Archive Fever: Alexander Liberman

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday April 12, 2018

Alexander Liberman (1912-1999), longtime editorial director of Condé Nast Publications, was given a Kodak pocket camera by his father shortly before being sent to an England boarding school to avoid the perils the Russian Revolution. His parents, Marxist Jews, subsequently fled to Paris, where he joined them and began his education as a designer and architect. As the Nazi occupation of France made life intolerable, he moved to New York City where in 1941 he landed a job as a designer at Condé Nast. His previous magazine experience at Vu gave him an edge over the competition and soon Nast appointed him art director. 

Having lived as an exile, and knowing how to use his diverse talents to make himself useful, Liberman began an extraordinary fifty-year career that paralleled the cultural shift from Euro-centric hauteur to a new approach that was more journalistic and decidedly more modern. 

In the summer of 1949, Liberman headed back to Europe, Leica in hand, to photograph and interview the grandees of modern art, from Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to Alberto Giacometti, Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp, many of whom he had previously met while studying in Paris.

Picasso in his studio; photo: Alexander Liberman/Getty Research Institute

A painter, sculptor, photographer, and graphic designer, Liberman is best known not for his fine art, but for the influence he exerted in the worlds of art and fashion publishing. He introduced artists of the day to the pages of Vogue, commissioning the young Irving Penn for many of these features. Through his sensibilities as an artist, though, he connected with his subjects in France in a way that gives his photographs a truthfulness different from what generally results from assignment photography. He returned to this project for a decade of summers, enlarging on the best of his interviews and showing these aged renegades, some living in shabby circumstances, but still, seemingly, hard at work. Liberman’s photographs, covering 39 artists and studios, found an audience hungry for the last gasp of modern art: 150 of these were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, then collected and published along with his essays in the 1960 book The Artist in His Studio.

Braque in his studio;  photo: Alexander Liberman/Getty Research Institute

Alberto Giacometti in his studio; photo: Alexander Liberman/Getty Research Institute

Liberman also documented younger artists of the New York School, intending to collect these photographs into another book. Studying the photographs he made of artists Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg and others, starting in 1959, it’s not hard to understand why the second book never came about. Perhaps by then Liberman was too concerned with marketing his own work as a sculptor and painter to give himself over to this group of notable artists, as he had done with his European subjects. Among the six or seven New York School artists he photographed, the only images that have the truthfulness of his earlier pictures are those he made of Helen Frankenthaler. Liberman evidently took his own advice [overheard when I worked on early iterations of Self]: “It doesn’t work. You can't fix it--try something new.”

Helen Frankenthaler in her studio; photo: Alexander Liberman/Getty Research Institute

Through his decades-long process of photographing great artists in their studios, Liberman created vital documentation of a pivotal era in art. Art critic John Richardson, who wrote a 4-volume biography of Picasso, says he found Liberman’s photographs of the artist’s studio, which he shot several times, “enormously helpful”….I don’t know if he realized how important this would be to people like myself.” Info

Over 100,000 of Liberman images, notes, essays, and ephemera related to his life-long passion for art are housed at the Getty Research Institute, with 1,500 photographs scanned into the Digital Library, and accessible for study and publication. Info




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