Thursday, April 19, 2007

That white metal sculpture in Milwaukee and the late blooming sculptor who made it


You don't have to know who created a work of art to find it beautiful. I've always liked this sculpture at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Although now it's enfolded by the Calatrava addition, you used to be able to see its elegant white lines from the road as you drove by, and I would always wave fondly at the graceful forms.

Recently I wondered who the sculptor was and, since the museum was closed and I didn't see the name on their website, found myself trying to Google something visual without knowing its name. Eventually I typed in the right combination of words that included "white," "sculpture," and "Milwaukee" and found this passage by Whitney Gould in the Milwaukeee Journal-Sentinel, written a couple of years ago.
The old timer is Alexander Liberman's "Argo," a sublime composition of white-painted steel cylinders and unspooling ribbon on the south lawn of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Art connoisseur Peg Bradley bought the 1974 work for the 1975 expansion of the museum.

Its strength is in its simplicity. Liberman's sleek volumes play off one another like the musical voices in a Faur Pavane. And there are no wrong notes: The piece rewards you with rhythmic solids and voids, shadow and light, straight lines and curves, all of it morphing into something new each time your vantage point changes.

Peer out at it between the Calatrava arches in the window wall of the museum's caf and "Argo" becomes a streamlined pachyderm, its flat trunk swooping up between two big, flat ears. Stroll past it along the lake walk behind the museum and those silo-like cylinders look like a Charles Scheeler painting come to life. View the work from the west, especially on a calm day, and it becomes a '30s ocean liner rising from the water, complete with foghorns.

The setting a green knoll, the raw concrete wall of the museum's David Kahler addition is off the beaten path, but it's the perfect backdrop for this celebration of pure form. Liberman (1912-'99) doesn't hit you over the head with a "message." He does what all great artists do: allow you to experience the world around you in fresh and surprising ways.
So who was Alexander Liberman? Shown with his stepdaughter and wife in this 1948 photograph by Irving Penn, the scuptor originally achieved eminence in a very different field.

The fact that the photograph was taken by Irving Penn, one of the great photographers for Vogue back in the day, says everything about Liberman's main career. Born in Kiev, educated in Paris, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1941 and started working at Vogue as an art director. The rest is history. He eventually became editorial director for all of Conde Nast, a position he held from 1962 to 1994. He was instrumental in bringing photographers like William Klein, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon to the pages of Vogue, changing the look of American fashion magazines and photography in the process. But his long life was even more fascinating than his work. He had always been interested in art, knew many of the most famous artists of his time, and did a lot to expand Vogue's coverage of the arts. He painted much of his life, and was also an accomplished photographer. But he didn't start making these large metal sculptures until he was in his sixties.

The photo is from the Washington Post review by Jonathan Yardley of stepdaughter Francine du Plessix Gray's book, Them: A Memoir of Parents. Here's how Yardley sets the stage:
The story that Francine du Plessix Gray tells in this exceedingly long family history cum biography cum memoir is exceedingly interesting, indeed at times startlingly so. The author's mother, father and stepfather were remarkable people who came from equally remarkable families that were involved in 20th-century European and American history and culture in important, sometimes intimate ways. Add to this Gray herself (a well-regarded novelist, biographer and journalist) and her late husband, Cleve Gray (an important Abstract Expressionist painter), and you have all the ingredients for a high-octane book, one filled with the names of notable and consequential people, one that will send many readers to the index before they turn to the introduction.

Gray's mother, Tatiana Yakovleva, was a member of the czarist Russian aristocracy who survived near-starvation after the Revolution, escaped to France, and in turn escaped to the United States about two steps ahead of the Nazis. Along the way she fell in love with the highly charismatic poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, and he with her, and though their love was never consummated, Tatiana became the inspiration for some of his most important poems and thus a significant if peripheral figure in contemporary Russian literature. Upon decamping to New York, she made her way to the fashionable women's store Henri Bendel, and then to Saks Fifth Avenue, at both of which she became one of the world's most famous designers of women's hats. "Nothing goes to a woman's head like a hat by our own Tatiana," Saks declared in the mid-1950s. "Her magnificent creations are the delight of our most particular customers."
And that's just the beginning. All these years later, Du Plessix Grey, a distinguished writer in her own right, still has not fully come out from under the shadow of her charismatic parents, and Them is the result.

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