Phil Patton

Critic; Curator; Writer / United States /

Phil Patton’s Notable Books of 2013

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang, Overdrive, Hartmut Esslinger.

1 book
Charles Churchward

Alexander Liberman lived multiple lives—some of them sequentially and some of them simultaneously. He was a vector, as immunologists call it, of modernism. Liberman (1912–99), was born in Kiev under the czars on the eve of the Russian Revolution and his bio tracks modernist history from Constructivism through exile in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s across the Atlantic to the flourishing of modernism in postwar America. Modernism came to America through New York, riding ocean liners and the waves of war and revolution. Liberman stands as sort of node of influences, Kevin Bacon style, of its major personalities.

The son of an economic advisor to the czars who even Lenin found so useful he continued to rely on him for many years, young Alexandre drew and painted and visited museums in Europe after the family left Russia. He ended up educated as a French aristocrat just in time for the arrival of World War II and he moved on to New York.

Liberman was hired at Condé Nast magazines. He rose quickly—aided as much by personal charm as by skill. By 1960 he headed all the Condé Nast magazines, and would continue to do so for more than 30 years. For those magazines he hired Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton and then little-known photographers like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Deborah Turbeville. (He visited Matisse and Picasso in their studios and made photographs himself.) He was pals with Calder and Motherwell.

But Liberman brought ideas as well as contacts. The book title, It’s Modern, comes from a phrase of explanation he regularly directed at young art directors after altering their work. The torn edges and collaged layers of magazines he ran were some times mocked as “ransom note style.” Happily, actual magazine pages are reproduced in this book, whose format is unusual—a sort of scrapbook of photos, works of art, and sketches. These are interspersed with memoirs, all edited by Charles Churchward an editor, author, art director, and designer who worked with Liberman. (I wrote about Lieberman in the early 1980s. I met him in his office. He was proud how clean and empty his desk was. I did not know then but the book suggests those walks generated waves of terror among employees ahead of his visits.) He could tear up layouts and stories.)

Liberman’s story is a reminder that modernism moved through magazines and advertising as much or more as through galleries and museums. This book makes clear the perhaps surprising tie between the layouts of, say, Self magazine in the 1980s and the cutting-edge newsmagazines in Europe in the 1930s.

Liberman ran his magazine empire while simultaneously forging a career as painter and sculptor. He painted and drew constantly. If during his life his own art was underrated because of his success in the “conventional” (media) world, the examples included in the book, however, stand out well. There is a painting that is visibly aware of the Russian constructivists; it stands comparison to Ellsworth Kelly of the same period, circa 1950. The sculpture is smart and witty.

One of the modernist strains in Liberman’s story is the familiar one of the European falling in love with America and discovering new things there and revealing them to the native. Some European modernists fell in love with American skyscrapers and grain elevators. Lieberman and others found inspiration in what Duchamp called “bridges and plumbing”—mundane structures like T-square girders and piping. Liberman made sculpture of giant boilers and pipe sections. Painted red and welded in 3D collage, they became public sculpture, shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington to and at Storm King sculpture park in New York State. But he was never separated from his origins: the pipes also reminded him of cannons at the Kremlin, he said.

Another of Liberman's lives resembles a Nabokov novel. Hollywood dapper and suave, he recalls any number of film characters and played many roles. He has been described as a chameleon with women. Around 1936 he was briefly married to a German ski champion named Hilda Sturm and became for a time an outdoorsman. But for much of his life he was famously indulgent toward one wife. He ended up married to Tatiana du Plessix, a legendary Russian beauty famous as the muse of the doomed poet Mayakovsky and the mother of Francine du Plessix Gray. I met Tatiana briefly. What left the deepest impression was the famous pool built to indulge Tatiana—an open-air saltwater heated swimming pool in steaming in winter Connecticut. In the middle of those energy crisis years it seemed an indulgence worthy of the czars.

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