Martin Snipper was an Expressionist and Bay Area Figurative painter, mixed media artist, and sculptor. His contribution to public art in San Francisco is immeasurable; as the Director of the San Francisco Arts Commission from 1967 to 1980, Snipper ran the San Francisco Art Festival, created the Neighborhood Arts Program, and was a Director of the Cosmopolitan Music & Arts non-profit. Martin Snipper was a true artist’s artist who dedicated his life to not only his own creative endeavors, but supporting the work of San Francisco’s artist community as a whole. The works included in The Lost Art Collection begin with his days as a student in the 1930s at the National Academy of Art in New York City, and trace through the years he held a studio in San Francisco’s North Beach and Mission districts in the 1940s-60s. Martin drew inspiration from the Vienna Secession, German Expressionists, and artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault and Pierre Bonnard. Painting amongst the Bay Area Figurative artistic community of the 1940s-1950s had a big influence on his work. Martin Snipper was born Martin Cohen in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1914 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. The Cohens re-located to Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood after 1920, and it was there that Martin would spend his formative years. Martin became inspired to pursue art after attending a figure drawing class, and once finished with high school applied to the National Academy of Art in New York. He did so under two names; his mother’s maiden name, Snipper, and his given name, Cohen, fearing anti-Semitism. He was accepted as Snipper, and from then on was called so. Martin left for New York at the height of the Great Depression, c. 1934-1935, riding the railway boxcars with $5 in his pocket.
At the National Academy of Art, Martin studied Painting and Drawing, focusing mainly on portraiture and figure studies. He met his future wife and muse, Bay Area Figurative artist Ethel Weiner, in a class taught by Zero Mostel (best known for his iconic role in Fiddler on the Roof). While studying, Martin worked the night shift in a penny arcade owned by an uncle. This would influence his work; giving a carnival-esque tint to many of the portraits, Expressionist, and Bay Area Figurative scenes included in the Lost Art Collection.
Martin and Ethel married in 1938 and moved to Los Angeles. In 1942, Martin exhibited at the 3rd Annual Exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum. That same year, Martin moved to San Francisco to work in the Kaiser shipyards, welding ship hulls and reading blueprints as a foreman. At first he kept a studio in the Hotaling Annex West building in Jackson Square, which was owned by the legendary Bay Area printmaker, a dear friend to Martin, Emmy Lou Packard, and housed many PWAP (Public Works of Art Project, a sub-division of the WPA Program during the Depression) artists and writers who also worked in the shipyards. Then Martin settled into an apartment and artist studio at 18 Edith Street in North Beach, where Ethel and their daughter Marlin joined him.
The couple went on to exhibit together, at the E. Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento and the San Francisco Museum of Art, until their divorce in 1950. After WWII ended, Martin taught at San Francisco’s Adult Education Arts Program at Marina Junior High School.
For several years after the war ended until the mid 1950s, Martin held a studio at the Audiffred Building at 9 Mission Street, painting alongside Bay Area Figurative artists such as Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff, Frank Lobdell and ex-wife Ethel Weiner. Also located in the same building was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, famed owner of City Lights Bookstore.
Living all this time at 18 Edith Street exposed Martin to North Beach’s Beat scene. Martin’s connection to the Beat Movement would influence his later work with the San Francisco Art Festival when in 1963 and 1964 he joined forces with poets, fine art printers, and graphic artists to produce several folios of broadsides – including works by Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and Richard Brautigan.
Martin exhibited at the Grant Avenue Street Fair, now called the North Beach Festival, and throughout the 1940s via the San Francisco Art Museum’s (later SFMOMA) Annual Exhibitions; in 1944 alongside Hassel Smith, Louis Siegriest, and his first wife Ethel; in 1946 with David Park; and in 1947 with Otis Oldfield, Emmy Lou Packard, Byron Randall, and Smith. Around this time, Martin and other local artists began encouraging the inclusion of Visual Arts into the San Francisco Arts Commission’s scope. As he put it, “Essentially, I lived by teaching and painting. I was very active in some of the art groups. At that time, the art commission only presented musical programs (est. in 1932). They had no programs whatsoever in the visual arts. So, I was part of a group of artists that pressured for the establishment of a visual arts program. That was about 1948.” This theme of inclusive creativity would remain with Martin throughout his career when he later stepped in to become an advocate for all artists and art forms.
In 1950, Martin directed his first San Francisco Art Festival, an immensely popular yearly event that drew crowds upwards of a quarter of a million people and showcased works by local artists. The Festival drew acclaim and criticism, and Martin faced both with a congenial attitude and a willingness to work with and for the artist’s best interests. He directed it continuously from 1955 through 1967, putting him in contact with virtually every notable Bay Area artist of the 1950s-1960s; Ruth Asawa, Beniamino “Benvenuto” Bufano, Imogen Cunningham, William Wolff, John Langley Howard and wife Blanche Phillips, Eileen and Rossi Reynolds (after whom Martin would name his son Rossi, born in 1949), Charles Griffin Farr, and Peter Macchiarini. As the Festival was sponsored by the San Francisco Arts Commission, Martin became increasingly involved in public art programming. He saw no distinction between “arts” and “crafts,” choosing instead to celebrate all forms of creativity and art forms.
Martin became Director of the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1964, a position he would hold until 1980. He oversaw the creation of the Neighborhood Arts Program; a grassroots organization which funded artists and made their work accessible to the San Francisco community. Martin was able to obtain grants that funded neighborhood art festivals, community gardens, licensed street artists, and provided for the Arts Commission Gallery. He programmed the Summer Pops Concerts, introducing the idea of themed programs, which conductor Arthur Fiedler would later adopt for the Boston Pops. Martin’s closest friend, sculptor Elio Benvenuto, worked with him on the Commission as an Art Festival Director and later as Visual Arts Program Director.
For Martin, creativity could be separated from a medium. Upon becoming Director of the SFAC, Martin stopped painting. He fulfilled his creative impulses through developing community art programs and working directly with artists. He began working with marble during a 1954 sabbatical to Pietrasanta, Italy, where he completed his first pietra dura, a stone inlay technique. Martin continued to work with marble into his 90s, driving to a San Mateo stone yard to pick pieces.
Another source of inspiration was the Snipper residence at 920 Ashbury Street, where Martin lived with his wife Betty, whom he wed in 1964. Betty had three daughters- Marguerite, Eve, and Joan. Martin and Betty were together for 50 years and their passion for life and love for each other was evident in the house that they created together. The house became Martin’s art project, and with the assistance of Betty, he took to creating mosaic walls, stone inlay work, and painting ceilings and crown moulding in bright, expressive designs. Martin and Betty traveled extensively, and filled their home with artwork and furniture from all over the world. Martin was actively making art up until a month before his passing - sketching and planning his next pietra dura piece.
Martin was passionate and charismatic, with a lust for life that permeated his artwork, career, and his rich personal and family life. He indelibly left his mark on the San Francisco arts community and created space and context for artists in generations to come.
Lost Art Salon would like to thank Joy Joan Zandona and her family for introducing us to Martin’s work and for sharing his incredible life story.