Sullivan Goss
AN AMERICAN GALLERY
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Louis Leon Ribak

(1902-1979)

AMERICAN SOCIAL REALIST, SEMI-ABSTRACTIONIST & ART EDUCATOR

By Aubrey E. MacDonald

Louis Leon Ribak was a American-Lithuanian Social Realist,semi-abstractionist and art educator. He emigrated at the age of ten to New York with his family because of the struggle and violence they suffered in Europe. He often spent time drawing scenes of his life in Lithuania. He drew Russian soldiers, packs of wolves, and the farm animals at home




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Louis Leon Ribak was born in 1902 in the Province of Grodino in Lithuania. During the early part of his youth, Ribak encountered strife and violence in Europe causing his family to split up and reunite in New York City. He arrived in New York at the age of ten in 1912. As a child, he was placed in a school with other foreign children. He often spent much of his time drawing scenes of his life back in Europe. The pictures would include Russian soldiers, packs of wolves, and the farm animals at home. His teacher realized his natural talent and commented that he would become an artist. Ribak was expected to take over the family hat business; however, much to his fathers dismay, Ribak would become what his father thought would be a “starving artist.” In reality, his son would have a great impact on the Social Realist scene in New York and the New Mexico modernists.

In 1920, Ribak attended the Pennsylvanian Academy of Fine Arts for only one year. Then, in 1922, mentor John Sloan secured Ribak a scholarship that enabled him to study with the Arts Student League in New York. Then, in 1923, Ribak began to study from a model at the Educational Alliance, without a teacher to critique his work. His friend, John Sloan, took over this role and encouraged Ribak's progression. As a founding member of the Ash Can school, Sloan stressed the importance of depicting events realistically. He pointed out Cezanne and Picasso as the revolutionary artists to learn from and encouraged Ribak to illustrate for the publication The New Masses. In 1929, Ribak became a founding member of the pro-soviet John Reed Club and in 1930 a member of the Silk Screen Group.

During the 1930’s, Ribak began exhibiting with the American Group, Inc.: a group of artist who were conscious of social conditions, some of who included Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Maurice Sterne, Raphael Soyer, Kunyoshi, and Orozco. Ribak’s first show was in 1932, at the Barbizon Hotel. Immediately, Ribak was proclaimed as a success by critics. Ribak was also employed by the Federal Works Project Administration like so many artists during the Depression. He decorated churches, synagogues, convents, and post offices under a sponsorship from the Morgan Committee and division of the WPA. He is also thought to have assisted Diego Rivera in 1933 on a mural for the lobby of the Rockefeller Center in New York. In 1934, Ribak was granted his American citizenship. He regularly exhibited with the Whitney Museum of Art from 1932 until he left New York in 1944. Ribak’s success as a painter had grown astronomically. In 1934, he was chosen to exhibit in the Venice Biennial.

During the 1940s, Louis Ribak underwent a transition in which both his art and his life changed. Ribak met Bee Mendelman at a dance sponsored by the artist’s union, and in 1944, they were married. Consequently, Ribak's art began to change. He started using a brighter palette of colors. As one critic stated, “A veil of somberness seems to have been lifted.” Ribak also began to become disenchanted with the brewing theoretical rivalry between Social Realists and Abstract Expressionists. In 1942, he served for two years in the military and was discharged because of asthma. This, combined with his irritation with the New York art scene, led Mendelman and Ribak to take the advice of John Sloan and to visit Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, they first rented Kenneth Adam’s former rustic studio as their living arrangements. In 1944, they moved to Taos, New Mexico, where they occupied the adobe house of artist Blanche Grant. The couple became enchanted with the New Mexican landscape, flora, fauna, and native life, which became a repetitive motif in Ribak’s work. It is at this time that Ribak’s artistic style most closely resembles Abstraction.

The couple was by no means well-off, however Ribak refused to compromise his style to appease collectors. So in 1947, he opened the Taos Valley Art School. Louis taught the advanced painting class while Bea assisted and taught a serigraphy class. Ribak stressed the importance to his students of having no particular ideology, as he did not want to influence any means that would lead to formal academicians. In 1955, the couple opened Gallery Ribak where the two exhibited along with friend Agnes Martin. Ribak and Mendelman were an integral force in creating the Taos Modernist School, which included artists Ed Corbett, Andrew Dasburg, Agnes Martin, and Clay Spohn.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

Louis Ribak’s work can be characterized by two distinct phases. The first is Social Realism and the second is Abstraction. By no means a Regionalist, but certainly influenced by the areas in which he lived in, Ribak painted first and foremost from the heart and secondly from the scenes that surrounded him.

His early work is often referred to as Social Realist. Before Ribak broke into the art scene, he worked for the New York Sun. During that time, he became well acquainted with sporting events, but particularly boxing at Stillman’s Gym. Under the influence of John Sloan, Ribak became an ardent supporter of Realism. Like many other Jewish immigrants Ribak was a major proponent of the social left thus, much of his work is political in nature, documenting social unrest and discord. A true “proletariat painter,” many of his works include general scenes of every day life by the East River, the docks, and fights at Stillman’s Gym. During his early phase, Ribak typically had difficulty with composition and relationship between forms. He began experimenting with color, but maintained a muted color palette until the 1940s.

