Martha Erlebacher: RETROSPECTIVE at NEW YORK ACADEMY of ART
Originally published November, 2013
Publisher Jeffrey Wiener and I went downtown to NYCs famed New York Academy of Art, to view and capture on video a retrospective of Martha Mayer Erlebacher, who passed away earlier this year. She was a beloved artist, an amazingly talented realist painter, and the outpouring of respect and admiration that many people had for her was impressive. She influenced many modern figurative artists, and left behind a large body of masterful works, and some of the most significant works were right here at the New York Academy of Art’s gallery.
Born in 1937, she went against the grain of the prevailing Abstract Expressionist movement to pursue a more disciplined course of figurative study, mastering several realist genres. Coming to prominence in the late sixties, her works included deep, intimate studies of the nude figure.
Many of her works examine our relationship to each other and with the earth, portraying our desire to reconnect with compositions rich in metaphor and symbolism. Some of her strongest works employed rich chiaroscuro, setting her protagonists in otherworldly light, as if implying great struggles of the soul. She did not shy away from the imperfections of the flesh, she seemed to revel in the beauty of youth, portraying it with passion and respect.
One of the things that struck me as I examined these masterfully painted canvases, was the range of technique employed by Erlebacher. A combination of old-world short-hand for her backgrounds, sometimes a loose, gestural hand that brings the figure to life with energy, and then she takes the greatest of care when rendering then delicate qualities of human flesh. All of these techniques coming together, applied in the right places. You really have to see this up close to appreciate it.
This amazing work portraying four flame-haired youths in an open, sunlight landscape highlights Erlebacher’s powerful understanding of the use of composition in narrative, creating a visually interpretive dialogue that conveys meaning through figurative relationships. This is a symphony of flesh and motion. Energy courses through this composition like an orchestrated piece of music. This is youth, this is love. This is Life.
Martha understood the full cycle of life, and portrayed it powerfully in her works during her final years battling cancer. Here, an old woman comes to terms with the enclosing night, the frigid cold encircling her body, laying down in a frozen field by the edge of a moonlit body of water. Yet the warmth of her still vibrant soul creates a hallow in the snow, as if to say “I was here, I mattered”. Martha was a powerful teacher, and left behind many students who have been deeply influenced by her guiding hand. Her figurative works were truly Great Nudes.