Libby Newman finds a home

Libby Newman’s Holocaust and Revival’

4 minute read
'Holocaust Series 3 (Huma<b></b>n Stain)' (2003-07): Drawing on her psyche and personal history.
'Holocaust Series 3 (Huma<b></b>n Stain)' (2003-07): Drawing on her psyche and personal history.
It seems like every day an article appears somewhere relating how people are coping with the dramatic downturn of the economy. We read how resourceful individuals are again selling merchandise door-to-door (the Avon Lady formula) or through organized parties (the Tupperware model). These difficult times are particularly hard on artists, many of whom, even in boom times, work at second jobs and struggle to get gallery representation and sell their work. Not surprisingly, they too are resourceful. According to recent articles in the Inquirer and Bulletin, several local artists recently organized a floating art gallery called Art4Barter, the members of whom are willing to trade their art for services or goods.

Another entrepreneurial idea— the art salon— has recently been resurrected to showcase art in Philadelphia. A few weeks ago I attended an inaugural exhibition held in the private home of the interior designer and historic preservationist Caroline Dunlop Millett. In her recently remodeled three-story Victorian house in Powelton Village, Millett and her staff artfully displayed a selection of paintings, works on paper, and painted, multi-paneled wood screens by the local artist Libby Newman.

Abstract work inspired by nature

In her long tenure as director/curator of the Ester M. Klein Art Gallery at the University City Science Center, Libby Newman introduced many emerging artists to the general public. At the same time, she was regularly exhibiting her work at the now closed Mangel Gallery in Center City. Thus Newman is an accomplished arts administrator as well as a versatile and talented artist. Her body of work includes innovative prints, paintings, drawings, painted wooden screens and books.

Newman's work, while generally inspired by landscape elements and natural forms, is primarily abstract. Her most influential mentor was the painter and brilliant colorist Sam Feinstein, a student of celebrated abstract painter Hans Hoffmann.

(In the interest of full disclosure: Last year I organized a retrospective of Newman's work for Villanova University Art Gallery. I'm a shameless admirer of her breadth and scope.)

Even in the bedroom

Newman's current salon chez Millett begins with one large, well-lit formal gallery space on the ground floor, where Newman's "Holocaust Series" is installed. But most of the rest of the art is dispersed throughout Millett's house, interspersed amidst Millett's own art collection and personal belongings. Even the bed becomes a display area for Newman's unframed works on paper, their rich colors and gold leaf enhanced by the strong light of the nearby floor lamp.

Millett's exhibit is by no means a recapitulation of Newman's Villanova show. As its title implies, it does similarly feature Newman's dramatic "Holocaust" series, a thematically linked group of six woodcut, collage and acrylic prints produced between 2003 and 2007. Most of the rest of the works, however, haven't been shown publicly.

Several fanciful, almost surrealist, drawings from Newman's amusing "Flying Hat" series are a great addition. They demonstrate her sometimes-wacky inventiveness and, like the more serious Holocaust series, how she draws upon different aspects of her psyche and personal history for inspiration.

Folding screens are another important aspect of Newman's output and tend to incorporate more surrealist imagery than her prints. Specifically for this exhibit, Newman created a miniature, expressively colored and painted multi-paneled wood screen, loosely based on one of her popular large screens (examples of which are held in private and corporate collections). Two larger wood screens— one big enough to be used as a dramatic room divider— pulsate with wreathing primordial forms, set against luscious and silvery otherworldly backgrounds.

Millett's twin agendas

For this new exhibition venue, Millett's declared goals are twofold: first, to promote and sell the art work; and second, to demonstrate how graciously art of different styles, sensitively installed, can be seamlessly integrated into one's home and life. It's too early to tell whether the commercial aspect of this venture will succeed. I hope so.

Based on the art-savvy group of people I met at the opening reception, many of the attendees already seem to live comfortably with some art, so to them Millet's interior design skills may have been less revelatory. The catch will be how successful she is in attracting novices. That notwithstanding, I applaud Millett's courage and vision in launching an art salon in these challenging times. The more exhibition opportunities for artists, the better.

What, When, Where

“Holocaust and Revivalâ€: Works by Libby Newman. Through April 30, 2009 at 317 North 33rd St. By appointment: (215) 222-1207 or [email protected].

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