Leonid Lerman was born in Odessa, Russia, where he studied drawing and sculpture at the Odessa School of Art and the Professional School of Mosaics and Woodcarving. He received his M.F.A. from the Mukhina College of Art and Design in Leningrad in 1979, and emigrated to New York during the following year. In 1981, he received the James Wilburt Johnston Sculpture Award in Washington, DC.
Before leaving Russia, he was commissioned to create wooden sculptures in public parks and gardens in Odessa, Ukraine, and a monumental war memorial in Kazakhstan, formerly a Soviet republic.
His work has appeared in numerous exhibitions, including On the Edge: the Sculpture of Leonid Lerman at Duke University Museum of Art in 1988, Modernism in San Francisco, and Ronchini Arte Contemporanea, Terni, Italy. He has also exhibited in the Freedman Gallery at Albright College for the Arts, Reading, Pennsylvania; the White Space Gallery, London; the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston.
Mr. Lerman’s teaching experience includes New York Sculpture Center; University of Art, Philadelphia; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; New York University; Fashion Institute of Technology, New York; and International School of Art, Umbria, Italy. In addition to the Art Students League of New York, Mr. Lerman teaches drawing and sculpture at the New York Academy of Art and the New York Studio School, and he is a visiting professor at the Vermont Studio Center. He is represented by McKee Gallery (New York, NY) and John Davis Gallery (Hudson, NY).
Mr. Lerman's work has been described as marking a departure from main trends that dominate contemporary sculpture. Journal of Modern Society & Culture (Winter 2005). "Whereas abstraction and a retreat from the human form has been a predominant impulse in post-war western art, Lerman's work embraces human form, but one ensnared in the artist's own struggle with human meaning, language, and the desire to express the authenticity of human experience." Journal of Modern Society & Culture (Winter 2005). Human meaning, interpretation, language, and the indecipherable gap between subjective experience and objective knowledge often form the underpinnings of his work.
Excerpts From "On The Edge": The Sculpture of Leonid Lerman (Duke University Museum of Art)
Recent developments in the world of international relations may seem a distant concern to the everyday affairs of a university art museum. Yet, over the past several years the new policy of glasnost in the Soviet Union has resulted in a public debate affecting all aspects of Soviet Society, especially the arts where works previously unpublished, unseen, or unperformed are now reaching a wide audience. For Americans. this openness has provided an opportunity to experience the extraordinary richness of a culture long in limbo as well as to understand something of the difficult history of a society where artistic expression has been subservient to political ideology. Considering the interest that has been focused on the Soviet Union, the Duke University Museum of Art is pleased to open the fall season with an exhibition featuring the work of Leonid Lerman, a young Russian emigre sculptor trained in Odessa and Leningrad and, since 1980, a resident of the United States. The approximately 90 pieces in this exhibition have been produced over the last ﬁve years and include a wide variety of types and media— freestanding statues, reliefs, and assemblages made of wood, clay, and found objects, as well as a selection of drawings. His figuratively based sculpture—with sources ranging from ancient Greek art to Dada, Surrealism and Expressionism— present an ironic and highly personal view of the turmoil of life. Indeed, Lerman is often the subject of his own work as we can see in the amusing Self-Portrait as Omelette (frontispiece) and in the numerous self-portraits in the exhibition. His sense of humor, at once satiric and playful, reveals a questioning mind probing the very essence of being. His images both delight and shock as he makes us think about the delicate nature of existence, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in Volens-Nolens, the relief reproduced on the cover showing two men holding a razor blade aloft with their tongues.
As a Russian now residing in New York, Lerman has drawn inspiration from two worlds developing in the process a supranational perspective. His art offers a unique viewpoint not only on life in the Soviet Union and the United States but, more importantly, on the broader human issues that at once divide and unite two nations.
I am very grateful to Leonid Lerman for his help in presenting this selection of his work. Getting to know him was as great a pleasure as getting to know his art. His humor, energy, good sense, and inexhaustible supply of vodka made this a most memorable experience. I am also indebted to Abby Henig, his wife, who was so understanding and supportive throughout the course of the project. Hopefully, her screenplay recounting the amazing story of their Leningrad courtship will soon be produced. Special thanks must also be extended to the collectors who so graciously agreed to part with their works for this exhibition.
Through a fortunate set of circumstances, the Museum was able to schedule at the last moment the show: Sergei L. Petrov—Moscow Photographs. This exhibition presents the work of Sergei Petrov, an artist currently living in Moscow. His extraordinary photographs provide a complementary vision to Leonid Lerman’s sculpture. Mrs. Arthur A. Hartman, wife of the former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, was instrumental in helping to bring Mr. Petrov’s work to Duke. We are very grateful to her and Ambassador Hartman for their assistance.
Michael P. Mezzatesta
Dancing on the razor’s edge, poised on one leg with arms outstretched and head thrown back—this is how we see the man in Leonid Lerman's small terracotta relief Balanceada (1985, Fig.1). It is, paradoxically, a dance of joy and anguish, of hope and fear—a balancing act for survival performed alone every day, day after day, in which good is pitted against evil. For Lerman, the razor is a kind of existential emblem on whose edge the struggle to exist occurs. Like the victim forced to dance by gun shots aimed at his feet, there is something tragicomic in the situation of man compelled to “dance” by events outside his control. Life on the edge, the subject of several sculptures, conveys the perilous equilibrium of existence—a central theme in Lerman’s art. The struggle to understand life—to make art—is a solitary endeavor. There is an inherent loneliness in Lerman’s work, a focus on the individual who, like the dancing man in Balanceada, must seek answers to questions without answers; who, battered by absurdity, must fight cynicism and romanticism as he walks the narrow path, the razor’s edge. Through humor, satire, and especially irony, Lerman adopts a philosophical stance towards life’s contradictory impulses in his constructed sculptures, reliefs, and ready-made assemblages and raises questions as he probes the roots of our existence.
For Lerman, whose own roots are set in two distinct cultures —Russian and American—this effort began in the Soviet Union and has continued in the United States. He was born in Odessa in 1953 and educated at the Odessa School of Art and at the Professional School of Mosaics and Woodcarving before receiving his MFA in 1979 from the Mkhina College of Art and Design in Leningrad. Lerman’s education in the Soviet Union represented the accumulated experience of many generations of Russian figurative sculptors and provided a solid training in the fundament[als] of his art. His education was also free. The sole condition was that he give back to the system what he had learned by perpetuating received traditions. It was the one condition he could not meet for it meant surrendering his artistic integrity. Like many artists in the Soviet Union, Lerman was unable to exhibit his work publicly outside of the authorized system of state-sponsored art, a system whose tenets of socialist realism demand stylistic and ideological conformity. The artist unwilling to embrace these standards could only function privately without hope of public recognition and with considerable risk of official disfavor. The anguish of being restricted in style and denied an audience—of being unable to express oneself—was acute. In that pre-glasnost, Olympic-boycott era, the prospects for a more open attitude toward the arts were extremely limited. After meeting Abby Henig in 1978, an American studying in Leningrad on an exchange program, the two were married and, in 1980, Lerman was allowed to depart for the United States.
When he arrived in New York, Lerman was, in effect, beginning from zero in a country whose language he barely spoke and where he knew few Americans. Unlike some other Russian artists, notably Komar and Melamid who caused a sensation in 1976 at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York with their exhibition of “Sots Art,” the Soviet version of Pop Art,1 Lerman had produced no serious body of work in the Soviet Union as he left immediately after graduating. Thus, he was faced with the task of coping with a completely different world, one of which he had no knowledge and in which everything was possible.
In terms of American art, this meant a panorama ranging from Conceptual and Neo-Expressionist to the emerging Neo-Geo.2 Not surprisingly, everything seemed “strange and unacceptable.” As he grew familiar with the New York art scene, this initial rejection of his American experience was followed by a rejection of his Russian background—a dialectical process of growth and maturation. Yet, ironically, before he could begin his own work he had to use his skills just in order to survive. He worked as a model maker for a jeweller; made reproductions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop; served as a private contractor specializing in the restoration of architectural ornaments; taught at the Sculpture Center Studios in New York; and worked at the Johnson Atelier in Princeton, New Jersey, one of the most technologically advanced foundries in the United States. Here, the depth of Lerman's formal training became apparent in the extraordinary life-sized figure of a nude adolescent boy he modeled to be cast in bronze for one of the Atelier’s many commissions (Fig.2). The delicacy and naturalness of the sculpture reveal not only the realism of 19th-century academic art but also the refined idealism of the Italian Renaissance. Although this statue was a swan song to the academic manner, the human figure remains the central element in his oeuvre—providing the key to understanding his art.
At the end of 1983, Lerman rented a studio on lower Broadway. It was his first private work space, either in the Soviet Union or the United States, and it meant that, for the first time, he faced the task of giving form to his sen- sations, or as he has said, “to collide with the world, . . . to begin to see who you are.” The fact that this moment was delayed for four years does not mean that Lerman was idle. Indeed, in the struggle to come to grips with the harsh realities of a new society where his talents were primarily of commercial interest, he was compelled to confront the American environment and to react to it with all its complexities and contradictions. The experience was emotionally and psychologically wrenching.When he arrived from Leningrad, one suitcase in hand, Lerman had to deal with the shock of the new and the confusion of a disoriented cultural identity. These four years were a difficult period that forced him to measure the American experience against his expectations as an emigre artist.
