Wearing circular spectacles and suspenders that held his loose trousers onto his bony frame, 90-year-old artist Aribert Munzner stood outside his studio at the Ivy Arts Building in Minneapolis, watching friends, colleagues, former students and strangers carry out paint supplies and soggy cardboard boxes.
The boxes contained more than 60 years of work, damaged in a single night.
In the early hours of May 29, the roof of the Ivy — a 120-year-old building on S. 27th Avenue that once fabricated ornamental iron and now is home to more than 70 artist studios and small businesses — was ignited by sparks from the nearby Hexagon Bar, set ablaze in riots after the death of George Floyd.
Munzner, who goes by “Ari,” explained the incident as if it were a scene from a comic book:
“One: Fire torch. Two: Big fire, spark, 150-year-old roof, wooden. Big fire. Fire people come, put out the fire. Big hole in roof. 1,000 gallons of beautiful Mississippi water came thundering down and I was at ground zero,” he said, with an accent that sounded like a mix of New York, German and Irish.
Actually, the fire started around 4 a.m. Ten neighbors and Ivy janitor Damian Garner, who’s had a studio in the building for more than 15 years, tried to put it out with buckets of water and fire extinguishers.
Overwhelmed with calls from around the city, firefighters didn’t arrive until around 6 a.m.
Fire, water or smoke damaged about 40 studios in the Ivy, including the cozy ground-floor space housing about 500 works from Munzner’s 60-year career.
“Once it hit those beams with the dried-out paint, it looked like you were looking into the chasm of hell,” said Garner, whose own studio was spared. “I would’ve lost everything — there would’ve been no trace of my existence other than me.”
While Munzner is grappling with the loss of his many artworks, his outlook on change is more fluid.
“I’m starting again because that’s what I’ve been doing all my life,” he said.
He was only 7 when his Jewish family fled Hitler’s Germany in 1937 for Baghdad, where a family friend lived. In their new home, he learned Arabic from a Lebanese Jesuit priest. But when British forces invaded Iraq in 1941 to depose its Nazi-leaning regime, the family took off again, this time to New York City.
Munzner has eidetic memory, also known as photographic memory — “I don’t have the ability to play with words — they jump like squirrels,” he joked — so when he came to America he taught himself English by reading comic books.
“I learned how to say ‘WOW’ and ‘BANG!’ ” he said, making explosive motions with his hands. “Superman and Captain Marvel told me how to be an American.”
He came to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1955 for a short-term gig. Now he is an MCAD professor emeritus.
“We didn’t have GPS back in ’55, so I never found my way back to New York,” he joked. “I ended up — gladly, actually — in the Upper Midwest.”
In the days after the fire, a rotating crew sifted through the mess of his studio, still full of puddles, deciding what could be salvaged and taken to temporary storage at Everest Arts and Science in St. Paul.
They found a box of unharmed panels from 1965, but most of the art had some kind of water damage. Still, he’s optimistic about what’s to come. He hopes to create a new body of work, and have an exhibition a year from now.
“The whole idea of starting over is a continuity, it is a going from one state of matter to another,” he said.
He’s looking for a new studio space closer to his apartment at Sholom in St. Louis Park, an assisted-living facility where he and his wife, Joan, moved after she broke her hip. She died in 2016. He has two daughters, Naomi, a grants administrator for the state of Minnesota, and Tamara, a computer scientist at the University of British Columbia who has set up a GoFundMe page for her dad.
For 50-some years, Munzner has referred to all of his paintings — large-scale works on rice paper, using computer-generated programs — as “Genesis,” a study of the universe and the unknown. He paints galaxy-like explosions of color using tiny marks on canvas, as well as sparsely populated black-and-white drawings that look like close-ups of cells.
Not all those works survived the great flood.
Outside the studio, Michal Sagar donned a mask and sifted through moist cardboard boxes. “I just cried when I heard,” said Sagar, an artist who also taught at MCAD. “Property is property, of course, but these are the stories that nobody is going to hear.”
A former student, Nathanael Flink, inspected furniture and canvas stretchers. “It really breaks your heart to see whole portfolios of delicate rice-paper drawings lost,” he said.
As the circle of friends regrouped, Munzner stood outside, chatting with a Minneapolis city inspector, Joe Strohmeyer.
“I am going to count this as pretty much a total loss,” said Strohmeyer, clipboard in hand.
He handed an official-looking paper to Munzner, who glanced at it, then gleefully thanked him in both German and English.
“I can’t give you any answers because I am just one of thousands of tenants. Each one of us has a different view of the universe, and mine is not reality,” said Munzner. “It’s a fantasy.”