I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Marshall Blonsky More than anyone else today, you’re regarded as the presiding genius of contemporary magazines. As Editorial Director of Condé Nast you brought your culture and your style, your sense of high as well as popular art, to bear on the problem of wildly popular magazines such as Vogue and House and Garden, Vanity Fair, Self. But you are also a highly accomplished painter and sculptor in your own right and your art is expressive of the themes and concerns of modernism, most specifically its sense of spiritual isolation. Before we examine some of the issues raised on these two sides of your career, I wonder if you could tell us about your beginnings and formation as an artist?
Alexander Liberman Do you want me to start with childhood? Well, I suppose my whole involvement with art started in my mother’s mind. She was always deeply involved with artists and painters, always attracted to theater. My earliest childhood memories, from when I was about four, is of a famous painter in St. Petersburg painting my mother’s portrait, and she would call me in from the nursery and say come and squeeze the paints. I think she had made up her mind by then that I would be a painter. I must say, I had no particular interest at the time. A few years later, I was very much impressed by the visual impact of the Revolution. All the great marches through the Nevsky Prospect with red banners, gigantic red banners. Quite frightening things in the street, the Czar’s portrait being burned. Of course, St. Petersburg was a very beautiful city, there were the cathedrals and, in them, extraordinary mosaics or frescoes. The city was filled with palaces that a child would be awed by. Then in 1917 we left for Moscow, and there life became much more involved because it was then that my mother was given a theatre of her own. It was the first state children’s theater. There was a great famine and the government thought it was wise policy to entertain and distract children. For two or three years my whole life revolved around the stage. I would see maquettes, I would see props being built, I would see scenery changes between acts. I’d be constantly present and involved. I was only eight years old. I was, of course, taken to the Opera and I remember hearing Chaliapin sing at the Bolshoi. Then in 1921 my father was able to take me out of Russia to England. In England, I would say, the artistic life didn’t count for much, I was disoriented. One thing I forgot to say, when I was still in Moscow my father brought from one of his trips, the earliest model vest-pocket Kodak. So from the age of seven I had already been involved in picture-taking. I went to an English prep school and one of the interesting things about such schools is that there are craft lessons, you work in a carpentry workshop, you’re taught to make boxes or other simple things. Still, you understand structure, you learn to use your hands and you learn, I think, to pay great attention to finish and detail. So I have a long-lasting gratitude for this instruction. Then during the summer, my mother would drag me through all the museums of Italy and she would also have this strange passion for collecting copies of paintings. It must have been the period, the thing to do in 1921 or ’22, to have the great masters copied, although not exactly in the same scale as the originals. But in our studio house in London we had many masterpieces of Italian painting hanging on the walls, from Titian on—all copied.
MB Did Constructivism attract you before you left Russia?
AL I mentioned seeing the revolutionary slogans and the processions. All this, the propaganda on the walls and even the stage sets were very Constructivist and very Cubist. It was all influenced by Picasso at the time. It was also the Russian theater, the time of (Meyerhold, Exter, Popova) and, of course, I saw most of it. An indelible imprint. After England, we went to Paris. My mother had a great friend and admirer, the painter Alexander Yacovleff whose drawings I much admired. He’s the perfect draftsman, like many Russians. In Paris, through my mother, I was involved with artists, writers, critics and, of course, was taken to museums. Then, in 1925, the great Exposition des Arts Decoratifs came to Paris, which was the real breakthrough in visual arts in France, and I remember particularly the Soviet pavilion which was architecturally very advanced. By that time my mother had her Paris apartment decorated by an avant-garde architect, it was in the style I think, of Le Courbusier. All parallel walls one color, all other walls another color, very systematic, the furniture extremely cubist. I was sent to school in the provinces of France and there was a wonderful art course taught by a French art teacher who encouraged me very much and I loved it. Which gave me courage. But academic studies were very rigorous so most of my time went into studying. I leaned towards philosophy and metaphysics. I received a very strong religious influence there and became involved in Protestantism. A very extraordinary pastor who was Calvinist took a great interest in me and opened my mind to religion—and I’d say that a whole metaphysical and religious formation started in that school. So I think a lot of my life came from this school. There was a concept of purity, a concept of being faithful … all of this was drilled into us. It was the Ecole de Roches, in Normandy, about two hours from Paris. When I first went there, well France was like that, whenever the Bishop of Evreux would come on a visit all the non-Catholics were sent away on a picnic so he wouldn’t see any heretics, this was 1923, ’24. After passing my bachot I decided architecture as I envisioned it then would give me a more solid base for painting. I went to the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture because Auguste Perret taught there. He was the first man to get involved with reinforced concrete and seemed to be the most daring architect in France. At the same time, I took painting courses with Andre Lhote who was then considered to have the best modern art academy in Monteparnasse. He was a very influential but pedantic teacher. I transferred to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts Architecture because at the time it was the only place offering an official diploma which you needed to practice architecture in France. Meanwhile, I think this was 1929, my father had lost money and I had to earn a living. I worked on renderings for an architect who designed gardens. I also designed book bindings, window displays, newspaper typography, and store catalogues.
