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Review: Leibman's 'Mahler Suite' reflects his artistic life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2010 - In Thomas Mann's 1912 novel "Death in Venice," the main character, celebrated novelist Gustave von Aschenbach, is a fictional composite of two figures: Mann himself and the recently deceased Gustav Mahler, the prodigiously talented composer whose music was infused with all the joy and suffering of his life.

Barry Leibman's "Mahler Suite" is a related gesture in the visual arts: a cycle of 29 paintings, inspired by Mahler's work and Leibman's own artistic life. To be more specific, it's the heartrending fourth movement of Mahler's prodigious "Ninth Symphony" that is embodied in these modestly sized works, whose layered and collaged passages recall Mahler's practice of musical pastiche.

Alongside abstract elements that evoke music in their somber painted tones and rhythmic placement, Leibman has incorporated fragments of his own works (bits of old paintings, or slides of past work) along with physical mementos of his studio: pieces of a well-worn rug or a ghostly photograph of a gently illuminated corner of the space.

Mahler's music is playing in the gallery, a sonic accompaniment to a visual tour that is by turns intimate, ironic, playful and sad. As a reflection of the artist's life and an homage to Mahler, Leibman's work is somehow fuller than Mann's; visual abstraction, after all, engages the imagination in ways that Mann's detailed, literary portrait doesn't allow. One senses, too, that there's more of Leibman in these paintings than there is Mann in the novel.

The "Mahler Suite" feels like a final statement, an elegant retrospective of Leibman's artistic practice. And as he prepares to leave St. Louis, the "Mahler Suite" will serve as Leibman's memorable adieu.

Ivy Cooper, a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon's art critic.

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