Los Angeles

Morrie Markoff: Emerging Art of a Centenarian


Even at age 100, Morrie Markoff never sits still. Recently, the centenarian worked the room at the Red Pipe Gallery in Chinatown, and like the emerging artist that he is; he barely took a moment to sip wine in between talking to enthralled gallery-goers. Pointing at a figure of a ballerina with a little poof for a skirt, he recounted the story of how he came to make his first sculpture, a small bronze ballerina. "One day, I happened to be getting rid of a toilet, and I noticed the shape of the ball in the tank and I realized that the pleats were reminiscent of a ballerina's tutu. So I whipped out my arc welder and made it for Betsy." Betty, as she is known to most, is Morrie's wife of 75 years.

Rain was soon on the way to downtown L.A., yet the room was warmly filled with friends, family, and strangers who most likely were drawn downtown by Steve Lopez's column in the L.A. Times about Markoff. One man I met while standing outside the gallery had been friends with Morrie's son, Steve, years ago when they were growing up, but hadn't seen neither father nor son for 50 years. He came to reconnect. I passed by another viewer who commented to me, "This work is extraordinary. Steve Lopez sold it short."

Morrie and his grandson

Also present at the Red Pipe were Rita Gonzalez, a curator at LACMA, Paolo D'Avanzo director and founder of the Echo Park Film Center, and filmmaker Rebecca Baron. When you are 100, and as gregarious as Morrie, you rack up the friends and associates, both young and old, with ease.

In fact, the way this show came to happen was not due to a studio visit from the gallerist or from gossip that Morrie Markoff was the next big thing in the art world, but from a conversation started while waiting for a bus. Morrie and Betty, who live downtown, were on the way to the Home Depot on Figueroa Street. Also at the bus stop was Tracy Huston, the owner of the Red Pipe Gallery. And as it usually happens the conversation between the three of them began and soon an art show to celebrate Morrie's centenary year was in the works.

The work that would be exhibited are representational wire sculptures of quotidian scenes from Markoff's "bronze period" which lasted from 1951-1962. And then placed carefully above the sculptures are representational paintings -- an orthodox rabbi painted in oil is one -- and black and white photographs from their world travels.

"Family on bench"

These pieces were familiar to me because Morrie and Betty Markoff were my neighbors at the Avenel Street Cooperative in Silver Lake for a number of years before they packed up and relocated to Bunker Hill at age 98 and 95, respectively. On my visits to their unit, located on the path above ours, I was introduced to the treasures created by Morrie in his workshop. On mornings over waffles and tea, I was invited to look through the albums filled with black and white photographs from their travels around the world.

The Markoffs are like family, their New York Jewish ways, their values and politics, the objects that surround them in their home, and the cadence of their speech remind me of my family, especially my father, who grew up in the Bronx and relocated here in his 20s. My dad, now in his early 80s, a photographer, psychiatrist, and constant do-er always has a new project. For him and Morrie, the later decades are not a time to slow down and take it easy, but a time to fit in all the things that life has to offer and are not to be missed.

A first gallery show of work created over a lifetime, why not?

I was with Morrie last weekend at his daughter Judy's apartment downtown, we spoke about his show and this new identity of being an artist over bagels, lox and cream cheese. In between bites, Morrie enthusiastically told me, "This art business is an ego trip! A lot of old friends came by, one whom I haven't even seen in 50 years. But I was worried about all the publicity. Who knows? They might notify the creditors!"

Morrie discussing his work

Morrie's sense of humor is always present and at times connected to his coming of age, and being a Jewish New Yorker, in the midst of the depression. He clarified for me, "I'm not an artist, I'm a machinist. I made these things during a period of time when my work was very stressful and going into my workshop at night to weld helped get my mind off of things. The inspiration struck me and I made them. "

And, to be sure, Morrie is a worker. While I was looking at the show, I noticed that all of the sculptures, except one, show people in action, doing something. "Sweat and Toil" is based on a photograph that Morrie took in Mexico City in 1951 of a group of workers dragging an i-beam into place. He remembered the scene vividly and reproduced the scene in bronze in 1965 capturing the essence of life, movement, and work.

In describing his work, Morrie explained, "All of the pieces were drawn from scenes that I had witnessed. One day I was in Griffith Park and there was a family sitting together on a bench. The mother an father were reading, then the little girl came up and laid down in her mother's lap and fell asleep. Soon the mother was asleep and next, the father, who was reading a newspaper, dozed off as well. I was just amazed that he never dropped his newspaper. "

Morrie Markoff's sculpture and Mosaic

During Morrie's working life he ran an air-conditioning business with a partner and was always the go-to person in the community when something broken needed to be fixed. All of the sculptures are made out of scrap metal that was left over from air-conditioning repairs. The busy season in the AC business was during the spring, summer and early fall. In the winter, he was able to take time off and travel with his family.

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Betty, a very practical and no-nonsense 97 year-old said about her husband, "If he had grown up in a different way, in a different time, who knows what he would have become? The sculptures reflect him, he responds to people that way. It all comes out of life, something that he saw, something that had happened."

Morrie continues, "I couldn't make them today. It was an inspired period, they were all made in 10 years. I stopped when I sold the business because I got more interested in photography and I didn't have the scrap metal anymore. The inspiration went. But I'm glad I went with the inspiration because anything that you make and people appreciate it, you are happy."

Exterior of the gallery

Chung King Alley

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Top Image: "Sweat and Toil" detail.

About the Author

ulia Meltzer is a filmmaker and the founder and director of Clockshop.
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