MB In the meantime you had gotten your degree?
AL I didn’t get the degree. I stayed two years in the Beaux-Arts and then an important thing happened. One summer in the south of France we were staying in a small pension and A. M. Cassandre, the great poster and graphic artist, was staying there too. He was of Russian origin and I was of Russian origin and so we spoke and I asked him if I could do his portrait. He liked the portrait and suggested that in the fall I come and work for him in his atelier. So I attended the Beaux-Arts in the mornings and in the afternoons I’d go and work for Cassandre in Versailles. That was his great period. After a while he more or less fired me, actually encouraged me to leave. He said he really needed a nègre, that’s a French expression for a slave, someone who would just execute his ideas. I could see his point. So I left him and at that time my mother had a friend from a great family of publishers and editors, Lucien Vogel, who started the first illustrated magazine, Vu. Having heard I worked with Cassandre—Cassandre’s a magic name—he said that I must come and work in his art department. I dropped everything and worked at Vu, first as an art director and later on as managing editor. I did a lot of work with photography, sometimes my own, but principally choosing photographs, working on layouts, composing photomontages and designing covers. Meanwhile, photography interested me a great deal. At that time, I was working with all the great photographers Vogel had brought in, some I’d brought in later …
MB Such as?
AL Brassai, Kertesz, Man Ray, Blumenfeld, Tabard, Solomon, you name them, Baron De Meyer. Everybody. Really everybody. Robert Capa … This lasted until about 1936. Behind it all was always a deep feeling about art, the visual expression through photography and through layout of what my visual dreams were. I did some painting on the side.
MB Vu was very socially concerned.
AL Yes. Vu was, I would say, very left of center. And, of course, it was accused of being Communist by the extreme right. It was very much involved with events of the 1930s: the constant riots by the Fascists, Hitler’s coming to power, the Spanish Civil War, Soviet Russia. All of this, frankly, created a climate that I didn’t enjoy. First of all it was a horrendous amount of work, night stints, weekend changes, which made it difficult to find any time to do my own painting. I realized that magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair existed even when I was working on Vu, and they became my dream.
MB As a kind of refuge?
AL As a refuge and ideal world. As a refuge from the horrors that were all around. I was always attracted to America, read American magazines, watched American films. Somehow, I felt a very deep link, an interest in America. Because of my schooling in England I felt close to English culture. Also, it happened that Vogel was involved with Vogue as one of the original founders in 1916. The studios of Vogue in Paris were on the same floor as the Vu office. So there was an interesting interchange. The head of Condé Nast in Paris was a close friend of Vogel … it was a very interwoven story.
MB So the war and the events leading up to it had a very strong effect on you, leading to your coming to America, where you joined Condé Nast.
AL There’s no question I had a very serious moment in my life when the war started and Hitler came to power. I couldn’t paint. Art seemed very unimportant. I was going to be mobilized, called in by the French army. By the time they got to me, though, France had fallen. So my mother and I fled to a little house we owned in the south of France. My father had gone to America in 1938 so we were able to join him. My mother came first and I came in 1941 along with my future wife Tatiana du Plessix and her daughter, Francine. Vogel had arrived here and was already working with Condé Nast but he couldn’t speak English, so he told Condé that he needed Liberman. Condé was very excited by the fact that I had this journalistic background. I became Art Director of Vogue in, I think, 1943. I was Art Editor before that. I tried to bring to this luxury album that was Vogue, some of the excitement, reality, and journalistic techniques I had worked on for so many years.
