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Biberman's portraits of life in the big city

March 04, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

Philadelphia-born Edward Biberman was a Modernist painter through and through. From his earliest sojourns to Paris and Berlin in 1926 until his 1986 death in Los Angeles, after half a century as an artist and teacher in the city, he tweaked Modernism's familiar fascination with a machine aesthetic.

Biberman developed a distinctive Industrial Age point of view. Sometimes it took shape as Social Realist analysis of the costs to human dignity and sometimes as simplified geometric forms of urban landscape. In the process his L.A. paintings chart the emergence of a uniquely American urban environment.

These days, his art is not often seen. That makes "Edward Biberman Revisited" a welcome event. Billed as his first exhibition in more than two decades, this assemblage of 33 easel paintings, dating from 1929 to 1984, is presented at Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. It's something of a homecoming, since Biberman got the first solo show when the city opened the Barnsdall complex in 1971.

The disappointing news is that the exhibition is not well organized. Inexplicably, the Muni turned over exhibition duties not to staff or an independent curator but to a gallerist -- Suzanne W. Zada, proprietor of a private Beverly Hills gallery that handles the Biberman estate. The commercial motive muddies the water.

Poorly installed, with far too many works crowded into the cramped quarters of two small rooms, the incoherent arrangement follows no chronology or apparent theme. It's too bad, because Biberman is an interesting painter.

The Social Realist paintings record topical working-class subjects. Sometimes they're straightforward, such as a laborer leaning on his shovel while taking a cigarette break. Elsewhere they're metaphorical, as in 1939's "Pieta." A protester lies sprawled on the ground, his picket-sign now a martyr's attribute. A puddle of blood oozes from beneath his head. Standing by his side is a silent woman, her own head shrouded by a Mexican rebozo.

When the work focuses on civil rights heroes, Biberman splits the difference between description and metaphor. Actor, concert singer and activist Paul Robeson (1947) is portrayed as a purple-hued pillar of regal strength, surrounded by a radiant golden aura. The artist's imperial color scheme partly recalls the actor's famous role as the Venetian general Othello. But since the politically outspoken Robeson is dressed in a business suit, not robes, it is also a defiant choice at a time when he was a prime target of paranoid FBI surveillance.

But that's Biberman. Never one to look away from whatever he believed was true and right, his clarity scared others silly. In McCarthy-mad 1953, the jingoist Native Sons of the Golden West demanded that his earlier murals for an L.A. federal building be examined for subversive content. After a hubbub, it was decided the murals contained no taint.

His urban landscapes regard the city as a vaguely surreal place, as in a peculiar 1933 work that anticipates the 1960s Chicago Imagist style of Roger Brown. (Biberman was then living in Manhattan.) His self-portrait in profile is set against a backdrop of rigid office blocks, and inside each of more than 60 office windows a small genre scene unfolds.

"2 Park Ave." looks across a flat rooftop to the Chrysler Building and other skyscrapers beyond. Tall vertical vents in the foreground create a woozy scale-shift -- one made even more peculiar by the bright orange roof, separated from the pale blue sky by a yellow-green stripe of the cornice.

Biberman could be a marvelous colorist. As this example shows, the demands of the picture, in tandem with the actual scene, determined the final palette. Ditto the composition: Often squares or wedges of mottled white or deeper blue float in the sky -- not because clouds are squares or triangles, but as spatial engineering to harmonize the pictorial arrangement. Biberman sanctifies the workaday world through aesthetic rigor.

The L.A. landscapes almost always focus on anonymous modern buildings, grand freeways and soaring bridges. They're made monolithic, like some democratic equivalent of Egyptian monuments -- pyramids for the people, not the king.

His two visually different but conceptually related styles were pretty much set by the 1930s. The geometric landscapes are a distinctive variant on 1920s Precisionist painting, which focused on regional subjects, mostly industrial in nature. Besides Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the Precisionists included lesser-known figures such as Ralston Crawford (who studied at Otis Art Institute before moving East), Niles Spencer and Louis Lozowick. Like theirs, Biberman's pictures fashion landscape from Cubist planes of flat, sometimes transparent color. Unlike theirs, his never idealize industrial might.

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