What has emerged in his art is not simply a reaction to a new life but to life in general. Lerman speaks to the absurdity of the human condition, to the trials and tribulations of every man, regardless of nationality. In this sense, Lerman’s dual cultural citizenship allows him to cut across national differences and to focus on universal themes.
Bug City is one of the first sculptures seen upon entering the current exhibition (Fig.3). Its presence is startling for, although at two inches in length it is only slightly larger than the average New York City roach, it carries on its back a condensed version of the Manhattan skyline. Like the Greco-Roman goddess Tyche who wears a walled image of the city as a crown to symbolise her urban domain, Lerman's Bug City stands, or perhaps we should say crawls, as a witty emblem of another kind of urban supremacy. Yet Bug City is more than a clever comment on the perils of living in New York. It is also a self- portrait. This Kafkaesque metamorphosis is doubly ironic. In the Soviet Union an artist working outside of the officially sanctioned state art organizations is liable to be branded a “parasite.” In the United States, the artist’s status is not threatened or, conversely, exalted by such a political-social stigmatization. Indeed, here the artist is likely to be but one of thousands anonymously struggling for attention—untested, unsure, unrecognized and alienated: pests, if not to the indifferent general public, then to the unfortunate gallery owners who have to deal with them. However worthless the emerging artist may feel, the emerging emigrant artist carries an additional burden for he also must cope with a foreign environment whose cultural weight bears as heavily as the skyscrapers in Bug City.
The first major works produced in Lerman’s new studio confronted the artist’s search for cultural identity. Homage to de Kooning (Cat.1) was inspired by Acrobat, a painting of ca. 1942. Although not unaware of American contemporary art while in the Soviet Union, Lerman effectively discovered a vast body of new material after arriving in the United States. De Kooning’s early work had a particularly strong impact. The selection of this painting may seem a strange beginning for a sculptor trained in the classical traditions of modeling and carving, yet it was de Kooning‘s expressive freedom in his use of the figure—here beginning to be fragmented and abstracted —that was a source of inspiration. In the process of translating this image from two to three dimensions, Lerman developed the elements that characterize his work: a figurative based, constructed sculpture formed by the use of found and shaped raw wood; painted wood; modeled terracotta; mixed media and, most importantly, the division of the body into discrete components.
In Russia, Lerman wanted to make figurative sculpture that was perfectly finished and chased in meticulous detail, a work to stand in contrast to the grayness of everyday life. As he became familiar with contemporary artistic trends in New York, that goal was soon abandoned. His initial attraction to de Kooning may have been stimulated by the freedom of form and fracture seen in Acrobat and assimilated in Homage to de Kooning. The carving of the wood torso, the texture of the plaster pants, the elegance of the fabric-wrapped figure at the upper left, and the brushstrokes of the painted background approximate de Kooning‘s handling of paint. This expressive treatment was carried further in “See You Tomorrow "produced immediately afterwards (Cat.2). Against the backdrop of an old, painted metal door salvaged from the streets of Chelsea, Lerman has placed a crudely carved, wood figure mottled with arbitrary patches of white paint. In this free-standing relief, the rough, raw treatment and the unfinished quality stress the materiality of the wood and begins to define Lerman‘s aesthetic.
Journey Down Memory Lane (1984), was Lerman’s first monumental, freestanding sculpture (Cat.3). It was particularly important as the artist’s initial foray into what he has called “the human figure as battlefield.” The source is the famous Calf-Bearer of ca. 575-550 BC in the Acropolis Museum, Athens (Fig.4). This work, out below the knees and damaged on the right leg, has been completed in Lerman’s statue with massive, schematically carved thighs and shins inspired by earlier types of Kouroi and by the addition of a second pair of hands at the waist. The Kouros’ muscular torso with the delicate, vertical banding of drapery has been replaced by a heavy, split beam of wood. The effect is powerful. Its fragmentation, severe reduction of form, and concentration on head, hands and legs, convey the essential concepts of protection and heroic stasis.
To an artist trained in the realist, figurative tradition, this is an important accomplishment (cf. Fig 2), for Lerman pays homage to Greek sculpture even as he transcends its naturalism by developing an expressive strategy for dealing with the human form while retaining what he has called the “spiritual ecstasy" that Greek art embodies. Lerman has studied the classical figure so intently that it has become part of his subconscious motivation'. If this statue’s truncated arms and wood-beam torso belie the archaic Greek source, the function of the ﬁgure as the vessel of meaning remains unchanged. The severed, reductive form of Journey Down Memory Lane and its evocation of the image of the good shepherd—one seen in Greek art, early Christian art, and in the sculpture of Picasso3—are both timeless and timely, ancient and modern, mediating a never-ending dialogue between man and himself, man and man, and man and the divine. The personal element ﬁgures prominently in many of Lerman’s early works. Journey Down Memory Lane, for example, is autobiographical. The shepherd is a portrait of Lerman’s first American friend, a colleague at the Johnson Atelier who helped him adapt to his new homeland. In Self-Portrait as Cicero (1984), the artist appears as the Roman statesman, philosopher, and orator (Fig.5). He 's shown half-length, right hand grasping the podium, left arm thrown outward in an expansive, oratorical gesture, head crowned with laurel and tilted back in declamation. Yet the mouth is only drawn on the modelled clay head. The speaker cannot speak and, therefore, cannot be heard by his unseen audience. The eloquence of Cicero depended on language and rhetoric. Without such shared knowledge between speaker and audience neither the speaker’s message nor artistry can be comprehended.
The complexity of Lerman’s ideas may have exceeded his ability to express them in his new language, creating frustration in the face of his artistic ambitions. Yet his language is sculpture, his rhetoric is form. Despite being silent, the artist still speaks through the work itself. Stranger in the Garden (1984, Cat. 4), returns directly to a Russian source,Venedinct Erofeev’s popular underground novel of the 1960’s, Moscow-Petushky. Like George Orwell’s 1984, Moscow-Petushky, one of the most popular pieces of samizdat literature [self-published], was forbidden reading and so was circulated clandestinely.4 This comic tale concerns the drinking adventures and misadventures of the protagonist as he travels on the between Moscow and Petushky, a small town hours away.
The episode alluded to is the culmination of the book. After boarding the train, the hero, an inveterate drinker, exchanges cocktail recipes and vodka with his traveling companions until he passes out. He then has a horrible nightmare—the colossal statues, The Worker and the Collective Farmer, in the Moscow Fairgrounds park outside the Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Industry and Agriculture building, spring to life and begin chasing him (Fig.6). These statues—created for the Russian pavilion at the Pan's Exposition of 1936/37—are extremely well known in the Soviet Union, occupying a symbolic status similar to the Statue of Liberty. They are the logo of Mos-film, the most powerful Russian movie company, and appear before the Opening credits slowly rotating toward the audience. Unlike the roaring lion of MGM, a corporate emblem of Ars Gratia Artis, the Worker and the Collective Farmer stands as a heroic symbol of “the people” united for the greater glory of the state. Widely used by official propaganda organs, this ubiquitous image permeates every aspect of daily life to the extent that it hardly can he escaped. Yet the gap between the group’s message and reality have transformed its meaning, making it an emblem of state hypocrisy and the object of public cynicism. These giant figures—socialist tools held high—pursue Eroteev’s drunk in a comic chase across a dreamscape. Lerman’s sculpture alludes to the nightmare’s conclusion, the moment of capture. Reducing the ﬁgure to a block of wood with terracotta member and head, face grimacing from the blows, Lerman visually rewrites Eroteev‘s story as the hero’s intellect and manhood are “hammered and sickled.” Stranger in the Garden is a national self-portrait—an allegory of Russian society escaping reality through alcohol. It is also a self-portrait and comment on the contradictions and absurdities that forced him to leave.
During the same year, the artist dealt with the other side of his cultural world. In September of 1984, Lerman and Vladimir Greigorovich, a Russian emigre friend, discovered an abandoned wooden boxcar in the middle of an undeveloped landﬁll in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Wall Street. its isolation in a vast, untended open space and the spectacular view of lower Manhattan behind it and of Liberty Island to the south, inspired the artists to paint across the face of the boxcar the foreshortened shadow of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by scaffolding then being erected for its restoration (Fig.7). The red shadow was painted against a pink background—approximating the light of the setting sun- and was complemented on the opposite side of the boxcar by the shadow of the Empire State Building. When viewed from each side, both the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building were visible through the open box- car doors, alluding to the shadow painted on the other side. This clever use of light and shadow at once dematerialized and rematerialized statue and building, extending them beyond their physical boundaries and making us marvel as we see them in a new way.5 The painting of a boxcar takes on a historical irony when we recall that during the Russian Revolution avant— garde artists painted railroad cars with propagandistic images and slogans hailing the cause of communism. Were it not for the obvious sincerity of the artists, the Shadow-of-Liberty boxcar might have been read as a Russian-American version of Sots Art—the exaltation of a popular political symbol to the level of parody. The fact that it escapes cliche is a function of the observer‘s patriotism and the artists’ ingenious solution to the artistic challenge at hand. Lerman’s stance, however, is more complicated in the terracotta statuette Fantasy on 4th of July of 1986 (Fig.8). In this later sculpture, unrelated to the boxcar-of-liberty, we see the progression in Lerman’s work as he develops a symbology resonant of his personal experience. It is not an anti-liberty, anti-American, or anti-Russian statement. Rather this unexpected combination of two diametrically opposed symbols suggests the multiple levels of reality of an experience shorn of illusions. This work, and the related FKNCTY, (1986, Fig.9), grew out of what Lerman has called the “teasing of ideas and materials" and ultimately stands without explanation.
