Leon Bibel (1913-1995)
Building A Nation (Construction)
Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches; unsigned. Inscribed in pencil on stretcher: "Building a Nation/ 38". Inscribed "37" on back of canvas. Photograph copyright Leon Bibel Estate.
Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.
Hittner, Arthur D., "Art of the Thirties: Rediscovered Masters of the American Scene," Antiques & Fine Art, Autumn/Winter, 2009, p. 169; Enduring America (catalogue); Speer, George V. and Arthur D. Hittner, "Enduring America: The Collection of Art & Peggy Hittner," American Art Review, June, 2015, p. 87.
Wrynn, Phyllis, "Leon Bibel: Art and Activism in the WPA" (essay, exhibition brochure, The Borowsky Gallery, The Gershman Y, Philadelphia, PA, 2011) and related biographical video "Art & Activism in the WPA" on Park Slope Gallery website; collection of clippings and exhibition materials from artist's estate.
Park Slope Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, as representative of the Estate of the Artist; to Arthur Hammer, New York, NY (dealer); acquired from the foregoing, May 13, 2000 (by exchange).
Accompanied by a statement of authenticity from Neysa Bibel, widow of the artist, wherein she ascribes a date of "about 1937." Unlined; in 3 1/4-inch dark-stained oak replacement frame with gold liner by Larson-Juhl.
Emigrating to San Francisco from his native Poland as a child, Leon Bibel trained at the California School of Fine Arts before moving to New York City at the height of the Depression in 1936. He was an active participant in the Federal Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration (“W.P.A.”). A Social Realist profoundly influenced by the Mexican muralists (he had collaborated with Bernard Zackheim, a student of Diego Rivera, on a series of frescoes for the San Francisco Jewish Community Center and the University of California Medical School) and Thomas Hart Benton, Bibel’s paintings and screenprints confronted social injustices or, like Building A Nation (Construction), celebrated the values and achievements of the Common Man. "The painting," according to one observer, "combines Regionalist references--in the small vignette of a farm and the implied narrative of a barn-raising--with the compositional and figural choices that were more commonly found in paintings and murals created for urban audiences."* The artist's bold (and often highly politicized) subject matter and dry, austere style caught “perfectly the fervent, almost religious idealism of the Thirties,” noted the late sculptor George Segal, a neighbor, admirer and longtime friend of the artist.** A related work appears in Fig. 1.
Unable, like many of his fellow artists, to adequately support himself following the dissolution of the W.P.A., Bibel moved in 1941 with his wife, Neysa, to South Brunswick, New Jersey, "because we wanted to eat." There he abandoned his art for the next seventeen years to work as a poultry farmer and raise their two children. "We knew absolutely nothing about farming," Bibel recalled, "and we learned."*** In the 1960s, Bibel resumed his artistic career as both painter and sculptor, remaining active until his death in 1995.
Bibel’s work has appeared in numerous exhibitions, including one-man exhibitions at the Newark Museum (1966), New Jersey State Museum (1978), Rider College (1983), Hillel Foundation of Rutgers (1985-86), Rutgers Labor Education Center (1988), South Brunswick (NJ) Public Library (1990-91), Joseph Gallery, Hebrew Union College (1992) and Hunterdon Art Center (1993).
Bibel’s works are represented in many public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Amon Carter Museum, Newark Museum, Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers, Dade County Museum, Ohio University and the Federal Reserve Board.
*Speer, George V., Bibel catalogue entry, Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner (exhibition catalogue, Northern Arizona University, 2015).
** Letter from George Segal to Barbara Glaberson, September 29, 1990.
*** Keyishian, Marjorie, "Chicken Farmers Who Became Artists," The New York Times, July 5, 1992.
Fig. 1 - Leon Bibel, Building a House, c. 1937, linoleum block print (private collection). Photo courtesy Park Slope Gallery, copyright Leon Bibel Estate.
In 2000, at an art show somewhere in New York City, we happened upon the booth of the late artist and dealer Arthur Hammer. Hammer’s booth included several works by Leon Bibel, an artist of whom we were unfamiliar at the time. A practicing lawyer with a somewhat cynical view of certain aspects of my profession, I was drawn to a painting entitled Justice for All (Fig. 2 below). Bibel, an avowed leftist in a time of political turmoil, apparently held the institutions of justice in low regard. The witness on the stand almost literally airs his dirty laundry while the judge naps. A ticker-tape behind his right shoulder, a not-too-subtle symbol of the influence of money, is directly connected to the judge, a lawyer and the policeman in the left foreground, while the police officers in the rear are likely engaged in the distribution of graft. On an impulse, we purchased the painting. When it arrived home, second thoughts began to mount: was this something we’d ever be able to sell if we wanted or needed to? Even taking into account the time (the work was painted in 1935, at the height of the Depression), was it just a little too cynical? Well, chickens that we were, we decided it was. We contacted Arthur Hammer and negotiated the exchange of Justice for All for Building a Nation (Construction). Dealer Phyllis Wrynn of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Gallery, longtime representative of the estate of the artist and the initial source of both paintings, has often indicated that she considers the painting we kept to be among Bibel’s very finest works. We concur.
Fig. 2 - Leon Bibel, Justice for All, 1935, oil on canvas, 30 x 37 inches (present whereabouts unknown). Photo copyright Leon Bibel Estate.