After what I’d been through, Vogue seemed like a dream. Perhaps there was a materialistic element, but I felt that I’d love to work on a magazine that was not involved in the horrors of life, that was not involved in the nightmares of the world, that is involved with attractiveness, with beauty, a certain peace.
As I said, all the best photographers at that time were published in Vu and because it was a news magazine, most of them were action photographers. Everything was based on the small camera so it would be more natural. All these things began to coincide. Clothes were beginning to move. The life of the American woman began to change. I don’t say I’m the one who introduced action photography into fashion because I think Condé himself encouraged Tom Frisell and even Munkaci, but these were sporadic efforts and I was able to strengthen them. I was excited by that. I’d always considered magazine layout related to films. I was a film critic at Vu and had made films on art in 1938. There is a flow in turning pages, in going from one image to another similar to the montage, the cutting of film. I always considered myself, in a way, a director of a weekly or monthly film.
MB What film directors most affected your way of seeing, your way of putting a magazine together?
AL I go back to Griffith, Eisenstein, Buñuel, the surrealist films. I’m not even sure it’s directors. It’s the film itself, the camera … I learned to like the anonymity of the image. From the beginning, having worked with war photography, pictures of riots, the secret pictures Eric Salomon used to take from keyholes of Mussolini or diplomats bargaining or whatever … this catching life as if unobserved always fascinated me. Also, the whole influence of American films was very strong in France. There was life, there was action, there were dynamics. And this sort of communication of energy had a lasting effect on the way I think of magazines. I have always spoken of magazines being energy pills. I think there’s a subliminal reality in them, and people don’t even realize it. The drive and the energy of a magazine like Vogue … corresponds to the American tempo. The traditional tempo of fashion used to be a slow tempo. That tempo has changed. There was a speed-up of civilization, in design. A lot of it could come from juxtaposition, from rhythm, from contrast, from color sensations. There are many things that give tempo. Typography too. Type, street posters, the whole street scene has always fascinated me. Just as film is communication, photography is communication, typography is communication and for me all this comes together in a magazine. Even today, I’ve had front pages of the News when it was very dynamic or the Post pinned on the walls of the art department, to jolt. The thing that I hate most is something I call visions of loveliness. This used to be the dream world where fashionable ladies wore hats at work. A big change occurred in Vogue with the war. American fashion was on its own. Paris was cut off. The war effort started, women went into war industries, the whole attitude, way of dressing, way of life changed. Vogue had a war correspondent and even published Lee Miller’s photographs of the atrocities at Buchenwald. Nobody realizes how dramatically serious … Vogue was always thought of as trivia, an old-fashioned magazine. I couldn’t have been involved in a trivial magazine. To this day I feel Vogue has a mission of bettering human life. That’s on a high level, but I think it’s had its impact.
MB What, exactly, is its mission?
AL At our best, I think we can provide powerful backing to the most innovative forces in culture, in style, disseminate values. We run serious articles on politics, art, religion, the great events, as well as on health, men and women, and above all fashion, lifestyle, you know—Vogue. I couldn’t be involved with a magazine that had no moral background.
I have, in a curious way never felt that I was involved in fashion, fashion was a given, an abstraction, and in the old days I used to say jokingly, “It’s marvelous to get paid to say this girl is prettier than this girl.” I mean, it’s a dream situation, I think, for a man. This is what choosing fashion photographs came to, for me. Fashion was never chosen by me. It’s still not chosen by me. I don’t go to collections. I’m not involved with the fashion world. It’s abstract, a pretext.
MB So in a sense, fashion and these other concerns are the elements, the components with which you work.
AL All the elements, I think I can arrange, compose is too strong a word. Or structure, to combine. First of all I ask the editors what they have in mind. And then I think what is the strongest or the most original way for it to be put on the page that still stays within a certain subconscious framework of a given publication because I think each publication has to have its individuality and maybe my luck is that I’m flexible. For me it’s a great rest, it’s like traveling in different countries, going from one magazine to another. This one has this style and another one has that style and we function within those styles. And the most important thing after the individual pages have been solved, is to put it all together on the board, like putting a film together.
MB When you said a minute ago, that you work within a subconscious framework do you mean that the concept of the magazine mustn’t be explicit, that it has to be gentle?