Many of Lerman's works do, however, openly confront the problems of being an immigrant, acknowledging them as an essential part of his being. In the terracotta relief, Death of an Immigrant (1985, Fig.10), and the carved wood Nightmare (1986, Cat.5), a recumbent figure floats in mid-air with a Paris, Moscow and New York landmark at head, groin, and feet, recapitulating anatomically the melancholy history of emigre artists who have been forced to leave the generative source of their homeland. In Birds’ Eye View, the assemblage relief of 1985, a nude figure is viewed from above with arms and legs outstretched (Fig.11). The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the domes of the cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul at his feet identify the sites as Manhattan and Rabbit Island, Leningrad. With one foot rooted in each culture and his arms pinioned by the clouds, this pathetic little figure is immobilized, spread-eagled —a prisoner of heaven and earth. His world is split. He suffers from an aesthetic, emotional, and cultural schizophrenia as he throws his Russian memories against American realities while searching for the hidden, metaphysical signs he believes to be present.
Lerman's self-deprecatory humor is seen in Self-Portrait as ldiot (1985—86, Cat.7), a twelve-foot high carved wood column of books extending from floor to ceiling in the midst of which is squeezed a large, forlorn terracotta head; in the precarious Day Of Sorrow (1986—87), where a weary, stooped man is either buttressing or butting a tumbling skyscraper (Cat.8); and in Cadmium Yellow (1985), the colossal carved wood and terracotta man with an oversized yellow arm who, with a dull, dazed expression, calmly pokes himself in the eye (Colorplate 1).
Reflections or Symphony of Fingers (1985), presents two half—length figures with arms outstretched in the familiar American gesture of ill will (Cat.9). The spontaneous and vigorous expression of insult rendered and returned is heightened by the arm’s length distance between the protagonists—any closer and the strong horizontal thrust of arms would be broken, any further apart, the compositional tension dissipated. Once more Lerman reduces form to the essentials—arms and heads. The clay heads, one dark the other light, are, in one sense, a “schizophrenic” portrait, an allusion to man’s internal dialogue on life’s endless choices. In a larger sense, they are accumulated portraits of the average man who, with a cool, stupid look, casually curses his neighbor. These dull faces convey the ennui of those inured by repeat performances of such digital symphonies but, perhaps more to the point, by the unrelenting complexities and absurdities of life. A work like Reflections Or Symphony of Fingers strikes a sympathetic stance toward the subjects or the satire for, as the boat-base signals their mutual dependence, so their vacuous expressions should remind us that no action can be understood in isolation. This point is made directly in the terracotta relief Twins also of 1985 (Fig.12). Here the chain of nourishment moves upward from Romulus and Remus to the she-wolf; from the she-wolf to the wolf; and from the wolf beyond, recalling Lenin‘s dictum: “Everything is connected with everything else.”
The painted terracotta reliefs of 1985 explore a variety of similar ideas. These small sculptures serve as three- dimensional drawings, often exploring themes related to larger works, such as the razor blade series (Cat.14-1T). They are, in a way, modern day versions of Renaissance emblems—cryptic images whose meanings are not immediately apparent. The “Everyman” head appears in a series of these reliefs, smaller versions of the terracotta portraits on the sculptures discussed above (Cat. 19—30: Color— plates 2,3). Those heads are focal points, embodying the notion of the human and, in their material so easily broken, something of man’s fragility. The same observation pertains to the reliefs. The bathos of these ugly heads with large noses, big ears, and stubble beards is intentional—yet, despite their surreal situations and severed status, they have an integrity and innate dignity expressing the struggle to come to grips with simple human truths. The Breughelian reliefs, Autumn, Spring and Summer (Cat. 31 —33), are the prototypes for the "Everyman" heads and ironical self-portraits. Lerman feels a deep affinity for Breughel’s earthy images of peasants who, when eating, drinking, dancing, or pissing, capture the very essence of being and whose coarse faces bear the marks of life‘s trials on the most elemental level.
As Lerman’s studio became filled with monumental sculptures, he began to work on a smaller scale. The change led to the development of new themes and types: a van Gogh series; found object tableaux; and assembled wall reliefs. ln Sower (1986, Cat.37), Lerman combined elements from several van Gogh paintings in a surrealistic landscape dominated by the intense yellow sun and gnarled black tree. The title, of course, is taken from van Gogh’s The Sower of 1888 with its Millet-inspired figure of a peasant sowing (Fig .13). Here, however, the peasant has been transformed into van Gogh’s ear which sows as it walks (Cat.37, Fig .14)! The van Gogh portraits also offer a startling discovery when we realize that the artist’s ear is actually a razor blade (Cat.38,39 and Colorplate 4). These moments of surprise, commemorating the most famous ear in the history of Western art, unleash a chain reaction of associations transforming the serene, pipe-smoking portrait of van Gogh into an image of the vision and anguish of artistic genius.
In this manipulation of levels of reality, Lerman reveals new layers of meaning. He does so as well by the juxtaposition of everyday objects in new contexts. The discovery of a cache of pots and pans produced a number of found object tableaux. Venezia, Journey Across the Grand Canal, Echo in the Valley of the Big Pots, Facing Eternity, all of 1986—appear against landscape or still-life backgrounds (Colorplates 5,6: Cat.64). The kitchen equipment becomes an integral, though incongruous, part of the tableau, creating a dada inspired scene whose meaning is hinted at by the miniature human figures. These simple objects can take on a higher, metaphysical status as the disassociation from their familiar context unlocks new expressive possibilities. In Venezia there is a playful meta-morphosis as a spoon becomes a gondola, a pot top becomes a lagoon, and lead becomes water which itself merges with the water in the Canaletto painting in the background, creating an independent mini-world on the wall. A no less miraculous transformation occurs in Self-Portrait as Omeletfe (1987, frontisplece), where an ordinary frying pan has been cut into the portrait of the artist as fried egg, as Lerman has noted, with “knife and fork performing a ritual dance around the smiling victim who does not believe in death.”
For Lerman, the simplest object holds the possibility for revelation. Readymade items presuppose the existence of a “meta-world" capable of access through irrational or even subconscious experience. Singled out for contemplation in isolation from its normal function, the large metal water pitcher in Landscape with Figure (1986. Cat. 40) is elevated to a higher plane. Its full body and sensuous form make it an emblem of ideal beauty while its water-carrying function suggests life-giving sustenance. Once again, Lerman surprises us—now with a conceptual reversal—when we discover the small ﬁgure of a man urinating on the base of the pitcher.
Still Life with Bird and Fruit (1987). continues Lerman's playful manipulation of reality (Cat.44). Here, a basket of fruit is set in a niche. However, the basket of fruit is not painted but is a photographic reproduction of an old master painting, cut out and glued to the background. Similarly, the niche is not a real architectural space but is fictive, coming from the same poster though overpainted in the upper area to enhance the illusion of depth. Cut out leaves and branches extend over the edge while metal tendrils curl up and into our space, continuing the twisting vines of the still life. “Painted” grapes piled before the basket tumble into the foreground as “real” grapes on the ledge. Lerman interweaves levels of reality as he plays games within the two-dimensional and between the two— and three-dimensional worlds. Mocking the Renaissance paragone—the controversy over the supremacy of painting or sculpture in the representation of nature— Lerman, expanding the boundaries of art as he plays, creates a hybrid artwork neither painted nor sculpted but composed of a poster and plastic fruit. This “anti-art” tableau is so “real” that it tools the bird who swoops in to pluck a grape.
The allusion, of course, is to Pliny’s famous anecdote of Zeuxis whose illusionistic grapes painted on a theater curtain appeared so life-like that birds flew down to peck at them. Here, however, the bird—though existing in real space—is made from metal, and pecks at artificial grapes, thereby completing the illusion and confounding both art and nature.
