NEW YORK, NY.- Abstract Expressionist American artist Libbie Mark (1905-1972) had connections with many of the twentieth centurys most significant artists, including Grace Hartigan, Hans Hofmann, Larry Rivers, and Vaclav Vytlacil. She created her work in important artistic communities of New York and Provincetown. Her unique "collage paintings" reflect a deep experimentation withand skilled handling ofcolor and texture that made her work stand out then and now.
One of five siblings, Libbie Berman was born in 1905 in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Naomi Rachel (Nellie) Berman, née Rubin and Harold Berman, an editor and translator of Hebrew texts.1 In 1927, Libbie married Edward Mark, and they lived in Jersey City, then Queens, New York, before settling in Great Neck, New York, around 1939.2 Their first child, Judith, was born in 1935, followed by Reuben in 1939. Having already set up a basement painting studio so she could paint but still be available to her family, in 1948 at the age of 43, Mark formalized her independent artistic activity by enrolling in courses at the Great Neck Adult Education (GNAE) fine arts program. Mark took classes with Betty Holliday Deckoff, a former Art Students League student of Vytlacil.3 Deckoff was an editorial associate at ARTnews before becoming the coordinator of GNAE,4 and she hired prominent New York artists to teach, many of whom she knew from her time at ARTnews, including Nell Blaine, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Louise Nevelson, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers.5 At GNAE Mark also studied with Rivers and likely first met Hartigan there. The Marks' art collection reflected her connection with fellow artists: among others, they acquired a Rivers 1953 Berdie portrait study, and to support Libbie's friend during a well-documented difficult financial period, they purchased Hartigans 1952 Venetian Self-Portrait from Tibor de Nagy Gallery.6
Marks early painting style varied before and during the beginnings of her formal training, but by the mid-1950s, she began a move towards Abstract Expressionism. This roughly coincided with changes in her personal and artistic life. After her youngest child graduated from high school in 1956, Mark and her husband lived between Long Island and New York City for two years. Mark was enrolled at the Art Students League between 1956 and 1958, taking courses from Vytlacil, Hofmanns former student and assistant. She also likely met many other influential teachers, including Vytlacil's prominent colleagues Will Barnet, Edwin Dickinson, George Grosz, William Zorach, and others on staff at that time.7 Mark attended Vytlacils Life Drawing, Painting and Composition classes from December 1956 to May 1957 and from September 1957 to March 1958.8 A number of Marks pieces from this time show her increasing interest and skill in abstraction. She worked in oil on canvas, as well as ink and watercolor on paper, experimenting with different methods and styles, likely having absorbed other artists' and her teachers' work, which she could now more easily study in the city.
Marks connections and courses at the Art Students League led her to the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.9 Hofmann briefly taught at the League before establishing his own school, first located in New York, then very soon after also in Provincetown, the oldest continuous artist colony in the United States.10 On Vytlacil's recommendation, in 1957 at the age of 51, Mark applied for Hofmanns summer school session.11 In between her courses with Vytlacil, in July and August 1957,12 Mark attended Hofmanns final Provincetown summer course before he retired from teaching.13 Marks classmates included Red Grooms and Helen Levitt.14 Many other artists such as Milton Avery, Sally Michel (Avery), Janice Biala, Adolph Gottlieb, Allan Kaprow, Lillian Orlowsky, and Mark Rothko also worked in Provincetown that summer.15 A few of Mark's largest paintings are from this Hofmann/League period, some dated with an "-HH" or an "-L" suffix on verso.
Following that first summer in Provincetown, in 1958 the Marks rented an apartment at 35 East 85th Street, fully transitioning to the city from Great Neck. In about 1962, the Marks moved to a new building at 176 East 71st Street, renting a separate painting studio nearby. Later, a second unit at East 71st served as her workspace; they also installed metal screens on their living room wall to easily rotate displays of her paintings. Dinah Rubinstein, professionally known as Dena, photographed Mark in her East 71st studio. She also took pictures of numerous other artists, including Dorothy Dehner, Willem De Kooning, Edwin Dickinson, Red Grooms, Chaim Gross, Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, George Segal, Raphael Soyer, Jack Tworkov, and Andy Warhol.16
Mark had just one solo show during her lifetime, at the age of 56. Knapik Gallery opened Libbie Mark: Paintings and Collages in May 1962 at 1470 First Avenue.17 Her transition to New York City had marked a significant increase in her artistic output and the establishment of what became her unique method of Abstract Expressionist painting. Mark had begun including collaged elements in a few pieces from the mid-1950s (the earliest documented is dated 1956) but by the early 1960s she almost exclusively incorporated paint and other materials on paper, Masonite, or canvas, to build up her heavily textured surfaces like the Knapik Gallery works, which she called Collage Paintings. Foregoing traditional titles, her paintings were dated and numbered, for example: Collage Painting #67-6 (number 6, painted in 1967), or simply Collage Painting #23. Mark was among many artists working with collage during this time, creating the inevitable expression
of the constantly decomposing and recomposing experience of the city.18 However, Mark collaged in a distinctive and intricate way: her technique predominantly utilized the physical, three-dimensional properties of crumpled paper or tissue, imbedded into the paint, to build up texture in the works she exhibited. This is a departure from other artists' collage methods which took advantage of paper's other potential visual qualities, such as the flat shape of a cut-out or the color of the paper itself. A number of publications positively reviewed the Knapik show:
"Miss [sic] Mark's handsome abstractions, high textured and rich in color brilliance, show a profound and vividly sensuous response to visual experience...the overall effect is scintillating. Considering the technique used in many of these collages, Miss [sic] Mark's spontaneity is all the more remarkable...These paintings are assuredly the work of a mature, imaginative, and dynamic artistManhattan East, Jane Jaffe 19
"One is a high-toned noonday picture dominated by a central red that tornadoes up into yellow, surrounded by green and blue-grey. Another abstraction has a midnight carnival flavor in its deep purples and blues sparked with red and surprises of veiny greens.ARTnews, Jill Johnston 20
Photographer Nathan Rabin, who worked extensively for artists and collectors, such as William N. Copley, Lucien Goldschmidt, Claes Oldenburg, and Serge Sabarsky,21 documented Mark surrounded by a number of her paintings at the gallery.
