Gerhardt Liebmann: The SoHo Years, 1972-1979

9 Nov 2023 - 13 Jan 2024

WESTWOOD GALLERY NYC presents “Gerhardt Liebmann: The SoHo Years, 1972-1979,” a solo exhibition of ten paintings and fourteen drawings created during the 1970s. This exhibition is curated by James Cavello and part of the gallery core program highlighting overlooked yet significant artists in history. The exhibition will be open to the public November 9 – December 30, Tues-Sat, 10am-6pm.

Gerhardt Liebmann (1928-1989) was an accomplished artist, architect, archaeologist, pilot, explorer, and activist. He grew up in an agricultural area of Oregon and accelerated in school while picking pears to make money for his youthful art-related projects. Due to his advanced academic and athletic abilities, he received scholarship offers to attend Yale or Princeton and decided on Harvard because of their architectural program. He was a brilliant student who graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1950. In graduate school at Harvard, his thesis captured the attention of Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus. Liebmann completed his master’s in architecture in 18 months, rather than 3 years. Thereafter he received a Fulbright Fellowship to study architecture in Paris at École Nationale Superiéure des Beaux-Arts, as well as receiving Harvard’s Sheldon Fellowship to study in Athens. While in Europe, Liebmann became fascinated with other cultures and embarked on a solo motorcycle trip around the world. In 1953 he joined the Army and due to his expert mountaineering skills, he was assigned to a team in the Arctic Circle and surveyed the polar ice caps for two years. For the next fifteen years, he traveled the world, including extensively in the Middle East, as an artist and architect, as well as designing several homes for friends, always working independently. In 1968 Liebmann settled in SoHo and became a civic leader as the first President of the SoHo Artists Association; he worked toward re-zoning SoHo for mixed residential, retail, industrial use, and to preserve the cast iron buildings. He spoke on behalf of artists to champion their artwork as valuable to the economy and the need for artists to have a place to live and work in an arts community, such as SoHo in New York City.

Liebmann always painted and sketched until he could devote himself in New York City to being a full-time artist, which was his lifetime pursuit. His first series of paintings in the mid-nineteen sixties incorporated red bricks as symbols of infinite perspective and unreal spaces. In the book, Gerhardt Liebmann: A Renaissance Man (1996), sections are dedicated to describing the genesis of the brick paintings as a journey into the paintings of the 1970s and 80s.

Liebmann’s artwork has not been exhibited for over twenty-seven years, a hidden treasure by an accomplished and significant New York artist. The last posthumous solo exhibition of his artworks was at Gallery: Gertrude Stein in 1996.

On exhibit in Westwood Gallery NYC are three series of work created by Liebmann from 1972-1979, representing the trajectory of his quest to understand the world from ground to sky. This includes empty urban landscapes, a series of doll remnants from a nearby Greene Street factory, and a series of surrealist SoHo rooftops. As an explorer of world culture, after three different global trips by motorcycle and hitchhiking, Liebmann explored SoHo with the same wonder in viewing cast iron buildings, factories, parking lots and warehouses. His paintings capture the entrapment and uneasiness of urban life, while also rendering a subtle stillness, evocative of a Hopper landscape. A painting on exhibit is a view of an empty SoHo parking lot at 61 Grand Street, however, a painted Texaco sign on a nearby gas station appears to be the only recognizable symbol of humanity.

An unusual series of paintings on exhibit, of dolls and doll parts, are personifications of human and nonhuman representations. When Liebmann would walk on Greene Street, he came across plastic doll parts, jettisoned debris from a nearby doll factory. Liebmann would collect these precious findings and bring them back to his studio. “Dolls are used in my recent work because they are so beautifully innocent” he explained. “Dolls stand for mankind in relation to our earth, to each other, and to our God. They are without personality so dolls can personify a human as humankind.” Some of the doll drawings on exhibit were given names for each doll, typed on tiny labels and glued to the paper.

The third body of work focuses on the expressionistic quality of SoHo rooftops, representing the vast spaces with uncommon architectural elements and urban debris amidst a flat expanse. In an early painting from this series, Roof at 6:00 O’Clock (1976), sunlight rakes across a nearly empty tar-caulked rooftop, casting shadows from airducts, a water tower, and a wooden sawhorse; distant buildings on the horizon are the only reference to the city beyond, reminiscent of the flattened spatial structures in Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings. In the later Crescent Moon Rising (1979), his focus turns more Surrealist as a delicate crescent moon rises from a central courtyard-like space.

Throughout each of the three series on view, Liebmann shifts his gaze from looking out on the streets to looking down on urban artefacts, to looking up and beyond the city’s horizon. While maintaining an approach to painting that is both photo realistic and surrealist, his paintings are profoundly connected to SoHo and to our world. Liebmann writes, “In all the works there is a thread, I think, that ties them together. Beyond the mere emphasis on space, that is. Even though I seldom use the figure of man, it is man which is my theme: his loneliness, his innocence in the hands of God, his numbers overwhelming the earth.”