AL It has to be gentle versus another phenomenon that’s happened. There’s no longer an authoritarian approach to fashion. The day is gone when skirts had to be a certain length and Vogue was the Bible. That authority has changed. Vogue chooses and submits but it doesn’t say to a woman, “This is the only way to look and if you don’t dress like this you’re out of it.” Women are freer and freer and have opinions and exercise their choices.
MB So Vogue provides a kind of reservoir of options.
AL Reservoir of options, that’s very good. Underlying it is Vogue‘s judgment, the taste of the fashion editors. Vogue is a family, a group of human beings with a common purpose. I think making life more attractive and also helping women experience life more fully. The magazine reflects the development of American women’s minds. But we must never forget the delight of fashion, the pleasure, the amusement, the beauty of women. One of the things I think I’ve helped do is focus on what really is important and good. This is one of the areas I feel happy with. In the old days, the 1930s, what was considered art by Vogue were drawings by fashion artists or the more superficial aspects of art. They published a classical Picasso here and there, but it was a magazine for a moneyed elite so everything was there to please that strata of society. Circulation was small, about 100,000 or 75,000. But now it’s 1,400,000. When I arrived here from Europe I was deeply interested in seeing the creative development of everything that was happening visually in America. I’ve always had great respect for real art, and I considered a lot of the art used in fashion magazines as ersatz art not real art. I tried, sometimes it backfired. I tried to have Duchamp design a cover. He never forgave me because we didn’t use it, he cut out a profile of George Washington and put gauze inside the profile and stained it with red ink, but it was too daring for the time and perhaps too iconoclastic. I commissioned illustrations from Joseph Cornell, Dalí, and Chagall, among others. I went to exhibitions and saw a lot of refugee artists who’d come to America. At Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery there were lots of influences that were very stimulating. Little by little there was a gestation in me. I think Vogue was perhaps the first major magazine to publish pictures of the Abstract Expressionists. In the early ’50s we considered them to be the great new art. We published an article about Betty Parsons and the artists in her gallery, including Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. We were the first magazine to publish Pollock. However, in order to get Pollock into the magazine I had to ask Cecil Beaton to photograph some fashions in front of his paintings. I tried to bring life into the magazine. If I was given hats, I would try to invent ways of say, putting a Brancusi sculpture in the margin of the same page because they were being exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art or Janis. Soon we were publishing articles about artists and Vogue became a medium for serious art. I tried to use not only fashion photographers to photograph fashion, Mili, Bruce Davidson, etc. We published Irving Penn’s photograph of John Cage’s Prepared Piano, we commissioned the young Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to build sets for one of our photographic sittings. Some people used to say Vogue was the best art magazine in the country. We did more for art in those days. In a way, there was a very strong link between my involvement with my own art and my ability to present and encourage what I considered the great art of the period in the magazine.
MB This brings us to the other aspect of your creative career, your own work as a painter and sculptor. Do you feel a split in yourself, a compartmentalization between Liberman the fine artist and Liberman the editor?
AL Frankly, no. You can’t be, you’re one person. But I think what carries over are ideals. I have certain ideals about life. I have certain ideals about art and I have, perhaps an exulted concept of realms of art, and realms of life. I somehow would like to help make this world a better place through communication of ideas, of visions or experience in what we publish and in what I do in my own work. I think that is the deep underlying link.
MB Could you give an example of what you mean when you speak about realms of taste or ideals.
AL Well, I suppose you can’t quite apply them to magazines, but still, I have a very deep seated ideal of woman and somehow I feel we’re on this earth to have a relation with women, at least that’s my ideal. This ideal of woman, maybe it’s a form of worship … I’m enormously interested in the deep underlying motives of human beings. I studied philosophy, after all, even if I’m not a philosopher. I’ve been very preoccupied, if that’s the word, with myths and the sort of deep-seated longings of humanity, and I think there are certainly eternal values to touch on, or to attempt to touch, attempt to reveal, through art.
MB Which myths of longings obsessed you?
