IN COLD WAR-ERA AMERICA, one of the more remarkable cultural developments was the efflorescence of visual arts programs in colleges and universities. This unprecedented expansion from 1945 to 1990 was launched even as most Americans remained indifferent, skeptical, or hostile to the rise of modern art. The upsurge in academic art programs attracted artistically inclined former soldiers (like the painter Richard Diebenkorn) who enrolled in them through the GI bill. They received instruction from recently hired modernists who were delighted to have found a financial base for their avant-garde practice, and who encouraged their students in modernist explorations. As these postwar art students completed their degrees, they in turn landed teaching posts, especially in the booming Midwest and western US. Continuing this sequence, their students, now including a growing number of young women, were animated in turn by the climate of modernist experimental freedom.
Among these young art students was Karen Laub. Born in 1937 in a Roman Catholic family, she was an art prodigy at Notre Dame High School in Cresco, Iowa, graduating in 1954 just as the nationwide visual arts expansion was gathering steam. Coming from a town of 2,500, Laub felt comfortable enrolling in Carleton College, a small noteworthy liberal arts school in Northfield, Minnesota. She gravitated to printmaking, and her earliest works integrate Catholic iconography with modernist styles. While this may not seem significant now, a quest for new or fresh Christian imagery within American Catholicism found a voice in the rising calls for reform in the postwar church. These demands from the Americas and Europe led to the convening of the Second Vatican Council. Held from 1962 to 1965, in addition to overhauling liturgical practice, the council also took up church relations with the modern world, including the use of modern expressions in Catholic imagery.
Indeed, in the American church, reform of Catholic imagery had had its advocates since the 1930s. And while Laub was making Catholic-themed art at Carleton, the magazines Liturgical Arts and Catholic Arts Quarterly were promoting simpler, more direct imagery and décor as a successor to imported mass-produced devotional graphics, plaster ornaments, and statuary—which the reformers derided as shoddy and uninspired. Among those leading the charge were the Benedictines at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, a hundred miles north of Carleton. In place of clichéd commercial church décor, the Benedictines sponsored liturgical art that was “simple, solid, chaste, noble, and unsentimental,” according to Colleen McDannell in her 1995 study Material Christianity.
In this vein, Laub’s Nativity woodcut from 1956, produced when she was nineteen, conflates stained-glass compositeness and cubist form to produce an elemental and diagrammatic image of the incarnation. From this provocative yet still immature work, Laub progressed to a warm folk style (particularly favored by the Benedictines) in a work of the following year, Mother and Child. By 1960, she had attained an elegantly austere linear technique in her drypoint intaglio Holy Nativity [see Plate 7].
As a young artist with her BA in hand, and excited by modern art styles (like many American modernists in the 1950s, she admired Picasso), Laub sought out challenging graduate programs, eventually enrolling at the University of Iowa. She chose the etcher Mauricio Lasansky, a leader in postwar American printmaking, as her mentor, perhaps because his printmaking workshop there had become one of the most influential in the country. Laub thrived at Iowa and completed her MFA in 1961, producing a confident intaglio self-portrait the year of her graduation. While in Iowa City, she submitted paintings to competitive art exhibitions in the state, winning prizes. The president of Carleton College was impressed by her prowess and purchased two. Post-Iowa, Laub was invited back to Carleton for a one-year teaching appointment.
Newly minted MFAs from prominent art schools in the 1960s—especially those with teaching experience—had every reason to be optimistic. Expanding art schools were hiring. But there was a hitch. Female candidates were often not taken as seriously as their male counterparts; most 1960s art departments were frankly sexist. Betty Friedan’s feminist urtext, The Feminine Mystique, would appear the year after Laub finished teaching at Carleton, and male and female relations grew contested in the following years, especially in academia.
