© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
88.5 FM KMST Rolla is currently experiencing technical difficulties.

Reflection: Barry Leibman and the depth of abstract expressionism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 6, 2013: Barry Leibman has a jewel of an exhibit at the Philip Slein Gallery in the West End. It’s tiny – nine pictures, each one a discreet example of poetic beauty. It is called “Invisible Cities,” as good a name as any for an exhibit such as this, one that deals with the visual expression of ideas as much as material things.

The pictures all have names that suggest content, in this instance content at once enigmatic and generally evident. The artist has whittled away at reality to make room for a more thorough investigation of the mysterious world that exists in emptiness. Frank Stella – a better theoretician than painter – wrote, “… after all, the aim of art is to create space – space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.” That is what Leibman does.

Stella’s observation connects directly to my fascination with this art, in this exhibit and in other rare but special occasions when Leibman has shown his work. His intention, I believe, is not the creation of some visual exercise or game that asks the viewer to fill in the blanks or to make “real” those buildings and streets and flowers and trees that appear skeletally or abstractly in them. What gives meaning, and what creates the opportunity for an aesthetic dialogue, is Leibman’s stripping away of detail and the replacement of “reality” with painterly and emotional alternatives: visual silences, voids, enigmas, sketchy suggestions of known things. There is the implicit invitation to the viewer not so much to penetrate the picture plane as to transcend it, the better to gain from these paintings the refreshment of abstractionist fantasy, and the freedom and energy inherent in it.

Art -- if it is any good -- forever challenges and poses questions to us. In Leibman’s work, the revelations come quietly but persistently through abstraction to dwell permanently in a secret, undefinable place all of us own in the mind and the heart, a cistern of suggestion and experience, a vessel – invisible itself – yet an almost palpable object filled with the potential of stimulation and of peace.

Leibman’s exhibit comes when the subject of abstraction is in the news in a most fascinating way. The British newspaper The Independent recently reported confirmation of a story that has swirled around for more than half a century.  It involves the unlikely intersection of art, specifically non-representational art  … and espionage. It has to do with the appropriation of that big, often boisterous, entirely eclectic bundle of art that came to be called Abstract Expressionism. The appropriator was none other than the Central Intelligence Agency, and the reason for the grab was to use this art as a Cold War weapon.

As the story went, our government’s idea was to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that freedom of expression and creative spirits were alive and well in the USA. Art for all of time has had political employment, but in the immediate post-World War II world, this artistic inventory offered an indelible manifestation of that liberty.

It was an inspired move.

That reasoning was no shaken-not-stirred concoction. In the mid-20th century, America could claim to have wrested the Crown of Art from France; New York became the center of action. Previously, for more than half a century, abstraction nudged forward a revolutionary sensibility. It began with Courbet, gathered irrepressible steam as the fin de siècle approached and in the 20th century proved ineluctable as the visual arts set out on a new, affecting, controversial and sometimes gaudy parade. Once firmly established, as much as anything else, abstraction served as a defining factor of the 20th century condition and has forever affected our sensibilities, entirely for the better.

Besides a couple of visits to Barry Leibman’s exhibit at Philip Slein, some looking and reading helped me with this piece.

  1. “Nicéphore Niépce and the First Photograph from Nature.” BBC series, “The Genius of Invention.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjGwNZ9dpeg
  2. The Independent’s story on the CIA’s use of Abstract Expressionism: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html
  3. Jackson Pollock’s “Number 3, 1950,” oil, enamel and aluminum paint on fiberboard. St. Louis Art Museum, partial and promised gift of Emily Rauh Pulitzer in honor of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.
  4. Frank Stella, “Working Space,”1986. Harvard University Press. “But, after all, the aim of art is to create space – space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.”

Abstraction was not just some top of the head notion perpetrated by artists who couldn’t draw very well and rapacious dealers eager to fleece the rubes. It was the spawn of psychoanalysis and photography and Charles Darwin, of the Industrial Revolution, of Adolf Loos and Louis Sullivan. It sprang from the otherworldly geniuses of Cezanne and Picasso and Matisse and Braque and Kandinsky. Then – as if to define it in higher relief -- there was the antithesis of art: Sarajevo and the resulting five years of carnage and a worldwide confrontation with mortality and irrationality.
All of that, plus all sorts of other influences, had the effect of turning the visual arts (among just about everything else) inside out. And turned inside out, rather than proving itself vulnerable, it revealed its enormous power. Another World War intervened, and the idea of abstraction as degeneracy became current under Hitler. When peace finally came, the Office of Strategic Services, soon refashioned as the Central Intelligence Agency recognized the enormous potency of art and took it on the road as our particular secret weapon.

Although it may not serve as a bazooka anymore, abstraction in its many forms remains a dominant, vibrant strain in our art and our culture. Just ask Barry Leibman, then take a look his beautiful pictures: able and admirable representatives of this tradition.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.