AL I suppose the more obvious ones, the Greek myths, as a matter of fact. Many years after I got obsessed with it I went to Greece and did a book called Greece, Gods, and Art, published in 1968 by Viking. It consists of my photographs of the sacred areas and sculptures of Greece and of course, the architecture. I suppose the attempt to express these myths can be read as art. I was always involved in art and, I hoped, the higher forms of art. I always hoped in some way to bring to our civilization, or to reveal again, the heroic, the monumental, the worshipful, if that is the correct word …
MB … the tragic?
AL … the tragic. I have attempted that in my monumental sculpture. I didn’t do them just to make them big. I really feel, you see, I don’t make a small maquette before I plunge into the big sculpture. I love working with the elements, with actual scale however big. And, of course, in all of this I believe there’s an enormous importance in environment, in nature. I can look at the rocks of Connecticut, of Ischia or Vesuvius or … I’m fascinated by the cataclysmic remains that still exist around us. In order to do what I’ve dreamed of doing on a noble, grand scale I needed a certain security and security comes, in our lives, with earning a livelihood. I have not been able to be as ruthless as some artists I have known, who are willing to see their families starve or who can still create in spite of terrible hardship. I must say I feel I have to have a certain security, maybe even a certain luxury for reassurance. I frankly believe basically all artists enjoy luxury and it’s a terrible fallacy that the artist has to go through some hazing or even hang himself in order for his work to be appreciated or go up in value. Part of our life is spent resisting or winning over this unjust concept.
MB When the war ended was it possible for you to start painting again?
AL From 1939 to 1945 I couldn’t even face art because of the war and the Holocaust. I was rejected by the army because of ulcers. When the war came to an end, I felt relieved and out of danger. I think that sense of present danger probably stifled me for many, many years. So then I began painting again, frankly, very badly. I started, I suppose, by being a Sunday painter. When I say Sundays, I started on Saturday and worked through Sunday. My wife, Tatiana, and I already had the little house on East 70th Street we have now. I used the library of the house to work in—still lifes, landscapes. In many ways I called it working through my admirations. The way Matisse always spoke. So some looked like poor Picassos and some looked like poor Braques. Meanwhile, on my trips to Europe, I had started a big project documenting the studios of the great artists whom I’d admired. I had felt that their studios, their workrooms and their methods, their tools were never paid attention to, and all biographies were very abstract. I thought it was very important for future artists, and for myself, to document photographically and perhaps in text … so this was really an anthropological project. But also, to see how my life would have been different had I lived the full life of an artist. Of course I admired many of the artists I met profoundly, I wouldn’t want to be any of them, though.
MB But why?
AL Well, I found a great sadness and a real tragic quality.
MB In the concrete situations in which they worked?
AL Yes, but also in their lives. I had a different feeling about art in those days, about everything, of course. I concentrated on French artists, most of them lived and worked in very cramped circumstances. They painted in smallish rooms. Bonnard painted in a small room in a tiny villa. Cezanne had a larger studio but it was not big enough, he had to knock down a wall to get a painting out. Giacometti worked in a tiny space which was incredible.
MB Because they were poor?
AL Because they were very poor, some of them. But also I think many of them had a fetishism. This was the way they worked. Braque, when I knew him, was better off. Being in America, I saw the scale and the scope of American thinking, I had already seen the big canvases of Pollock. In Europe, artists I saw for my book were continuing the great tradition of easel painting. It took Dubuffet’s coming to America in 1952 for me to see his work. I went to see him working in a loft and he was pouring acrylic and all sorts of plastic paints and liquids and working on the floor on wood. All these were tremendous breakthroughs. Pollock working on the floor on duck canvas 18 or 20 feet long, Barnett Newman painting paintings 18 feet long. Suddenly, this European art world seemed very conformist, very closed in …
MB Passé is the word …
AL Yes, of another generation, but I thought it was important to document. Picasso, of course, in his grandeur, taking a whole abandoned factory and having each room—one for sculpture, one for painting, etc. But it lacked scale, and there was a tragic sadness. Very few had worked in metal, or if they did it became a precious object. Although there were the bronzes of Giacometti. But it was all rather traditional based on representation and there were no abstract breakthroughs, the breakthrough was here. But I had at least documented the Europeans in my book, The Artist in His Studio, which came out in 1960. There was a show at the Museum of Modern Art of my photographs from the book.
MB I understand some of the negative impact of what you saw. What did you see, that is in the course of making The Artist and His Studio, that positively or negatively effected your own working procedures as an artist?