In addition, Laub’s personal life came to a crisis as she was staking out her vocation. Romantically interested in an Iowa law student, she pondered how she could balance the roles of wife (and later, mother) with the calling of a professional artist. Then things became more complicated. While visiting Harvard in 1962, she went on a blind date with Michael Novak, a twenty-nine-year-old former Catholic seminarian who was working on a doctorate in the philosophy of religion. Novak was immediately smitten and saw the smart and beautiful Laub as “an answer to my prayer for a wife.” He became an ardent suitor, visiting her parents in Cresco to make his intentions clear. Conflicted, Laub rebuffed both men for a year, feeling the need for professional grounding. To this end she went to Massachusetts where she taught art and obtained studio privileges at the recently founded George Lockwood Studio, a progressive printmaking atelier in Boston.
In 1962, the persistent Novak finally “got a yes” from Laub (“She ran out of excuses,” he says) and they were married in Cresco that summer. The young artist became Mrs. Michael Novak and, professionally, Karen Laub-Novak. Concurrently, she developed the idea for an ambitious series of lithographs illustrating the Apocalypse of Saint John. A voluptuously visionary text of abruptly shifting scenes—vivid, violent, glorious, and obscure—the Apocalypse is a richly symbolic narrative of twenty-one chapters. With its overabundance of spiritual violence and warfare, it is no text for a timid artist. Indeed, the Northern Renaissance painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer understood this. In his sudden ascent from journeyman to master, he proclaimed his new status while still in his twenties when he published his monumental woodcut series Apocalypsis cum Figuris (Apocalypse with Pictures) in 1498. In the 1860s, the French Romantic artist Gustave Doré illustrated the entire Bible with wood engravings; his imagery for the book of Revelation is still reproduced today. Darkly theatrical and cinematic, Doré’s compositions seem to anticipate the widescreen special effects of CGI.
Religiously themed graphic arts series were not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s. The German-American wood engraver Fritz Eichenberg published a limited edition of prints treating scenes from the Old Testament in 1955. The printmaker and sculptor Leonard Baskin, son of an Orthodox rabbi, created a woodcut series in 1960 illustrating the Jewish holidays. In the same year Laub-Novak began her drawings for the Apocalypse, the California artist Rico Lebrun published a portfolio of lithographs on Dante’s Inferno (1963).
Emerging from the University of Iowa as a disciplined and controlled draughtsman, Laub-Novak contrarily chose a brisk, sketchy expressionist style for her Apocalypse series. In modernist fashion, hers would be devoid of historicist baggage or anachronisms. With a portfolio of her preliminary drawings in hand, Laub-Novak joined her husband on a voyage to Italy where he was assigned to report on the Vatican II reforms. While he met and interviewed church officials, she worked in a local printmaking studio to produce her graphics, making the final seventeen drawings on limestone and printing her Apocalypse in an edition of sixty lithographs.
Unlike the abundantly detailed, closely rendered narrative imagery of Dürer and Doré, her series makes use of slashing crayon gestures to compose what can be best described as essentialist vignettes. One example, the formidable frieze of figures Seven Trumpets—Seven Angels, illustrates Revelation 8:2: “And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.” Against a shimmering golden ochre tone symbolizing the heavenly court, the angels take up their attenuated horns to announce the incensed offering of “the prayers of all the saints” [see Plate 8].
Here and there Laub-Novak’s Apocalypse drawings take on a hallucinatory aura—flashbulb scenes of glory and terror. Such is Death, the Second Horseman, taken from Revelation 6:3–4: “When [the lamb] broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature shout, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red, and its rider was given this duty: to take away peace from the earth and set people killing each other. He was given a huge sword.” Not one to stint on color, Laub-Novak toned the composition in a bloody scarlet. She also masked areas of white to highlight the cadaverous warrior on his grim steed overrunning the smoky destruction below [see Plate 9].
