Exhibit Surveys Career of Artist Cary Leibowitz

Cary Leibowitz | Photo provided

Words painted on solid- colored canvases read “modern art 5 cents”; pie charts measure “sad,” “guilty” and “happy”; and umbrellas say, “HEY! I’M NOT DEPRESSED ANYMORE.”

Through March 25, a collection of 350 pieces spanning Cary Leibowitz’s artistic career will be on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art in an exhibit called Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show. The exhibit is the first comprehensive survey and solo museum exhibition of his work.

“The idea of this exhibition is less about particular pieces speaking out than about a particular voice,” ICA Chief Curator Anthony Elms said. “All of the works are shown in such a way that you don’t get just one work at a time, you get many works unfolding at once, and you always have a little bit of a panorama view going between a body of work and one work, so you never really see one work. You go back and forth.”

Leibowitz’s art combines bold colors, text-based works and different media like paper umbrellas, trash cans and ceramics to explore his Jewish and gay identities, as well as his fears, anxieties and insecurities.

Leibowitz said he’s created art his whole life, but developed his style toward the end of his time at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, which he graduated in 1987. He said his art speaks for itself, and he hopes that his art encourages viewers to see the honesty and directness both in his works and in themselves.

“It’s a very American art,” Leibowitz said. “Besides the obvious, that there’s text and it’s very direct, I would say that I’ve been influenced by a lot of artists of the latter half of the 20th century, whether it’s fluxus art or pop art, concrete poetry. All of these things, architecture, have all kind of played into my way of thinking.”

He has continued with his unique style for three decades. In the ’90s, he rose to prominence in the art world and became known for his self-deprecating style. His works have been shown at ICA in Boston, the Guggenheim Museum and the Jewish Museum in New York, among others.

“I’ve been doing this for about 30 years,” Leibowitz said. “I keep hoping I’m going to change directions, but it always still kind of goes back. I won’t want to use text on something, but in the end, I feel like it’s a little too mysterious or a little too attractive without the word on it.”

Leibowitz hopes viewers contextualize the exhibit as something that was put together over the course of decades. Some of the pieces, he said, make more sense and have more credibility in the period they were made in than today.

Leibowitz was surprised to see the amount of work he has created over the years.

“Time flies, and it all piles up,” he said. “I definitely didn’t remember it on a day-by-day, year-by-year scenario, but then suddenly, you get it all out of the basement, and there it is.”

Leibowitz highlighted several pieces from his exhibit that speak to his Jewish identity. This includes text-based pieces that read “I’m a Jew how ‘bout u?” and “Do these pants make me Look Jewish?” as well as a scarf decorated with the Hebrew year when it was made, and the Jewish population of Scotland — which were similar numbers.

“There are definitely artists who want things more open to interpretation, but it’s just not been my way of thinking,” Leibowitz said.

Anastasia James, the former associate curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, approached Leibowitz about putting the exhibit together. Leibowitz said this exhibit probably constitutes the proudest moment of his career.

“It’s kind of a dream position to be in, to be invited to do something like this,” Leibowitz said.

Elms learned that the Contemporary Jewish Museum was putting this exhibit together and wanted to bring it to Philadelphia as well, having been a long-time fan of Leibowitz’s work.

“I like the humor,” Elms said. “I like [Leibowitz’s] use of multiples. I like the way he uses a first-person voice … dealing with the kinds of thoughts and obsessions, the fears, we all have.”

After the exhibition at ICA, Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show will continue to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

On March 14, Elms will moderate a conversation with Leibowitz and poet, cultural critic and visual artist Wayne Koestenbaum. Elms said the two have a lot in common in terms of themes like humiliation and pop culture that their works explore.

“What is more striking about it is in that collection of different works speaking at once, you get some concentration of Cary’s particular self-deprecating voice, the use of a sort of dry humor,” Elms said, “but there’s actually something sort of touching about those fears and jokes and follicles that are being communicated.” 

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