Mark followed this solo exhibition with participation in a number of shows over the next few years, with the Vectors artists group, which would prove very significant for her career. A remarkably understudied but fascinating group, Vectors membership consisted of twenty-three artists over ten years, including two married couples.22 A catalogue for their Eleventh Annual Exhibition in 1967 stated:
"In 1957 a group of artists with mutual respect for each others creativity decided to exhibit together. They gave themselves the name, 'Vectors'directional guides to various modes of expression from figurative to non-objective work." 23
Like other collectives before and since, the Vectors utilized different kinds of spaces as accessible alternatives to the traditional gallery. The group revisited venues known for their arts programming, among them the 92nd Street Y24 and the New York Public Librarys Donnell Library Center,25 as well as the Riverside Museum.26 Vectors members had a number of overlapping histories and connections, from Work Projects Administration involvement 27 and shared gallery representation (including Knapik),29 to studying with Hofmann and/or at the League 28 and having a variety of other Provincetown and New York ties. Despite turnover, the group featured strong female representation. Notably, seven of the original 1957 roster of ten were women, and in eight of nine exhibitions with listed participants, over fifty percent were female.30 This is especially meaningful; women then, as now, were not as recognized or given as much exposure as men. Mark participated in five Vectors exhibitions between January 1963 and October 1967, the last at age 62.31
When not in New York, Mark spent her summers painting in Provincetown: starting with her Hofmann course, through the end of the 1950s, continuing on through the 1960s at her most productive, and until a year before she died in the early 1970s. In 1972, Mark succumbed to lung cancer at age 66, having led an abbreviated but creative and remarkable life.
Unlike many other female artists of her time, who found marriage or having (or raising) children to be an art career restriction, Mark was able to pursue her career due to significant support from her husband Edward. Once her children went to college, the Marks relocated so she could be closer to the New York art scene. They invested in prestigious art courses. They rented city studio space. She painted, took classes, and participated in exhibitions, free of financial concerns. Edward's assistance was not just monetary, however. He saw himself as a provider of intangible things as well. He actively encouraged Marks artistic career. A corporate financial executive at S. Gumpert & Co. food company, he even learned how to stretch canvas and make picture frames. It was vital to him that she should be happy. Summers in Provincetown were for her. Possibly, without Edwards strong belief in her, Mark would not have produced this volume of work in such a short period of time. Her personal situation provided an opportunity, but to be clear: this was not a case of a comfortable housewife with a hobby.
The extent and duration of Marks artistic activity, the quality of the work, the clear drive, and the related life decisions that made it happen, demonstrate her serious commitment to her art. From the Great Neck Adult Education fine arts program to the Art Students League to Provincetown, Mark painted in some of the United States most significant artistic places. Her carefully crafted but dynamic pieces feature complex, impastoed surfaces with unexpected and rich color palettes.
Fifty years after her death, Mark has again come to the art world's attention due to the work of the Libbie Mark Provincetown Fund, in consultation with independent curator, Jennifer Uhrhane. The LMPF was established to promote Mark's artwork and establish her legacy by placing her paintings in public or private collections, and supporting research, exhibitions and programming that include her work whether online, in print, or in physical spaces. Recent solo and group exhibitions featuring her paintings in 2022-2023 have helped reintroduce her at a time of reflection and realization in the art world that more needs to be done to acknowledge the many talented artists of the past (especially women and other underrepresented groups) who were making strong work in their own time. The important research and outreach sponsored by the LMPF has added to the art historical record of this underrecognized but important mid-century female artist. Mark's work is held in the Addison Gallery of American Art collection and in numerous private collections.
© Jennifer Uhrhane
Independent Curator and Consultant to Libbie Mark Provincetown Fund