Gabriel Laderman, Painter of Figurative Art, Dies at 81

March 18, 2011

Gabriel Laderman, Painter of Figurative Art, Dies at 81

By WILLIAM GRIMES

March 16, 2011

Gabriel Laderman, a painter and critic who played a leading role in the revival of figurative art in the 1960s and 1970s, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 81.

The cause was cancer, his son Raphael said.

Mr. Laderman made the argument for the continued vitality of figurative work as a vehicle for poetic expression both in his paintings, which embraced landscape, still life and, late in his career, narrative painting with human figures, and in a stream of critical articles in the major art publications.

In “Unconventional Realists,” published in Art Forum in 1971, he turned the spotlight on a group of painters, largely ignored by the critical establishment, that included Sidney Tillim, Philip Pearlstein, Jack Beal, Leland Bell and William Bailey, with whom he made common cause.

Like these artists, loosely grouped under the banner of New Realism, Mr. Laderman was looking for new ways to make figurative art speak in a contemporary voice, despite the dominance of Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Mr. Laderman explored the traditional language of landscape, producing cool, analytic, closely observed street scenes of several cities. He later moved on to still life. In the 1980s, in perhaps the most interesting phase of his career, he turned to violent crime, sex and death as source material for mysterious narrative paintings, several of them based on the crime novels of Georges Simenon.

Gabriel Laderman (pronounced LADDER-man) was born on Dec. 26, 1929, in Brooklyn.

He took his first steps as an artist in 1949 by doing the exercises in Paul Klee’s “Pedagogical Sketchbook,” a manual developed at the Bauhaus. The following summer he studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Mass.

Like virtually every serious painter at the time, he started out under the potent influence of Abstract Expressionism and set out to be an abstract painter, encouraged and advised by Willem De Kooning, whom he befriended in Provincetown.

He enrolled in Brooklyn College, where he studied with Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Alfred Leslie, among others. The school was, he later said, “a hotbed of abstract painting radicalism,” with an emphasis on discovering new pictorial ideas, drawn from unlikely sources, that would generate fresh work.

After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1952, he studied Asian art and 14th-century Italian art for a year at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University before serving in the Army. In 1957 he earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Cornell.

His artistic conversion took place while he studied in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship in the early 1960s. After seeing the work of artists like Signorelli and Mantegna, he wrote in “Unconventional Realists,” he began “searching for believable representation rather than the different brand of abstract manipulation I was involved in before.”

He had exhibited engravings and intaglios at Tanager, one of the earliest of the cooperative galleries on 10th Street in Manhattan, but in 1962 he began showing at the Schoelkopf Gallery, which represented him until the death of its owner, Robert Schoelkopf, in 1991. Thereafter he showed at the Tatistcheff Gallery.

John Canaday, reviewing a show of his cityscapes for The New York Times in 1964, noted their dry, dispassionate stillness, adding that “if a section of a city could be taken like a spray of leaves or a blossom and pressed and dried between the pages of a book, it would come out like these paintings — with most of the color and all of the juice gone, but with a new clarity in the flattened version of a pattern originally supplied by life.”

Mr. Laderman soon began turning to still life painting, depicting bottles, vases and jars in a cool, crystalline manner.

In the mid-1980s, he embarked on a new body of work that plumbed the mysterious territory of sex, death and the psychodrama of the family. In his ambiguous tableaus, rendered in a visual style reminiscent of de Chirico or Balthus, with a wild palette of acidic oranges and yellows, horrible events have just taken place, or seem about to happen.

In the three-canvas work “Murder and Its Consequences,” a clothed man argues with a nude woman, then strangles her on a bed. In the third canvas, she is gone and he lies in deathlike repose, eyes closed and hands clasped over his belt.

In his ambitious “Dance of Death and Life,” a murder mystery told in six panels, the action unfolds in the rooms of a cutaway dollhouse, where somnambulistic figures dream or sleepwalk as a life is taken.

Mr. Laderman taught at Pratt Institute and, for many years, at Queens College.

In addition to his son Raphael, of San Francisco, he is survived by another son, Michael, of Manhattan, and a brother, Ezra, of New Haven. His wife, Carol, an anthropologist, died in 2010.

A retrospective exhibition, “Gabriel Laderman: Unconventional Realist,” traveled to four university museums and the New York Academy of Art in 2008 and 2009.

Originally published by The New York Times