Nobody believed more fervently in art than the painter Gabriel Laderman, who died last week after a long battle with leukemia. Gabriel’s belief in painting was exacting, idiosyncratic, uncompromising, ferocious. I was thunderstruck when I first studied with him, at the Skowhegan School in Maine in 1971. He was in his early forties then, a large man in blue jeans, aggressively casual, with a huge balding head and a Cheshire Cat grin. He was a modern man who abhorred the modern orthodoxies, a pluralist and a classicist, in artistic matters wildly promiscuous and unyieldingly rigorous, a believer not in the tradition of the new but in tradition itself as quite simply always new. Need I add that he was a New York Jew, almost arrogant about his Brooklyn beginnings? The mind was razor-sharp, Talmudic. The appetite for argument was instinctive, obsessive. I have never encountered polemic that was both so tough and so elegant. He wielded a battering ram on behalf of beauty.
Dance of Death, 1995-6
The tyranny of trends, vogues, and vanguards was something Gabriel refused to acknowledge. At a time when everybody wanted art to be fresh, Gabriel did not give a damn about the next new thing. He felt no need to grapple with what was happening simply because it was happening. His ability to explain what was wrong with a Color Field painting or a Neo-Dada sculpture interested me far less than his belief that such stuff could not possibly affect the work he was doing. He did not believe in the Zeitgeist. He believed in the individual. His great idea was that what an artist makes is a matter of personal choice and inner necessity, not a response to historical forces. He himself was a representational painter in an era when many said that representational painting was already dead and buried. But unlike some postmodernists, who see their resurgent representational impulses as a reaction against modernism and therefore the next step in a historical progression, Gabriel rejected the very idea of progress in art. He refused to accept the historical inevitability of certain kinds of art. Cubism was not what history had made Braque and Picasso do, it was what Braque and Picasso had wanted to do—and somehow managed to do. His tradition-consciousness was not a form of academicism. Everything was about personal encounters, a person’s unique response to the challenges of the rectangle, of volume and void, of line and color, of style, of emotion.
Portrait of David and Johanna, 1972
Gabriel’s finest works, by and large, are his figure paintings. He struggled mightily to realize these anxious, perfervid, hyperbolic visions. Nothing came easily to Gabriel, not a way of handling the brush or a way of drawing the figure; and so his own career became the most striking demonstration imaginable of the strenuousness involved in achieving artistic freedom. To become oneself as a painter involved an inner struggle that was also first and last a formal struggle—a struggle with the language of art. From the bold studies of young men and women in the artist’s studio that he exhibited in 1972 through the series of figure compositions that culminated with the heartbreaking and unabashedly autobiographical 1995-6 Dance of Death, Gabriel engaged in a pitched battle with the possibilities of painting. The work might not always succeed, but it was never academic. An obsessive antiquarian book collector, and an expert on nineteenth-century American comic illustrations and especially the work of D. C. Johnston, he aimed to bring some of Johnston’s rollicking, acidic spirit into his compositions. He revered the figure paintings of Louis Le Nain, Corot, Courbet, and Balthus, and he reached to reimagine their force and eloquence in his own terms. Then there were his own psychologically fraught relations with students and friends, reflected in the high anxiety that is almost always part of the emotional weather of his work. From the 1972 Portrait of David and Johanna through Dance of Death, Gabriel was a poet of the angled body, the twisted head, the shadow so jagged and dark that it pointed straight to the abyss.
First Bottle of Wine (Homage to D. C. Johnston), 1988
It was no surprise that Gabriel’s fighting spirit sometimes got the better of his luminous intelligence. When I met him in 1971 he was riding high, with a still life and a couple of landscape paintings recently included in “22 Realists,” an important show at the Whitney Museum of American Art where his work hung alongside that of Chuck Close, Alfred Leslie, William Bailey, Philip Pearlstein, and Malcolm Morley. Gabriel was at his most polemical in those years. He acted as if he were going to rule the world. And his detractors were not wrong when they said that he could be bombastic, a man whose understandable impatience with bland formalist abstraction and the art world’s ever-growing anti-art Dadaist shenanigans led him to sentimentalize the virtues of a return to representational painting, as if some particular style could save the day. He learned from experience, however, and as the years passed both his art and his ideas became richer, subtler, and more ambiguous, although he could still be a hellraiser. What he offered to those who were willing to look and to listen was the splendor of artistic possibility. If young artists told him they loved fourteenth-century Sienese painting, he would tell them to look at it longer and harder and make it their own. He believed you could learn from nineteenth-century caricatures, from sixteenth-century Mannerist engravings, from nineteenth-century Japanese landscape paintings, from Mondrian, from Phidias, from anything and everything. But you didn’t just pick something up and use it. This was no postmodern game. You embraced it, you struggled with it, you transformed it, you made it your own. And in the process you transformed yourself as an artist. I will never forget Gabriel, one night at a raucous meeting of painters on the Lower East Side, speaking about a gentle little composition with a few figures in a rococo interior by the eighteenth-century Venetian figure painter Longhi. “Daintiness,” this anything but dainty man announced, “is a quality we tend to overlook. We should think more about painting figures that are dainty, delicate, elegant.” Those of us who listened to him and learned from him—and there are many of us—will never forget Gabriel. To think, to feel, to look, to paint—this was his great injunction. We honor Gabriel by continuing.
Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.