Figurative expressionism, the distortive style Laub-Novak chose for her Apocalypse, has since been abandoned by most American artists. In its heyday, 1945–70, figurative expressionism served as a via media for modernist painters and sculptors who rejected both conservative representational styles and the pure formalism and the “contentless abstraction” of the New York school. These figurative modernists believed the former was out of sync with advanced European art (exemplified in the US by the influential Pablo Picasso); the latter was seen as abandoning art history, narrative, and the social and physical realities of the world. Among the figurative expressionists celebrated in the 1950s and ’60s—and then marginalized or forgotten—were William Brice, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Rico Lebrun, Arnold Mesches, Jan Müller, Ben Shahn, Bob Thompson, and Howard Warshaw.
For Laub-Novak artistic recognition was problematic because of her emphasis on the graphic arts—drawing and printmaking—and her preference for content drawn from sacred texts or literature. The official art world (sneeringly known in my circle as TOAW) characterizes this combination as a minor art form—read: “mere illustration.” But as Laub-Novak has said: “Such starting points [literary sources] give me relief from the overwhelming demands of self-expression, the ‘creating out of nothing’ that faces me from an empty canvas. Reading opens my imagination…when my horizons are too confined by…my immediate experience and emotions. In literature I can call upon a whole range of ideas, symbols, [and] emotions which I feel and recognize and which can lead to further insights into my own experience.”
Hot on the heels of her Apocalypse suite, Laub-Novak turned for inspiration to T.S. Eliot, one of the godfathers of high modernist poetry. She selected his masterpiece “Ash Wednesday,” a six-section poem on his Christian conversion that critic F.R. Leavis praised for “its qualities of ritual” and “dedication to spiritual exercises.” An allusive work with a musicality that stands out in performed recitation, “Ash Wednesday” functions on two levels: it is “out of this common world,” while simultaneously “refus[ing] to merely dissociate itself from the world,” according to critic Denis Donoghue. Laub-Novak was not deterred by the poem’s complexity, extracting only the most piquant elements to illustrate. For her Ash Wednesday series she chose copperplate etching, a medium requiring more deliberate techniques than stone lithography. In this endeavor she recalled her Iowa studies with the master etcher Mauricio Lasansky. Like Apocalypse, the Ash Wednesday suite was produced in Italy, as Laub-Novak again accompanied her husband to Rome where he resumed his coverage of Vatican II deliberations.
In the first image, Laub-Novak portrays the narrator (presumably the poet himself) in profile, shoulders sagging, wearily posing his challenge to Enlightenment secularism: “Why should I mourn / The vanished power of the usual reign?” Her choice to distort her subject lifts the narrator’s profound self-questioning above mere memoir, embodying a despair that nudges the poet’s repentance: “to construct something / Upon which to rejoice.” The artist’s aquatint and plate-scraping techniques, in addition to producing an ashen atmosphere, deliver a textured chiaroscuro expressionism that positions the drooping, desiccated figure in the all-revealing light.
The sixth image, Time of Tension between Birth and Dying, depicts an anguished being with a hollowed-out abdomen (awaiting a new conception?) and a mutilated face, recalling the use of damaged, injured, and blinded figures by British artist Francis Bacon in the 1960s. Laub-Novak’s image makes use of Eliot’s “seaward flying unbroken wings” as a patterned backdrop. Her repenting figure raises his disfigured face (“the blind eye”) to seek unity with God, and prays from the Psalms: “And let my cry come unto Thee,” the closing line of Eliot’s poem.
In 1965 the Novaks’ first child was born, and the following year, Michael accepted a call to teach at Stanford, where Karen could also teach in the university’s humanities colloquia. Over the next twenty years, he accepted a series of academic and foundation appointments. Their second child was born in 1967, and a year later, the family moved to New York, where he took a job as an administrator at the State University of New York, Old Westbury, and she was given studio privileges in exchange for student tutorials. She produced five lithographs in 1968 based upon Yale theologian and innovative preacher B. Davie Napier’s Come Sweet Death, a commentary that plumbed the humor, pathos, and redemptive power that Napier found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The Novaks remained at SUNY until 1974. Mid-tenure, their third and last child was born. The combination of episodic moves and the arrival of three children in seven years impacted Laub-Novak’s studio time, though she was able to produce a monumental figurative bronze sculpture in 1971 honoring Nobel Prize–winning agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, “the father of the green revolution.”