AL It took me away from the easel and oil paint. When I saw Pollock paint with Duco, and the availability in America of industrial materials, this was a tremendous encouragement. I was very naive. I thought if it’s for industry it must be permanent, it must be guaranteed perfect. I never realized that the white paint for industry would turn yellow and that plaster board wasn’t plaster board. I thought it was all sacred, I had such worship of the industrial might of America. I did not think about obsolescence. I was working against composition, against trompe l’oeil, against perspective, against reality, and this is probably where my training in philosophy and mysticism and theology came forward. I thought the circle had a mystical value. I had read Kandinsky, and I was anxious to communicate deeper feelings or greater feelings through abstraction.
MB So it would not at all be fair to say that the period in which you were involved with the circle, in your own paintings was a perfect and composed period?
AL No, absolutely not. It was all very much based on movement. I was interested in creating a mental gymnastic. Hegel, I think, postulates thesis and antithesis. My attempt was to create a solution in the spectator’s brain by placing thesis next to antithesis. All of these paintings, or most of these, were done on separate masonite panels. I call these works gymnastics of the mind, forcing the eye to travel. This was to establish a rhythm, a beat, this was to create movement through absence … I tried to make an electric version of this. I was an avid reader of Scientific American and was passionately interested in cybernetics at the time, there came a moment where I was getting deeper and deeper into semi-scientific research. I felt I had to abandon this because scientists could do it much better. I had perhaps traced a possible direction and I stopped.
MB And then the random throw came into your process of painting.
AL I had always been involved in chance. I read the I Ching. The whole idea of the throw. Gravitation played a role, attraction of systems. I was involved with a very intense order of life.
MB How did you create chance?
AL I bought poker chips of two colors—one set was all black and then I just threw them. I put tracing paper over it and traced and then filled it in with color. I tried to pour and throw paint. Then, of course, little by little, I was very much involved with … the relationship between bosoms, face, behind, and the torso. I understood Matisse was very much involved with that, too, and so was Picasso. There is a duality: behind the absolutely immaterial is the other side, the eroticism and reality. Later, when I went into sculpture, Space was my first real sculpture done in 1950—this was a translation of an erotic act. I don’t know if I should explain all these things. Again, how to express one of the underlying visual driving forces? Then I was involved in temples, with the oracle, something mysteriously glimpsed, not quite understood, not quite visible.
MB What did color mean to you at that time? That really intense color you used?
AL Color for me has always been a problem because I find color in a deep sense weakens a work. For myself, many of the strongest works in almost any artist’s oeuvre are black and white—Guernica, Goya’s etchings, for instance, or Pollock’s black and white drips. That’s why I used to collect drawings of artists I liked or met or admired, and I love drawings. Of course, in the hands of someone like Matisse or Barnett Newman, the color is magnificent, but I wasn’t ready yet for color. I was experimenting with the flow of color in a painting like In Between (1964) and this is what started the throwing. There was a constant underplay of the mystical experience. I was fascinated, after having worked with the circles for so many years, about why the word God is really based on circular forms. I tried several drawings. Moses’s tablets had a circular aspect, which I sought to represent in The Law (1963).
MB Why do you think Moses’s tabernacles are arched?
AL I think a lot of religious forms have a deep erotic symbolism. The Torah with the two handles sticking out. It all has somehow for me, a very curious … nobody wants to explain it.
MB When you read the Torah, you hold it firmly by the two rolls, it’s very much a part of the experience.
AL Well, all of these religious mysteries or whatever they should be called, are for me inspiration, the real subjective matter of serious art—the Cosmogenies, the Birth of the World. I call my paintings by Greek names, and I spent two summers photographing Greek gods, art, and temples. My deep preoccupation with the mystical undercore of human existence and of creative existence has never left me.
MB Which we’re now disconnected from in the secular age.
AL Well, I think we’ve lost track. I felt it was the role of serious art to bring this to a realization through modern means. In my opinion, the old religious paintings have lost much of their initial power. They became enchanting story-telling illustrations. Perhaps through abstraction one could go quicker to the essential meaning of things. I studied prehistoric sculptures, I went to look at temples and in all this there was a life-giving force. The divine spark. My paintings from the mid-1960s, like Eyes of Flesh, were paintings of penetration. Let’s say, a phallic symbol entering a female symbol, those were the principles I was subconsciously working with.
