10 June 2010



Matthew Leibowitz: Visual Translator

Born in Philadelphia on August 21, 1918, Matthew Leibowitz’s family had emigrated from Eastern Europe. Leibowitz studied at night in the certificate program at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now The University of the Arts). He was intelligent, a fastidious dresser, an aficionado of puns, prolific and hardworking. At the time he was studying for his degree, he was already working at the established advertising firm, Gray & Rogers. During his college education (1936–1939), design pedagogy at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art radically changed. This can be credited to the arrival of Alexey Brodovitch in 1930, one of the most important designers in the twentieth century.

After college, Leibowitz took a brief trip to Paris, a sojourn which was cut short by the war. Leibowitz was not the only artist forced to leave Europe in the 1930s. A majority of the professors from the Bauhaus, Surrealists, Cubists, the New School sociologists, composers and filmmakers came to the United States to escape the Nazis. Direct interactions with European masters such as those of the Bauhaus, catalyzed and fostered an awakening of new potential of design in America. 

The designers of Leibowitz’s generation (Saul Bass, Lester Beall, Will Burtin, Lou Dorfsman, Leo Lionni, Herb Lubalin, Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand, for example) created a new international style. They absorbed the radical design movements of the early part of the century into an eclectic amalgam. The flatness of modernist space affected backgrounds, the primary colors of Neoplasticism (De Stijl), the acute angles of Constructivism and the free floating of images in oneiric Surrealist space could all be seen in various examples. You can see influences of El Lissitzky, Piet Zwart, and Herbert Bayer, among others.

Intense also was the interactions between colleagues. Leibowitz met Lester Beall in New York and Beall became a kind of mentor helping Leibowitz get commissions. Leibowitz also knew Herbert Matter, Jean Carlu, A.M. Cassandre and later Man Ray, all in varying ways. There was a direct connection between the forms he used and the content he wanted to convey, a praxis shared by most of his generation. In 1959 he summed up his philosophy succinctly:

The complete integration of typography with the graphic image is indicative of the maturity attained by the contemporary designer. The role of designer is that of visual translator. The translation can communicate well only if expressed in clear, concise terminology to the audience for whom it is intended. Ideas and content are expressed with the designer’s imagination and awareness. Synchronized, these qualities are his tools of creativity.

Returning to America during the Great Depression must have been difficult (as it created a precipitous drop in advertising), but Leibowitz, already at the top of his profession, was not drastically affected financially. Philadelphia (Washington Square) had been a core of American print since the early 19th century; it continued into the 20th century with Lippincott and Curtis Publishing and N.W. Ayer & Son, the oldest advertising firm in the United States, led by art director Charles Coiner who became vice president in charge of the department in 1936.

Starting in 1942, Leibowitz established a freelance practice in visual communications. He designed advertisements, packaging, brochures, logos, annual reports and identity campaigns for major American and European corporations and advertising firms. These included AT&T, N.W. Ayer & Son, American Oil, Caltex, Ciba, Container Corporation of America, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc., General Dynamics, General Electric, General Motors, Gulf & Western, IBM, ITT, Merck, Olivetti, Otis Elevator Company, Paramount Pictures, Philco, Philip Morris, RCA Victor, The International Red Cross, Inc., Reichhold Chemicals, Inc., Sharp and Dohme, Spalding, Tastycake, J. Walter Thompson, Time Life, TWA, Webster Cigars, and others.

Leibowitz’s designs displayed an acute visual intelligence. Not only were the designs powerful they were consummately made. Leibowitz’s typography was all hand done. His designs were an eclectic aesthetic mix: the engravings hark back to Dada and Surrealism, the photography probably a Brodovitch or Beall influence, the cantilevering of lines and planes from Constructivism. Of his practice Leibowitz said:

Whether precise as geometry or sculptural as stone, it must declare a clear, direct, and strong visual statement, complete as such.

Not only were his works objects of beauty but also they involved an intense search for new visual meanings that would speak of their time. The work reflected the progress and hope of America in the post-war period. His was the era of aerodynamics, the atomic bomb, the first computers, satellite communications and space travel, long playing records, electric typewriters and big business. He was not adverse to combining photographs, blind embossing, crisp silk-screened overlays, airbrushed atmospheres and 19th century engravings.

Leibowitz lived in an environment as aesthetic as his print work. He designed his own home (fig 11) – a perfect example of modernist aesthetic; flat-roofed, planar, clean lined, functional and light. His marriage to Selma Adams was successful; she ran his office and kept his financials, leaving Leibowitz the time to produce the work. They had two daughters and a loving family.

Leibowitz also created fine art in his “spare” time. His paintings (fig 12) present serious hard edge Constructivist work. In them he attained a purity that was universal and beyond the commercial function of his design work. Their closest painting affinities would be with the concrete art of his near contemporaries Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse, and Ilya Bolotowsky. On November 1, 1974, Leibowitz died of leukemia.

During his career he received 326 gold medals and other awards for his work. He participated in Alliance Graphique International exhibitions in Paris (1955), Milan (1961) and Germany (1964, 1966). Leibowitz had one-person exhibitions in Asia, Europe, North and South America and Australia and is represented in the collection of MoMA, the Library of Congress, the Denver Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art (Washington) and the Musee d’art Moderne in Paris.

Essay by Sid Sachs originally appeared in the exhibition brochure for Matthew Leibowitz, A Legendary Modernist, February 15 - March 18, 2007, Hamilton Hall Galleries, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia PA.

This edited version has been republished with permission from Sid Sachs (Director of Exhibitions, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA) and from Lynn Leibowitz and Jan Bresnick. Laurence Bach is responsible for some of the digital photography.

For an unedited version of the article with footnotes and additional images, please visit the exhibition site: The University of the Arts, RIT Graphic Design Archive or the Matthew Leibowitz Flickr Set.