2015 National Mature Media Award WINNER

2015 National Mature Media Award WINNER
The Creative Landscape of Aging Wins a NMMA Award!

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Interview with: GERSON (GUS) LEIBER


In high school, what was your earliest creative experience(s)?

I can’t recall. There was no instruction.

You don’t remember doing anything creative prior to high school?

No, I don’t.

Your art career really found its rudder when you began training at the Royal Academy of Art in 1945. Can you talk about that time?

Not really. No, the only art experience I had was the examination for entrance when I was in Budapest when Judy [ wife, Judith Leiber] dragged me to the Royal Academy. But that was quite the alien experience; I’d never been to an art school before.

So that was your first experience finding your mode into the art world?

Everything was very…so unusual. I had no experience in an art school before because any artwork done in high school was completely unschooled. It was very strange. I just took this examination, which was a very scripted one. All of the applicants for entrance were given the exact same piece of paper and [they had us]   draw from the model.  I had never done that before.

Then how come you went there?

Judy wanted me to become a student there. But I thought it was completely impractical because this was right after the battle of Budapest-in wartime mode, and I didn’t speak any Hungarian except for a few words I’d picked up. I had no instruction.

You were an American GI in Budapest when you met your wife, Judith Leiber, the well-known handbag designer. That marriage has been strong for almost 70 years and it has been successful for both of you in business. Having had roots in Brooklyn from a poor family, your life was transformed with happiness, wealth and a solid direction in art. You’ve studied with famous artists and explored different mediums. How did that journey develop your vision in art?

I can’t explain it. I can’t, at all. I got to the Arts Students League and became aware of the trends in art and what was going on. The instructors were very good but their experiences were completely different. And my reaction was different. I did as I thought I should do, just worked, and made drawings. And actually, instruction was more from the fellow students. They were better than I, of course, and they were all ages and came from all different backgrounds and had different skills, talents. It was amazing.

There was one particular artist at the Art Students League whom you were very close to for decades, who recently passed away…?
Will Barnett.

4.     You draw, paint, produce prints and sculpt. Is there a medium that you enjoy most and why?

Enjoyment is a…is not the word for it. The mediums are just there to be used. Tools. They’re all tools. It’s sort of a search for self-realization. What’s going to happen? What’s going to…you know?

How would you characterize the search for self-realization in your art?

Well, I’m an intense reader, and the thing with New York is, it’s all a polyglot of people,  everything from the subway to the streets. In most of my early years, painting as art was very highly regarded. But no longer. It’s all changed now. Everyone is searching for a medium that is outside of painting. Painting brings you no publicity, no fame. Painting brings you no inclusion in museums and galleries and so on. Everything is looking for the odd thing, whatever it is. And those that find it are wonderful. So fortunate.

Of course, painting goes on. I’m a member of the National Academy, and I was elected as a Graphics member. At the Art Students League I studied with Will Barnett. But now that he’s gone I can say, we had absolutely no graphics instruction. The Art Students League had a very loose way of working.

And there were no grades in the Art Students League, right? You just worked.

No, there were no grades. You…the arts, in the G.I. bill, you were well-payed to go there and spend your time. And some of the people just came in for the roll call and left after that. There were no ideological struggles or fights between, say, a realist or an abstract painter. No, everyone did their thing.

Going back to when I asked what mediums you use…how do you move between them? Choose to do one medium over another?

It’s more of a feeling. For instance, I love the watercolors of Turner, and I would have given anything to paint that way. So I found a watercolor instructor, took classes, and I learned techniques and what-have-you. Some of those have remained with me, and some of those have not. Right now I’m not doing any graphic work because it’s hard work and requires dexterity and physical activity which I find myself at a loss with because of my age. I haven’t done any etching for years now.

What are you doing now, Gus? What kind of art?

Paintings and drawings.  Mainly paintings.

You’re a colorist, really such beautiful color. Color is very intuitive.

I’ve found that to be true. My work is very intuitive. I start out with just a few marks on a panel, and build and build. I’m pleased and astonished that it’s working.

Your work is in the collection of many museums, and you have won numerous awards and continue to exhibit. Do you maintain the challenge of creating art every day?

No. I can’t. My energy level is much, much lower than it used to be. I’m 94 years old. I’m astonished that I’m 94! Whatever happens, everything is astonishment.

You and your wife have built an extraordinary museum, The Leiber Collection, in Springs, New York. That was a huge project and is certainly a legacy for both of you. Do you have other philanthropic causes that engage you?

Yes. When I had money, we spent it quite freely on charities. But now that the place [Museum] has been built, the prospects for the elements of charity and so on are much lower.

 At 94 years old, what more could you have done or still want to do?

At this age, time is much more important than it used to be. You don’t know what’s going to happen the next minute, the next day.  I’ve discovered that I’m not a genius, but I think I’m a good artist.