PRINT October 2016


Lisa Liebmann

Page from Artforum, April 1992. Lisa Liebmann, “Grand Elisions.” Page from Artforum, October 1987. Lisa Liebmann, “Icons at Large: X Marks the Spot.”

LISA LIEBMANN was a friend, but I knew her first as a writer. Her thoughts seemed to percolate in a brain that never stopped cooking. When she spoke, words tumbled out in such a fizzy rush that even she would stumble over them in her haste to make room for the next fusillade, adding a sprinkle of French and quick, stuttering gestures of the hand that mirrored the circles she was drawing around your own startled mind. On the page, she was just as nimble, writing in acrobatic language that somersaulted between archaic formality and vernacular prose.

“No dog is more intelligent or more sociable than the French poodle,” she begins “The Imagination in Sheep’s Clothing,” her three-thousand-word Artforum review of a 1968 Boucher show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece ultimately, and unexpectedly, brings in works by Kenny Scharf, General Idea, and Eric Fischl and makes perfectly rococo, wholly entertaining, sense.

Liebmann could be difficult, but brilliant people often are. To read her was to be enlightened by erudition and wit. Her essays and reviews actually made me laugh. She wrote with equal aplomb about fashion, period decor, and, once—after an ill-timed holiday in Miami Beach, on the weekend of Hurricane Andrew in 1992—the weather. “Pressed flat, as if against the washing machine’s window, two palm trees seemed to be drowning,” she reported in the New Yorker. “Their trunks, bent almost double by the wind, were as pliant as underwater ballerinas.”

Somehow I can’t recall exactly when we met, or whether we were introduced by one of our mutual artist friends or by someone at this magazine, whose pages she enlivened from 1982 on. Liebmann died June 30, from cancer, two months past her sixty-first birthday.

Possibly we knew each other, distantly, in the 1980s, her breakout decade. She exploded into print, writing indefatigably from a well of knowledge deepened by personal experience, befriending all of her subjects and colleagues. She collected them, and also their work. Over the years, she would write about Brice Marden, David Salle, Ross Bleckner, Donald Baechler, Nancy Rubins, Alex Katz, Philip Taaffe, Deborah Kass, and more.

We really came to know each other in the early ’90s, when Liebmann was writing weekly, front-of-book gallery blurbs for the New Yorker and living with Brooks Adams, her de facto (soon to be actual) husband. Adams was a supertall patrician critic and aesthete from the suburbs of Chicago, with a family pedigree that went back to this nation’s beginnings. Liebmann, an animated, feisty, smart New York Jew, was an eternal ingenue with an infectious giggle and a head of luxurious dark curls that, like the rest of her, was often swathed in patterned, natural-fiber textiles. She and Adams had been tight since their undergraduate days at Sarah Lawrence, where Liebmann became briefly involved with Ingrid Sischy, who was Artforum’s upstart, zeitgeist-shaping editor from 1980 to 1988—some of Liebmann’s most provocative years as a writer.

Take, for example, an October 1987 column for Artforum on, as the dek quaintly puts it, “fashions”: “This is the age of the ubiquitous airbrush, of historical revisionism, aphasia, and the spontaneously acquired past. We get help from all quarters in airbrushing out what we don’t want to see—age, poverty, failure—and then the ‘Arts of Living’ sections help us in whatever our genealogies didn’t ensure. . . . The current trend for airbrushing comes with a paradoxical twin, the cult for the ornaments of the obscene: the vocal trills of scatology, the gush of the four-letter word” (“X Marks the Spot”).

Another constant in her life was the opera-loving artist and decorator Ricky Clifton, a transplanted Texan who came into the picture when Lisa hailed the cab he was driving outside Area, the TriBeCa nightclub where “everyone” went in the early ’80s. They talked. He was smitten. He soon proposed. She turned him down. He stayed in the picture—both Adams and Liebmann jokingly called him “our son,” though they actually adopted a daughter in China, Juno, now eighteen and the delightful beneficiary of her mother’s energy and intelligence.

I remember the Adamses’ wedding as the best party of 1993, when well over a hundred friends joined their families in Taaffe’s old schoolhouse of a Chelsea studio. I remember Liebmann’s ebullience (and occasional angry outbursts) at countless dinners after openings or at the homes of friends, to which she mostly arrived late. I remember the night I went to their apartment for a meal and left with a used car, impulsively bought from another guest, Vija Celmins.

Still, what I remember best is Liebmann’s voice. I’m listening to it now, on a recording from February 10, 1995, when she appeared at NightLight Readings, the monthly writers-in-performance series I put together for a time at the Drawing Center. Characterizing the evening as “this little séance in criticism,” she read excerpts from David Salle, which Rizzoli had just published between chic, hot-pink covers.

“As I’ve been led to believe,” she began, “from everyone beginning with my mother going down the line to most of the wonderful artists that I know, there is a pandemic ambivalence, shall we say, about the critical arts. Well, I emptied my husband’s bottle of Égoïste upon myself to brace for the occasion, and we’ll proceed in the face of this.”

And we will proceed in the face of her loss, doused with her memory.

Linda Yablonsky is a writer based in New York.

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