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(Essay) The Architectural World of Edward Biberman (1904 - 1986)

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

(Note: See the following posts for the Catalog references in this essay)

“Men can teach each other what to reject and what to accept. Moving forward, together – men can build a world where they sing together of those they love . . . of the beauties their hands have made . . . of joy and pleasures – shared . . . where men walk together – as brothers – in peace.” --- Edward Biberman (1)


Four categories characterize the remarkable six-decade artistic oeuvre of the American modernist Edward Biberman (1904-1986): -- Precisionist and Magic Realist scenes of New York and Southern California celebrating the creations of man;

-- Portraits reflecting both the historical and psychological realities of his subjects; -- Rural landscapes and still life paintings honoring the beauty of America and its flora; and -- Social realist “topical” works portraying the struggles, hopes and shortcomings of society. For many observers, his paintings of buildings, bridges, dams, and highways hold the greatest appeal. In these “structural” works, Biberman achieves a lyrical beauty that serves as a platform for a deeply humanist philosophy grappling with the contradictory impulses of the 20th century: the horrors people visited upon one another and the material wonders born of human ingenuity and creativity.

PHILADELPHIA Born in Philadelphia in 1904, Edward Biberman was the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants from the outskirts of Kiev. His mother, Eva, arrived in the United States with her family as an eight-year-old, while his father, Joseph, immigrated at the age of eighteen. His parents, together with his paternal uncle, owned and operated a sizable textile manufacturing concern. From the age of eleven, Biberman enjoyed the fruits of his parents’ success, living in a leafy and comfortable Philadelphia suburb and excelling academically. At the same time, however, he experienced the sting of anti-Semitism and marginalization, which began to shape his world view. A precocious youngster, Biberman skipped several school years, graduating from high school at sixteen and, with the benefit of a scholarship, from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business at nineteen. Though a teaching position at his alma mater and a place in his family’s business beckoned, Biberman chose instead to pursue the life of an artist.

Biberman’s first exposure to art consisted of copying illustrations and cartoons from popular magazines. From there, he graduated to original compositions in colored crayons and watercolors. Herbert, Biberman’s beloved brother, bought him his first set of oils when he was sixteen and recovering from a broken leg. While a straight-Astudent at Wharton, he spent his spare time painting, at times under the tutelage of Philadelphia portraitist Robert Susan. No one in Biberman’s immediate family came from an artistic tradition. His father and uncle felt some disappointment that he did not join the family business, but with Susan’s encouragement, Biberman enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1924. Biberman followed the Academy’s traditional course of study which included landscape painting, still life drawing and portraiture, but particularly enjoyed his studies with Henry McCarter and the modernist painter Arthur Carles.

PARIS

In 1926, Biberman won a drawing prize and the siren’s song of Paris called to him. With his prize money and a small family stipend, the budding artist set off for Europe, enrolling at the Academie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, where he could draw and paint from live models. Biberman painted in Paris and in the Breton fishing village of Concarneau during the summers of 1926 and 1927. Unlike many other American expatriates, he spoke fluent French, allowing him to mingle comfortably in the Parisian art world and to explore the countryside. He became acquainted with a coterie of American painters, including Marsden Hartley, Adolf Dehn, Ernest Fiene, Stuart Davis, Hilaire Hiler, and Emil Ganso, but his closest companions in France were Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi. He also knew and worked briefly with William Stanley Hayter at Atelier 17.

In 1927, at the suggestion of the French critic Charles Fegdal, Biberman submitted two paintings to the Salon d’Automne, both of which were accepted. Two years later, he showed at the Salon des Independents and had his first solo exhibition at Paris’ Galerie Zak, which had hosted solo shows for Kandinsky, Chagall, and Modigliani. The exhibition subsequently traveled to the Neue Kunsthandlung Gallery in Berlin. Although sales were minimal, reviews in both the French and international press were encouraging. Eugéne Tériade of the influential magazine Cahiers d’Art assured the young artist that remaining in Paris for the next decade would secure his international artistic reputation. (2)

Biberman’s European paintings were mostly figures and still lifes. His works from 1926 and early 1927 employed a rather brushy form of modernism, but by summer of that year his compositions became sparser and more edited. Flesh was rendered in flat, bold planes and figures blended into one another, at the same time becoming increasingly disassociated from their surroundings. “Nudes have rarely been used more successfully in modern mural decoration than by Edward Biberman in these paintings,” noted the art critic for the Chicago Tribune, “and he uses them in an entirely new manner, in great surfaces that make the figures look as though they were hewn out of a single block of stone.” (3)

Biberman’s palette was striking, consisting of bold, saturated colors; contrasting bright yellows, pinks and greens with deep umbers, blues, and blacks. He rarely used shadows and tonal variations to create three dimensionality. Colors, as well as perspective, were flattened. Paris of the late 1920s was awash with various forms of modernism including Surrealism, all of which influenced the young artist. While there is no evidence that Biberman completed any major architectural works during his three years in France, his early emphasis on structure, clear delineation of forms, broad expanses of unmodulated and unconventional colors and a mysterious and magical atmosphere foreshadowed what would follow when he began to explore the urban environment of New York City and Los Angeles.


