They are indeed “Brilliant Partners” — in life and love as much as in their distinctly separate artistry. But the two complement each other in an intimate merging of talents and tastes in the new Long Island Museum show “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags & the Art of Gerson Leiber.”
Married 70 years, Gerson August Leiber — his wife and friends call him Gus — and Judith Leiber, formerly Peto, have worked in their studios, first in the West Village and later in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs. The term “handbags” by no means captures the fabulous imagination and inventiveness that went into the 3,500 designs created by the Holocaust survivor from Hungary who made her reputation by designing the clutch purse Mamie Eisenhower carried to her husband Dwight’s first inauguration ball in 1953. Every first lady through Laura Bush, except Rosalynn Carter, was a client of Judith Leiber, who formed her namesake company in 1967 with her husband.
Gus Leiber, meanwhile, studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan and began producing prints of New York scenes, among them the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and an abstract but unmistakable Times Square etching. His work evolved from prints to paintings and sculpture, which has been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among others. His 54 works in “Brilliant Partners” reflect Gus’ restless search for a style, though “Cubism keeps resurfacing,” says the Stony Brook museum’s chief curator, Joshua Ruff.
Judith, 96, and Gus, who’ll be 96 later this year, met in Budapest in 1945 when Brooklyn native Sgt. Leiber was stationed there. They married a year later and moved to New York in 1947. While Gus studied art and opened a graphics shop, Judith worked for Nettie Rosenstein, who was credited with inventing the “little black dress.” Through her, Judith made the Eisenhower connection, creating the pink satin and rhinestone inaugural handbag, one of 121 Judith Leiber creations on view in “Brilliant Partners.”
She was among the first to use glitter and semiprecious stones on purses. Previously, handbags were as utilitarian as the term suggests. The same cannot be said for Judith’s studded and stunning minaudières — fashion accessories that are more jewelry than purse. “The joke was that they’re just big enough to hold a hundred-dollar bill, a credit card and a tube of lipstick,” says Jonathan Olly, the show’s assistant curator.
“Good thing they didn’t have cellphones then,” Ruff quips.
Practicality was not the point. Besides first ladies, Judith’s clientele included Elizabeth Taylor, Beverly Sills, Raisa Gorbachev and, more recently, Joan Rivers and Sharon Stone. A few of her out-there creations are juxtaposed with objects that inspired them — an Art Deco ashtray and Chinese handwarmer — while others evoke the revered artistry of Tiffany and Faberge.
An array of fruit- and vegetable-styled purses, a slice of watermelon and an eggplant, for instance, stands before still-life abstract paintings of similar edibles. The couple’s work crossed over in other realms, too, reflected in a series of paintings Gus did of Judith’s world spanning three decades — capturing a model’s runway twirl and another in her “scanties” backstage.
Due to his wife’s success with her company, which the couple sold in 1993, Gus didn’t need to sell his paintings to make a living. Thus, he owns the greatest collection of his works, held in the Leibers’ museum at their Springs homestead, where Gus also created a formal garden. (Many pieces in this show come from that collection. His large, colorful abstracts on display are from the past three years.) The Leibers bought their property there in 1956, the same year Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock was killed in a car crash near his Springs home. The Pollock-Krasner House is now maintained as a museum/historic site.
But the Leibers didn’t socialize much with the Hamptons arts community. They had each other for company and artistic inspiration. As Gus once said with a hint of mischief, “If we hung around with anybody, it was psychiatrists. They all took their vacations in August.”
‘Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags & the Art of Gerson Leiber’
WHEN | WHERE Through June 4, Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays
INFO 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org
ADMISSION $10, seniors $7, students $6, two for one on Thursdays (free younger than 6)