The rural-mural was an idea originally conceived by Zimmerman in 1952 after spending time driving through the countryside of France. It combines his aesthetic of geometric abstraction, aggressive color palette and sense of visual drama with his philosophy that art should be available to the public, enrich their experience and enhance the beauty of public visual space.
The excerpt below, from a letter dated March 11, 1953, is a translation of the text on the invitation to Zimmerman’s Paris studio show of paintings. Composed by a French writer identified only as Alvard, it describes the concept for Zimmerman’s Rural Murals. “Z. knows the dangers of publicity and the servitude that it can impose. But there is not adventure without danger. There exists along the highways great surfaces given over to the most mediocre usage of advertising which awaken the desire to make them serve more noble usages, and who knows maybe reconcile the with the natural beauty of the landscape that surrounds them. Zim. takes the problem in reverse. He reacts against the slavery of publicity in the hope to put, for one time, money at the service of art. What one sees on the walls on his studio it must be underlined are paintings, which if they are destined to be considerably enlarged demand to be judged as paintings. He has simply hunted for simple abstract forms to facilitate their reproduction but without sacrificing anything of their subtlety and their personality. As for the colors, they owe nothing to anything except the interior exigencies of the painter.”
The rural-mural concept was articulated in a letter to his parents on January 21, 1952, Leo Zimmerman wrote: “There has been a lot of discussion on the subject of easel painting; its purpose, dissemination, and future. There are those who contend that the easel picture (that is as opposed to the mural painter) shall continue to exist in its present role, being shown in galleries, sold to collectioners, and museums, and being a possession of someone or a few for their individual pleasure. There is the opposing view toward easel painting which feels that the future of easel painting is very precarious. This form of art does not reach enough people to be effective as an art form, has too limited means and market to be a financial success, and is therefore doomed to a limited and precious existence...”
“I suppose that you are asking me why I put all this emphasis on the importance of the presence of good form (in the general sense meaning shapes, colors, materials etc. which are employed with the best of taste). I feel that good form is an absolute necessity in the psychological well being of the human being. You have heard of the results of experiments in industry on production by which the painting of a factory interior in more pleasant tones augmented production. This is one of the more simple effects of form on man. Environment plays a huge role in the psychic formation of a man’s character. The presence of art, whether it be music, architecture, sculpture or painting does have a very important effect also as a part of man's environment. But it is obviously ineffectual if it is seen only rarely, and then only when sought by those who feel the need. Good form is a spiritual food that is as necessary to the [spirit] as potatoes to the stomach.Those who are deprived of it are starving. You have gathered that I was planning to make some liaison between fine arts and commerce. This liaison takes the rather peculiar form of mural painting as a commercial art, advertising a product. But I feel that only [through] mural art can any number of people be affected. And here hangs the tail.”
“Rural-Mural Barn painting: You know of course that there are several companies who find it efficace to advertise their products on the side of a barn, the whole side of the barn. Main Pouch, Bull Durham, Jefferson Island Salt. These ads are only ugly colored letters giving the name of the product. They are peut-être effective as ads, but a blight to the landscape. I have hit upon the marvelous idea of utilizing these huge surfaces for art. And art which will serve the second purpose as advertising.”
In the November 1956 issue of Arts in Louisville Magazine, Zimmerman was able to announce that his vision for the rural-mural would come to life only in a more urban environment, “On Shelbyville Road about one mile this side of the Watterson Expressway at a drive-in restaurant owned by patron of the arts, Austin Pryor. Louisville architect, Norman Sweet designed the drive-in’s building and called Zimmerman with Pryor’s request, “Could a rural mural become suburban?”
Zimmmerman acquiesced and when completed the mural was sixty-seven feet long and thirteen feet tall. “I hope that this mural becomes more than a source of shock to the 45,000 or so daily passers-before-it; that it becomes an added excitement in the landscape; that it bring[s] to those who pass a response of individual signification in this vast, exuberant, unwieldy, unsettling, modern human extravaganza”, Zimmerman wrote in Arts in Louisville Magazine. Pryor would also commission Zimmerman to design a forty-foot tall rotating hamburger sculpture for the restaurant. For five years the mural graced the wall of the drive-on on KY Hwy. US 60 until a later expansion of the building obscured the mural from view.