The melange of the two- and three-dimensional continues in Red Window(1988, Cat.46). Foreground becomes window ledge on which actual cans of paint are placed. Through bright red mullions rendered in perspective, we look out to see almond tree branches in bloom. The background, a poster reproduction of van Gogh’s painting, Flowering Almond Tree Branches in the Rijks-museum, is brought into our space by the foreshortened frame, providing a “real” window into van Gogh's world. The bright yellow ledge, on which rest the wooden bottle with daffodil and the emptied cans of yellow paint, provides a transition between our world and that of art; between the materials of art and the process of their transformation. The intense, almost manic yellow of the ledge and the spent cans of yellow paint suggest a mind at once disturbed yet acute in its perception, one whose sensitivity to the world transmutes the mundane into the visionary. The incorporation of ready-mades seen in Red Window is given a new twist in the Scene of the Battle (1988) and Still Life with Paper(1988) reliefs where vase, bottle, and knives allude to their man—made prototypes (Cat.47,48). However, the large-scale and hand-carved status—refer ences to the monumental sculptures—set them apart. Nevertheless, as in the ready made tableaux, they assume an aura of the “meta-world.” The effect, paradoxically, is to animate inanimate objects by giving them a life of their own. Each object contains a memory of things past as it recalls, in the shaped negative spaces within its form, a lost part of its essence. These still lifes, as well as Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (1988, Colorplate 7), establish duets within their individual elements alluding to the simultaneously complementary and contradictory relationships of objects and ideas, of thoughts and emotions.
Leonid Lerman’s work is amazingly diverse in style, type, and media. As life is the criterion of his art, this is not surprising—for all things are susceptible to artful metamorphosis. As we have seen, Lerman plays with materials and objects, creating images whose juxtapositions generate new levels of meaning. The Trumpet-Flags —cut—out metal American flags joined to modifed brass instruments—offer silent fanfares (the horns are not playable) for their symbolic messages. To the circle of white stars on the flag entitled Metamorphosis (1988) have been added nine red stars, suggesting a hammer and sickle (Cat.49). On one level, this fusion could be read as an emblem of Lerman's personal cultural odyssey. Its ultimate meaning, rather, resides in the very act of its making—in the inspiration that melds flag and trumpet, hammer and sickle with stars and stripes, into a new sign which is more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the best way to characterize Leonid Lerman’s work is to conclude with the recent Moon Sonata (1988, Colorplate 8). Here, Lerman has replaced the field of stars on the American flag with a detail of the heavens from The Starry Night—the haunting vision of the transfigured night sky in which van Gogh expressed his profound feelings toward nature, the infinite, the divine. Moon Sonata summarizes the essential aspect of Lerman's art—the search for a higher truth—for Moon Sonatas, above all else, a symbol of the mystical, revelatory power of art.
Notes All quotations to Leonid Lerman were from conversations with the artist on April 26, 27, and May 27, 1988.
1. For a review of this exhibition, see Amy Newman, “The Celebrated Artists of the end of the Second Millenium A.D.”, Art News, April, 1976, 43—46: Mare Fields, “Komar and Melamid and the Luxury of Style", Artforum, XVI, Jan .1978, 38—41. See also, Vitali Komar, Komar/ Melamid, Two Soviet DissidentArtists, (edited by Melvyn B. Nathanson with an introduction by Jack Burnham), Carbondale, 1979.
2. For a review of the art of the 1970‘s and 1980‘s, see H. H. Aarnason, History of Modern Art, New York, 1986, 560—690; Edward Lucie-Smith, Art in the Seventies, Ithaca, 1980; Howard N. Fox, The Avant-garde in the 19805’, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1987; Kim Levin, “Appropriating the Past: Ned—Expressionism, Nee—Primitivism, and the Revival of Abstraction," in An American Renaissance: Painting and Sculpture Since 1940, edited by Sam Hunter, New York. 1986, 215—224.
3. The shepherd with a lamb slung over his shoulders appeared frequently in early Christian sculpture, see The Vatican Collections— The Papacy and Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1982, p.219. No.134. For Picasso’s, Man with Sheep. see Roland Penrose, The Sculpture of Picasso, New York, 1967, 106—07.
4. On samizdat art, see Russian SamizdatArt(edited and with an introduction by Charles Doria), New York, 1986.
5. An inscription on the upper right corner of the boxcar read “Material Casts Shadows/Shadows Belong to Light," The boxcar was destroyed in 1986 as part of the renovation of Liberty State Park.
Excerpts From "Last Man" (McKee Gallery, April 4 - May 3, 2003)
by Randy Rosen
We meet at Leonid Lerman’s Brooklyn studio to talk about the new sculptures for his upcoming exhibition, The Last Man. The studio is crammed in every direction with monumental heads that appear in deep concentration, waiting on their wood platforms, lost in their own thoughts. Leaning against one of the stands, the artist is dwarfed by the 4 foot head towering over him. The eyes need time to adjust to this world of Titans, so I pause instead at a sculpture of smaller scale in the corner of the studio. “That’s Ulysses," Lerman tells me with the familiarity of someone introducing a brother. Clearly, Homer’s hero and the struggles of his 20 year odyssey hold a special meaning for the artist. Our conversation soon turns to Ulysses’ famous encounter with the Sirens who, according to legend, lured sailors to their death with their singing and its seductive promise of total knowledge: "We know all things that shall be hereafter in the earth.” Ulysses contrives to outwit fate and hear the Sirens’ song. Instructing his sailors to plug their ears with wax, he has himself bound tightly to the ship’s mast as they pass the treacherous island. “He hears sounds no man should ever hear, sounds that no man can survive,” says Lerman, “but he survives. No man can be sane after that. Not one of us, none of us ever heard this singing. Maybe we never will. But we are always talking about it. We are using this image all the time.”1 The artist’s eyes brighten at the thought: “Can you imagine the inhuman sound, experiencing this out—of-the-world sound?" Clearly he can. Leonid Lerman wants to know, wants to hear the Sirens’ song, whatever the risk.
In light of this it is not surprising to learn that one of Lerman’s early works is Homage to de Kooning (p. 6), a man whose aesthetic was built on the risk of every brushstroke he made. De Kooning arrived in the United States rigorously schooled in the academic art tradition. So did Lerman. He had at his fingertips the same kind of thorough art education and masterly draftsmanship when he came to America in 1980. Having been trained at the Odessa School of Art, the Professional School of Mosaics and Woodcarving, and finally receiving his MFA in 1979 from Moukhina College of Art and Design in Leningrad, the newly graduated Lerman, could already execute a work of Renaissance grace and naturalistic exactitude such as his Nude Youth Seated 1982 (left). The young artist had another thing in common with his idol. Both artists would rely on their academic foundations in art and its figurative legacy. And yet, at the same time, both would continually revoke and bridle against that foundation and legacy. De Kooning's audacious course emerges less as a rupture with the past than an evolution extending its possibilities. For all its sudden shock and new- ness, de Kooning's Woman series remains tethered to the figurative tradition in Western art. His training, his facility with the brush, his draftsmanship, his awareness of art’s history—the whole toolbox of knowledge and skills he brings to this ground-breaking venture—underpin it.
Lerman arrived in the United States barely able to speak English. He stepped into a very different art world than the one that greeted de Kooning. It was larger, less communal, more commercial and competitive. Artists did not know one another as they once did, and many worked in isolation without the benefits of the networking community so much a part of de Kooning’s time. The commercial gallery environment had grown, and with it the frenzy for more “art products," and a chase after novelty that pushed many serious artists to the sidelines. Navigating this new, market—driven art world present- ed formidable challenges. Not the least of which was simply surviving. Surviving artistically. Surviving economically. Lerman worked as a model maker for a jeweler, made reproductions for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, served as a private contractor in the restoration of architectural ornaments, and as his English improved, taught at The Sculpture Center in New York.
Dislocation, for all its negatives, also offers a unique sort of freedom. “There are times when we
want to be aliens and strangers,” Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift, “to feel how the shape of our lives is not the only shape, to drift before a catalog of possible lives."2 Lerman, who was unfamiliar with American contemporary art when he came to the States, describes his first encounter with de Kooning as just such an epiphany. "I saw his retrospective at the Whitney Museum. And l was struck by de Kooning's expressive freedom in his use of the figure. That was such a source of inspiration. I saw his portrait of Elaine [de Kooning] and it was almost a Renaissance portrait. That revealed his visual culture. I realized then, the freedom de Kooning expressed in his paintings wasn't accidental. It was a natural movement and development." Lerman's Homage 1984 celebrates both the artist and the liberating window flung open by this encounter. De Kooning's trousers are fashioned in plaster, his body in wood, his head in clay. A simulation of the older artist's signature brush strokes, uninhibited and spontaneous, appears in the upper right, in counterpoint to a fabric-draped figure rendered in the classical tradition that sits on the upper left. This compendium of references to a common legacy is also Lerman's sculptural notation on the distance to be traveled. Weaned since childhood on traditional interpretations of the figure and on public sculptures, such as Moscow's landmark, The Worker and the Collective Farmer (top right) by Vera Mukchina, which were primarily intended to serve as extensions of the State’s political and ideological agenda, Lerman was now free to risk and experiment. De Kooning’s dialogue with the "void" had sustained the painter’s lifelong struggle to find a balance between chaos and order. Perhaps, Lerman, too, would evolve a plastic language equal to his artistic ambitions and the questions that engaged him emotionally and intellectually: Is it possible to find an answer to life’s uncertainties, its absurdities, its ambiguity? To make some sort of sense out of it? To define a true Self in the turmoil of such shifting sands?
