“Maybe the thing is not to be great,” Alexander Liberman once said. “It’s the process. It’s the creation. It’s the work. I don’t pretend to greatness. I think no real artist works to create masterpieces.”
Whether or not he intentionally aspired to it, Liberman did achieve greatness in his work–as a painter, photographer, sculptor, art director, and graphic designer. Published by Rizzoli, It’s Modern: The Eye and Visual Influence of Alexander Liberman is a stunning paean to the Russian-American polymath, whose status as an international arbiter of culture and style was clinched by his 55-year career as editorial director at Condé Nast. The book features 220 sumptuous illustrations, including images from Liberman’s personal archives and museum collections.
Less well known for his art than some of his close friends–who included Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and Calder–Liberman still contributed prodigiously to the Minimalist, Pop, and Op art movements. Of his series of circle paintings, completed mainly in the 1950s, he said, “I thought that basically, the circle had been overlooked by Western Civilization…and it was time to use the circle for eternal cosmic significance.” In these bold, abstract compositions of oil on canvas, Liberman was sure not to leave a single brushstroke visible, so as not to distract the spectator “from the essential by minor accidental details.”
Liberman was also considered a revolutionary in the magazine world. As an art director, he revamped Vogue and Vanity Fair into the glamorous glossies they are today, and envisioned the concepts for Self and Allure. The selection of magazine covers he designed or commissioned include a 1985 issue of Vanity Fair featuring Ronald and Nancy Reagan locked in a creepy dance and a 1941 Summer Beauty Issue of Vogue featuring a swim-capped bathing beauty photographed by Horst P. Horst. Sublime black-and-white portraits of a cigarette-smoking Marlene Dietrich and spreads of society ladies in furs, pearls, and red silk gowns harken back to the age of old-world elegance that Liberman’s discerning eye helped shape.
Editor Tina Brown once remarked, “[Liberman’s] ability to run high and low is an amazing gift. It was as though he were playing on a xylophone, running up and down … able to do Self in the morning and a sculpture in the afternoon.” Now you can see that range in this comprehensive retrospective of Liberman’s career, edited by Charles Churchward. It’s available for $40 here.