From childhood Aaronel was interested in drawing. She attended Wightman Elementary School and Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill. While earning a bachelor of science degree at Carnegie Institute of Technology, (now Carnegie Mellon) awarded in 1940, Aaronel studied with several outstanding professors in the institute’s College of Fine Arts: Samuel Rosenberg, Roy Hilton,Wilfred Readio, and Robert Lepper, who would also later inspire Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein.*
Since her graduation from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Aaronel deRoy Gruber has been creating art: paintings, steel and Plexiglas sculptures, and for many years, photographs. She again studied with Samuel Rosenberg in an experimental workshop. A social realist painter turned abstractionist, Rosenberg encouraged freedom of expression, analysis, and constructive critiques. He was a major force in Pittsburgh’s advanced art. Experimenting, Aaronel created gestural paintings on canvases that were sometimes twelve feet tall. She then began thrusting their surfaces forward in a three-dimensional, sculptural way. *
But the artist’s excitement in the 1960s stemmed from the era’s foremost American abstract sculptor, David Smith (1906-65). Pittsburgh artist/critic Harry Schwalb introduced Aaronel to Smith at an awards dinner after he and New York painter Theodores Stamos had juried the 1961 Associated Artists of Pittsburgh annual exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art. They awarded her abstract painting Mystery, 1961, first prize. Smith said to her husband, Irving Gruber, president of the American Forge & Manufacturing Co., McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, “Why don’t you encourage Aaronel to work in steel? She has a good three-dimensional sense.” On that trip Smith visited American Forge and was excited by the unusual steel shapes he saw there. Irv shipped him the pieces he selected. Later Smith invited the couple to his home at Bolton’s Landing, New York. “Seeing David’s field of steel sculptures there was most inspiring,” Aaronel recalled. “He influenced me because his works were so dynamic and powerful.” Smith advised Aaronel to make many sculptures because, he said, “One thing suggests another, and you are inspired and learn from one piece to the next. The more you produce, the more experience and emotional evolution is yours.” His advice struck a chord and she began restructuring steel discards from the forgings plant Irv headed. *
Sculpture in plastic soon evolved. Aaronel began crafting precisely made steel and Plexiglas kinetic objects and became an innovator in the growing field of polymer and motor-driven sculpture. This came about after the late Bertha Schaefer, Aaronel’s New York dealer, suggested she use lighter materials. Aaronel visited the New Jersey research and development center of Rohm & Haas, patent-holder and manufacturer of Plexiglas, an acrylic resin hardly tapped at that time for its artistic potential. The machinery she needed was the same used to make skylights at Engineered Products Inc. on Pittsburgh’s Ardmore Boulevard. Aaronel asked the firm’s owner if he had any space for her to work there and he offered her room for a studio. She was able there to press large sheets of Plexiglas into molds, continuing until the firm needed the space. Aaronel found that the lustrous clear medium could be shaped in molds to her designs. Setting up her own vacuum-forming process, she quickly evolved a variety of forms. In 1968, the artist was invited to exhibit in “Made in Plastic,” the first exhibition of its kind, at the Flint, Michigan, Institute of Art, which acquired her large wall sculpture made of Uvex, another vacuum-formed plastic. The next year she participated in the Jewish Museum’s “A Plastic Presence,” New York City’s first exhibition of this type of sculpture. Then for more than twenty years, Aaronel, working with fabricators, produced hundreds of beautiful transparently colored Plexiglas sculptures, often self illuminated and revolving, that were seen in scores of exhibitions. Asked in 1978 why she wanted to use this difficult medium, Aaronel said, “I like its transparency, the overlapping of colors forming other colors and the effect of contained light within. When the sculpture is motorized, it takes on a life of its own. It is one thing by day and another by night. Sculpture moving at slow revolutions suggests the orbits of the sun and the moon and makes objects appear to change by casting them in new attitudes.”*
Aaronel’s style evolved from Constructivism, particularly the Lucite experiments of Laszio Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). “Although the sculptures are minimal in concept, they are not empty,” the artist said in an article by this author, (Donald Miller), in the May 1978 issue of Arts Magazine. “I am inspired by the mystery inherent in the sculpture. It is like looking into a crystal ball in which you see things reflected. When the sculptures also have a motion that is strange and silent, their space is no longer static but alive!” Alfred Frankenstein, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote in 1973, “It’s not like any plastic sculpture you have ever seen before… exploiting the beauty of light through thick transparencies of plastics in color.” The Buffalo Evening News added in 1973, “She interplays these concave and convex forms and circular or oval forms in building sculptures of architectonic precision and seemingly endless compositional variety.” Others shared her passion. Aaronel’s sculptures were acquired by more than five hundred public and private collectors in this country and abroad. *
In 1981, after her years of prize-winning work and holding the presidencies of Pittsburgh’s Society of Sculptors and Group A, formerly the Abstract Group, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts selected Aaronel Artist of the Year, one of the art community’s highest honors.
“But,” she said, “I slowly came to miss the immediacy between my inspiration and the final work. I felt perhaps I had moved too far from nature.” In the 1980s, Aaronel was encouraged by her son Terry, a professional photographer in New York, to return to photography as a serious subject. Taking snapshots had been a delight of her childhood. She had photographed family members and friends from age ten when her parents gave her a Kodak Brownie. She took photographs from then on but never exhibited them. Aaronel then enrolled in a number of photographers’ workshops. In the winter of 1989 at the Palm Beach Photographic Workshop, she learned from Walter Heun, who was for many years a creative photographer with Leica Camera, Inc. *
Long known for her artistic vision, Aaronel employed photographic processes that range from traditional methods to the latest in digital technology. As Murray Horne of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and curator of Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh, PA, has said, “There is a real lustrous-ness to it. A real feeling for the extravagant, but it’s not over the top.” This lavish feel shines in Aaronel’s photographs.
Aaronel’s art is included in the permanent collection of The Carnegie Museum of Art, including her 1968 Plexiglas sculpture, Spherical Plateaus. Additionally, her art is part of the permanent collections of the Butler Institute of American Art, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, the Frick Art Museum, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the Kawamura Museum of Modern Art in Japan.
* Excerpt: Aaronel, The Art of Aaronel deRoy Gruber by Donald Miller