Untitled Collage - Mark, Libbie

Fine Art

Mark, Libbie

Abstract Expressionist American artist Libbie Mark had connections with many of the twentieth century’s 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 with, and skilled handling of color and texture that made her work stand out then and now.

One of five siblings, Libbie Berman was born in 1905 in Jersey City, NJ, to Naomi Rachel Berman and Harold Berman,. In 1927, Libbie married Edward Mark, and they lived in Jersey City, then Queens, NY, before settling in Great Neck, NY, around 1939. 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 who was an editorial associate at ARTnews before becoming the coordinator of GNAE; she hired prominent NY artists to teach, including Helen Frankenthaler, Grace hartigan, Larry Rivers and Fairfield Porter. At GNAE Mark also studied with Rivers and likely first met Hartigan there. The Marks’ art collection reflected her connection with fellow artists and to support Grace Hartigan, Libbie’s friend, during a well-documented difficult financial period, they purchased Hartigan’s 1952 Venetian Self-Portrait.

Mark’s 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, Hofmann’s former student and assistant.

A number of Mark’s 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. She studied with Hans Hoffman in 1957 at his summer school while still taking courses with Vytlacil in Provincetown where many other AbEx artists were then working. Following that Summer, Mark moved to Manhattan where she lived primarily for the rest of her life but still spent summers in Provincetown.

In 1962, the Marks moved to East 71st street in Manhatan and also rented a separate studio nearby for Libbie. 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. 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 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 which she called Collage Paintings.

Foregoing traditional titles, her paintings were dated and numbered, for example, Collage Painting #23. Mark was among many artists working with collage during this time, 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.

Mark followed her 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. Vectors members had a number of overlapping histories and connections, from Work Projects Administration involvement and shared gallery representation to studying with Hofmann 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. 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.

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 raising children to be an art career restriction, Mark was able to pursue her career due to significant support from her husband Edward. He actively encouraged Mark’s artistic career. A corporate financial executive at S. Gumpert & Co. food company, he even learned how to stretch canvas and make picture frames.

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.