Bruce Lieberman: ‘An Equal Opportunity Artist’

Bruce Lieberman paints not only landscapes, but everything else that constitutes his world
Bruce Lieberman in his Water Mill studio, filled with large-scale paintings including, below, “Call First – Water Mill Summer,” a portrait of family and friends inspired in part by the work of Renaissance masters. Mark Segal

When Ronald G. Pisano’s book “Long Island Landscape Painting, Vol. 2: The Twentieth Century” was published in 1990, Bruce Lieberman, then in his early 30s, was the youngest painter to be included. It was an honor, to be sure, but slightly misleading. 

A visit to his Water Mill studio makes it clear that Mr. Lieberman paints not only landscapes, but everything else that constitutes his world — people, gardens, food, flowers, animals — sometimes within the same painting and always with a devotion to the expressive quality of paint and what he has called “non-photographic space and composition.” 

When Pisano contacted him about an exhibition, Mr. Lieberman explained that a New York City dealer had disappeared with a truck of his paintings, leaving him with only small landscapes and still lifes. “It was rather ironic, going from being a New York painter doing somewhat neo-Expressionist paintings with the landscape as a background to being a Long Island landscape painter.”

While he lost no time over the next 25 years building a substantial body of new large-scale work, a severe 2014 head injury left him temporarily able to paint on only a small scale. “I could only sit, I could only paint for a limited time, and my vision was messed up.” 

He has since recovered, as evidenced by a large as yet untitled canvas in progress he showed a visitor. “A lot of my paintings are smart paintings with funny or silly things in them. You’re not supposed to paint religious themes, so I figured I’d paint religion.” 

The painting includes white angels swooping down from the sky and cowering human figures below, all rendered in a somewhat abstract, expressionistic style. The last judgment, the end of the world, and the rapture arose in conversation about the painting’s subject, but he was reluctant to nail it down. “It’s ultimately a painting searching for a title,” he said.

Of his painting “Commedia Dell’arte,” he said that Titian’s “The Rape of Europa” was a source for the putti in the top left corner of the canvas. “The line of figures in the back started out like Giotto and over the last week they have begun to look like Beckmann,” he said. 

 “Call First — Water Mill Summer” is a 2013 painting of family and friends at leisure around a swimming pool. “Most of the figures come, in some way or another, from Titian, Veronese, and, in this case, Saint Jerome from Bellini’s ‘San Zaccaria Altarpiece.’ My Madonna sits against the white chair as many of Bellini’s virgins sit isolated and highlighted against a curtain.” 

“But of course this is a secular painting symbolizing the world we live in, with a direct correlation between my present life and the type of painting I’m interested in. It is a conversation with and about art.”

He cited as other sources Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, Manet, and Bonnard, as well as the modern American painters Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Robert De Niro Sr. “I’m an equal opportunity artist,” he said. 

Mr. Lieberman was born in Brooklyn in 1958 but raised in Old Bethpage. “It was farm country at the time. My grandfather planted grapes and cherry trees and a whole orchard.” His mother was a Sunday painter, and his parents took him to museums and the opera.

“I was one of the artistically talented guys in high school,” he said, “but I never thought it could be a career. My father was a chemist and a businessman and a child of the Depression, and he said, ‘Artist? You can’t be an artist.’ ”

He attended Southampton College for a year during which he surfed, studied marine biology, and incurred “a huge debt.” He also took an art class with Robert Munford, a Pop Art pioneer who exhibited primarily in Europe during the 1960s. “He was a loud, boisterous guy who was super generous with knowledge and taught me how to teach.”

Munford was the first in a succession of figurative artists who were important to Mr. Lieberman’s development. After dropping out of Southampton College, he went to California to surf, then returned to Long Island and enrolled at Stony Brook University, where the art faculty included the noted critics Lawrence Alloway and Donald Kuspit and the figurative sculptor Robert White. 

White introduced Mr. Lieberman to Paul Georges, a painter who had studied with Fernand Leger and Hans Hofmann and was known for large-scale figurative allegories and self portraits. When he went to meet Georges, who was part of the circle that included Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, Mr. Lieberman brought a black portfolio and wore a suit.

“Georges said to me, ‘You look like a dentist. Come tomorrow and we’ll go to the Figurative Alliance.’ ” The Alliance of Figurative Artists was an artist-run discussion group frequented by the important figurative painters in New York City during the 1970s, among them Alice Neel, Philip Pearlstein, Rackstraw Downes, and Georges.

“Every Friday night we would go, they would have speakers or somebody would show their work, and the artists were brutal, they would yell, scream, tell people they were terrible. It was fantastic! Then we would spill over to this bar in Little Italy, Mare Chiaro, and keep talking. I was around 20 and I would lie and say I was older. I learned most of what I know about art and being an artist from sitting in bars drinking with artists.”

He went on to earn an M.F.A. at Brooklyn College, where he studied with Lennart Anderson. When Anderson died in 2015, William Grimes noted that Anderson applied a “modern twist” to his deep understanding of art historical masters, a description that could also be applied to Mr. Lieberman’s painting.

Curiously, though Mr. Lieberman was embedded in the world of figurative painters in New York City in the late 1970s and 1980s and had his first solo show there in 1982, he never lived in the city. While residing in Babylon, he taught high school in Mineola for 14 years, and then, in 1990, moved to Water Mill and to a teaching position at East Hampton High School, “the only place I ever taught where the parents wanted their kids to go to art school.” He retired from there in 2014 and now teaches two classes at Stony Brook University.

He and his wife, Marilyn, a jewelry designer, have been together for 40 years. Their son, Michelangelo, 28, is a long-range planner for the Town of Southampton. Nicole, their 25-year-old daughter, is an attorney who lives in Long Island City.

“Forsythias and Drive,” a view from Bruce Lieberman's studio.
“Blue Eggs and Ham” Bruce Lieberman