Evolution of an artist: Gruber moved from painting to Plexiglas to photography

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When Aaronel deRoy Gruber died of congestive heart failure in her Churchill home on July 6, 2011, it was four days before her 93rd birthday. The daughter of a prominent dentist, she was born in 1918 and grew to become one of Pittsburgh's most prolific artists.

Now, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art is celebrating her life and work with the exhibit “Aaronel deRoy Gruber: Art(ist) in Motion.”

It's an apt title, says Dan Mohan, who became her assistant in 2004.

“Aaronel had an incredible amount of energy,” he says. “And if she didn't do it all herself, she was able to gather teams that would work with her to accomplish her vision.”

A 1940 graduate of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) who majored in costume design, Gruber started out as a painter thoroughly dedicated to the Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated the mid-20th century.

But it was her entry in the 1960 Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annual Exhibition — a painting titled “Mystery” — that got the attention of one of the three jurors, who in turn inspired Gruber's interest in sculpture.

The juror, David Smith (1906-65), was America's most prominent steel sculptor at the time, and he awarded Gruber “first prize in oil painting” for the work, which was displayed in the exhibition at Carnegie Institute.

“They got to know each other,” Mohan says of Gruber and Smith. “He encouraged her to start sculpting. And that's when she started doing steel sculpture.”

That led ultimately to making works in Uvex and Plexiglas by the late 1960s.

Though there is no real record of how many Plexiglas and steel pieces she created, there are dozens on display in this exhibit. And many, such as “Revolving Eye” (1969-70) are illuminated and motorized so that they spin on an axis.

Some of the pieces are small immobile, tabletop-sized works, such as “Global Commitment (Sun Yat Sen)” from 1970. But all incorporate her signature “vacuum-formed” bubbles in clear and colored translucent Plexiglas.

Not all of Gruber's works on display were made of plastic. “Plexi Steel Turning,” a work from the 1970s, is made from a forged steel disc, which was pressed at the former American Forge Manufacturing Co. in McKees Rocks, where her husband, Irving Gruber, was co-owner and president.

Larger steel works by Gruber, such as her best-known work “Steelcityscape,” a 21-foot-tall abstract piece which in the late '70s and early '80s was displayed under the City-County Building's portico, Downtown, are represented in the exhibit with photographs.

Other photographs on display include Gruber's own, such as several from her “Dance Series” from the mid-2000s. She turned her attention to photography in the late 1980s, at first using a Widelux camera to create prints that were much wider than they were tall, and, later, several digital cameras.

“She followed the trends in art,” Mohan says. “Plastics died out, but she should have stayed with it because this is her best work.”

In addition to several photographs of the artist posing with her plastic sculptures and a five-minute video she made of her revolving pieces, the exhibit includes several pieces of her vacuum-formed plastic jewelry.

“Not many people know she made jewelry,” says Mohan, who was surprised when he stumbled upon a drawer filled with several belt buckles Gruber made of vacuum-formed plastic not long before the opening of the exhibit. Several are on display in a large case, along with a variety of necklaces.

Mohan says that only once, since the 1980s, did Gruber return to her plastic sculptures, and that was in 2010 when she collaborated with a young artist named Deanna Mance to create the piece “Mixologists,” which the pair collaborated on for the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Centennial Exhibition in January 2010.

On display here, it is a reprised sculpture from the 1980s to which Mance added drawn elements and tiny toys and baby-doll parts to the interior — a subtle nod to Gruber's lifelong hobby of collecting antique toys.

On April 26, Gruber's husband of 71 years will share stories about his life with the artist since they first met at a fraternity dance at Carnegie Tech in the 1930s. The talk is free and will begin at 6 p.m.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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