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Outside the box

Ted Largman, 91, aims to provoke with his art

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ted Largman describes how he hoodwinked an entire audience with his piece editing the Sistine Chapel ceiling.     
Ted Largman describes how he hoodwinked an entire audience with his piece editing the Sistine Chapel ceiling.     

Some people retire and start making pottery for their grandchildren. Ted Largman, 91, retired and started making art — not for his children and grandchildren, but for display in gallery shows and to spark discussion. His ultimate goal? “To get across the river” — that is, into a gallery or showing in New York City.

His three-dimensional shadow boxes juxtapose found objects to offer commentary on current issues. Some take a humorous approach, like the squirrel cast as financial expert, counting on his abacus of nuts with the Wall Street Journal behind him; others are more sobering, like his 9/11 trilogy featuring plastic men falling and falling before rising with a a glimmer of hope and rebirth. 

Some are just plain kitschy, like the “I Want You” poster of Uncle Sam pointing at an etching of a voluptuous woman, titled “I Want You…Monica.” 

No topics are off limits for Largman, whether sex or religion or politics, and controversy is his friend. “I love to spark a conversation,” he told a guest at his solo exhibition at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown on a recent Sunday morning. “This is how I express my ideas.” 

And he lights up when someone takes a particular interest in one of the pieces. But Israel is off the table. Why? The current situation there “disturbs me,” he said. “I like to disturb other people, but not myself.” Discussing Israel’s current issues, he concludes, somewhat sorrowfully, “There are so many factions in Israel. I think religion is the problem.” 

The exhibit began Nov. 10 and runs through Jan. 8. On Sunday, Dec. 7, he will discuss his artwork at a reception at the Reform synagogue where he is a member. 

Trained as a scientist, Largman holds a PhD in chemistry and had a long career with Allied Signal (now Honeywell). He holds more than 35 patents and sees his current interest in art arising from the same place as his early fascination with science. “Having all those patents shows that I think outside the box. It’s the same thing I do with my art,” he said. And he’s quick to point out that he’s “not really an artist” in the traditional sense. “I can’t draw or sculpt,” he said. “But I’m a very creative person, and I have good ideas.” 

His aspirations are no different from those of any up-and-coming artist, with a plethora of local shows and awards under his belt. The difference is, he’s not going to have to quit or get a “real” job to support a family or sell his art to eat. In fact, he adamantly refuses to sell his work. “It’s my children’s inheritance,” he said. 

Some of his work plays with religious themes, and he’s not afraid of sacrilege. He’s done an updated version of the Ten Commandments, a baby boy holding his penis in a commentary on the bris (which was censored from this show), and a piece showing the three wise men and the baby Jesus as robots. In one piece, God, in the image of a woman, returns to earth to visit Her creation and sees only garbage.

“I like needling my community and country,” he said. “I’m the instigator. I’ll cast God as an impostor. I’m a little far out. I’ll even take a position that’s not one I believe to create a discussion,” he said.

As a nonagenarian, Largman’s work is still evolving. From that first box with the counting squirrel, he has added glass fronts, stained glass, and even etching to the boxes. He has also made it safely out of his “abacus period.” 

And if you heard the announcement he made that this would be his final solo show, you can rest easy. He’s said he’s gotten “a jolt of inspiration” and no longer plans to stop. He recently finished a piece on democracy, sparked by the government shutdown in 2013. And now he’s working on a piece that comments on virtual reality and hopes to “do something with 3D printing.”

“Something about technology taking over art. But I haven’t worked it out yet,” he said.

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