(Figure 1) Number 2 Park Ave, 1930, oil on canvas, 21 ¼ x 34 ¼ inches

NEW YORK After achieving a degree of success in Europe, Biberman felt compelled to return to the United States, first for a brief stint in Philadelphia and Mt. Desert, Maine, and then settling in New York City. The artist was bewitched by his new home. “In September I moved into my first New York studio,” Biberman recalled in connection with his painting Number 2 Park Avenue (Figure 1). “The ‘look’ of this city, which I was now to live in for the first time, offered me painting motifs… of continuing interest. This particular city view, with its meticulous spacing of roof-top, pipes and buildings, struck me as being so like a theorem in geometry that I was tempted to sign it ‘Q.E.D.’”(4)

While continuing to paint figures and still lifes, Biberman was inspired for the first time to paint images of the creations of America’s engineers, architects, carpenters, plasterers, steelworkers and stonemasons. When depicting figures, he often portrayed people in the context of the built environment, as in his designs, Bodies of Men and Fabric of Building and Genesis of the Skyscraper, both of which were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition Murals By American Painters and Photographers. (5) Many of Biberman’s fellow exhibitors also focused on modern architectural wonders, including artists associated with the Precisionist School. Stuart Davis’ Abstract Vision of New York and a pair of triptychs - Georgia O’Keeffe’s Manhattan and Charles Sheeler’s Industry - likely caught Biberman’s eye, as they addressed many of the same concerns as Biberman’s structural paintings. Biberman was enthralled by the burgeoning architecture of New York in the late Twenties and early Thirties. He conveyed this fascination in his stunning depiction of a skyscraper in Five in December (Figure 2), which juxtaposed his own self portrait against the background of the city’s ever-growing vertical expanse. Writing of this painting, The New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford waxed poetic: “Edward Biberman . . . has canvased some of the most interesting visual possibilities of the Manhattan scene – particularly at the point where roof-tops meet the sky. ‘Five in December’ shows the golden honey-comb of an office building, the rich plum-color depths of a shadowed sky-scraper and roof-tops in the background, and the artist himself in the foreground. This dramatic composition will awaken sweet melancholy in any good metropolitan: We have been waiting for just that moment of our life to be expressed.” (6) Biberman’s fascination with the visual possibilities of New York City’s rooftops is also seen in his sparklingly spare 1934 depiction in The Railway Station (Catalog 2) and his 1931 painting, Cityscape – Demolition/Cityscape, No. 2 (Catalog 1), which The New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell described as “a razed building, which is the perfect backdrop for the as yet-unwritten tragedy of Gotham . . . a New Yorker’s painting of New York.” (7) As these critics noted, Biberman’s sleekly rendered architectural works have a compelling narrative quality that piques the viewer’s imagination.


(Figure 2) Five in December, by 1936, oil on canvas, 20 ½ x 30 ½ inches

An Innovator In New York, Biberman became a truly American painter. His architectural subjects—be they the Chrysler Building, the elevated tracks of the Sixth Avenue El, or his later sundrenched Southern California scenes of vernacular urban and suburban structures--could only exist in America at the specific place and time he painted them. “He is one of the of the very few American painters who is not derivative,” wrote Merle Armitage in an essay for Biberman’s solo exhibition at New York’s Reinhardt Galleries in 1936, “just as he is one of the few who can approach any subject with unprejudiced eyes and mind . . . when we are able to review in retrospect this particular transitional period in the art of our country with its foreign influence and its preoccupation with the surface of the American Scene, it will be discerned that Biberman has painted powerfully in and of his time.” (8) Biberman’s was a unique form of modernism that mediated between abstraction and mimetic verisimilitude. In his introduction to the first book dedicated to Biberman’s art, novelist Howard Fast wrote that “Biberman’s work is neither photographic nor obscure. It is realistic in the highest sense.” (9) The artist himself described his work as “based in fact but edited and reordered.” (10) Although Biberman eschewed non-objective painting, he did not hesitate to employ its visual elements into his architectural works, even sometimes inventing them. As early as 1932, in his painting Elevated Tracks (Figure 3), Biberman began an obsession with the use of floating squares, rectangles and other geometric shapes of sometimes contrasting, sometimes complementary, colors which he carefully placed in the middle of his architectural compositions to define space, contain or repel light, and mirror in nature the structures of humanity. While Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler pioneered the use of raylines in American art to serve a similar purpose in their their Precisionist works of the 1920s, Biberman employed the large, solid blocks of flat colors from his time in Europe. Now, however, instead of depicting monumental expanses of human flesh as if they were stone, his floating squares and rectangles frame actual monuments hewed from stone. No other artist uses this device so early in American art. Biberman’s invention predates Josef Albers’ arrival in the United States, as well as Mark Rothko’s earliest color field paintings. Charles White did not adopt these structures in the background of his large figure drawings until the 1950s, after his move to Los Angeles where Biberman championed him in the local art community. (11)



