AMERICAN, BORN RUSSIA, 1912–1999
Alexander Liberman’s three large-scale sculptures at Storm King reflect his studies in architecture, painting, and photography, along with his exploration of readymade, industrial forms. They also recall his early childhood memories of stage sets from Russia’s State Children’s Theater—founded by his mother—and towering forests that he toured with his father, the forestry minister under Lenin. Throughout his life Liberman sustained parallel commercial and artistic careers. In 1960 he had his first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. Two years later he was appointed editor-in-chief of all Condé Nast magazines, a position he held for more than thirty years.
Adonai was one of a few sculptures Liberman made using six-foot-long gas storage tanks. “I use cheap materials for economic reasons,” he noted. “But also, there’s an odd, maybe a romantic longing to contact the earth. I like rust. I like earth. I like rocks. The quality of a primitive forge anchors a modern mind to the earth.” The work was one of the last major sculptures acquired for the collection by Ralph E. Ogden, Storm King’s co-founder, who enjoyed solving the installation challenges it presented. Over time, the rusted steel gas storage tanks physically deteriorated, and the massive sculpture was refabricated in 2000. While suggesting a number of visual analogies, from fallen columns to trees, Liberman cited his inspiration in the renowned medieval cathedral Chartres:
“I had gone to Chartres. I was trying to analyze why cathedrals started with the basic portal. So I started with the basic portal, the two vertical cylinders of Adonai. Then there’s a nave. If you look at the long horizontal cylinder of Adonai, that’s my imaginary nave. The flat circle of the cylinder, which is frontal, is held by the two uprights. You build your own imaginary cathedral.”
Liberman chose an unexpected title—Adonai, the Hebrew word for god—for this cathedral-inspired work. Many of his other sculptures, such as Adam and Iliad at Storm King, bear similar biblical and mythical references. When asked years later about his interest in heroic titles, Liberman claimed his close friend Barnett Newman, the artist, had been influential in this regard, but that he had come to dislike titles. “They mean nothing to me,” he stated, “and today everybody wants titles. It’s like attaching a wooden handle to something that hopefully cannot be pinned down.”
In contrast to Adonai, the cylindrical shapes of Iliad and Adam, each painted bright red, have been sliced to make elliptical and circular forms. Iliad, with its dramatically cantilevered elements, forms a dynamic architectural space through which to walk. Liberman spoke about creating the work’s “extreme overhang, because I want to achieve a certain sense of awe.” Adam was created using Liberman’s unique approach to making large sculptures. An assistant driving a crane would position the various elements and weld them together temporarily; Liberman then photographed the assembled sculpture, printed and cut the elements, and repositioned and pasted them in varying positions until the composition seemed right. Using grease pencil, he then drew the composition on a photograph, mirroring the manner in which layout pages in magazines are created.
First exhibited in 1970 outside the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, Adam incited outrage on the part of President Richard Nixon, who demanded the sculpture be relocated to the less visible venue of Haines Point. The work arrived at Storm King a few years later. Liberman did not create site-specific sculpture, arguing instead that his work had the strength to create its own environment.