In another work of 1984, Self—Portrait as Cicero (bottom right), again autobiographic, the artist's frustration Vera Mukchina The Worker and the Collective Farmer 1936 sheetmetal, Moscow Fairgrounds Park, Russia in finding an expressive mode for conveying the full range of conceptual and formal ideas he was now free to explore is rendered visible here. Lerman depicts himself as Cicero, the philosophical Roman statesman and orator, his left hand raised in declamation. The right hand, firmly planted on the rostrum, appears to emerge from the cuff of an unseen garment. Or the cuff could just as well indicate ropes, restraints inhibiting the speaker from saying what he wants to say. The orator’s mouth is not modeled in the clay, only sketched in. His eyes are also not fully rendered. This Cicero/Lerman is not equipped with the basic tools of communication, nor the vision to see what they might be. As Michael P. Mezzatesta points out in an earlier essay: "The eloquence of Cicero depended on language and rhetoric. Without such shared knowledge between speaker and audience neither the speaker’s message nor artistry can be comprehended.”3
Realizing the epiphany of freedom he discovered at the Whitney Museum would entail a journey that required not so much shedding the past as finding the courage to risk it, to move beyond dislocation toward synthesis and transformation. To totally reinvent himself and the way he speaks through his art. Lerman's odyssey had begun.
A deprecating sense of humor and irony pervade the artist's work in the 80s The towering, 12 foot, Self—Portrait as an Idiot 1985—86 (left) a column of carved wood books that stretches to the ceiling, shows a terracotta head of the artist lodged between them with the puzzled, stumped expression of a traveler facing unfamiliar crossroads. The column of books provides Lerman with a strong formal means, serving simultaneously as a metaphor for wisdom accumulated over time, and perhaps, for the impotence of knowledge to ease the existential anxieties of the human condition. Talking about the despair, evident despite the wit and irony in the self—portraits of this period, Lerman smiles and shares an old Russian saying: "You can study all your life, but you will die a fool."
The elusive role of Time and Memory in defining who we are, and how we make sense out of our reality, is a recurring theme in the artist's work. In Nightmare 1986 (p. 9) a supine figure (the artist) floats midair in a trance-like state. At the figure’s head, a symbol of Paris, at his groin, Moscow, and at his feet, New York’s Twin Towers, “recapitulating anatomically, the melancholy history of emigre artists who have been forced to leave the generative source of their homeland."4 Beyond this apparent connotation, at a deeper level, Nightmare reveals a creative search underway. The recumbent figure appears to be in a period of waiting, the kind of waiting, perhaps, that occurs during a transformative stage in the creative process, when an artist or writer steps away from his material lets go of it consciously—trusting instead to intuition and the unconscious to ferret out the needed solution. More than an emigre’s journey, the trance—like figure is in the realm of Time and Memory, those shape shifters of perception. The sculpture represents a realization and externalization of the complex cultural, psychological and aesthetic sources Lerman must synthesize in reinventing himself and his art. The odyssey continues.
In Lerman's Brooklyn studio, one spies small terracotta reliefs and maquettes tucked away in every available corner (p. 20). Thinking in clay comes as naturally to Lerman as sketching on paper does for other artists. In these small terracotta “sketches” he investigates a variety of themes and formal relationships, many later executed in a larger scale. The terracotta, Sower 1986 (left) was part of a series based on van Gogh’s 1888 painting, The Sower, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, depicting a peasant sowing seeds in the manner of l\/li||et’s earlier work on that theme. In Lerman’s terracotta, the peasant incarnates cunningly into van Gogh's now famous severed ear, insignia of the artist's distress and the cost of genius. The little walking ear appears in a later mixed media relief of 1986, also titled Sewer. The protagonist of the drama, the ear, struts across a surreal landscape casting its seed, oblivious to the encroaching portents of doom which Lerman culled from van Gogh’s paintings: blackbirds circling a wheat field, a brooding tree, a wooden sun painted scorching yellow, glaring in the background. That same glaring yellow turns up in other works of the period, such as Cadmium Yellow 1985, a wood and terracotta self- portrait in which an oversized yellow arm appears to be poking out the artist's left eye. And again it appears in Me and My Brother in a Yellow Boat 1988. Although he is erudite and extremely intelligent, Lerman's sculptures are never the result of intellectual exercises. They erupt from instinct and intuition and are understood only—and only sometimes— after the fact. 80 when questioned about the recurring use of yellow during this stressful period, Lerman looked surprised. Only later did he connect it with a past memory, mentioning that in his native Russia, yellow is the color of madness and many mental institutions. People will say that someone was sent “to the Yellow House," indicating a psychiatric facility.
Both of Lerman’s ears remained fully intact, but a palpable despondency smolders below the sardonic humor of the artist’s self—portraits throughout the 808. in Day of Sorrow 1987 (right) a ﬁgure, bent and exhausted, arms hanging limp at his sides, butts his head against a recalcitrant skyscraper, over 9 foot tell, which threatens to topple on him. Recalling that anguished period, Lerman explains, “It’s me in a clash with America, something bigger than me. Me in a new culture, trying to break through. The sculpture was my attempt to deal with the absurdity of the world. My life. The impossibility to break through. Being able to live the life of an artist. You had to work at different jobs to pay for the studio. But then you don’t have time to work in the studio.” What makes Day of Sorrow so revelatory is not its portrayal of distress, but its display of dogged determination, an ambition to overcome obstacles, however overwhelming.
"Part of my training was to do monumental sculpture, socially engaged with a mission like a social, political message. l was pretty much a product of that training, that culture. This is the way I came here, charged with that understanding of the purpose of art.” Asked how that had changed, Lerman answered: “Dramatically. It has changed dramatically. I don't have any more the sense of mission and the responsibility to carry a public message. The work became more private. Before I was sort of an idealist, in the business of universal meaning and pursuing a search for that meaning. Over the years, I realized there is no such thing. Except there is a universal desire for meaning. Meaning is something you bring into your life. So the work became more private, my own individual search.”
At best, dislocation functions as a catalyst. It disrupts life’s “givens,” our psychological and cultural comfort zones, applying a pressure that calls for innovative responses. A pressure that sometimes lays the groundwork for great originality. But such fundamental change always involves risk. The kind of “breakthrough” Lerman sought meant putting his whole being, not just his artistic skills, at risk. Like that mythic Greek vessel, the Argonaut, whose crew restored it, plank by plank, on the high seas so that the ship that returned to port was a totally different one from the ship that departed, Lerman began dismantling, plank by plank, his conceptions about art’s purpose and nature, about his own purpose and nature. The consummate art training, the formidable technical skills, the proud cultural legacy he could rely upon as a compass, would all have to be reoriented. He sought a means for synthesizing the old with the new. A breakthrough. A more fluent conceptual and formal syntax in which his nuanced and layered ideas about life, perhaps thought itself, might resonate. Moving forward meant putting everything at risk; taking a walk on the razor’s edge.
Indeed, in 1985-86 Lerman created a series of sculptures about that edge. In My Narrow, Narrow, Narrow Path 1985 (opposite page) the carved wood figure of a man strides across the thin blade of a razor propped up by a rough-hewn vertical slab of wood.
The horizontal tin blade and vertical slab call to mind, perhaps unintentionally, a cross and its associations with sacrifice and surrender. The figure again strides across the razor’s edge in Prodigal Son 1986 (opposite page). But this time we see only its walking legs. Head and torso, the repositories of mind and heart— identity—are missing. At only 16 x 6.5 inches, this small sculpture carries a surprisingly monumental heft. And, for all its whimsy, its title, Prodigal Son, hints at more serious intentions. In the Biblical story the prodigal son squanders his inheritance on riotous living only to return home penitently. He is greeted joyfully by his father to the rage of the elder brother who has led an exemplary life. The father mollifies his eldest son saying: "Your brother here was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found." The man who risks his inheritance surely lives on the razor's edge, losing the essence of who he is—a kind of death—and must find his way back to life.
In a small drawing from the same series that is both moving and disturbing, The Edgedancer circa 1988 (opposite page), the man on the razor, his arms and legs spinning like a windmill out of control, races frantically, but gets nowhere. “He’s dancing, he’s yelling to the sky, trying to be heard," Lerman explains. Even more unnerving is Vo/ens, No/ens, or Dream We Dream Together (p. 10), also 1988, a painted terracotta relief, in which two grizzle—bearded heads, mirror images of one another, hold a razor aloft by balancing its edges between their tongues. Where earlier works in the series confront the perils of a life on the psychological edge, these elongated phallic tongues lick at the razor seductively, engaging its dangers. “I wanted to say, how difficult it is to do things together.” Then Lerman adds, “And, also, it's about finding a balance within oneself. lt’s you, but it isn’t you. To discover this stranger, to see who it is— that can occupy you all your life." The mirror images in Vo/ens, No/ens and in works such as Boat with Two 1988 (p. 10) suggest not so much the duplication of twins, as they do the mind’s schizoid capacity. Who hasn’t caught themselves "just talking to lands 1998 myself?” Or, “going over something in your own mind," thinking and listening to the process of thinking? Works like Volens, Nolens introduce a new conjectural channel: The Self—in conversation with— The Self. In one version of Ulysses' journey of self-discovery, a sailor, ears filled with wax to protect him against the Sirens' song remains, nonetheless, an active participant in Ulysses’ suffering. However limited his grasp, the sailor witnesses through the pain on the bound man’s face, the magnitude of the struggle. In that witnessing he must confront his own limits and fears. For the artist, who elects to speak through a figurative mode, The Self - in conversation with - The Self strategy opens the way to an increasingly nuanced investigation of the mind's operation. The two aspects of the Self participate in the same experience but understand it differently, like the sailor whose restricted hearing allows him to comprehend only a piece of the reality he sees.
