John Clemmer, a prominent New Orleans artist who also taught generations of students at the Tulane University School of Architecture and Newcomb College, died April 11 in Milwaukee of complications from a stroke he suffered two weeks earlier. He was 92.
Clemmer had been involved in the artistic life of New Orleans since the late 1930s. His first solo exhibition took place at the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans in 1948, and his last exhibition opened at LeMieux Galleries in January.
He was widely recognized as an abstract painter, but his work was diverse and encompassed a broad range of materials and styles. Modest and self-effacing, he maintained a low profile and, for a period of time in the 1960s and ’70s, preferred to show his work at his home.
He traveled widely but remained attached to the landscapes of his home state of Louisiana and his adopted second home in Sheboygan, Wis. He maintained studios in both New Orleans and Sheboygan and worked in them steadily until his final illness.
His paintings and works on paper ranged from portraits and landscapes to still lifes and pure abstraction, in addition to three-dimensional works, many of which were substantial commissioned pieces.
He typically spent hours each day in his studio listening to classical music on CDs and the radio, while drawing, writing and painting.
Clemmer was born in 1921 on a plantation near Donaldsonville. His father was a Wisconsin native who married the daughter of a French-speaking family who traced its roots in Louisiana back to the 18th century. The family moved to New Orleans when Clemmer was 7. In 1939, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the New Orleans Art School, operated by the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans in the French Quarter. He immersed himself in the artistic and bohemian life of the Quarter and became associated with artists such as Paul Ninas, Enrique Alferez and Xavier Gonzales.
During World War II, he worked at Higgins Industries in New Orleans, building landing craft and PT boats, and also served in the Army Air Force.
His association with Tulane began in 1951, when he was hired to teach drawing, color theory and basic design to students at the School of Architecture. He was promoted to associate professor in 1967 and to full professor in 1974. In 1978, he was appointed chairman of the art department at Tulane’s Newcomb College, becoming the first recipient of the Ford and Maxine Graham Chair in Fine Art in 1981. He retired from teaching in 1986, thereafter dividing his time equally between New Orleans and Sheboygan.
Clemmer showed his work regularly throughout his career, in New Orleans, nationally and internationally. In 1999, the New Orleans Museum of Art mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work from 1940 to 1999.
In 2010, the museum’s Isaac Delgado Society presented Clemmer the Louisiana Artist Recognition Award.
Survivors include his wife, Dorothy; a daughter, Trina Clemmer, of Abita Springs; two sons, Jonathan Clemmer, of Danville, Ill., and David Clemmer, of Santa Fe, N.M.; a sister, Marie Louise Dorsey, of New Orleans; and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. May 9 at Touro Synagogue, 4328 St. Charles Ave. A reception will follow.