(Figure 3) Elevated Tracks, c. 1932, oil on canvas, 12 x 15 ¾ inches Alexander Fried, art critic for The San Francisco Examiner, also noted the unique contributions to modernism made by Biberman’s architectural works through their surrealist tendencies. Like Howard Fast, Fried observed that Biberman’s compositions breached a divide between reality and an otherworldliness that was difficult to define. The works had an emotional component that viewers were unable to overlook. In a review of a 1936 solo exhibition in San Francisco comprised mainly of New York works, Fried wrote: “Up to a certain point Biberman paints realistically. But even to such everyday themes as New York skyscrapers he imparts a surrealist mood of mystery whether by strange imitations of loneliness, remoteness or silence, or by his strange patterns of hot color. His touch is not subtle, but he is steady, intense and original.” (12) The New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell also associated Biberman with surrealist impulses. In his review of the Third Whitney Biennial, Jewell wrote approvingly, “If it is the borderland of surrealism you crave, turn to . . . Edward Biberman’s mesmerized ‘Subdivision’. . . .”) (13) (see Catalog 4). Although then-contemporary critics connected Biberman to Surrealism, the term Magic Realism, which achieved common usage in the early 1940s, may be more appropriate, since Biberman rarely drew upon or portrayed the overtly subconscious. Rather, many of his compositions from the 1930s and 1940s depicted the real world in an unreal manner.

Biberman found architectural subjects both intellectually and aesthetically appealing. A deep thinker and keen observer, Biberman was drawn to the intersection between physics and design and appreciated the thorny challenges faced by builders. “I have always been attracted to problems of space engineering,” he recounted, “which I find arrive often at beautiful forms. When I lived in New York . . . I painted the George Washington Bridge, which I think is one of the most beautiful engineering structures I have ever looked at.” (14) Biberman would go on to paint many other bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge as part of his submission to the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts’ competition for the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco (Catalog 7) and a 1971 version of San Diego’s partially constructed Coronado Bridge (Catalog 14).

A Precisionist With their clean, crisp lines; flat planes of color; subordinated brush strokes; pared-down compositions; edited forms; streamlined, machine-age aesthetic and photographic sensibility, the overall look and feel of Biberman’s New York and later Los Angeles structural paintings place him in clear dialogue with the Precisionist painters, though it was only later in his career and ultimately after his death that some began to frame Biberman’s work in that context. Not only do Biberman’s paintings bear a visual relationship to the Precisionist works of Charles Sheeler, Henry Billings (see Figure 4), Louis Lozowick, George Ault, Niles Spencer, and Ralston Crawford, but the artist showed at many of the same institutional exhibitions and came into frequent contact with the Precisionist painters. Biberman’s first big break in New York came in 1930, when Alfred Barr and Jere Abbott, co-directors of the recently established Museum of Modern Art, included him in one of the institution’s earliest shows of American art, An Exhibition of Work of Painters & Sculptors Under 35 Years of Age. (15) That exhibition included works by artists who would at some point in their careers be considered as members of the Precisionist School, including Virginia Berresford, Peter Blume, Elsie Driggs, Charles Goeller and Stefan Hirsch. In 1933, a Biberman painting and fabric design were included in a Macy’s window display with works by Sheeler and Davis and most of the Precisionists exhibited with him at New York’s Municipal Art Exhibition in 1934 and at the Whitney exhibitions during the Thirties. (16) Biberman, however, objected to any categorization of his work (just as he objected to dating his paintings after 1930, lest critics start talking about his “good” and “bad” periods). Although he admitted to being a fan of Charles Demuth and a particular admirer of Demuth’s My Egypt, he refused to be pigeonholed into one or more genres or styles. (17)

We can only speculate why Biberman was so long excluded from the Precisionist canon. The most straight-forward answer is his reluctance to be labeled, particularly as one of an amorphous group of painters without a manifesto and little in common beyond a particular “look” to their works. Unlike Sheeler, Crawford and other Precisionists who rarely ventured from their “be-hard” aesthetic, Biberman continued to work in a variety of styles, some of which bore little visual relationship to his architectural works. Simply put, he was more eclectic.

(Figure 4) Henry Billings, White Boats, c. 1929, tempera on masonite, 26 ½ x 44 1/4 inches, © Estate of the artist or assignee


It is also likely that gallery representation contributed to Biberman’s exclusion from the Precisionist canon. The artist was initially represented by the Montross Gallery and then by Reinhardt Gallery. The Charles Daniel Gallery represented most of the Precisionist painters in the late Twenties, including Sheeler, Demuth, Driggs, Billings, Spencer and Goeller, who had also returned from Paris in 1929. The comparison with Goeller is instructive, as his reputation in Paris rested in part on Precisionist still lifes that foreshadowed Sheeler’s most refined works from the Thirties. Daniel’s addition of Goeller, but not Biberman, to his stable of artists makes sense in this context, since Biberman was known principally as a figurative painter. After the Daniel Gallery closed in 1932, most of the Precisionists moved to Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, while Biberman remained with Montross and then Reinhardt.

In 1961, artist and critic Frode Dann classified Biberman as a Precisionist. (18) After his death, other curators and critics further associated Biberman with the Precisionists. In 1987, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) included one of his Sepulveda Dam paintings (see Catalog 12 for another example of these works) in its presentation of The Machine Age in America 1918-1941, billed as the “first major survey of the machine aesthetic and its effect on painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, decorative arts, and design.” (19) The other artists in the exhibition constituted a “who’s who” of Precisionist painters. LACMA included the Biberman “to emphasize the strong involvement of Los Angeles artists and designers with the machine age.” (20) Later, in 2009, writing in connection with Biberman’s retrospective at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, The Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight placed Biberman squarely in the Precisionist camp. “His two visually different but conceptually related styles were pretty much set by the 1930s,” Knight wrote. “The geometric landscapes are a distinctive variant on 1920s Precisionist painting, which focused on regional subjects, mostly industrial in nature. Besides Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the Precisionists included lesser-known figures such as Ralston Crawford (who studied at Otis Art Institute before moving East), Niles Spencer and Louis Lozowick” (21) (see Figure 5). Ilene Fort, the retired curator of American Art at LACMA, went so far as to call Biberman “the lost Precisionist.” (22)


(Figure 5) Ralston Crawford, Roof,1934, oil on canvas, 34x 40 inches, © Estate of Ralston Crawford LOS ANGELES Biberman does part ways with some of the Precisionist School painters, however, in that his “structural” works often include an emotional or philosophical component that transcends pure design, the deification of the machine or ambivalence towards the metropolis. This is particularly true of Biberman’s Los Angeles paintings. After seven successful years in New York, the artist hoped to escape the pressures and insular nature of the New York art world. In 1936, Biberman moved to Los Angeles where he could be close to his family, including his film director brother, Herbert, and his sister-in-law, the Academy Award-winning actress Gale Sondergaard. Biberman’s mother also joined her sons in Los Angeles, while still grieving her husband’s tragic suicide in 1933.

Biberman began to explore the local scene in depth. His initial architectural paintings in Los Angeles are slickly rendered depictions, such as Wilshire-Coronado Corner (Catalog 6), Subdivision/Mandalay Bay (Catalog 4), Oil Tanks/Storage Tanks (Catalog 3) and Loudspeakers (Catalog 5). Like his architectural paintings of New York, these works are tethered to specific locations unique to the Los Angeles area at the time they were painted. In that sense, Biberman relates to the Regionalist and American Scene painters who focused on local scenes, but without the accompanying boosterism or sentimentality which was often present in those genres.


A New Dealer It is difficult to fully appreciate Biberman’s architectural renderings of exterior structures without also exploring his public murals within government buildings. Several years after arriving in Los Angeles, Biberman achieved one of his artistic ambitions: the completion of his first mural project. During his early career, some critics characterized the large-format canvases of his Paris days as akin to mural decoration. After settling in New York, he was elected to the National Society of Mural Painters and devoted time to entering mural competitions, offering seminars on mural techniques, and acting as a mural critic. There he met the “big three” of Mexican muralism, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, all of whom contributed to Biberman’s conviction that murals could play an important role in conveying the story of America. Although he had not yet completed any public murals, his mural designs were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition Murals By American Painters and Photographers.

As an ardent New Dealer, Biberman was eager to participate in mural projects of the Depression Era, both as an artist and as a juror for mural competitions. In 1938, he completed his first public mural, for the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles. He received the commission from the Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts, considered by many to be the most prestigious of the public work projects, since commissions were awarded based on merit rather than economic need or relief status. Biberman’s Los Angeles: Prehistorical and Spanish Colonial depicts extinct sloths and saber-tooth tigers long before their demise in the La Brea tarpits, together with Spanish friars and soldiers of the Colonial era, all set against the backdrop of an early map of the city. The artist followed this commission in 1941 with a cycle of four mural panels for the Los Angeles Post Office (in the same building as the Federal Courthouse) entitled Creative Man, which represented diverse cultures and their contributions to humanity. That same year, Biberman completed a third Treasury Section mural, Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice for the Venice Post Office (Figure 6).

(Figure 6) Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice, 1941, oil-wax emulsion on canvas, 10 x 20 feet

The Venice Post Office mural portrays the city’s founder, Abbot Kinney, encircled by the West Coast version of the Italian Venice he initially imagined, gondolas and all. Beyond the arc framed by capitals of Corinthian columns, Biberman depicts what Venice, California had become by the early 1940s. Bustling like a West Coast Coney Island, the artist’s contemporary Venice is populated on one side with beachgoers, sailors and families against the backdrop of an amusement park with its rollercoaster, the Venice Pier and city street lights; on the opposite side, in contrast, are businessmen, workers, oil wells, derricks, storage tanks and other hallmarks of industrial America. With its expansive scale and complex, detailed background, Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice is Biberman’s most extensive early expression of the built environment of Southern California.

Biberman also competed for other mural commissions, including the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C., and post offices in San Pedro, California and Dallas, Texas. He was a runner-up in the competition for the St. Louis Post Office and the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco, the largest and most expensive of the Treasury Project murals with entries from eighty-two artists. Biberman’s Rincon design featured the Golden Gate Bridge set against a map of the Bay area (see Catalog 7). The figures in the composition celebrate human ingenuity in science and industry, one of his favorite themes. Steelworkers and welders appear in the left foreground of the composition with a smoke-belching factory behind them. The right side shows scientists and lab technicians plying their skills before a background of sparkling skyscrapers, another manifestation of the artist’s association of the built environment with human progress. An Activist While Biberman was busy executing some of his finest architectural paintings and mural submissions, the western world was plunged into turmoil by the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that deeply troubled the artist. Biberman was a political Leftist, who joined the American Artists Congress and other progressive organizations. An early anti-fascist, Biberman (like many progressive artists) associated with socialists and communists who fought against the threat posed by the forces of Hitler and Mussolini that were fighting a proxy war on behalf of the Spanish rebels under Francisco Franco. Having seen the devastation wrought by the Great Depression, Biberman had already contributed social realist “topical” paintings to his oeuvre. With the rise of Hitler, the advent of the Spanish Civil War, and the start of World War II, the artist committed more of his energies to acerbic figural paintings delivering a clear, unnuanced message in support of freedom, liberty, and democracy and against hate. Biberman’s architectural works from the late Thirties through the early Fifties cannot be properly evaluated outside of the context of his social realist works. The hopeful and optimistic message of his “structural” paintings stand in stark contrast to the horrors of these global conflicts, as well as the discrimination and violence faced by people of color, trade unionists and political outsiders on the Left in the United States. Moreover, some of Biberman’s architectural works, particularly from the Forties and early Fifties, became social commentary in themselves, with partially-built structures assuming an even more significant symbolic quality.

Biberman understood his architectural works as an antidote to the hate and the horrors visited upon humanity. Buildings, dams, bridges, and highways represented the best that humanity had to offer. He did not see these structures in conflict with nature, but rather an enhancement of the already existing beauty of the planet. He saw no incongruence in painting the wonders of man while at the same time producing works revealing human suffering. When discussing one of his Sepulveda Dam paintings in contrast to one of his “topical” paintings, Biberman observed:

"I think that those of us who are concerned with what we hope is a forward direction of mankind in general . . . have to feel that our concern is for all aspects of humanity because we feel that there is a great potential for good in the human being. I have never felt a traumatic dislocation in being able to say, ‘This is what man has done and can do, and this, by contrast, is the horrible thing that man can do, is doing, and has done.’ These are the two faces of a single coin. We are in the dual position of being able to witness the most stupendous achievements of mankind done during precisely the same period when 6 million Jews were consumed in the gas ovens, when an atom bomb wiped out Nagasaki and Hiroshima . . . I know that this problem of dualism disconcerts one – people say ‘How can you paint a gorgeous landscape and turn right around and paint a horror.’ I say these things unfortunately coexist. So, I can paint a Sepulveda Dam, which I still think is very beautiful. Incidentally, I first saw the Sepulveda Dam when I was going to the Birmingham Hospital for the Red Cross to conduct a class in drawing for wounded soldiers. Well, I can only repeat, for me, these are the two faces of a single coin. And while I glory, really, in man’s potential, I’m aghast at what man can do with this potential. The fact that I paint the two sides is, I think, indicative of both my hopes and my fears." (23)

For a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, certain of Biberman’s architectural works became a vehicle for directly addressing concerns about war, violence, hate and discrimination. Biberman was deeply impacted by World War II, which he viewed as a just war to defeat fascism. By his own estimation, he completed no more than a dozen paintings during the war; his time was otherwise taken by service in California’s State Guard and teaching at a local art school where he gave crash courses in technical drafting for use in war plants and shipyards. He also tried his hand at poster design in support of the “Art in National Defense” program. The few paintings he completed mostly addressed the war in a direct way, such as Dawn Landing, which showed a landing craft heading for a beach under attack in the distance or Blue in the Night (Searchlights), a nearly abstract image of coastal defense lights probing the night sky for enemy planes.

With the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the conclusion of World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War, Biberman’s architectural works became more philosophically nuanced. Although he returned briefly to overtly optimistic paintings celebrating “aspects of man’s creativity” (24) such as his first paintings of the Sepulveda Dam, the events of 1947 were darkly transformative. At the outset of the “Red Scare” in Hollywood, Biberman’s brother, Herbert, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and interrogated about his and others’ involvement with the Communist Party. Refusing to respond on constitutional grounds, he was held in contempt in 1950 and sentenced to six months of prison. In solidarity with his brother, the artist stopped painting and focused on efforts to win Herbert’s release. Herbert was one of ten prominent directors and screenwriters (the “Hollywood Ten”) imprisoned and subsequently blacklisted by the film industry. His conviction had a dramatic impact on the entire Biberman clan. Herbert’s wife, Gale Sondergaard, who had been one of the leading ladies in Hollywood, was also blacklisted, and galleries and institutions became reluctant to show Edward’s work. The artist also came into direct and open political conflict with Arthur Millier, the powerful art critic of The Los Angeles Times.


“[I]t is true that during the late 1940s and early 1950s I found it difficult if not impossible to keep the strange social climate of that time out of my consciousness,” Biberman recalled, “and therefore out of my work. But the other side of the coin was always there too, - pride in man’s creative potential, joy in his positive accomplishments . . . The earth itself and its visual riches, the people upon it, the great gifts of form and structure which they have added to it . . . .” (25) For Biberman, a well-designed building, bridge or dam was the apogee of human achievement. When construction stopped or a building fell into disrepair, it signaled a failure of society. War, strife, and persecution conspired against the fruits of humanity’s labors. Biberman addressed these concerns in a series of paintings which depicted abandoned building sites, either in incomplete stages of construction or decay. Two of these works were part of the Death of an Idea cycle (Catalog 10 and 11). With their tidy rows of columns projecting into barren blue skies, the works have an austere and monumental quality reminding viewers of ancient Greek or Roman archeological sites and their associations with the birth of Western Civilization, including humanity’s initial forays into democracy, liberty, and humanist philosophy. The incomplete and decaying buildings symbolize the various “ideas” which had died or were under threat during the Cold War.



(Figure 7) Francis Criss, Greenwich Village Rooftops, c. 1932, 18 x 23 inches, © Estate of the artist or assignee


Like fellow Precisionists George Ault, Charles Goeller and Francis Criss (see Figure 7), Biberman utilized a Magic Realist vocabulary in his Death of an Idea series. His composition and drafting are meticulous. The perspective is crystalline, and the light precisely defined. Each plant, piece of rebar, section of stucco and rust stain is exact. Nothing is soft or ambiguous. But there is more to Death of an Idea #1 and Death of an Idea Detail than mere mimicry of a building in decay. Biberman introduces elements which take the composition to a different level of reality. “Magic realists try to convince us that extraordinary things are possible simply by painting them as if they existed,” (26) observed Lincoln Kirstein in his essay for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1943 exhibition American Realists and Magic Realists. He could have used the same words to describe Biberman’s painting. In the real world, skies are not consistently blue, clouds are not pencil-thin and perfectly horizontal, and the air does not magically change color when viewed through an open window, but all these things occur—and appear very real—in his Death of an Idea pictures.

It is also noteworthy that many of Biberman’s architectural works from this period are devoid of people. Gone are the self-portraits set against the darkening city, the tiny worker manning the industrial storage tanks, and the masses inhabiting his murals. In their place, Biberman celebrates the physical creations of man. Likely influenced by his family’s trauma during the McCarthy Era, the artist eliminates the tarnished image of the human form from many of his structural paintings of the late Forties and early Fifties, reserving it instead for his overtly social realist works depicting the politicians, investigators and informers who negatively impacted the Biberman clan.


A Chronicler As the Korean War came to an end and Joseph McCarthy fell from grace, Biberman’s architectural paintings became more hopeful. During the mid to late Fifties and into the Sixties he completed a series of compositions depicting plasterers, carpenters and other skilled tradesman working at Los Angeles area building sites. In a 1976 interview, Biberman commented on these works, (see The Construction (Catalog 9)): "When I turned again to painting structural forms and the workmen constructing these forms, as in the plasterer series and the carpenter series, two things were combined. First of all, I’ve always liked to work with my hands. In addition to being a painter, I’ve always liked to work with tools, and for an amateur I’m a pretty fair carpenter. When I studied fresco painting, I had to learn how to plaster, so I became a fair plasterer. These things touch me, move me, deeply. I’ve always had the feeling that had I been functioning as a painter in a period of political calm or social well-being, I probably would have found almost my entire output very lyric in quality. I would have painted people; I would have painted landscapes; I would have painted the structures that men build — all of which, as I say, have a strong emotional impact on me." (27) The artist completed these works at a time when Los Angeles was still experiencing a post-War boom. The population grew by over 500,000 between 1950 and 1960, creating a significant demand for new construction. That Biberman’s workers included people of color is unsurprising: Los Angeles was among the nation’s most diverse cities and Biberman had long included thoughtful and authentic depictions of minority communities in his works.


Biberman’s enchantment with Los Angeles rivalled his fascination with New York two decades earlier. Unlike his New York architectural works, however, he rarely painted famous Los Angeles landmarks. Rather, he was smitten with what LACMA curator Ilene Fort has labeled “Southern California’ vernacular.” (28) “I became fascinated with the special look of Los Angeles,” Biberman explained. “When I say ‘special look,’ I am referring [to] old Los Angeles and its framework of palms. I am not referring to Victorian architecture or to taco stands or hot dog stands, but to the old type of faded stucco indigenous to Southern California structures. For me,” the artist continued, “these structures related to the climate and the fact that buildings in Southern California do not have basements. I grew up in a climate where every house had a cellar or basement. The structure had to be more solid. Here, the typical small stucco building did not necessarily need that kind of underground support. So, these buildings together with the background of palm trees, became a new and fascinating subject.” (29) Biberman’s paintings from the “stucco and palm tree” school resonated the public, critics, and institutions. In 1957, he won the Tupperware Award for The White Wall. Like Shadow and Substance (Catalog 17), The White Wall included a group of spindly palm trees casting mysterious shadows on the plain white stucco wall of a medium-rise building. The award was accompanied by a substantial cash prize allowing the artist the opportunity to develop additional cityscape paintings. Another painting from this period, The White Fire Escape, became the first of his works to enter LACMA’s permanent collection.

From the Fifties through his very last paintings in the mid Eighties, Biberman continued to explore the buildings of Southern California. He attributed the success of these pictures to his ability “to look around a city and see things not everybody does.” (30) His capacity to “see” depended heavily upon a keen understanding of and ability to replicate Southern California’s unique light. “Of course light makes these paintings,” he observed. “It’s the light that reveals things.” (31) Referring to The Fire Door (Catalog 29), Biberman recalled: “I came by there one day and the whole thing was revealed by the way that shadow was cast . . . In other lights, it’s nothing – with that light, it was fantastic.” (32) Patio Roof/House in the Hills (Catalog 19), Patio Detail (Catalog 20), Espirit (Catalog 23), 13 Windows (Catalog 24) and Studio Wall (Figure 8) all demonstrate Biberman’s prodigious facility in capturing the unique light of Southern California, whether reflecting off a retail building, a Palm Springs getaway or the artist’s own home in the Hollywood Hills. “Before Hockney and Ruscha there was Edward Biberman, painting these coolly reflecting views of our vast city,” one commentator remarked. “He became the true chronicler of Los Angeles in artistic terms.” (33)

Throughout Biberman’s career, his depictions of reflected light revealed an astonishing and often surprising array of colors. Starting with his time in Paris and New York, critics remarked on his unconventional palette. Variously described as “striking,” ‘hot,” “unusual,” “eerie,” “curious” or “very beautiful,” the artist made unusual color choices and applied his pigments in broad planes of typically unmodulated tones. Biberman acknowledged that his move West “changed my palette, my impulse.”(34) In Los Angeles, his colors became clear and deeply saturated. Early works often featured the contrast between the earthy ochres, yellows and browns of California’s native sand and soil set against a bright, near aqueous blue sky. Later, as Biberman explored Los Angeles buildings more deeply in the Seventies, he mastered every shade of white and gray in rendering the facades of anonymous concrete, steel and stucco structures. Although whites and blues dominated these compositions, Biberman punctuated the works with flashes of color to draw the eye and convey a feeling of brightness – a curtain’s yellow, the red of a door or the orange or peach of the corner of a building.

Another feature of Los Angeles which inspired Biberman was the rapidly expanding freeway system that continues to define the city. The artist celebrated, rather than condemned, the suburban sprawl that accompanied the development of highways. “Freeways had become a new feature in many cities and in the 1960s I began to paint them, too,” he recalled. “This was a simple extension of my feeling for the beauty, economy and order I so often sense in well-functioning architectural engineering.” (35) Biberman elaborated: “[T]he physical structure of the freeways fascinate me. I consider some of the colors and curves almost the way I might look at the architecture of Egypt in terms of its culture, or the architecture of the Renaissance and Greece in terms of their cultures.” (36) Freeway Divide (Catalog 13) is a monumental example of Biberman’s freeway paintings, while Freeway Detail (Catalog 15) provides a more intimate view.

The 1970s found Biberman more at peace with himself and with the world around him. In the essay for his second solo exhibition at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in 1979, Biberman reflected: "[T]hose who remember the 1971 exhibition may note that the major emphasis is now on the more lyric notes of Landscape, Figure and Structural forms. This choice is of course a very conscious one. Certainly the world of today is not without its serious problems, some a carry-over from the past, and some new ones. I am certainly aware of them, and of the resultant moods of cynicism, alienation and doomsday prophesy which they have brought about. But it is precisely because I recognize the prevalence of negative attitudes, that I feel the need, in contrast, to hold up to view the considerable beauties of this planet and the significant additions that Mankind has made to it. Almost as though I wish to pose the question as to whether we dare destroy the legacy which is ours to lose or keep." (37)


(Figure 8) Studio Wall, c. 1965, oil on masonite, 32 x 47 inches

Like the paintings of fellow Precisionist George Ault from three or four decades earlier, Biberman’s works from the Seventies and Eighties bring beautiful artistic rationality to a complicated and anxious world. In the last fifteen years of his career, his architectural works became increasingly simplified, abstracted, and pared down to their essence. Unpopulated and stripped of superfluous details, these last architectural works are perhaps Biberman’s most elegant and alluring as aesthetic objects. However beautiful they may be, for some observers these works carry the additional weight of continued social commentary from the committed progressive artist, as well as a deeply personal reaction to family trauma from the McCarthy Era. Contemplating the entire body of Biberman’s structural paintings from the late 1940s onward, noted scholar, Bram Dijkstra reflects, “Concern for humanity is as central to Biberman’s art as the invention of architectural form – and their interaction is absolutely central . . . Peace is the essence of future creativity, violence the scourge of the present.”(38)

Edward Biberman’s architectural world is filled with painstakingly beautiful images of the places he lived. An artistic chronicler of his time, he captured the distinct character of the world around him. His paintings are visual love letters to his adopted homes. With an almost obsessive fervor, Biberman celebrated the buildings, dams, freeways, and bridges of New York and Southern California as monuments of humanity’s progress and future potential. Not satisfied with mere design, Biberman imbued these works with a cooly emotional punch and a nuanced social and political commentary. In a world fraught with questions of existential strife and division, Biberman heralded the creations of humanity for generations to come.

Chris B. Walther

___________________________________________________


Notes:


(1) Biberman, Edward and Howard Fast, The Best Untold: A Book of Paintings by Edward Biberman, Blue Heron Press, New York, NY (1953), unpaginated


(2) Biberman, Edward, Time and Circumstance: Forty Years of Painting by Edward Biberman, The Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles, California (1968), p. 11


(3) Kospoth, B.J., Edward Biberman’s Mural’s,Chicago Tribune (International Edition), March 17, 1929


(4) Time and Circumstance, p. 15


(5) (Catalog) Murals By American Painters and Photographers, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1932), unpaginated


(6) Time and Circumstance, p. 43

(7) Jewell, Edward Alden, Biberman, The Original, The New York Times, February 17, 1932

(8) Armitage, Merle, (Brochure) Edward Biberman Exhibition, Reinhardt Galleries, New York, NY, April 6 – 30, 1936


(9) The Best Untold, introduction by Howard Fast


(10) Kaufman, Jeffrey, (Documentary Film) Brush with Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman, (2007), 85 minutes


(11) Although beyond the scope of this essay, Biberman’s relationship with, and support of, Charles White is a clear testament to Biberman’s keen eye for artistic talent and his commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Biberman helped White find his first teaching job in Los Angeles at the Westside Jewish Community Center, featured White in a segment of his TV show, Dialogues in Art, and found White commercial representation at Benjamin Horowitz’ Heritage Gallery. For a more thorough description of Biberman’s relationship with White see Oehler & Adler, editors, Charles White A Retrospective, Yale University Press (2018) (essay by Ilene Fort, Charles White’s Art and Activism in Southern California), p. 127

(12) Fried, Alexander, Rugs, Paintings, Prints, The San Francisco Examiner, September 6, 1936


(13) Jewell, Edward Alden, Americans: The Whitney Opens Third Biennial, The New York Times, November 15, 1936


(14) Audio Interview of Edward Biberman, conducted by Betty Hoag for the Archives of American Art New Deal and Arts Project, April 15, 1964 (1 hour, 54 minutes)

(15) (Catalog) An Exhibition of Work of 46 Painters and Sculptors Under 35 Years of Age, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1930)

(16) Shaykin, Rebecca, Edith Halpert: The Downtown Gallery And The Rise Of American Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (2019), p. 66

(17) Audio Interview of Edward Biberman, conducted by Emily Corey under the auspices of the Oral History Program, University of California Los Angeles, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, November 23, 1975 to March 4, 1976 (8.5 hours)


(18) Dann, Frode, Precision and Emotion Blend, The Independent Star News, Pasadena, CA, May 14, 1961


(19) Letter from Earl C. Powell III, Office of the Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to Suzanne Zada, Edward Biberman’s representative, in connection with the loan of a Sepulveda Dam painting, May 27, 1987


(20) Ibid.


(21) Knight, Christopher, Biberman’s Portraits of Life in the Big City, The Los Angeles Times, March , 4, 2009


(22) Fort, Ilene Susan, Edward Biberman Retrospective, A Proposal for the Pasadena Museum of California Art, April 4, 2001


(23) Corey Interview


(24) Time and Circumstance, p. 60


(25) Biberman, Edward, Edward Biberman in Retrospective Exhibition, Palm Springs Desert Museum and Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, CA (1971), p. 6


(26) Kirstein, Lincoln, American Realists and Magic Realists, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1943)

(27) Corey Interview


(28) Zada, Suzanne, Edward Biberman Revisited, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Barnsdall Park (2009), p. II (quoting Ilene Fort)


(29) McDevitt, Lorelei Heller, Architectural Perspectives, Designers West, May 1984, p. 140


(30) Harris, Eleanor, An Artist Talks About His Style, The Santa Monica Outlook, March 18, 1978

(31) Ibid.

(32) Ibid.

(33) Reed, Rochelle, Best Bets, New West, March 13, 1978, p. SC-4

(34) Edward and Sonja Biberman: Artistic Love Affair with Los Angeles, unsigned and undated essay in Biberman estate files


(35) Time and Circumstance, p. 60


(36) McDevitt


(37) Biberman, Edward, (Brochure) Edward Biberman Paintings Since 1971, Palm Springs Desert Museum (1979), unpaginated


(38) Correspondence between Bram Dijkstra and the Author, March 15, 2023


Credits:


Catalog Design: Clanci Jo Conover


Dedicated to Suzanne W. Zada (Gallery Z), Biberman’s tireless champion for over fifty years


A special thanks to Arthur Hittner, Sandy and Bram Dijkstra, and Martin E. O’Brien for their insights, suggestions and edits. Any errors or omissions are my own.







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