While the subject of Lerman's 1994 exhibition is the futility of war, its subtext is perception. Always intrigued by Greek myths, the artist addresses one of its most haunting, the fall of Troy. In the exhibition, sardonically titled, Landscape of Victory, one of the sculptures depicts the skyline of a city carved out of wood sitting atop a wooden cart whose massive wooden wheels echo those that carried the Trojan horse inside the fabled city. Dawn 1994 (opposite page) conveys the stillness of a city sleeping, unaware of its impending fate. The handles of the cart bear the mark of fire, as though already in the hot grip of a doom, yet unseen. “Troy was the New York of the ancient world,” says the artist. "When Paris seizes Helen—because of a single act, a single mistaken act—the city was sacked. It’s fate changed forever. Everyday I look at New York's skyline from my studio window. An eternal city. A great city. Like Rome. Like Troy. There is always the possibility that New York will share the same fate. This is no premonition. It’s happened so many times in history. whether from natural causes or man—made disaster. who knows?” Dawn is a metaphor for all great cities.
Co-mingled in the structures of Dawns’ skyline, one detects the familiar silhouettes of the Empire State Bunding' the World Trade Center. "When I came here from St. Petersburg, the skyline became very important to me- l thrust my fate into the fate of the city. New York adopted me and I adopted New York.”
That a city’s glory, or a man’s, might turn on the caprice of a single act, a single flaw, also informs the sculpture, Achilles’ Foot 1993 (right). The 41 inch, sculptural copper-foil covered foot condenses in a succinct sculptural statement the story of Achilles and its lesson. Lerman carved the monumental beam, leaving only the heel uncovered by copper, the mythic hero’s vulnerable spot. The flaw that ultimately leads to his death when Paris’ arrow finds its mark. The Landscape of Victory reminds us that such landscapes are strewn with fallen heroes, just as museums are filled with the dismembered remnants of the statues erected to them.
Echo Me, Islands 1998 (p. 14) investigates a wholly different kind of hero, Ulysses, whose greatest victory was over himself. In both formal and psychological terms this sculpture signals a major breakthrough. Lerman’s identification with the piece, even years after its making, is evident from the smile that spreads over his face when I noted the work in his studio. Even more so, as he talks about the sculpture’s theme, and the hero who must go head-to-head with both Fate and Death in order to find his way home. Having been classically trained and attracted to resolved surfaces, the artist here introduces a new freedom in his handling of the clay, a more open-ended, abstract approach to the figure. Echo Me, Islands barely hints at figural anatomy. What engages the eye first is the loosely modeled, fingered surface. Its marks suggest the undulating rhythms of the sea, but leave the sculpture's final resolution and interpretation to the spectator. Its mystery lies in its being a secret on the verge of divulgence. Asked whether the figure of a Pieta suggested within the contours of Ulysses’ body was intended, the artist tells me, "I didn’t put it there. But if you see a Pieta, maybe it's there.” Ulysses' figure leans forward, shoulder thrust outward in the direction of his glance, his left leg is bent under him, the right, outstretched, strains backward as he peers out, searching for something in the distance. "The first thought," says Lerman, “is that he's searching for the shore of Ithaca. But later I realized that, no, this Ulysses—clever, ingenious, loved, dreaded, hated— was already safely at home in Ithaca. His head was turned not toward home, but back to the sea and the crucible of events that for 20 years had molded him into a mythic hero. He is looking back at the time of struggle when all his instincts and potential were challenged, a time when he wrestled with the gods and survived. A time of testing, growth, becoming."
Pausing, he adds, “We artists, maybe we are all Ulysses.” The growing freedom and plasticity in Lerman's sculpture and its engagement with abstraction, was already nascent in a related work, Purple Pieta 1997—98 (p. 16). Here the contours of a Pieta are discernible, but barely. A curved wedge of copper at the lower center of the piece seems to disrupt the poignant embrace. Lerman first carved this sculpture in wood, painting it a deep, night sky blue. He spiked the painted surface with small, copper nails and, finally, covered it with layers of thick wax that flood, unfettered, over the sides of the pedestal coming to rest like so many spent tears. The Pieta’s two furtive silhouettes, originally hewn from a single block of wood, urge forward like a lost memory rising slowly under the purple blackness. It is Achilles cradling his slain friend, Patroclus, dead because he donned the hero’s armor to aid comrades against the Trojans, while Achilles, their best warrior, sulked in his tent. The small copper form shines in the wax, as one imagines Achilles’ helmet shone on the field where Patroclus fell. "There are no victors in war," Lerman notes. "That was the whole idea behind these exhibitions." He pulls down a worn photograph pinned to the studio wall. It is a reproduction of a famous 19th century Russian painting, The Apotheosis of War (left) by Vasily Vereshchagin, in which a pyramid of human skulls is piled high at the center. But the painting’s real subject is found in the black, scavenger ravens prowling around the pyramid. In the end, war’s only victors. “Troy is always with us. And so are the ravens,” says Lerman.
ln works like Victor 1998 (p. 17) he transcribes Vereshchagin’s raven into a metaphor for the pyrrhic victory of war. Pushing representation to the edge of abstraction, Lerman’s fluidity in handling clay and looser, now-you-see-it, now-you-don't figurative modeling, transforms the literal fact of the raven perching Victoriously on the skull of a horse, into a compelling generic and archetypal statement about war's futility. The ravens, called Balzac (p. 17), are modeled to emulate the author's self—confident posture in Rodin’s famous sculpture, a comparison suggesting that even wisdom can be defeated by war. A photograph shot by the artist in February 1998 (p. 40) simply to record a process in making one of his sculptures seems a prophetic addendum to the exhibition, in light of events that took place in New York, September 11, 2001. Lerman having just completed carving a stack of wooden books brought them to the roof of his studio intending to set the wood on fire to give it an ashen patina, symbolizing humankind’s history of destruction despite all we’ve learned. Impulsively, he sat a giant bronze raven on top to weigh the books down. In the resulting photograph, the raven oversees the blaze, silhouetted against a New York skyline in which the World Trade Center stands prominently to its right.
The charred books resurface in Which Way Home? (right) also 1998, where a third volume, covered in gold leaf, rests on them at an oblique angle. At the very top sits a monumental, generic head, turned upside down. As a sculptural device, the light gold color operates as “space”, creating greater visual distance between the massive head and the dark books. Commanding its own space in this way, the head’s volume stands out in isolation, signifying as well the isolation of the inquiring mind, puzzled, despite the knowledgeable books below. “We’re always looking for the ultimate answers to life. But at different times, different books seem to provide those answers.” Raising a question to which, in this broader context, there is no real answer, Which Way Home? leaves its viewer in the same perplexed state of mind as the sculpture’s topsy—turvy head.
As far back as 1992, Lerman wrestled with the question, “which way home," but then it was posed in a dialogue with art history and his own artistic heritage. Presence / 1992 (Opposite page) an oil on offset print, part of a series of such paintings executed at the time, depicts a classic 19th century scene showing a young girl in a romantic, bucolic landscape by the Russian painter, Alexey Venetsianov. Upside down at the top of the image, Leonid painted the well-known black and white figure of a peasant by Kasimir Malevich, replicating the schematic, geometric style of the Russian pioneer of modern abstraction. Malevich's peasant penetrates the peaceful 19th century setting with explosive force, a descending bullet about to shatter four hundred years of naturalism in Western tradition. “It’s like two worlds collided in that picture," says Lerman who went through similar shockwaves in his initial engagement with contemporary abstract art in the States. Lerman continues, "She was sitting there somewhere in time and space. But even before she was born, the abstraction was there, waiting to happen, waiting to impact the whole history of the Western art world. lt shows two different attitudes towards art, toward human beings.”
Lerman’s has been a struggle to synthesize those two points of view: to find a coherent fusion between the humanist, existential dilemmas that concern him so deeply—questions of life, death, and what it means to be human so rarely dealt with in art these days—and an abstract formal language with the range to embody them.
In his studio, surrounded by the new monumental heads of The Last Man, he talks about the distance between desire and attainment, the theme of the book by the French thinker, Maurice Blanchot. A gift from a friend, the book arrived at a crucial moment in his working on this series of sculptures. Blanchot’s text begins: "As soon as I was able to use that word, I said what i must always have thought of him: that he was the last man. in truth nothing distinguished him from the others.”5 The book's title became the exhibition’s. “It was like walking into a house that was meant for you," the artist says. “We’re all trapped in a web of meanings." Blanchot was exploring the workings of Thought and Memory from inside the mind of the one thinking and remembering. It was the same elusive space that Lerman had set out to explore in making his psychologically charged new works.