MB Was it unconscious at that time?
AL Well, you start with a thought or just an instinctive longing, but when you execute art, sometimes it becomes unconscious. I’d always think of the cloud in which God floats on the Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. That’s where my forms come from. For me, all of this is very classical, a work such as Link I (1966) is very involved with cabalistic things. When I say I got involved, I’m not saying I spent two years studying it, I didn’t. Perhaps I really superficially tried to extract what I thought was meaningful. You see, I believed in going back to a message from God. Usually I felt that message had to come from above. Like the writing on the wall at Nebuchadnezzar’s feast … So the paintings at that time had that message. I don’t know what that message is exactly, all I could do was follow my obsession and that is why the triangle in Invisible Order (1970), for instance, is inverted because the message comes from above and is communicated by an arrow like directional form to below and …
MB We don’t know what the message is? We don’t know its content?
AL We don’t know. It’s not for us to know, it is impossible to put into words that is why we paint and sculpt. I think … Then I got involved, I’ve always looked at geological formations and Ischia, where I spent many, many summers, and these were perhaps some of my more abstract paintings done in a very thick media, I suppose this is related to the sea and the chance movement of waves. And then there was a question of eruptions, the upheavals of the earth. Ischia was near Vesuvius, volcano-land. I got involved in lava textures, inventing new aspects of matter. I poured paint dust into gesso and watched it dry and crackle. I left all the cracks, I who had suffered from all my paintings cracking when I used oils, now purposely enjoyed creating a material that would give me a chance pattern of cracks. There was a big central form, often surrounded by a certain blackness. In a way, it was like entering a cave, and little by little this form became more definite.
MB The blackness?
AL The blackness surrounding a central form. Then this turned into sculpture. I went to Greece. My Greek photographs were taken after I’d dreamt about Greece, you see. This was in me before.
MB Dreamed about Greece?
AL Oh, yes, dreamed about Greece, read about Greece. Anything that had to do with myth always interested me because I had a feeling there was a hidden lesson that we had forgotten. Then I discovered welding which for me was a great discovery.
MB What caused the transition?
AL On vacation in the late ’40s, in our house in the south of France, the husband of our maid was a metal worker and he took me to his shop one day. He built railings and things like that. He asked me if I wanted to try welding, so I did. I knew from that moment on that I had to weld. Later, my daughter Francine married painter Cleve Gray and went to live in Connecticut, so my wife and I stayed with them quite a lot. There I started welding on my own using discarded junk metal.
MB What about welding attracted someone with an aesthetic eye and a hand such as yours?
AL First of all, it was a throw, it was very much an element of chance. It was this extraordinary spark, you could assemble all sorts of things thrown into space. My first sculptures are really things thrown into space, and held together. At that time I had no money and my needs were small, I could only use discarded materials—junk—that I would find in Connecticut. My son-in-law gave me the first $5,000 to buy metal. Then I discovered gas tanks, glorious rusty cylinders that hark back to my circular forms. These I sort of knew how to use.
MB What were you going to do with all this?
AL Many of these things, like Icon II (1972) were prayer altars, sacred precincts, which in many ways were still guided by the erotic principle. Someone, I think it was John Russell, once called my sculpture “erotic artillery.” I think that applies particularly to the giant pieces. And these sacred precincts are visions for performance areas, for rituals. There could be a priest standing there, the chorus singing. One of my first big sculptures, commissioned by Philip Johnson for the New York World’s Fair, is again the erotic abstracted. For many summers, 20 summers, I got involved with Michelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome, I photographed the statue of Marcus Aurelius there from every possible angle. I was obsessed with the relationship of the sculpture to its environment, which is one of the most perfect in the world.
MB What relation, if any, can exist between Aurelius photographed from every angle possible …
AL I don’t know. All I can say is maybe the gesture, the extension of that arm raised, that horse’s hoof. But there’s this tension between the cavalier and that horse, and then there’s the stability, this duality, between man and the architecture. There’s a duality in everything I do, the smooth and tire broken, the crushed and the smooth.
MB Why did you choose to use glossy red for many of the sculptures?