During the second phase of his career, Ribak’s palette began to brighten, his subject matter changed, and he moved into an abstract style. Unlike many artists during his time, Ribak never fully moved into non-figural Abstract Expressionism. Sketching Indians, mountains, and the surrounding landscape became more about the experience of these scenes and less about a focus on realistic expression. His interest was in the connection between the soul and the outer world. Painting became a way for him to express his search for a human relationship to nature. He focused on both the internal and external worlds in any scene or experience. His migration towards abstraction produced colorful compositions vibrant with life. For Ribak, Abstraction allowed a break from all academic ideals.

Ribak remained an ardent proponent of free thinking and preferred to teach an ideology that strayed form the academic outlook. He supported and taught these concepts until his death in 1979.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1902 Born December 3 in Lithuania
  • 1912 Arrives in New York City
  • 1920 Studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Daniel Garber
  • 1922 Starts studying at the Art Students League in New York with mentor John Sloan
  • 1925 Exhibits at the Society of independent Artists
  • 1929 Founds the John Reed Club
  • 1930 Exhibits in the Whitney Museum’s annual show of Contemporary American Painting. Joins the Silk Screen Group
  • 1931 Begins showing in an “American Group inc.”
  • 1933 Exhibits at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art of fine art annual, Solo Show at the Barbizon School
  • 1934 Included in the Venice Biennale.
  • 1935 Works on the Federal Arts Project of Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration, painting murals.
  • 1938 One-man exhibition at ACA Gallery in New York.
  • 1939 Golden Gate Exposition
  • 1941 One-man exhibition at ACA Gallery in New York
  • 1942 Marries Beatrice Mendelman; inducted in the army
  • 1944 Moves to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then settling Taos NM.
  • 1946 One- man Exhibition in New York’s World Fair
  • 1947 Open the Taos Valley Art School, Exhibits at Corcoran Gallery biennial
  • 1953 Moves to Taos Permanently
  • 1959 Opens the Gallery Ribak
  • 1975 Retrospective at Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts
  • 1979 Dies in Taos, NM.
  • 1983 Retrospective at the Linda Durham gallery in Santa Fe.
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ
  • Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
  • Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH
  • Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, CO
  • Dallas Museum, Dallas, TX
  • El Paso Museum, El Paso, TX
  • Harwood Museum of the University of New Mexico, Taos, NM
  • The Jewish Museum, New York, NY
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • Museum of Art at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
  • Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM
  • Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
  • Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, NM
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
  • University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
  • Watercolor USA Collection, Springfield Art Museum, MO
  • Frederick R Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1925 Society of Independent Artists
  • 1930-40 Whitney Museum Annual Exhibit and Seligman Gallery
  • 1933 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Annual and the Barbizon Hotel with An American Group, Inc.
  • 1934 Venice Biennale
  • 1935 US Post office in Albemarle, NC
  • 1938, 1941, 1946 ACA Gallery, New York
  • 1939 World’s Fair New York and Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco
  • 1946, 1950, 1953 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Annual
  • 1947 Corcoran Gallery Biennial, Washington, D.C.
  • 1959 Gallery Ribak
  • 1975 Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of New Mexico
  • 1983 Linda Durham Gallery, Santa Fe, NM
  • Repeatedly exhibited at:

    Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Newark Museum; Springfield Museum of Fine Art; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Walker Art Center; Whitney Museum of American Art; Worcester Museum of Art; Butler Museum; Carnegie Art Institute.

    VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • John Reed Club
  • Silk Screen Group
  • A.C.A.
  • An American Group, Inc.
  • VII. AWARDS

  • 1969 First Purchase Award, El Paso Sun Carnival
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1. AskArt, Louis Ribak Biography, accessed October 22, 2006, www.Askart.com
    2. 2. Baigell, Matthew and Juila Williams, Artists Against War and Fascism, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1986.
    3. 3. Baigell, Matthew, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930’s, Praeger Publishers, 1974.
    4. 4. Harry Rand, Louis Ribak the Late Paintings, Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, NM, 1984.
    5. 5. Mandelman Ribak Foundation, Louis Ribak Biography, accessed December 2, 2006, www.mandelman-ribak.org
    6. 6. Porter, Ebie, and Campbell, Taos Artists and their Patrons: 1898-1950, The Snite Museum of Art University of Norte Dame, 1999.
    7. 7. Strel, Donald, Ribak: Louis Ribak Retrospective, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, 1975.
    8. 8. Uhlig, Mildred, American Western Art, RR Donnelly and Sons the Lakeside Press, 1977.
    9. 9. William A. Karges Fine Art, Louis Ribak, www.kargesfineart.com, accessed December 2, 2006.
    10. 10. Witt, David, Modernists in Taos: From Dasburg to Martin, Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books, 2002.

    IX. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST