Bruce Lieberman: 'East End' at Gallery North

Painter Bruce Lieberman's exhibition East End is about many of things: among them are his daily life on Long Island, his endless experimentation with paint and his need to "escape" from the pressures of the world. Bold, brash, broadly brushed and energetic, Lieberman's canvases display both the painterly confidence he has developed in over 30+ years of painting, and also his continuing commitment to the idea of experience as an aesthetic gateway.

I recently spoke to Bruce Lieberman about his life, his influences and his work.

John Seed Interviews Bruce Lieberman:

Bruce and Marilyn Lieberman at the Louvre
Tell me about your early background. When did you know you wanted to be an artist? 

My mother was a Sunday painter. She took classes at adult ed or something like that. I always drew, she put pencils and paper in front of me to keep me from driving her crazy. My folks always took me museums. I was the talented kid in high school but I never thought I could be an artist.

Shit man, I was told that if you were talented enough to be an artist you would know it by 18: born, touched or something. When I started college I was trying to be a marine scientist: but that was not for me.

So I dropped out of college and went on a walkabout -- in a Datsun and tent -- surfing in California. I got sick with the Russian flu, then there was the never ending Cali rain. Running out of money I started to draw draw and draw in the cluttered room I was stuck in. So decided I should go to art school and do what I always loved just to get a degree. At Stony Brook University Fred Badalamenti told me that in essence it comes down to this: Even Van Gogh wasn't Van Gogh till he was Van Gogh. Whatever he really said or meant, that is how I understood it. Art takes persistence and constant hard work!

So I figured: Somebody's got to do it, why not me!

Red Still Life, oil, 24" x 18"
Where did you study and who were your mentors?

I was lucky: Stony Brook University in the late 70's had Lawrence Alloway, Donald Kuspit, Melvin Pekarsky and Robert White. Bobby White was a huge influence on my life. I sort of think Bobby taught me how to draw and think about Art. I wanted to study with Hofmann but that was out of the question since he was long gone. So Bobby sent me to Paul Georges who I studied with formally at Brandeis, but hung out with him in NY and Sagaponack.

That was study.

He (Bobby White) introduced me to the Educational Alliance and NY figurative art world of the early 80's. We were part of "the wedding party." He had a way of making you feel you were fighting the good fight and not alone. I learned a heck a lot about painting and art just from being downtown in bars drinking with artists all much more experienced and older then I was. It was a virtual Who's Who of the Figurative Art World back then.

Lennart Anderson was also a major influence I wanted my MFA and I had tons of connections and choices but I had a huge respect for Lennart and those associated with him. So I went to Brooklyn College and in some ways Lennart was the control to Paul's emotional attack. I'm not sure he knows how profound an influence he had on me. Certainly in aspects of my work method. The way paintings and drawings develop: out of a gesture, a fog. To him I was always a Georges' guy. Like Seinfeld referring to the character Newman: "Ha ha ha."

When we talked about art he would smirk and say: "If you like that sort of stuff." I got a huge kick out of him. I thought he was brilliant. Still do. Georges too. It was sort of George's color and emotion vs. Lennart's control and a sense of tonal elegance and charm.

The Garden, oil, 30" x 40"
Have you always been a representational painter?

Yes, loved story telling, stories in art since a boy I collected info on artists like other did with ball players. Loved Guston, Beckmann: still do. Baroque and Renaissance painting. I knew names of artists and painting like kids knew batting averages.

Square Lilies, oil, 48" x 48"
How has your painting developed over time? 

They got better! And take me longer!

In art school I was a Neo-Expressionist before I ever heard the term. I was always representational.

I was really influenced by Abstract Expressionism (still am) the process showing, the gesture and macho guts... like Krasner LOL. I just did not want to do it. The Bay area guys were my Gods (and Clyfford Still). Early Diebenkorn, Park, and Bischoff still ring my bell.

Before that I remember being totally blown away by the Fauve Matisses and by Oskar Kokoschka at the MOMA. Nolde's watercolors: they woke me out of the Rembrandt brown world of color. All the German expressionists rocked my world: I devoured them. Lennart told me once that Expressionism was all too easy. I knew he was right so I pushed myself away from it. I see a connection to spatial qualities of Abstract Expressionism still appeals to me. Then I was in love with Fairfield Porter.

I was doing narratives when I showed at Pene Du Bois in the lower east side. I went over to this new midtown gallery Gotham Fine Art (LTD). He was beginning to get a lot of attention when the gallery's truck, when two years worth of my large paintings was stolen on the way to a show in Florida. After telling the New York Times he was gonna reimburse all his artist, the guy vanished. I was relatively devastated.

Ron Pisano (writer/curator) called me looking for work. When I explained my situation and told him I had only landscapes and still life. He ended up including me in several shows and his book on 20th century survey of Long Island landscape painting. It seems I had developed a reputation as a landscape painter (labeled painterly) after that. Dealers sure found them easier to sell then my figurative work and that was their focus. I shifted more to hiding in my backyard and away from people so I guess I went in that direction too.