AL You have to paint, otherwise steel will rust and disappear in years, it’s sometimes thin metal. I used red because, first of all, it stands out against the gray of cities, that’s the primary reason. Also, I just like red. I think red increases the dynamics of form. I attempt as much as I can in my sculptures to have a sense of elevation, of thrust, directional thrust. Just as my triangles communicated a message from above, well, maybe the public sculptures will communicate a message from above. By asking the spectator to literally look up.
MB Going from below to above. We’ve really now entered into your impulse toward monumentality, toward operatic, theatrical qualities.
AL Well, you see these qualities come, to a certain extent from commissions, for instance On High (1977–80) is in New Haven, and the budget was very small, but the architects kept saying, “Make something big.” Make something big because they’d like something to count and complement their building. They didn’t want a little brooch on the dress, as somebody said. Also, working in the Connecticut space, working with cities, working with plazas, gives you the means to risk, to really confront scale
MB All of this later sculpture is concerned with profoundly metaphysical themes, as if they were striving for something sublime and transcendental.
AL Well, art that interests me is an attempt at the sublime, you bring up the word, but I must say I was very influenced in my creative life by my friend Barnett Newman who really faced the sublime. But it would be ridiculous to say that all my work is involved with the sublime—there are many, many works that are involved with play, form, space, and even chance. Often this is a start and it may evolve into something more serious.
MB I interviewed a director of a gallery recently who said the age that we live in, the post-modern, is so constructed with artifice and messages coming from media that we’ve lost contact with our feelings and have lost interest in anything like nature, the sublime. In some sense then, you’re opposed to this state of affairs.
AL I am. It’s really art against nature, to a certain point. The sublime used to be vested in nature, and I think now it can be vested in art—but more than that, great art needs passion.
MB So obviously you would not accept the so-called Post-Modern condition.
AL It’s tradition and at the same time a revolt against it that still governs my creative thinking.
MB How do you think of that tradition in relation to mysticism?
AL Well, for me it’s mysterious and unexplainable. I think many religions have tried to explain too much. I am afraid of the word sublime—for the artist it does not consciously exist—it can only be an unacknowledged aspiration of his inner being. There is a thirst for the sublime that, in my opinion, is closer to that tradition, which involved a relationship with God, with no intermediaries. I think an artist needs this.
MB That reminds me of what the French philosopher Emanuel Levinas calls the concept of the marvel.
AL Exactly, the marvel.
MB I wanted to ask your conception of the role of sculpture in a public space.
AL Well, I think we go back to this feeling of awe and an arresting presence that makes people stop, pause, hesitate, feel, think.
MB Of that which is other than “they”?
AL As you say, other than “they.” That which draws them from the reality of everyday life and hopefully leads them towards the highest feelings, be it religious, I hope, or … that’s it. When you spoke of the operatic quality of some of my work I was thinking that I like opera because it has the exacerbated cries of anguish that most of the time are not allowed in human life. It’s not only opera. I think many works of art are screams, and I identify with screams.
MB Well, that leads me back to our other topic, that is your other life. You work on behalf of a product that clearly does not have a tradition of a scream to it, but rather of exuberance.
AL Well, I suppose I don’t want to die like many of the artists I’ve seen die. I think it’s a buffer and a protective coating that allows me to survive. Also, in many ways its helped me judge real values from false values. In fashion, in publishing, there is an element of theater, of entertainment!
I think there’s a hierarchy in creativity. When people speak of the art of couture, the art of photography, all the so-called arts, I then think of what I consider the real art, it puts me in my place and I can take, without disparaging it in any way, my magazine work lightly. If I have to decide how to communicate information and where possible give pleasure, I do not put my soul into that decision. It’s a professional decision. With magazines there’s this great relief that there are due dates. Things have to go, perfect or not perfect. You’ve done your best and they’re gone. But the decision of should I put this metal plate or this color an inch higher or an inch lower is a torment of days, if not a permanent torment. There are sculptures that have gone, but I still wonder if I moved this or that … I consider nothing ever finished, nothing ever really perfect.
Marshall Blonsky has been involved in the teaching of semiotics and in research into its repercussions on commercial and cultural life. He is on the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York. On Signs, edited by Marshall Blonsky and published by The John Hopkins University Press made the 1985 non-fiction bestseller list. He is currently at work on a forthcoming book on the topic of post-modernism.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee