Last Bouquet Standing: Paintings by Bruce Lieberman

by Jennifer Samet


Bruce Lieberman doesn’t shy away from “no-nos” imposed by the contemporary art world.  He paints flowers, butts, and leftover Chinese food. He has a sense of humor that rings loudly in his painting, like when he punctuates a scene of blooming zinnias with a “birdy” rather than a real bird (a slightly askew garden stake), or a lumpy, awkward piggy bank in the middle of a breakfast table still life.  He knows the rules and he also knows that life is short.  His is a land of plenty — not shallow materialism — but of the sensual pleasures of tamed nature, sun, sea, and flesh.  


Lieberman almost never paints one tree - he paints the thicket. These repeating vertical forms, (relatively) bare in his winter paintings, become a kind of drumbeat for this recent body of work. The insistence on serial, repeated forms make it hard not to think of Minimalism, even though Lieberman’s work couldn’t be more antithetical to this aesthetic movement. While the Minimalist artists used seriality to articulate space, commercial manufacture, and an impersonal objecthood, Lieberman is determined to show the artist’s hand, the painterly gesture, and the effects of natural phenomenon — sunlight and air — on these forms.


In fact, Lieberman came of age as a painter in the 1970s and positioned himself within a group of painters who were responding to the orthodoxy of Minimalism and formalist abstraction.  He studied at Stony Brook University with Lawrence Alloway, Donald Kuspit, Melvin Pekarsky and Robert White. White introduced Lieberman to Paul Georges, a colorfully vocal rebel of the contemporary art establishment, who insisted on the aesthetic autonomy to paint what he wanted: nudes, overdone tulips, the landscape of eastern Long Island and the south of France.  


Lieberman studied with Georges at Brandeis and hung out with him on Long Island.  Encouraged by White and Georges, Lieberman also began attending the Friday night weekly meetings of the Figurative Artists Alliance in lower Manhattan.  It was a space for figurative artists to find common ground against the more establishment-approved movements of Pop and Minimalism.  The Alliance and the after-party at a local dive bar were known for an atmosphere of fierce and frequent arguments – intense, macho, boozy debates on painting. The tone set by those early experience still rings through Lieberman’s work; almost like he is saying to us: “This is painting.”


Lieberman doesn’t erase himself from the work and neither does he detach from subject matter. The painterly marks signify he lives here - in that garden, that house, that surf.   This may be why, after a serious accident a few years ago left him with head trauma, Lieberman was able to turn to still life.  It was about proximity: he could set up objects close to him.  As his health improved, he turned, in his words, to “the still lives out the studio window”– the trees in winter.  


We might wonder how Lieberman contends with the traditional symbolic function of still life painting: to be a “memento mori” - a reminder of the transience of life.  Although Lieberman chooses to paint a land of plenty, we know he is not naive.  The East End of Long Island, once a rural heartland of potato fields and local fishermen, is now a playground for celebrities and the 1%.  


Lieberman has painted “The Last Tree” - a tree on Scuttlehole Road, now presumably cut down to make space for another private home. And these days he is forced to paint the (last-remaining) farms from behind new fences.  The “memento mori” element in Lieberman’s work may be his insistent depictions of winter – a counterpart to the wild blooms and green of his summer paintings.


In addition, there is a sense, in these paintings, of turning away - of hiding from the real spectacle, that of consumer culture.  Lieberman turns from all that to focus on what’s at hand: literally the bounty of his own backyard.  He doesn’t just do this with his depictions; he does it with paint.  Every element, even the damp, foggy atmosphere, is pushed up to the front of the picture plane with viscous paint. We notice it especially in paintings like “Bush Cherry” (2014-17), where the clouds seem to jostle for attention with the house and blooms.  “Corn” (2008-17) has the same mood: with stalks crowding every edge of the painting, cumulus clouds pushing in – and the artist’s hand talking, along with it all.


I think about another unabashed sensualist, the artist Julian Schnabel, who has said:

I want my life to be embedded in my work, crushed into my painting like a pressed car. If it’s not, my work is just some stuff. When I’m away from it, I’m crippled. Without my relationship to what may seem like these inanimate objects, I am just an indulgent misfit...I am not making some things. I am making a synonym for the truth with all its falsehoods, oblique as it is…A bouquet of mistakes.  


Lieberman embodies a similar sentiment in his work.  These things are his things.  It is life, as Lieberman puts it, as a “symphony of chaos” – his to orchestrate with paint.