By the mid-sixties Zimmerman had dropped out of the public art scene, though he continued to stay creatively active working independently and collaborating with other local artists. He was hired on as the physical facilities manager at the Louisville Free Public Library in 1966 where he worked until 1977. During his time working as physical facilities manager Zimmerman worked alongside prominent Louisville sculptor, Barney Bright to produce a set of cast aluminum door panels for the Main Branch of the Louisville Public Library at 301 York Street. The doors, which were designed by Zimmerman and sculpted by Bright, were composed of 32 panels, each baring the double “L” emblem that the library used in their seal. The doors were installed at the library’s south entrance from 1970 until their removal in 1993 when renovations were done to the sbuilding.
Mr. Zimmerman’s oil on canvas period was from 1948 to 1948 and are some of his most popular works. Zimmerman developed his style while living in Paris from 1948-53, working with pioneers in abstract art including Robert Breer, Jean Dewasne, Auguste Herbin, Fernand Léger, Edgar Pillet, Jack Youngerman and Victor Vasarely.
Zimmerman’s creative works evolved from hard-edge abstract oil paintings, to large rural murals, to rotating optical illusions named Slu Balls, to over 2000 computer generated digital computer screen paintings. All of his creations involved his invention of unique tools, processes and technologies to create his artwork, everything from a voice-actuated electronic-hydraulic easel to a large eliptical drawing machine capable of creating perfect scalable ellipses. Many other unique inventions came out of Leo’s facination with the ellipse and the coil shape, including the Silicoil paint brush cleaning coil and tank.
In 1954, dissatisfied with the available brush cleaning mehods that incurred damage to paintbrushes during cleaning, Leo Zimmerman developed an alternative device that he named ìthe Silicoil. The invention of the Silicoil brush cleaning system was patented in 1962 and afforded Zimmerman the freedom to focus on pursuing his artistic vision. The Silicoil, manufactured and distributed by The Lion Company in Louisville, Kentucky, continues to be the leading brush cleaning system on the market today.
Its design is one variation of the swirling, spinning, rotating movements Zimmerman frequently used to explore relationships between forms. It is these series of concentric circles, manifested three dimensionally in the elegant utility of the Silicoil, repeated in paintings such as Double Coil and Untitled #9 and evident in the rotating motion of the Sluballs that thematically unites Zimmerman's visual vocabulary.
The Sluballs, or Lacquered Kinetic Paintings, were first exhibited at the University of Kentucky in 1989. Zimmerman believed that “painting (was) essentially an astonishing art of illusion” and these paintings represent Zimmerman’s explorations in kinetic or moving/shifting perspective. Through combining elements of hard-edged geometric shapes with mechanical savvy, Leo created an ìillusion and a unique aesthetic experience. The kinetic paintings were fabricated from aluminum sheets that were machined, polished, lacquered and laminated onto a round, lacquered aluminum panel. Behind this, an electric motor powered a turntable, which createed the motion necessary for the illusion held within the walnut frame. When the motorized turntable begins its revolution, the elliptical discs within the panel appear to “move not in a circle, but in and out and back and forth through space” in a surprising display of optical trickery. Zimmerman fabricated a total of twelve Slu Balls in a demonstration of the variety and potential to be found in the relationship between forms. He averred that, “Seeing, itself, is illusory. Perception is an intricate, complex process of integrating and interpreting visual experience. These paintings astonish via that process.”
Several years after the show of Lacquered Kinetic Paintings debuted at the University of Kentucky, Leo added another creation to his arsenal of “Illusion-works”. He named it the “Slu Cube.” Developed using a 3-D drawing program on his Macintosh Quadra 700 computer, the Slu Cube structure is composed of three panels joined together to form a single inside corner with printed design elements fixed to the inner walls. In “A Wrye Life” Zimmerman provides detailed directions on how to reproduce the optical effects on the computer but notes that given the rapid advances in computing his instructions will quickly be outdated, in lieu of more advanced technologies. This invention required the viewer to be in a fixed position to create the illusion that space is being inverted.
Deemed “Apple Art” because of their production on an early 1990s era Apple Macintosh Quadra 700 computer, these abstract vector illustrations exhibit many of the same visual qualities found in Zimmerman’s earlier works - but with the added dimension of time and motion. First created around 1993 using an early graphics illustration application, Aldus Freehand, version 3, along with a Wacom drawing tablet, Zimmerman created forms that unfurled and evolved dynamically over time due to the time they took to render on the computer screen. Zimmerman saw the potential for digital drawing technology early on and used it as his final medium for creating his always original artwork. Leo created thousands of Apple Art on-screen digital paintings in the years just before his death in 2008, but ultimately his final creation was his 1,300 page book, A Wrye Life, which he worked on simultaneously while creating his Apple Art.