Libbie Mark at the National Arts Club

Re-introducing a woman Abstract Expressionist painter who defied stereotypes

| 27 Jan 2022 | 09:52

Libbie Mark was as atypical as they come.

The current exhibit at the National Arts Club (until February 25), “Art of the Abstract Mark: Libbie Mark Collage Painting and other works 1950’s-1960’s” is meant to re-introduce a woman who defied stereotypes in the late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. No starving artist, she enjoyed the full financial and emotional support of her husband, who learned to stretch canvases and moved to NYC so she could attend classes at the Art Students’ League.

Earlier, in the 40s, she took art classes in Great Neck in and set up the basement in her home there so she could paint and be available to her children, Reuben and Judith. In 1956, with her children away at college, she and her husband moved to NYC (including at one point, in Yorkville!) so she could take classes at the Art Students League and later at Provincetown.

According to Robert Yahner, Curator/Registrar of the NAC, this show is a rare opportunity to explore an understudied artist. “As most of the works in the exhibition have never been on public view, it is important to look at this show as a whole – a body of work by an intelligent and self-assured woman who absorbed the impulses and energy of her time while developing and sustaining a highly individual vision.”

Rare Case

Mark was lucky that way, according to Jennifer Uhrhane, an independent Curator and Consultant to the Libbie Mark Provincetown Fund. “Libbie’s situation was unusual for the times. Grace Hartigan felt she had to abandon her son to his father’s parents in order to paint. Other female artists at this time decided not to get married or not have children at all to preserve the ability to work.”

While Mark was painting and participating in the Abstract Expressionist scene, her work began to be shown in galleries in the city throughout the 50s as part of The Vectors artist group; she participated in their shows before passing away in 1972.

In the wake of the years of the Abstract Expressionist boom that started 80 years ago, the mostly male stars continue to dominate, However, the NAC’s Yahner says “Libbie Mark stands out among the many talented artists working in New York after World War II for whom recognition proved elusive. The National Arts Club found her story to be an important and knowing element in re-examining American art of the 1950s and 60s.”

He goes on to note that most of the works in the exhibition have never been on public view. “It is important to look at this show as a whole – a body of work by an intelligent and self-assured woman who absorbed the impulses and energy of her time while developing and sustaining a highly individual vision.”

A Compact View

This tightly packed show at the National Arts Club (only about 24 works jointly selected by the NAC and the Libbie Mark Provincetown Fund), is a distillation of her work at her most productive period, the late 50s and early 60s. The art scene was brimming with excitement and innovation, and many of Mark’s works fairly burst with excitement and verve.

Her works challenge the viewers. The canvases range from works on linen to work on watercolor paper or even cardboard. Many incorporate tissue paper collage. In other works, the paint is as thickly applied as any Van Gogh. The paintings come in all sizes and colors. All but two are untitled, leaving the viewer with little to grasp except what is in the works themselves, by their own perceptions and imagination.

That’s what makes this show so compelling.

A viewer might look at each work as part puzzle, part Rorschach test. “Abstract Expressionism is the visual communication of emotions, thoughts, ideas and more in an abstract, non-representational style” according to Uhrhane. So what’s each work about? It’s up to you.

“For Lisa,” near the entrance, is one of only two named works in the show. Amid the vibrant green and dreamy blue it’s easy to imagine this as a portrait of a friend with wiry dark hair and one eye closed (in a wink?) looking at the viewer while sitting at ease on a sofa, with her hands folded in front of her. She’s the calm in a storm of pink, green and yellow.

Barrage of Colors

Almost all the remaining works can only be identified by number. Behind “For Lisa,” in the front room, several works line up against the wall, each with a unique and peculiar charm. “Inv. 21R,” which graces the catalog cover, is a large work predominated by soft shades of pink, with graceful accents of purple and slashes of green. After a few minutes viewing, some suggestions of forms emerge. It looks like a cozy bedroom, with a multicolor bedspread, purple pillows, and a darker pink headrest and purple hangings. The dark shape in the right foreground could be a bit of statuary anchoring a multicolor carpet.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s fun.

The other large work on the same side of the front room, is all about the color blue. The blues of “Inv. 04R” swirl about the canvas in a maelstrom very much like an ocean wave on the upswing with gathering tension. The motion is punctuated by a diffuse shape caught up in the energy of the wave. There’s a frothy mass at the bottom of the work resembling sunlit sea foam, with a treatment of hazy light similar to what Turner favored.

In between these works, look for an untitled work known only as “50JM,” but I’d call “Homage to Van Gogh.” The paint is applied so thickly and exuberantly there’s dimensionality that helps the images pop. t’s a riotous and cheerful burst of form and color that looks like an abundance of blossoms spilling out towards the viewer, set against a swirling, tumultuous acid yellow background. This is one of the happiest works in the show, and a real demonstration of how Mark can call up and express an emotion.

There’s plenty of other works to tease the imagination, though.

On the opposite wall of the front room, one of the larger canvases, titled simply “46JM” is full of vibrant bustle, with swirling forms, and drizzles and splashes of color. Personally it reminds me of something Picasso-esque, and it’s a city scene – maybe a rainy one. The figure on the right looks like a heavy set person trudging along carrying lots of bags and packages. I like to think the figure in yellow behind her is a young boy following behind, even running.

Libbie herself was a bit of an enigma, according to Uhrhane. “We can only speculate what it was about abstraction that attracted Mark,” Uhrhane notes. The same mystery applies to each canvas – and that’s part of their appeal.

“The joy in the experience for a viewer of abstract art is that it might evoke something for one person but simultaneously evoke something entirely different for someone else.” Uhrhane explains. For instance, “Inv.28JM” looks to me like a pastiche of a stately woman dressed in blue with a long yellow headscarf, carrying a long ornate shawl on her arm. What could it suggest to you? Come to this challenging show and see.

WHERE: The National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South
WHEN: Until February 25. Open seven days, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.
COST: Free Admission