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When Condé Nast Was a Force for Good

The narcissism of our wired world, which all too often imagines that nothing it can’t encompass can exist, would have been unimaginable for Alexander Liberman, who was the editorial director of Condé Nast for some 30 years. The publication of a new book about Alex—everybody called him Alex—puts me in the mood to say a few words about the man and the Condé Nast operation as I knew them during the time I wrote for Vogue. The book—It’s Modern: The Eye and Visual Influence of Alexander Liberman (Rizzoli), by Charles Churchward, who worked closely with Alex at Vogue and Vanity Fair—is opulent and awestruck. We see Alex in action, the alpha male with the courtly manners who oversaw a fleet of magazines, a graphic visionary and a gifted photographer who simultaneously maintained a fairly healthy reputation as a painter and sculptor with a flair for large public works. Alex was in his early eighties when he retired in 1994; he died five years later.

I never imagined I would write for Vogue. The bold-stroke journalistic gestures that the magazine favored were not built into my DNA. I learned, though, and I was a contributing editor to the magazine for much of a decade, writing about art from the 1980s into the ’90s. It was Alex who made my tenure there possible. As a portrait of Operation Alex—he kept the magazines humming and spinning at breakneck speed—Churchward’s book is just fine. What doesn’t really come into focus is the other side of the Alex equation, the rather modest man who was buried deep in that beguiling egotist. Alex may have been the prince of the realm, but he never forgot that there were realms beyond his realm. How could he? He had been exiled first from his native Russia and then from the Western Europe where he came of age. So for better and for worse, the world’s variety was something he could not avoid. The Bolsheviks and Hitler made sure of that. Alex would swim in America’s messy democratic culture or he would sink without a trace. What Alex came to believe was that the readers in this crazy quilt of a nation wanted to be informed not only about the latest in fashion but also in science, medicine, literature, music, dance, and the visual arts.

As absorbed as he was in the particular kind of glitter and glamour that was Condé Nast, I always had the sense that Alex knew there was a great deal more to be known and experienced. That’s what I miss in so many media people today. If you let yourself look behind the beguiling surfaces of the great photo shoots by Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon that Alex often inspired, you can see that serious minds were grappling not only with the changing nature of beauty—but also with shifts in the country’s sociological and psychological makeup. Some thought it pretentious when Beaton photographed models in front of Jackson Pollock’s latest drip paintings, but whatever the clever, fashion-forward calculations involved in that 1951 photo shoot, I believe it also reflected Liberman’s continuing embrace of the avant-garde idealism that had electrified him in his youth. A couple of times I had lunch with the legendary Condé Nast features editor Leo Lerman in his office. Although it was apparent that he was not a well man, I could barely keep up with the conversation as Leo zigzagged between the latest Broadway shows, the Victorian novel, classical music, and the relationship between parody and humor. Some might accuse Lerman of being a dilettante. There was a certain truth to that. But it wasn’t the end of the story, because Leo would have proceeded to discuss the history of dilettantism with an erudition that put most cultural historians to shame.

“I know why you need this job,” Alex once said to me, referring to my Condé Nast contract. “You need it so you can do your real work.” Is there anybody in the American media world today who would tell a writer that the reason he could count on a magazine’s continued support was because it assured him the money and leisure to work for other outlets? Of course at the time I was producing a steady stream of copy for Vogue. But Alex understood that when I was really operating on all cylinders I was doing a kind of writing that wasn’t for Vogue, and he wanted to support that. Is the problem today that there’s no longer enough money to go around? Think again. The new media moguls have lots of spare change. What they lack is the vision to see beyond the platforms where they’re so comfortably ensconced. When I met with Anna Wintour a couple of times a year to discuss what stories I would do for her at Vogue, I could see that although she admired Alex’s cosmopolitanism she could not permit herself the luxury of indulging in such high falutin’ fascinations. The times were a changin’, and Anna was determined to embrace Alex’s ruthlessness while jettisoning his romanticism. Twenty years later, she is not only the editor of Vogue but the artistic director of Condé Nast, as close as anybody has ever come to standing in Alex’s shoes. At Vogue, you will still occasionally find a piece of writing or a photo spread that exudes the kind of mysterious ambience or atmosphere that Alex believed the magazine owed to its most discerning readers. But Anna Wintour rarely ventures beyond her comfort zone. Nobody believes they can afford to anymore. Culturally speaking, we’ve become the poorest wealthy nation on the planet.

There was something almost childlike about Alex’s unquenchable curiosity, and that leavened the austerity of his powerbroker personality. The media world no longer has any room for childlike curiosity. Instincts have been replaced by metrics. Strangely enough, I had become acquainted with Alex’s avidity long before I met him. As a boy I discovered in my local library a copy of Alexander Liberman’s 1960 book, The Artist in His Studio. I wanted to be a painter, and I enjoyed nothing so much as daydreaming as I studied Liberman’s ravishing panoramas and glimpses of the studios of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and other European artists. In the 1950s Alex had gone to Europe every summer, and photographed the work spaces of these men who were his idols. His career as a painter and a sculptor, a career carved out of the weekends when he was not at Condé Nast, was a way of paying obeisance to those idols. What is tremendous about The Artist in His Studio—and makes it the one among Alex’s achievements that I believe will surely live—is that he had the instinct (and the wit) to photograph not only the artists but also the paint on their palettes and their jars full of brushes, the books in their bookshelves, the reproductions tacked on their walls. You feel Alex’s eagle eye, discovering in the details of the artist’s studio the inner workings of the artist’s mind. I felt that same eagle eye when we had lunch—my only times lunching in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons and at La Grenouille were with Alex—and he peppered me with questions about why a certain critic had just published an article on a certain subject. Although he was not an intellectual, Alex had an instinctive, intuitive grasp of the dynamics of intellectual life. When I published in The New Criterion what I think was the first negative assessment of Anselm Kiefer’s work, Alex told various people at Vogue that they had to read it. There was no chance that Vogue would ever publish such a scathingly critical piece on Kiefer or any other art star, but Alex believed one must know that such a thing could be done. He knew that intellectual combat was an essential part of cultural life.

Dominique Nabokov
Alexander Liberman paints in a studio.

I did not need to go into the Vogue offices very often, but I could see from the frantic phone calls I received and from my occasional visits to 350 Madison Avenue that everybody was always in a state of more or less high anxiety. That did not come as a surprise. Anxiety is built into the DNA of an institution dedicated to predicting the future, and at the simplest level everybody at Vogue, from Alex on down, was afraid of missing out on something. But for Alex there may also have been a subtler form of anxiety at work, because he knew there were possibilities afoot in the world that were irreconcilable with his own possibilities but that nevertheless ought to be taken into account. Alex certainly embraced the down and dirty exuberance of popular experience; he understood that Condé Nast’s readers had to have their fair share of stupid fun. Charles Churchward’s book is full of razzamatazz layouts from the pages of Vogue and other magazines that showcase Alex’s gift for tickling and otherwise delighting the democratic audience in White Plains, Dallas, and Kalamazoo. But if the rapacity of democratic culture meant that Condé Nast was always engineering some newfangled surprise, the reach of democratic culture, which Alex saw as encompassing all of culture, meant that Vogue also had a responsibility to spread the word about the finest in literature, science, music, and the visual arts. What Alex never forgot was that our culture included much that Condé Nast could not comprehend. Of course Alex never allowed that knowledge to more than slightly ruffle the silken surfaces of his life—but he knew it, nevertheless.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.