The artist’s gift for large-scale sculpture serves him well in The Last Man. These monumental heads exert an authority far larger than their actual scale and immediately call to mind historical antecedents such as the 4th century head of Constantine in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. The head has appeared in the artist's work many times before, but these heads are not portraits in any conventional sense. These are inventive profiles worth circling round, with surprising surfaces. The clay has been pulled, pressed, gouged, caressed, leaving a history of spontaneous abstract notation. If these heads portray anything, it is an interior world. The heads are sightless, their faces, featureless. Yet each one conveys a distinct personality and seems to be intensely alive, in a state of watchfulness. Listening. Alert. Minds made visible. One suddenly realizes that the single, most prominent and distinguishable anatomical part on these sculptures is their ears. Are they listening for the Sirens' song? Blanchot asks: “Can one live close to someone who listens passionately to everything? It wears you out, burns you.”6
Lerman has inscribed into the surface of each sculpture lines from Blanchot’s book. Translated into Russian, these randomly selected phrases scroll around each head in three different size scripts. The words have been rubbed with ash, inferring the passage of time. Like faded hieroglyphics, the words move in and out of focus, suggesting the rhythm of memories scrambling for the mind’s attention, the way our thoughts change over time. The viewer has been brought inside the mind’s incessant chatter, for- ever sifting through what it knows, what it remembers, what it thinks it thinks, searching for clarity. Listening for the secret of the Sirens’ song; to finally know the answers. “Waiting, waiting for a face,” Blanchot's words say. "Strange that space can still hold such waiting. Strange that what is dark should have this great desire to look at a face.”7 Lerman says, "Probably for the first time, I am exposing the vulnerability of myself, the artist. The state of confusion. I’m basically saying, after so many years, I don’t know. l’m saying that I doubt. I always doubted. And things are not better now than they were before." For the most part, each new sculpture features a solitary head. But one piece, The Last Man (Guardians of the Books) 2000 (p. 33) is constituted from three heads, each sitting on its own pillar of manuscripts reminiscent of Lerman’s columns of books. The heads are identical. Two of them face each other while the third observes what seems to be their silent confrontation. Perhaps Memory and Thought are at odds, with the Self, watching, trying to figure out where the truth lies between them. Lerman smiles at the speculation. “Sometimes I feel inferior, a little bit. l’m still grappling, still struggling, with these questions. Maybe it’s stubbornness. But there’s something that doesn’t let me let go of these issues. It's almost stronger than me. I will follow that inner, intuitive impulse.” Surely that is something Ulysses would understand.
Maurice Blanchot, The Last Man, Columbia University Press, New York, 1987, p. 86
1. All quotations are from interviews with the artist on February 15 and 17, 2003.
2. Lewis Hyde, The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Vintage Books, New York, 1983, p. 68
3. Michael P. Mezzatesta, On The Edge: The Sculpture of Leonid Lerman, Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, NC, 1988, p. 8
4. Op Cit, p. 10
5. Maurice Blanchot, The Last Man, p. 1
6. Op Cit, p. 76
7. lbid, p. 86
Excerpts From The Last Man & Related Works (Freedman Gallery • Albright College Centre for the Arts, 2005)
by Christopher Youngs
In the 1980’s, shortly after his emigration from Russia to the United States, many of
Leonid Lerman‘s artworks referenced the difﬁculties inherent in adjusting to a new
language and culture—a completely new and different way of life. Rather than depicting the melding images of assimilation, he presented a picture of a man torn between cultural differences. Now, some 20 years later, he is reconciled to a new social structure; yet, his work is still charting the distances between past memories and present desires. Often, earlier works, such as Nightmare, were literally autobiographical, charting the voyage from Russia to New York via Paris. Alongside a sense of angst, there is certainly a sardonic wit at play. In many instances, the more recent pieces may be viewed as self-portraits; yet, they also portray the quandary of everyman, trying to decipher a balance between an individual’s isolation and relationships within society, between loneliness and interaction.
Although he was classically trained in Russia, much of Lerman’s earlier works reflected an almost folkloric, naivete, a “primitiveness” typical of Russian Folk Art. He reflected an interest in illustrating myths and narrating events of man as a tragic/heroic combatant against seemingly impossible odds. One earlier series of works from 2001, Untitled (Crossing), consists of wooden constructions of feet at various angles. These figures are. interspersed with carvings of dwellings. The fragile feet extend from the wall, reminders of the upright stance of man setting us apart from other beings; yet, they also suggest the feet of Christ on the Cross, and man’s inhumanity. The dwellings are simultaneously closures, comforts and camouflage--the cloaks in which we hide ourselves. This series presents a sense of both tension and peace--harsh reality and illusion.
Now, what I just wrote could be contrary to the intention of the artist. I often argue that it is essential to comprehend the intentions of the artist to understand the work; however, part of Lerman’s intention is to privilege the viewer, allowing for a breadth of interpretation. For him, the fabrications of miscommunication hold as much interest as the tenets of his original discourse. This fascination with misreading is nowhere clearer than in the recent Last Man Series.
The Last Man is the title of a book by the French novelist and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot. In the text, the narrator is constantly trying to interact and construct an understanding of relationships with others. Nevertheless, to a great extent, the weight of the text is more consumed with his failures and his doubts than his arrival at some empirical structure of comprehension. Accordingly, while my words attempt to establish some contextual agreement, I am not so much obsessed with formulating some ultimate truth as with creating a wider realm of reading between the lines—perhaps contrary, but, hopefully, also complementary.
The newer portraits of The Last Man continue to examine issues of truth and falsehood.2 They challenge traditional values, or stereotypes of “reading” an individual’s character through facial constructs. This aspect of physiognomy, of interpreting things as manifested in outward physical appearances, is exaggerated with a figure such as Savant having an enlarged brainpan and ears apparently designed to accumulate information. Yet, despite this over-sized head, the superimposition of excerpts from a text raise the question of whether or not information is being accurately catalogued. Even without comprehending the text, or perhaps precisely because of not understanding the script, questions arise. What is going on inside this giant head?
This relationship in sculpture between the container and the thing contained is a traditional aspect of sculptural practice, somewhat like the play between positive and negative space. It is concerned with reading the interior space, a space that may sometimes only become visible by an act of imagination. Physically, is the form a solid mass, or is it hollow? Here, however, a more psychological picture is suggested. What strengths and weaknesses of character are captured in this container? The strength of Rodin’s Thinker is not conveyed in any obvious physical reading. It is the suggestion of an internal energy, of a mind at work, at once complex and simple, that gives The Thinker its intensity. There is a sense that the brain is also a muscle—reflecting the power of external musculature. An affinity with Rodin is clearly defined by a work from 1998, Too Young to Remember. It is essentially a morphing between Rodin’s portrait of Balzac and a raven. Rodin’s original portrait of the author wrapped in a cloak barely contained the internal strength of the writer. Indeed, many scandalized Parisians speculated that Balzac had sprouted an erection underneath his clothing. Regardless, it is as much a portrait of the power of thought as of the physique of a person.
Along with Lerman’s Too Young to Remember there is a series of studies, a collection of examples of the evolution of a finished form. These smaller pieces appear to be the result of the artist squeezing a mass of clay in his fist and forming the head and feet from whatever squirted out. The hand of the artist, the physical manipulation of the material is obvious. This “unkindness of ravens” morphs into altered states, yet they all clearly relate to one another. This series traces how Lerman’s works evolve in some middle ground between sense and intellect, between touch and idea. The end result, a final rendering, also tends to encompass this act of doing and being—the combined realm of the physical and the psychological world.
Within this territory of the duality of mind and body, in 2001, Lerman started his Last Man Series. In his text Blanchot presented a picture of a lonely individual striving for an understanding of himself, others, and his relationships within a tight circle of beings. He is a man consumed by doubts, haunted by memories, longing for contact, mingling memories and desire, and, finally arriving at a state of apparent bliss, or, is it death? Through learning and self - discovery he approaches the culmination of life, and the certainty of death.
That is why you must watch over empty space in order to preserve it, as I must watch over it to alter it, a ﬁght in which we are together, close through distance, strangers in everything we share, presence I touch you intact and where you hold me back at a distance, a distance formed of you but which separates me from you: a pit of light, a brightness in which I am buried. Face, face of expectation, yet withdrawn from what is expected, the unexpected of all expectation, the. unforeseeable certainty.3
There is a suggestion here that ideas possess the physical characteristics of solids and spaces. We speak of a line of thought; and, it is as if a thought becomes a trajectory—tangential or peripheral. Thought becomes a geometric solid: complementary, acute, or obtuse.
