(Excerpts from the essay by Avis Berman included in Akiba’s posthumous retrospective catalogue, Alexander Gallery, New York, 1994.)


I begin where a visual artist must begin: to see in simple, tangible objects the catastrophes and pleasures of my life, and to translate them into a language of form.

Every once in a while an artist crops up or reappears whose presence serves to remind us that our understanding of twentieth-century American art is by no means complete. Such an artist is Akiba Emanuel (1912-1993). A gifted painter and sculptor whose original color, haunting personal iconography, and adventurous organization of pictorial space were exceptional among his peers, he is an emblem of how much still remains to be understood in regard to the generation of American artists who emerged in the 1930s and 1940s.

Why is Akiba, who first showed his work in 1938 and went on to exhibit in New York for another forty years, now an unknown? Why, despite hundreds of resoundingly colored and vigorously executed paintings and pastels, has his reputation been submerged for decades. Perhaps his aesthetic individuality doomed him to critical neglect, as his oeuvre can't be assigned to a recognizable category or school. He was never affiliated with an identifiable mainstream movement, a prevailing style, or the dominant social or political concerns of the day.

Akiba's professional art career began in earnest in 1938, when he received several marks of recognition. His first solo exhibition opened in February at the East River Gallery, which was founded by Marian Willard and was the precursor of the distinguished gallery that bore her name. Akiba showed a good number of recent works, and, from the first, he was pegged as unassimilated. The gallery's brochure announced, "Rude Byzantine design and paint technique like sequined.

Moorish embroideries characterize Akiba's instinctive and direct treatment of his canvas. This work is unusual for an American but is not exotic to the background of this particular artist."17 This description did fit the majority of head­ and-shoulder portraits on view, which were marked by calligraphic scratching and incising, slashes of reds and yellows against dark backgrounds, and ocher bravura instances of painterly decoration. The still-lifes were vigorously executed, too, but in another direction. Blue Jug, for example, is a plainer canvas, but one in which each fruit is dramatically positioned. The composition is bold, split in half by a curve and broken up again by active white lines. Akiba's uninhibited approach was rewarded by some encouraging reviews. The Times declared that the pictures "probably have as much explosive impact as anything New York has seen this season," and the Post noted that "he has made a very suggestive start." Emily Genauer of the World-Telegram was most enthusiastic, writing, "This is exotic, almost Orientally rich painting, its colors lifted dripping from a palette as lush as that of Van Gogh."

A month later, Akiba participated in a group show at the East River Gallery with five other progressive artists Ben-Zion, Louis Bosa, Donald Forbes, De Hirsch Margules, and Joseph Solman. As all of these painters were far more well established than himself, Akiba was clearly an artist whom Marian Willard was determined to promote.

Constant invention is a cornerstone of Akiba's work, yet he is most inventive when he is most himself-that is, when he focuses on the materials and objects he knows best and sees in them "the catastrophes and pleasures"35 of his life. By the early 1970s his kinetic abstractions were giving way to equally kinetic portrayals of the humble detritus around him. "Looking at life," he said, "I find it a churning combination of organic and non-organic emotive ideas and scenes. They project a not-to-be denied force which is my motivation." Akiba's visual embodiment of that life force was expressed in the metamorphosis undergone by household objects at his hands. Cabinets, rolltop desks, and squat chests were energetically colored and often painted from a high vantage point. Both the interior and exterior of every piece of furniture are visible, as if Akiba had x-rayed the contents of each one. Capitalizing on the variety and absurdity of what can spill out of an ordinary drawer, he creates dense and active imagery. One's belongings stand for the panorama and hodgepodge of life, and behind closed doors are secrets and confusions and delights.


Copyright© Avis Berman, 1993.