The Eulogizer: Art world deaths — leading painter, critic and sculptor
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The Eulogizer: Art world deaths — leading painter, critic and sculptor

JERUSALEM (JTA) – The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Gabriel Laderman, 81, painter

Gabriel Laderman, an artist and critic who became a leader in drawing attention back to figurative art after decades of abstractionist, pop and conceptual works, died March 10 in New York at 81.

David Carbone, art historian at the University of Albany, in an essay for a major 2008 retrospective of Laderman’s work at the University of New Hampshire Museum of Art, “Gabriel Laderman: Unconventional Realist,” wrote that as “figuration” re-entered the mainstream of contemporary art, Laderman “is being celebrated as one of the most challenging and outstanding painters of the last half century” and was “an early and important model as an artist, critic, and theorist for peers and younger painters.”

Laderman rejected abstract expressionism and collage but brought their post-modern, late 20th century “structural and metaphoric thinking” to representational art.

University of Virginia art historian Lincoln Perry, in an essay for the 2008 retrospective, fit Laderman into the context of his times: “In New York’s art world from the 1960s to the ’80s, people seemed to either love or hate Gabriel Laderman. He could be so overpowering, his opinions so well informed and thought out, his delivery so articulate and often so loud that you couldn’t just ignore him. Of course, his work spoke very clearly for itself, and still does.”

Laderman began his art career in what had become the “conventional” manner in the postwar era by learning from Paul Klee’s “Pedagogical Sketchbook,” studying with leading abstract expressionist Hans Hofman, becoming friends with Willem De Kooning, and studying with Mark Rothko at Brooklyn College.

The New York Times wrote that Laderman’s “artistic conversion took place while he studied in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship in the early 1960s” and viewed the work of artists like Signorelli and Mantegna.

Back in New York, Laderman became associated with the Alliance of Figurative Artists, Prince Street Gallery and other lower New York haunts of the era’s primarily Jewish art and literary cognoscenti.

The New Republic art critic Jed Perl, in the course of a lengthy and laudatory review of Laderman’s work and life, wrote that no believed in art more fervently than Laderman.

“He was a modern man who abhorred the modern orthodoxies, a pluralist and a classicist, in artistic matters wildly promiscuous and unyieldingly rigorous," Perl wrote. He added, "Need I add that he was a New York Jew, almost arrogant about his Brooklyn beginnings? The mind was razor-sharp, Talmudic. The appetite for argument was instinctive, obsessive.”

In his own blog, Laderman wrote once of how he responded to a question about the Jewish influences — or the lack thereof — in his work: “There is nothing overtly Jewish about the work. Unlike some of the better American Jewish writers, I do not have an autobiographical need in painting. And I have done no subject matter paintings about a specifically Jewish subject.”

But Laderman said he drew a Jewish connection to his work through his father, who left the Chasidic tradition at 18 in Poland after failing to perform "a great wonder for all, with no selfish thoughts, through what amounts to religious magic.” His father became a socialist and union organizer, including time as the representative to the American labor movement of the Histadrut.

“Although I am neither very political nor someone who aspires to do Jewish art, I do mean to do something useful with my work," Laderman said. "I hope that the experience of the works will rub off on the observer and help with his/her psyche by giving it new paths to travel. … I am someone who believes that good art can do good.”

Additional art world deaths: Leo Steinberg, critic, 90; Roy Gussow, sculptor, 92

Leo Steinberg, who The New York Times called “one of the most brilliant, influential and controversial art historians of the last half of the 20th century,” died March 13 at his home in Manhattan at 90.

Abstract sculptor Roy Gussow, a Brooklyn native “whose polished stainless-steel works with swooping contours gleam in public squares and corporate spaces,” The New York Times wrote, died Feb. 11 at 92.

In a personal note about her father written to The Eulogizer, Jill Gussow, herself an artist, wrote that “My father embodied some of the most important aspects of Judaism in his life and in his art. He was an artist and a teacher. The tradition of teaching, examining, being mindful of one’s actions and one’s place in the world — I feel these are the culturally Jewish attributes that he believed in and lived."

She added, “Teaching was very much a part of everyday life in our house. There were always discussions at dinner time which could be quite intimidating to the uninitiated. Asking questions, being challenged to think about something in a different way, re-examining the obvious, redefining the accepted, refining definitions, discussing the small details and the broad questions and finally seeing oneself in the bigger picture was a norm for our family. It was played out so often that by the time I was in art school, the fierce critiques that I had heard about that left students in tears seemed tame to me. … Though this may not be strictly Jewish in nature, I believe it has the flavor of Judaism — the intense study of the Torah, using the Torah as a basis for looking at the world, for solving problems, for interpreting and reinterpreting. One never finishes the Torah. One never stops questioning.”