Blanchot speaks of “the nakedness of a face and your mouth metamorphosed into a mouth.4 The text is multilayered, vacillating between events and the narrator’s readings. One of his statements is “you were already a thought.”5 Instead of recalling someone’s presence as an intellectual construct, Lerman’s Last Man Series accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of the reverse, giving physical form to thoughts. The resulting portraits such as the Poet’s Daughter and the Eccentric are molded as if from unclear recollections, shape reflecting an exaggerated style of caricatures, such as Daumier’s portrait bust, Count Auguste—Hilarion de Kératry. They seem to morph as memory unravels in our minds. These forms are then overlaid with excerpts from Blanchot’s text—usually in Russian, occasionally in English. They are not presented in any sense of literal or literary entirety: they do not make a coherent statement. Rather, they represent a veil of meaning, obscured and incoherent, confusing and unattainable as a thought floating in the air. The text unfurls, expanding like a minor constellation while also turning back into itself like a Black Hole. These works are manifestations,personifications of energetic thought, thought creating obfuscations, incoherent wholes.
The surfaces of these large plaster heads are rubbed with graphite and then sealed, creating an illusion of solid lead. The resulting allusions recall writing with lead and setting lead type. This contemporary treatment is much more appropriate than some attempt at replicating a bronze patina. This is not art to present a pretty, completed picture, resolving questions. It is broaching problems: the elusiveness of thought, the fracturing of truth, the complexity of communication and communion. As Combrich observed, a correct portrait is not a literal physical representation, it is a mapping of ideas and experiences, a reconstruction of a higher reality, an ideogram. With respect to representation, while there is little literal similarity, the portraits of Alberto Giacometti exude a sense of loneliness similar to Lerman’s work—paradigms of isolation. On a formal level, as with Giacometti, Brancusi, and David Smith, Lerman frequently incorporates a pedestal or an object elevating a work (burned books, wooden structures, or piles of faux books) as part of a piece.
Lerman’s figures represent our attempts to structure a semblance of ourselves and our seemingly futile efforts to structure some sense of others. The grouping of three Guardians of Forbidden Books illustrates individuals who have attained an elevated status of knowledge as witnessed by the pillars of books supporting them. Nevertheless, for all their knowledge, they are like isolated individuals, lost in a crowd. They are each an integral figure, but they are incapable of relating to one another. They are installed so that their gazes are askew, askance from each other. As much as they may wish to become more extroverted, they are compressed into themselves. Upon entering the large gray room, the viewer automatically becomes involved as a participant in this gathering. As Blanchot writes: “All these people I see wandering about, these similar figures obeying the murmur of the night, which says one must come and go, come and go without end: deceptive faith, pointless haste, delusion that is the night’s very breathing.”6 The scenario becomes not unlike the one in TS. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “in the room women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo....there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”7Eliot writes of being categorized and pinned to the wall, like an insect specimen: “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall....” He continues: “That’s not it at all / That is not what I meant at all.”8
Social interactions are filled with gatherings where we often try to read people, and, try as we may wish to be honest, we may sometimes alter our behavior to present a more favorable image of ourselves—to make a good impression. We interpret (or misinterpret) people by how they physically appear, what they say, what they believe--all their complex layers of attributes. In other words, we construct an image of ourselves (be it true or false) and structure our sense of others. In the end, we may make meaningful contact, or we may simply remain an isolated star in an uncharted galaxy. Yet, undoubtedly, we all long for some cohesive whole, in ourselves and in our relationships. As Blanchot stated: “I did not cease to be hampered, in my attempt to see him, by him and by what I still wanted to recognize of myself in him.”9 It is this desire and the difficulty of attainment that forms Lerman’s body of work.
Thoughts do not unravel linearly. Thinking is a complex pattern of assimilating and mediating information. Tracing the path of the mind is complex, for, as a body of thought walks on a pathway it is constantly distracted by a myriad of infusions: an overhanging tree branch, a rock in the way, peripheral clouds in the sky, a movement in the woods in the corner of an eye, the climate of the day, the song of a bird, the smell of hay; and, inhibited by the sense of leaving something behind—of perpetual loss in the transitional state. Our present pose is always haunted by a multitude of postures from the past. Eventually, this process of orientation surfaces as a conscious self— concept. An identity emerges and relates to the surrounding world. Then, the process begins all over again—categorizing and naming things and repositioning ourselves in our awareness of our identity in the eyes of others. We proceed to redefine our conception of representation and draft and draw a schematic rendering of the representation of the world. So, we become both choreographers and cartographers, gesturing and mapping our course.
We often speak of “reading” a work of art. What is usually meant by that expression is that we are interpreting a work in relationship to ourselves. In What is Literature?Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of the act of reading as directed creativity: “When I am enchanted with a landscape, I know very well that it is not I who created it, but I also know that without me the relations that are established before my eyes among the trees, the foliage, the earth, and the grass would not exist at all?”10 So, we think about the relationships we establish between things, but we also insinuate ourselves into the mix. Blanchot spoke of relationships being “turned inside out” that “far from bringing me back to some center, my possibility of feeling and seeing is spread out in a circle—revolving around space unless space itself is performing a sort of revolution.”11 There is no possibility of freezing the relational choreography between even two points. In space, things constantly change. We exist within a sphere of knowledge.
Sculpture is about space, distribution, mass, tension, but again Lerman’s work goes beyond the physical nature of relationships to introduce concepts of psychological space, tension and interaction. In these works, like thoughts, the strengths and foibles of language become as solid a material as bronze. These portraits are weighted by an element ordinarily excluded from the sculptural realm: the word. Nevertheless, despite its weight, language is the material allowing them to take flight, elevating them beyond mere physical manifestations into metaphysical experiences.
The friezes incorporate many of the same characteristics as the freestanding sculptures: text imposed over image and distortion of facial form. They also imply sort of page like tableaux, recordings of a being rather than a solid semblance of a person. Naturally, they lack the physical presence of the three-dimensional works; nevertheless, they appear to document an equally disruptive discourse—the elusiveness of meaning and identity.
One series of three works from 2004 (Erudite, Imitator, and High Priest) has parts of the figure disjointed, like a jumbled puzzle, so the image becomes as difficult to decipher as the imprinted text. This work was made by deconstructing and reconfiguring the original molds—playing with identity. Interestingly, one of the other triptychs, Censor, varies in its tonality, yet, rather than appearing as a multiple, each one establishes a distinct identity.
A more intimate series of wall works, Amnesia, are pages of images and texts. In this case, the acrylic layers vary from privileging the image to emphasizing the text. It becomes confusing as to which components are intended to direct which; and, in truth, this confusion, the resulting puzzle, is the compelling core of the piece. Lerman believes that the more we learn, the less we may actually understand. Knowledge leads to doubt and introspection. The more information we acquire, the more we have to organize, assimilate, edit, and interpret. So, layers upon layers of visual, literary, and sensory information inform our thought processes. In a long life, we will certainly forget more than we remember. There is an old Russian proverb: “You can study all your life, but you will die a fool.”
A much larger wall work, Days, consists of thirty individual forms. Each piece has an implied text, but the form itself is also intended to be a letter in an alphabet—an alphabet designed by Lerman. The work is compelling both in a visual sense and in the literary sense of reading that it invites. This wall represents a fundamental basis of knowledge—components that combine in a certain order to yield another level of information. But, there is no deciphering this meaning. Their deeper meaning is unattainable. This construction is Lerman’s representation of knowledge, its individuality, its elusiveness, and our failure to be able to encompass a whole. Regardless, of the individual breakdown in information, the overall effect of the works is expansive and overwhelming. In attempting to capture a complete picture of a conception, we must attempt to embrace the inner and outer limits of an object; and, ultimately, approaching a position of knowledge, we must take a desperate leap of faith—whether it is based on truth or falsehood.
Blanchot states that: “Sometimes it seems that certain faces, by coming together, try to sketch out a face. It seems that they all eternally rise toward one another to cause that face to be present—illusion, the happiness of the illusion—why resist it?”12 As we attempt to read other’s thoughts, perhaps we should try to admire the beauty of our efforts, often futile and fragile, just as we revere tragedies in epic myths. For all our philosophizing, ultimately, we require a stubborn belief. Although we may often fail, the struggle ceases to exist without the effort; and, we may be rendered inert. Lerman’s Expulsion (After Masaccio) suggests that, from the beginning, since our Fall from grace, mankind has been the victim of a tragic misunderstanding. Poseidon depicts the God as a huge hand with a small boat delicately poised by a gigantic thumb. Maybe in the final analysis, despite our attempts at knowledge and defining our destinies, our fate is but a coin toss. Nevertheless, like relating to an artwork, pessimism shouldn’t inhibit our struggle for understanding. To do less is to admit defeat.
1. EH. Gombrich, “Truth and the Stereotype” in Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation from The Essential Combrich, Richard Woodfield, ed. (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), p. 111.
2. Maurice Blanchot, The Last Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 6. Maurice Blanchot, in speaking of the last man, says: “He did not have any precise notion of what we call the seriousness of the facts. The truthfulness, the exactness of what has to be said astonished him.”
3. Ibid, p. 88.
6. Ibid, p. 76.
7. Thomas Stems Eliot, The Love Song of]. Aflred Prufrock (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 873.
8. Ibid, pp. 874- 75.
9. Blanchot, p. 7.
10. Jean- Paul Sartre, What is Literature? (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 45- 6.
11. Blanchot, p. 31.
12. Ibid, p.87.