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Judith Leiber

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Front row, Gerson and Judith Leiber; back row, Art League of LI Executive Director Charlee Miller and Art League Board Chair Debbie Wells. Photo by Joseph Peragallo

Long Island’s iconic Judith and Gerson Leiber were honored for their contribution as art and fashion pioneers, spanning a career of more than 70 years, at a special reception at the Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills on Oct. 15. The event, which featured a talk by Ann Fristoe Stewart, collections manager of the Leiber Museum, coincided with the Art League’s September/October exhibit, Passion for Fashion: Of Purses & Paintings — The Gerson and Judith Leiber Collection.

Judith Leiber is known throughout the world for her innovative handbags and minaudières. Mamie Eisenhower was the first in a long line of First Ladies to carry a Judith Leiber purse, among many other celebrities and non-celebrities who are fans of her designs. Gerson Leiber, when not running the business end of the eponymous company with his wife, created modernist-style paintings, sketches and lithographs that have been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, among other high-profile museums and galleries. The Leibers have housed a collection of their work in their own museum built on their property in East Hampton.

At the reception, Stewart gave a thoroughly engaging talk on the story behind the couple, going back to Judith Leiber’s origins as a Jewish girl in Budapest surviving the Holocaust, meeting the young American soldier who would become her husband, leaving Europe and setting down roots in New York, recounting the hard work and dedication that led to their success in the world of art and fashion.

The Art League of Long Island thanks Bridgehampton National Bank, Harlan & Olivia Fisher and Artful Circle for sponsorship. Special thanks to the Long Island Museum for sharing their research, graphic materials, and generous assistance which formed the basis of this exhibition. Champagne for the reception generously donated by Wine Doc of Elwood.

The Art League of Long Island is located at 107 East Deer Park Road in Dix Hills. The gallery is open to the public, free of charge, Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.artleagueli.org or call 631-462-5400.

A watermelon-shaped minaudiére with crystal rhinestones and onyx details by Judith Leiber, 1991. Image from LIM

By Ellen Barcel

The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook is busy putting the final touches on a stunning new exhibit, “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags and the Art of Gerson Leiber,” which will be on view from Feb. 24 to June 4.

Julie Diamond, director of communications said, “One of things we wanted to stress is that this was a real partnership, right from the beginning.” Diamond noted that of the nearly 200 items on display, the purses “have been paired with the paintings, not matching, but you can see the inspiration there.”

The museum is known for its large costume collection, so the exhibit was a logical choice. “We’ve been thinking about doing an exhibition about the Leibers for a couple of years now. It’s such a fascinating and multilayered story, and I think it was an interesting challenge … not simply to explore two very different creative figures, but to consider their influences upon one another over the course of their marriage and their careers,” said Joshua Ruff, museum director of interpretations and collections and exhibit curator.

Tiffany-inspired minaudiére with dragonfly pattern and sodalite lock, 1992, by Judith Leiber. Image from LIM

The Liebers have been married over 70 years, having met while he was a solider in World War II, she having avoided Nazi persecution in Europe. Judith’s early training in making handbags was the result of her having a traineeship at a handbag company in Europe.

After the couple married and moved to the U.S. Judith Leiber began her designing career working for Nettie Rosenstein (1913-1975), fashion designer, in New York City. Rosenstein was known for the famous “little black dress,” a fashion piece that every woman must have. An award-winning designer, she was often copied and, as a result, had a major impact on women’s fashion in the first half of the 20th century. In addition to dresses, she was known for designing accessories, such as purses.

In 1963 Judith Leiber started her own company. Her handbags — 130 of them — will be part of the Brilliant Partners exhibit. Some are referred to as chatelaines, small purses usually hanging at the waist from a belt or sash. Some are minaudiéres, small decorative handbags without handles or a strap, essentially clutch bags. Her elegant bags have been carried by many stars, first ladies and have walked the “red carpet.”

Many of her works are fashioned after animals — a polar bear, a penguin, an elephant’s head. Some are inspired by natural objects such as the purse that resembles a slice of watermelon, while others are more abstract in design such as the purse inspired by a painting done by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Some were inspired by Fabergé eggs. She even designed a feminine interpretation of a briefcase for a successful businesswoman.

Gerson Leiber, an American abstract artist, was born in Brooklyn. He is known for his award-winning, brilliantly colored paintings, 50 of which will be on display in Brilliant Partners. While many are oils, he also works in watercolors and produced many woodcuts, etchings and engravings.

‘The Simple Swagger of Spring,’ 2014, oil and graphite on linen by Gerson Leiber. Image from LIM

In addition to his paintings, Gerson Leiber is also a sculptor and designed the gardens around The Leiber Collection, a gallery in the Hamptons they built to display their work. The gallery is open spring through fall.

In addition to her purses and his paintings, a portrait of the couple done by one of Gerson Leiber’s teachers at the Art Students League in New York, Will Barnet will be on display. Barnet remained close to his former student and did the portrait in 2000 as the couple were each nearly 80.

There are two museum programs related to the exhibit. On March 26 from 2 to 3:30 p.m., senior conservator from the Smithsonian, Sunae Park Evans will explain the process of conserving textiles and costume pieces. Afterward, participants are invited to view Brilliant Partners, including the one-of-a-kind bag Judith Leiber designed for former first lady Mamie Eisenhower.

Senior Tuesday will be held on Tuesday, May 9 from 10 a.m. to noon when those 62 and over are invited to tour the exhibit, free of charge. No reservations are required and groups are welcome. In addition, the museum is sponsoring a bus trip to The Leiber Collection in the Hamptons on June 5. Call the museum for details and reservations.

The Long Island Museum is located at 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. The Art Museum will reopen to the public on Thursday, Feb. 23; “Brilliant Partners” opens on Feb. 24. Hours are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org for further information.