Stormy Airbase, oil, 48" 48"
Tell me the names of some of the artists you have been influenced by. 

I can't say who I'm influenced by: Everyone? You can't see Massacio in my work but he is there. Certainly Lennart Anderson and Paul Georges.

I had very eclectic tastes and that was fed and justified by the Hofmann stuff, by Paul and through Paul: also the tastes of Robert White. There was one big lesson: Steal and use everything and make it your own.

To be connected to the Masters if you want to be a master; see them as peers, see their humanness.

I started with this profound love for art history -- Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo -- and could never say one person influenced me over another. I go thru periods of interest and likes -- Giotto, Velasquez, Balthus, Piero, Rubens -- the way one deals with the likes and dislikes of music or food. Maybe it is color, or composition devices or some interesting intelligent the negative spaces that interest me. Good is Good. Bob Henry got pissed at me for such a cavalier statement, saying that almost kicked me out of Brooklyn MFA program until I was able to defended it and that got me a scholarship! (said while dancing a little jig in my head)

Rainy Beach, oil, 48" x 48"
Your new show is called East End: tell me about where you live and how these paintings connect to that. 

My studio is in the Hamptons, On the tip of eastern Long Island. It was not the Hamptons of the Kardahsians back when we fell in love with it: tons of farmers and fisherman. I went there for the ocean, surf, fish and to have a bigger -- believe it or not -- cheaper studio away from people.

I grew up in suburbia and Georges and the New Yorkers called it the country. We called it out east. That should have been the name of my show: Does not matter to me at all.

My work is rather auto biographical and the title is just the title. It is painting about paint and painting...

My studio in Water Mill sits in a patch of woods on a rise overlooking a 50 acres of farm. It's rather secluded: more or less and once it was more. We are six minutes from the sea If traffic does not interfere.

The ocean: my early morning run with the dog or surfing, fishing. it's part of my whole hide from the world gig. I guess I'm tied closely to these things. My life revolves around my slice of nature: this world little I created for myself.

I am all escape: escape into my paintings, my studio, my books on tape, my garden and surf: Good big surf... 

Now, as more and more crowds and homes are built -- or were built -- I seem to spend more time hiding in my garden. When I m not in my studio that's where I am: tending the veggies and watching the wind and tide, waiting for a certain light or a certain sky so I can finish this or that particular painting. Sounds rather bucolic? Why do I feel so stressed? (I'm attempting to be sarcastic/ironic? funny)

 We have a little, rather nonproductive orchard and sometimes kick-ass organic farm. In case zombies invade. But it is all about making still lifes to live in. The paintings in this show are all about these things: the sea down the road and the hiding spot here in my studio, inside and out.

Pomegranate, oil, 16" x 16"
You seem to love paint and the texture of paint. Tell me about your working methods. 

Short answer: direct, alla prima, no holds barred. I draw with charcoal, then draw with very lean paint, then block in, let it drip sometimes, let it build other times, drag it, slap it, smear it, scratch it, wipe it.

I paint mostly wet into wet then don't. I scrap some, build some, glaze some: no technique, no system. I let brush strokes describe the form when it works: the GESTURE! Love that! No rules except lean to fat and let it emerge from a fog (Dickenson/Lennart). I do love when a variety of surface is achieved (ala Titian) and I love the marks of the journey showing, the way color builds: the surface builds is thrilling stuff to me. Dragging dry color across a built up surface: OMG - love that! But I also dig the way wet passages blend and become multiple colors. I look for color relationships and exploit them but that is a given.

That was pretty long but here is more...

I work from nature shifting back and forth to reoccurring themes. I work on many paintings at once. I start outdoors, direct, but always work and rework in my studio. Building up surface and manipulating paint.

I start with a drawing and then with very thin wet paint loose paint. Very loose letting the painting develop out of a fog: (Dickenson/Lennart). I love to drag color around as the surface and marks build up, mixing it up with a variety of applications. Impastos and dry short paint laid on top of stained and raw canvas combined with more wet into wet passages.

A relatively direct painting style, but I do use transparent glazes -- reworked and built up -- but I always try to preserving the fluidity of the process and maintain a certain look of spontaneity even if there was nothing spontaneous about it. On Tuesdays and Thursday anyways...

What are your interests outside of art?

The short answer: Sounds rather stupid but life long passionate interest in surfing, fishing, gardening, good food, good books, kissing the wife, travel and martial arts (although as of last year I'm too old and broken apart).

Video (above) Bruce Lieberman: East End Exhibition at Gallery North
Bruce Lieberman: East End
October 17 - November 14, 2014
Opening Reception: Friday, October 17, from 5:00pm-7:00pm
Gallery North 90 North Country Road Setauket, New York 11733
 Gallery Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 5pm | Sunday 12pm - 5pm | Closed Monday