Towards the end of the decade, Laub-Novak revisited the book of Revelation, attracted to the astonishingly violent and mysterious imagery of the twelfth chapter, where Saint John envisions “a woman clothed with the sun.” As the scene unfolds, the woman struggles to give birth while being menaced by a seven-headed dragon. The child—a boy—is eventually born, and then whisked up into heaven’s protection. In 1977, Laub-Novak produced four large forceful drawings on this theme, concentrating on the travails of the pregnant woman and her tiny infant.
Each of these drawings has a vortex sensibility: the angular woman seems held in a cosmic maelstrom—arms outflung, head thrown back. Laub-Novak greatly emphasizes the swollen belly, not surprising for an artist who had herself birthed three children. She eliminated the dragon—a distraction in this series—instead using a spray-paint technique to blacken the composition with an ominous and threatening cloud. With their pared-down, nontraditional iconography, one would not recognize these expressionist works as illustrating the book of Revelation.
As she was working on her drawings of the apocalyptic woman, Laub-Novak had been reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. She identified strongly with the narrator’s anxious search for transcendence and was attracted by his use of symbolic angels throughout the poem cycle. (Like the Bohemian-Austrian poet, Laub-Novak suffered from bouts of depression.) The Duino Elegies, after their publication in 1923, were recognized by poets, critics, and scholars as Rilke’s most significant accomplishment. Since their appearance, the ten elegies have became touchstones and have influenced creative work across the disciplines, even inspiring Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire (1987). Their vivid and intense imagery, their probing of the meaning of love and beauty, their dialectic weighing of transcendence and immanence—have sparked modernist and postmodernist responses. Since the first English translation appeared in the 1930s, more than twenty others have followed. Open to multiple interpretations, the Duino Elegies continue to attract a wide range of spiritual seekers.
Laub-Novak seems to have found in them an affirmation of transcendence via Rilke’s angels, embodiments of a pure and total consciousness, which humanity, with its self-awareness and knowledge of death, lacks. Among her favorite lines is the opening of the first elegy. With an invocation of philosophical despair, the narrator implores:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying. (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
From 1974 through the mid-1980s, Laub-Novak made drawings and printed six lithographs of her Rilkean angels. Five of them manifest the angels as a kind of alarming spectral flash. To achieve this effect, she used tusche, a liquid, grease-based ink, to briskly paint or pour upon the stone. This is in addition to the crayon drawing she used to limn the details of the figure—the contrasting techniques enhancing the image. Angel of the Second Elegy depicts Laub-Novak’s spirit-being in its glorious terror and beauty. Beneath the overpowering apparition, and barely noticeable, is a cowed human form in a self-protective posture.
In her most fully realized lithograph from the Duino Elegies, Laub-Novak sets a different tone. Twice the size of the other five works in the series, Angel of the Second Elegy: Every Angel is Terrible features the artist’s trademark figurative style—a drawing of the human form as if flayed, a rendering that abstracts the musculature and tissue of the internal body [see Plate 10]. In this image the angel steadies the human figure by gripping its extended arms. This friendlier angel does indeed appear to have “pressed me suddenly against his heart,” but with benevolent purpose. In Rilke’s second elegy, the narrator asks if the essence of the angel contains something of the human. Laub-Novak seems to say yes.
In the 1980s, the Novaks settled in the Washington, DC, area. Michael Novak’s philosophical, theological, and political views evolved in conservative directions (as chronicled in his autobiographical Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative), and he became a staunch advocate of the papacy of John Paul II. Laub-Novak taught art classes at Mount Vernon College, then an independent women’s school. She also had non-art stints working at the National Endowment for Democracy and the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian advocacy think tank. In the studio, Laub-Novak continued to struggle with periods of depression and inertia. In 1989, she was stricken with cancer. Her husband has said that she was always candid about human mortality, especially her own. Nothing gives creative people a clear deadline like the possibility of imminent death. As Laub-Novak underwent oncological treatments, she found an opportunity to clarify her vision as a painter.
