Connecting the Dots

“All art is solitary and the studio a torture area.”

As a boy about to witness the overthrow of imperial Russia, Alexander Liberman was practically ordained by his mother to become an artist. But the cataclysmic events of the early twentieth century colored his first experiences of life. At nine, soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, he was whisked to England to live with family friends. During adolescence, Liberman bounced around from one art school to the next, from London to Paris, never far from his promiscuous mother, a clutchy source of shame, who gravitated to the avant-garde, counting Léger, Cocteau and Diaghilev as close friends. At seventeen, he almost died of bleeding ulcers, a condition that would threaten his life twice more. Soon after, he joined the staff of Vu, the Parisian newsweekly, whose innovative designs and use of snapshot photography were ahead of its time. A portfolio of Vus high-impact covers, with their dynamic use of type and photography, established Liberman’s roots in the graphic avant-garde.

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(Liberman with Anna Wintour, Charles Churchward and Patrick Demarchelier, New York 1994. Photo Credit: The View Magazine)

In 1938, he met his future wife, the Russian-born Tatiana du Plessix, a woman of iconic style who became a fashionable designer of hats for society women at Saks Fifth Avenue after the couple left occupied France in 1941. Upon settling in New York, Condé Nast soon hired Liberman for the art department at Vogue, and within a year he was the magazine’s art director.

In 1949, after years of trying to paint ‘like Vermeer’ as his wife would have liked, Liberman- already an established visionary at Vogue– undertook a series of paintings devoted to a single subject- the circle. Over the next thirteen years, as his responsibilities mounted at Condé Nast, his social schedule expanded to both sides of the Atlantic, and his home life tugged at him, he saved his weekends for the symbol of infinity, a word that also describes the quantity of his efforts. Almost a decade before Minimalism officially became a major art movement, he came to prefer primary colors and spray paint because it left no trace of human involvement. The configurations were sometimes arranged at random, Liberman, an incorrigible gambler, tossing poker chips on a surface and painting circles where they lay.

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(Alexander Liberman, Beat 1952 Photo Credit: Vogue)

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(Alexander Liberman, Untitled, 1961)

There was inevitable interplay between his painterly pursuit of order and his campaign to modernize Vogue. Amid the busyness of magazine publishing, it is no wonder he hit on the notion that his paintings could be done without him and- years before Warhol farmed out his silk screens- simply dialed an assistant with a detailed description of what the next work should look like. Though he rarely talked about his paintings, Liberman’s circles may have been inspired, subliminally, by his childhood in Europe, where his mother and happenstance placed him in the milieu of Modernism. In the 1940’s he began photographing the artists of the school of Paris, from Arp to Vlaminck; the images, after appearing in Vogue, were eventually shown at MoMA as ‘The Artist in His Studio’. The exhibition also included some of the most memorable Vogue covers, designed by Liberman during 1950’s and 1960’s.

‘Maybe, subconsciously, I wanted to see what my life would have been like if I had devoted it completely to painting. Either a good life and lousy work, or good work and a lousy life.’ 

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(Alexander Liberman, Tina Brown and Charles Churchward, New York 1994. Photo Credit: The View Magazine)

By the time he died, in 1999, after periods devoted to abstraction and other styles, the 87-year old legend was busiest as a sculptor, at one point of the most prolific of public works in the US. The artist’s prominent role at a fashion magazine was once handicap to being taken seriously. ‘Oh Alex’, Diana Vreeland once remarked, ‘they’d make such beautiful sweaters!’ Now, of course, the worlds of fashion and art are more intimately connected than ever. A magazine creature who constantly looked to discover what was next, Liberman might have even been amused by the fact that Coach presented a limited edition of handbags, ties and coats (but no sweaters!) in 2004, that payed homage to his immaculate circles. Looking back on his multiple careers, he once said: ‘This eternal thing of people asking me, wouldn’t I like to paint all the time… it’s nonsense. Has Condé Nast prevented me of doing good work? I don’t think so. Maybe if I’d given up Condé Nast my work would have been worse… And, as I learned a long time ago, the life on artist is quite horrible.’ 

Ruth Ansel, the former Harper’s Bazaar design director who worked with Liberman on Vanity Fair, House & Garden, and Vogue, sums things up when she describes him as controlling and egotistical, but notes that ‘his was a deliberate performance—to charm and intimidate. That was his modus operandi.’

Cover Photo Credit: Tom Kiefer- Olympic Iliad, Public Art Sculpture- Seattle, Washington.