Rooted in Lived Experience: Gabriel Laderman
Gabriel Laderman, 1929-2011
Gabriel Laderman, who died of heart failure at the age of 81 on March 10th, was a major presence in the new American figuration that emerged in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Whether through his own paintings, his critical writings or his influential teaching, Laderman argued for perceptual representation free of art world cliché and able to engage with larger art traditions. He sought to forge vital contemporary work that could stand on the world stage as the equal of Abstract Expressionism.
The New York where he was born and raised was a heady mix of intellectual ambition and rigor. He started as an abstract painter in the late nineteen forties, seeking out Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Stanley William Hayter, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Alfred Russell as his teachers; although he would always admire these men’s work, like Alfred Russell himself, he became wary of the mannerisms and conventionality that arise from limited form vocabulary.
His year of graduate study at the Institute of Fine Arts in early Renaissance and Asian art transformed his understanding of the great art traditions. He later wrote of art as an agglomerating entity, a molecular model coherent in itself but available for any number of personal attachments and contributions. Rejecting the prevailing Hegelian assumptions about the directionality of art history, Laderman, like Fairfield Porter, questioned Clement Greenberg’s restrictive demand that art have a destiny somehow demanded by its zeitgeist. The molecular model wasn’t linear, but spatial, driven by studio practice rather than by theory, less obedient to fashion and more to individual temperament. In an essay titled “The Future of Landscape Painting” (Artforum, November 1968) he wrote: “Generations of pictorial solutions are available to us. The representational painter…should recognize that there are no viable rules and boundaries to his activity and proclaim his freedom by discovering and inventing the ones he needs to make a viable poetic statement.”
By the time he had earned his master’s degree from Cornell in 1957, Laderman had begun to see perception as the probity of his own art. He sensed nature and culture as mutually dependent, and spoke repeatedly of the Carraccis’ insistence on observation reinforced by a deep immersion in previous art. Existence was, for Gabriel, so richly complex, so much greater and more harrowing than our ability to encompass it, that a life well spent in art meant endless auto-didacticism and ceaseless self-criticism. He apprenticed himself to diverse kindred spirits in the history of art, making their discoveries his and adding to the vast ever-changing molecular spiral of world art.
While Laderman differed in many ways from Hofmann, there are thought provoking parallels in his and his teacher’s approaches to painting and pedagogy. Both viewed tradition as Janus-faced and looked to the past as a source for how to move forward. For Laderman, as Hofmann, a painting was a world, not just an image, with its own internal relations and rhythms, movements and counter-movements, one whose structure was metaphorically linked to its content. In answering to the world itself, any painting not internally coherent and rich in feeling would seem dead, an insult to our experience of life’s complex dynamics. Laderman, like Hoffmann, was loved by some of his students and disparaged by others, but no one forgot their experience. Another point in common between Hofmann and Laderman is that, vaunted as teachers, both were underrated as painters during their lifetimes — whether by critics or peers — though time, we feel, will tell another story for Laderman as it has for Hoffmann. Laderman taught mainly at Pratt Institute, Queens College, and the Art Students League, but he was also a founding faculty member at the New York Studio School, a long-time visiting critic at Yale and was widely engaged as a guest lecturer. He was the founding Director of the Godwin-Ternbach Museum and the founding Director of the Queens College Summer Program at Caumsett State Historic Park.
Possessed with an astute intelligence and a fiercely earnest character that broached no compromise, Gabriel could often be perceived as a curmudgeon, despite the fact that he was one of the most useful and generous of teachers. Both fiery and childlike, he could turn on a dime from shouting to sheepish, as likely to declare anathema as apology. More genteel students and peers could fail to grasp that his combative arguments reflected genuine respect for their capacities and a wish to see them extend their ambitions. We doubt there’s a Laderman student who doesn’t have at least one story about Gabriel’s comportment, from his mismatched clothes to his weird amalgam of shyness and rigorously articulate intensity. The photo of Gabriel that appeared in the New York Times obituary, showing his characteristic impishness and deeply knowing grin, all but broke our hearts.
Much like his teaching, Laderman’s painting expanded outwards, making the world of artistic possibilities feel larger. Early paintings, like View of Florence (1962) Still Life with Grain Box (1969) and Portrait of Johanna, (1972), contain aspects of Le Nain, Canaletto, de Chirico, and Gris, while remaining completely American and unmistakably his own. In a still life of 1969, titled Homage to David, Laderman found a formal allusion to The Death of Marat that enabled him to create a still life as an elegy to the recent deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. In the works from his two sojourns in Malaysia, he painted several of his most dazzling landscapes. A series of cosmogonic still lifes produced reveries, influenced by the indigenous pre-Islamic shamanism then being studied by his medical anthropologist wife, Carol, that are closer to the work of Joseph Cornell than to any other artist. He rejected the geometry of perspective for the vagaries of the perceptual curvature of space. For him, it was never merely topological but a necessary vehicle for emotion, for a powerful sense of fatality. There is also an airless Laderman light — harsh, cool, sometimes an acid pink or a yellow that establishes a hypnagogic state where time flows vertically and shadows take on an aggressive presence.
Gabriel’s later work, his magnificent group figure compositions, some of them based on the mysteries of George Simenon, made the suppressed intensity of his cooler earlier work explicit, almost expressionistic. In hugely ambitious works like The House of Death and Life (1984-85) or The Dance of Death (1995-96) he created complex, layered works that are closer to the plays of Edward Albee than to any contemporary painter attempting visual narrative. To those who knew the artist these explosive works were pure Gabriel, the man manifest.
In fact many of these late works were rooted in lived experience: Gabriel and his wife Carol witnessed a murder during a robbery on the Upper West Side; a dancer who modeled for him was killed and eaten by a madman in the East Village; his wife suffered a near fatal stoke. And a second stroke, while she slept, took her life last May. For more than twenty-four years Gabriel battled leukemia, the destruction of his liver by years of chemo therapy and a serious compromising of his immune system that led to recurring respiratory infections. After his spleen was removed, he had to live his last years with a herniated abdominal wall that continued to enlarge. And yet, only in his final months did he acknowledge that he had become an invalid. And one never saw a trace of self-pity. What one did see instead was a remarkable zeal to go on, to make another work, to live another day. A courageous stoicism, a determination to face things as they are, lay at the heart of what drove both his art and his teaching.