Starting in her collegiate years, the artist painted numerous canvases. When I visited her studio in 2013, I viewed more than fifty paintings, many of them exceeding four feet in height and width. The earliest works revealed influences from Picasso. Others flirted with a Viennese expressionist sensibility. (While an undergraduate, Laub-Novak took a summer workshop in Europe with Oskar Kokoschka.) Later canvases from the 1960s and ’70s struggled to unite bold fields of color with her angular, sketchy figures. And while all these paintings had interesting passages here and there, they lacked the resolution of her drawings and prints. In short, Laub-Novak was a graphic artist searching for her métier as a painter.
That quest changed with the onset of cancer, prompting a new approach in the 1990s. Scarcely any of her earlier canvases were engaged with sacred texts and literature, subjects which had propelled graphic works like Apocalypse, Ash Wednesday, and the Duino Elegies. As Laub-Novak resumed painting, she turned to the Bible as a source. Equally important was finding a way to marry her graphic arts sensibility to oils—to create what I see as “drawn paintings.” This meant modulating her expressionism with a neo-Baroque sensibility. In time, the 1990s brought a stunning breakthrough: an iconically dramatic rendering of the lawgiver Moses [see Plate 11].
In a cool and hot palette dominated by turquoise and a muddied red, the downcast figure parallels the monumental angel and human of the Duino Elegies series. Her banded Moses thrusts forth the staff of his divine empowerment and is gripped by an immense eagle that sinks its talons into his shoulders. The painting illustrates Exodus 9:4, in which God says to Moses: “You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.” Moses is here another vehicle for Laub-Novak’s angelic terror.
A second biblical painting from this period is an illustrative rendering from Genesis, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel [see Plate 12]. Here orange is added to the predominant turquoise and red, and a pattern of boldly arced brushstrokes suggests angelic wings. His back to the viewer, a resolute Jacob grabs at the shoulder of the angel/God who gently leans into the flailing mortal to embrace him—a somber gesture of holy terror and love. A third painting in this group, The Cage, is an image of a pen in which four figures existentially struggle with each other and their captivity. The appearance of these three important paintings coincided with the resurgence of interest in figurative and narrative art in the 1990s. In their heroic scale and baroque dynamism, they are comparable to works by two other Christian artists previously featured in Image, Edward Knippers and Wayne Forte [see issues 3 and 13].
In 2006 Laub-Novak suffered a recurrence of her cancer. In 2009, with the end in sight, she valiantly went on a Mediterranean cruise with her husband and their extended family. Their itinerary included Ephesus, where she visited the tomb of Saint John the Evangelist at the remains of the sixth-century church. More than forty years after she published her Apocalypse illustrations, this pilgrimage brought her artistic vocation full circle. Michael Novak recalls that she was radiant as she strolled through the ancient site. Shortly after their return to the US, her condition worsened and she died. Her funeral was held at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, DC.
Early on, Karen Laub-Novak’s career veered away from the prospect of a secure teaching post when she included marriage and family in her life plans. While this certainly impinged upon her studio production, it also nurtured her work with the intellectual companionship of her husband and the love of her family. Moreover, it permitted an artistic quest free of the bureaucracy of academia and the careerism, mandarin elitism, and trendiness of the official art world. Like so many women artists who came of age in the postwar and incipient feminist era, Laub-Novak was told that, in her words, “I couldn’t be a professional artist and married, too. I was told the demands of each were mutually exclusive. [But] in many ways I have found these two complex vocations to be mutually beneficial. Ultimately, as an artist, the two questions for me are: what makes a creative person, and how can all people share in the creative process?”
Curator and art historian Gordon Fuglie and the Novak estate have organized a traveling exhibition of Karen Laub-Novak’s prints, drawings, and paintings, covering her forty-year career. The exhibition may include donations of prints to select participating institutions that acquire art as part of their mission. For more information, contact Gordon Fuglie at email@example.com or 805-461-1699.