Mahler Suite Catalogue Text

  • "While listening to Mozart in my studio, I suddenly felt that I had found a new subject matter. I had always listened to music as I painted, yet I had never thought of the music itself as the subject of my paintings. I then began to make a suite of paintings based on several Mozart works (1993– 1996), then a suite based on compositions by Erik Satie (1997–2000), then a group based on the American classical and jazz composers John Cage, Sun Ra, Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, etc. (2003–2006).
  • These new paintings, begun in 2006, have been an attempt to create a body of work based solely on one piece of music, the 4th movement (adagio) of Gustav Mahler’s last completed symphony, The 9th Symphony. This music is so beautiful and it delves so deeply into the nature of being alive and facing death, that the challenge of creating the paintings has been constantly enlightening and humbling."
  • Barry Leibman, 2009
  • Barry Leibman has for many years revealed the interconnectedness of visual forms and music and his most recent suite of assemblage paintings, which are inspired by the fourth movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, are no exception.
  • Mahler’s 9th Symphony premiered in Vienna on June 26, 1912 to great acclaim. The symphony is comprised of four movements, each expressing a different sentiment, culminating in Mahler’s moving Adagio finale. The symphony, written in 1908 and 1909, was Mahler’s last to be completed. He passed away in 1911 and never heard it performed. Though Mahler’s piece is still rooted in the major-minor tonality, he increasingly used chromaticism and dissonance in his late works. Quiet and reflective, the Adagio contains soaring, fully-orchestrated passages and lyrical, single-note violin moments which speak to Mahler’s difficult life experiences, such as the loss of his daughter to scarlet fever, and his own congenitally flawed heart.

    When he wrote the 9th Symphony, Mahler sequestered himself in an austere studio in the South Tyrol to write, enduring physical discomfort which mirrored his own state of mind. “To anyone who knows how to listen, my whole life will become clear, for my creative works and my existence are interwoven,” wrote Mahler, and indeed, woven through a complex collage that would be his last complete work were musical elements borrowed from a variety of sources, including phrases from Johann Strauss’s “Enjoy Life,” Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 81a, “Les Adieux,” and Mahler’s own Second “Resurrection” Symphony. Known and often criticized for this “collage” style, Mahler also referenced and parodied passages from popular music, such as country dances and waltzes that he heard during his childhood in rural Bohemia and later in Vienna when he was a student.
  • Because of the experimental nature of his music, Mahler is considered the forerunner for the avantgarde composers of the “Second Viennese School,” which included Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Though the first movements of Mahler’s 9th Symphony are often infused with ironic passages, the last – the Adagio – is a solemn and spiritual comment on life and mortality.

    Like Mahler, whose own works looked back in many ways, but also always anticipated the future, Leibman, in this series, shares this approach. Much like Mahler used “collage” in his compositions, Leibman has, through a process of layering and hand work, created a body of work that celebrates the depth and tactile quality of life, while retaining an awareness of its fragility and inevitable conclusion.

    Materials integrated into these works include found objects, pieces of fabric, parts of older paintings, sections of a well-used kilim, wallpaper, scraps of a musical score, translucent and ghostly x-rays, slides and photographs of Leibman’s studio, among others items, all psychologically resonant, which help the viewer to construct their own narratives. Leibman fixes the materials to a wooden substrate with small nails, creating layers which have the effect of a kind of palimpsest that can be read as a metaphor for the many experiences from which a life is cast. Leibman deliberately emphasizes the “handmade,” textural quality of the surface, creating complex works that invite investigation and exploration. “The surface of life,” writes Leibman, “is made up of diverse layers of experience, thought and emotion,” and this is precisely what he intended the works to conjure in us in our own dance with them.
  • Leibman begins the series with a group of works which are charged with lightness. Though the majority of the elements in the first three compositions are white on white, a variety of textures, translucent milky layers and subtly differentiated shades of white, create complexity and depth. He continues to build the series and the viewer’s experience of the works in subsequent compositions with strategic additions of black, white, or color, sometimes punctuating the hardness of the painted elements with tangible real-world references like scraps of flowered fabric or photographs.

    Within several of the works, Leibman has also used pieces of a music score, but these are integrated into the composition in such a way that they seem less like literal references to the actual music and more like calligraphic abstractions that serve to enhance the overall composition. Collectively, the works within the core of the series are arranged to create a kind of pulse of “tones” and forms which rise and fall, at times bursting from the confines of the rectangle, then falling quiet, contemplative and dark; rising again to a dense crescendo of patterns and textures, both worldly and cerebral, before descending again into final darkness.
  • The last four works in the grouping of 29 include one in which only the nails remain protruding nakedly upright from a work in which the original elements have been torn from its white substrate. This raw and emotional work serves to usher the viewer to the last three works, which are comprised almost entirely of black-on-black elements. Only in the first two do a few suggestions of blood red color remain, which dissipate into blackness in the final work. The Mahler Suite does not serve as an illustration of the composer’s Adagio, but instead presents a psychological eminence of Leibman’s own experiences as they overlap with and relate to the subtext of the music. Though in many ways the work and its muse are somber, Leibman’s suite of paintings has the overall effect of a celebration of life and its many complexities.

    Olivia Lahs-Gonzales Director, The Sheldon Art Galleries
  • Barry Leibman had his first solo exhibition of paintings in 1990. A group of his works inspired by the music of jazz artists King Oliver, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra were featured in the group exhibition Improvisus, curated by Alison Ferring for the Sheldon Art Galleries in 2003. Leibman is represented in St. Louis by Philip Slein Gallery.

    This catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition Barry Leibman: The Mahler Suite in the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Gallery of the Sheldon Art Galleries from February 19 to May 29, 2010. The Sheldon Art Galleries 3648 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri, 63108 Telephone: 314.533.9900 Fax: 314.533.2958 Website:

    All paintings oil and mixed media on wood Dimensions 26 1/4” x 24 1/4”