In New York, it’s not hard to find art that typifies the style of the New York School of painting—art critic Dore Ashton’s name for those artists who broke creative new ground with Abstract Expressionism in the mid-twentieth century. It’s also not hard to find contemporary artists, influenced by that era, who paint in a similar style.
It’s next to impossible to find artists who were among those defining Abstract Expressionism fifty and sixty years ago, who are still painting contemporary masterpieces today.
Gerson Leiber is one of a very select and rare group. (Top: Gerson Leiber, Spring’s Gladsome Vision)
It’s intriguing to imagine the effect that three or four more decades of seeking and finding beauty could have imparted to the greats of that era. The answer was on view recently at the Carter Burden Gallery in Chelsea in Rites of Spring: A Modernist View of Nature, recent paintings by Gerson Leiber.
Leiber’s colorful, lyrical, joyful abstractions present astonishing bursts of beauty. Leiber says they are “the summation of a long search for clarity, honesty and beauty,” and adds, “I sincerely hope they please.” It’s hard to imagine walking through the exhibition and not being uplifted by these works.
The title of the show and the titles of the individual works refer to nature. The biomorphic shapes are pure abstraction, but as interpreted by one who lives and works in harmony with the earth. Nothing looks like a flower or a root, per se, but nothing looks far from them, either. A riotous palette of pink, yellow, orange and red reminds the viewer of the gifts nature brings us each spring. In Spring’s Gladsome Vision, golden and pink ovals painted with bravura lie on a deep tangerine ground. Like a garden, the painting is infused with both exuberance and serenity.
It’s one thing to paint sophisticated, technically accomplished, ripe works of art, but it’s something else entirely to capture the spirit of something. Artists like Rembrandt knew that. So does Gerson Leiber. What comes through in all the works, both drawings and paintings in the exhibition, is a joyous love of life. Titles like The Giddy Riot of Spring, Beneficent, There is Divinity in the Humble, and End the Day with a Flourish give a glimpse into the spirit of this artist.
Gerson Leiber, who was born in 1921, is still painting daily in his 93rd year. As a young man, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was stationed in Budapest, where he met and married a pretty, young handbag designer, Judith. Back in America, Gerson and Judith Leiber built a business that combined both their skills and talents, and carried Judith Leiber handbags to a globally recognized luxury brand.
In their early days, each of them saw pain and suffering. For the rest of their lives, Gerson and Judith Leiber defined their own realities by seeking, cultivating and producing beauty through an enduring, inspiring love for each other and for life.
Much of the splendor of the paintings in Rites of Spring reach directly to the heart. They need no back story. But, a view into the life of the painter makes the buoyancy and optimism of Gerson Leiber’s paintings even more profoundly touching.
It’s worth noting that the splendid setting, the Carter Burden Gallery in the heart of Chelsea, also has a poignant story to tell. The gallery’s mission is to present the work of older artists, who often encounter difficulty when trying to exhibit their work. By focusing their attention on this under-appreciated segment of the art world, the Carter Burden Gallery spotlights the work of many marvelous artist, like Leiber.
Gerson Leiber’s work, and Judith Leiber’s as well, can also be seen in the Leiber Collection Museum in Springs, on the east end of Long Island.
Photos by Mary Gregory