Harry Lieberman


Lieberman began painting at the age of 76, creating about 1,500 vibrant and dynamic narrative paintings of Jewish life, religion, lore, and literature. He explicated these with textsthat he wrote in Yiddish and attached to the backs of his paintings. Lieberman was born Naftuli Hertzke Liebhaber to a Hasidic Jewish family in a small Polish shtetl, or Jewish village, called Gniewoszów. In 1906 he came to the United States, one of thousands of Eastern European Jews fleeing the hardships of pogroms and forcedconscriptions. In New York City he led a largely secular life, working first in the textile trades and then owning and operating a candy store on Manhattan’s Lower EastSide with his wife, Sophie. In 1950 the Liebermans retired to their home in Great Neck, New York. After six quiet years of retirement, he and his wife visited Israel,where Lieberman had a revelatory experience. Early one morning, he went to King David’s tomb, and randomly opened the Book of Psalms to Psalm 130: “From thedepths I called you Oh Lord.” Lieberman was inspired by these words to return to an Orthodox way of life, and coincidentally, this was also the year he began to paint.Lieberman had been spending time at the Golden Age Club of the Senior Citizen Center in Great Neck. One day his chess partner did not show up, so he attendeda painting class instead. This sparked an emotional rebirth for the 76-year-old Lieberman. He began to pour his life into autobiographical oil paintings that recalled hismemories of Poland. My Father’s Store is rich in its details of goods filling shelves and crates. Haunting such early works is the specter of the Holocaust that destroyedthe way of life Lieberman was remembering in paint; later works deal more explicitly with this theme.
Yizkor depicts a crematorium, while My Father Holding a Cigarette (He Was 87 When Hitler Killed Him) is a tiny painting that reveals the distortions of memory, with his father’s small figure dwarfed by an enormouscigarette. As time went on, Lieberman was increasingly drawn to his own rich Jewish heritage, in lyrical works such as The Blessing of the New Moon; in the conflictsof assimilation evident in The Hasid and the Dreamer, and in ironic tales from Yiddish literature. In addition to brilliantly colored acrylic paintings, which Liebermanstarted to create after about 1976, he made ceramic sculptures as well as drawings in ballpoint pen and pencil.Lieberman achieved great recognition during the 27 years he painted. To look the part, he grew his hair into a long white ponytail and sported a dark beret. Hailedas the “Jewish Grandma Moses” and the “Chagall of folk art,” Lieberman was the subject of an award-winning film, 102 Mature: The Art of Harry Lieberman(Light-Saraf Films), and his work has been included in numerous museum exhibitions, including “Harry Lieberman: A Journey of Remembrance,” organized by theAmerican Folk Art Museum in 1991. In 1979 Leiberman testified before the Joint Committee on Aging to stress the contribution that seniors could continue to make totheir communities. He died at the age of 103 in 1983.