Obituary: Alexander Liberman

Joan Juliet Buck
Wednesday 01 December 1999 00:02

FOR THE 58 years that he was at Conde Nast publications - for all but the last five its driving force - Alexander Liberman functioned as a conduit to more interesting values than those that usually inform publishers of women's magazines. His commitment to a strong, daring, art- borne vision of the present was unique in his world, and shaped the company thinking.

He cared about modernity, immediacy, the present. He was a painter and sculptor whose early abstractions hang in museums and whose monumental steel sculptures can be found on US public sites from Los Angeles to Connecticut. He was a Russian exile who spoke English and French at work and Russian at home, who appeared in his immaculate grey suits and summer beiges to be the embodiment of old-world elegance, a notion he detested, as he did that of "good taste".

Alexander Liberman abhorred nostalgia, but it was his successive exiles from Russia to London to Paris to New York that allowed both Vogue, the magazine, and Conde Nast, the company, a living relationship with the important movements of 20th-century art. Matisse, it is said, was fascinated with Vogue as "a strange combination of the sacred and the frivolous". The sacred, to Liberman as to Matisse, was art; the frivolous, fashion.

The young man who started work in the art department of American Vogue in 1941 was born in Kiev. At five he had seen the revolutionary crowds with banners marching on the Nevsky Prospekt chanting the Internationale, and the fiercely simple red, black and white posters of the time may have influenced him for life. His father, Simon Liberman, a lumber merchant, navigated the revolution by selling millions of acres of wood abroad for Lenin's government, which allowed him to spirit his sickly son to London from Moscow in 1920.

By 1924 Alex was reunited in Paris with his mother, the half-gypsy Henriette Pascar, who during the revolution had run a children's theatre. It was here that his first sketches were inspired by the 1925 Art Deco exhibition. He married a skiing champion, divorced, and fell in love with Tatiana Yacovleva, an exile like him, who had survived the worst days of the revolution by reciting poetry to soldiers in exchange for food, and had been the great love of the poet Mayakovsky. She was married to, and estranged from, a French diplomat called du Plessix.

Alex Liberman worked for the graphic artist Cassandre, joined the innovative news magazine VU, where he produced startling covers, worked with Brassai, Kertesz and Capa, became art director, and formed his lifelong opinion that photography was not art.

VU was edited by Lucien Vogel, who had business and family ties to the French edition of Vogue, so that, when Alex and Tatiana fled the German occupation with Tatiana's daughter Francine, American Vogue was the logical destination and he was hired by Conde Nast himself - against the wishes of the art director, Mehemed Fehmy Agha, whom he replaced a year later.

Liberman steered Vogue away from what he called "visions of loveliness", the soft wafty photos and sentimentality of women's magazines, towards the graphic intensity of a news weekly. He hired an artist named Irving Penn as his assistant, and, when Penn couldn't persuade the old guard of Horst, Erwin Blumenfeld and Cecil Beaton to take the photographs Liberman had decided upon, Liberman asked him to take the pictures himself and created one of the world's great photographers.

He himself recorded artists in their studios: Matisse, of course, Braque, Derain, Rouault, Picasso, Leger, Pevsner, Chagall, Mir, Giacometti - even Larionov and Goncharova in their tiny Paris flat. These were included in his 1960 book The Artist in His Studio as well as in Vogue. He invited art into the pages of the magazine, and critics. It was how he reconciled the tension between the two worlds that made Alex Liberman extraordinary in the history both of art and of media, and a master in the manipulation of the invisible forces of attitude and style that endlessly reshape our culture.

The fact that he worked on his paintings and sculptures on weekends and controlled a world of images during the week constituted his central, obvious dichotomy. He managed to combine his contradictions, inspire the entire company starting with its owner Si Newhouse Jnr (whose father had bought Conde Nast in 1959), teach editors and art directors how to recognise talent and then how to deal with the talented - something he did with much use of the preface "my friend" and repeated assurances of admiration, addressed to young writers as well as to famous photographers. He was also swift in going after talent he wanted - inveigling Avedon away from Harper's Bazaar, or inviting Anna Wintour to Vogue - and knew how to use the people around him to their highest capacity. He could save them from domestic accidents by throwing them on Concorde to do something urgent in Paris. He could be effortlessly persuasive: a candidate for the newly vacated editorship of a magazine was greeted with so convincing a "You don't want to do this, do you?" that they promptly said "No".

His advice was to preserve one's personal life, to identify one's instinct, and never to carry packages for people. He was pragmatic: his first metal sculptures were made with gas tanks, underground containers left over from rural filling stations. His appreciation for low culture made him love shopping malls and Florida and furnish all his houses with plain white furniture, often plastic. It was here that Marlene Dietrich, Christian Dior, Claudette Colbert, Yves Saint Laurent mixed with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. More than celebrities, he liked people who had achieved things, changed the world a little, and often this is what made celebrity. Early on at Vogue, in the Forties, he had said, "I prefer `interesting' to `attractive'." He was surrounded by both.

As an artist he produced a substantial oeuvre, paintings and huge steel sculptures that were perhaps not sufficiently recognised in his lifetime; his power and worldliness made him unclassifiable, which Americans find irritating. He said, when pressed, that he had preferred having a happy life with Tatiana to becoming the kind of monster that art requires. They had no children together, but her daughter Francine was raised as his own by Alex, and became the writer and essayist Francine du Plessix Gray.

After Tatiana died in 1991 he married for a third time, to Melinda Pechangco, and, after he handed over the job of editorial director to James Truman in 1994 (becoming deputy chairman), he moved to Florida.

His legacy is in the art, and at Conde Nast. He forced all around him to work in the present, aware of the larger forces and the telling details, of the sacred and the frivolous, alert at all times to small changes in the wind. The reflex can be called that of an exile, ever watchful, but I think there is another version: he had the luck and the burden to be born in a time and a place where the world was being remade. At five he had seen the constructivist's imagined future, and for the rest of his life he was the man who could remember the future.Alexander Liberman, magazine art and editorial director, writer, photographer, painter and sculptor: born Kiev, Russia 4 September 1912; Art Director, Conde Nast 1943-62, Editorial Director 1962-94, deputy chairman (Editorial) 1994- 99; married 1936 Hildegarde Sturm (marriage dissolved 1937), 1942 Tatiana du Plessix (nee Yacovleva, died 1991; one stepdaughter), 1992 Melinda Pechangco; died Miami, Florida 19 November 1999.

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