’ve seen it. Then when you see it, it’s universal and irreducible.”
Just months after his stroke, Streeter is back at work, planning his next piece. A couple of kites hang in his hospital room, brightening an otherwise drab space, reminding him what is possible.
He’s not yet back to his old self. His handwriting is shaky as he sketches plans for a sculpture for children: a red line becoming an inchworm. But he is working, creating, and that’s a good sign.
He has made a lot of progress. He can not only talk, but also have in-depth conversations. He can not only move his hands, but also draw.
Romig and Lissa said his personality has helped them through this difficult time.
“He is a realist, but he is also a romantic,” Romig said.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Lissa said. “He pushes us all to do our best in whatever we’re doing.”
“All along they’ve supported me,” Tal said. “And I believe I’ve supported them in their endeavors.”
If all went as planned, at press time, Tal and Romig will be at their home in Santa Fe, where they plan to live full-time now.
They said they have been humbled by the way their friends and others in Manhattan have shown their hospitality. Old classmates come to visit regularly. A friend of a friend made it possible for them to fly, rather than drive, from Manhattan to Santa Fe. And a hospital aide who had been working with Streeter decided to relocate to Santa Fe with them to continue treatment.
It seems that Streeter’s hometown has proven itself worthy of his esteem.
“I loved growing up in Manhattan, and I’ve never gotten over it,” he said. “It’s a great place to live.”