Susan Kleinberg

    Susan Kleinberg

February 10, 2024
            Phototgraph by Gianmarco Chieregato

In Sweet Memory

Susan Kleinberg


Susan passed away peacefully in her studio December 1, after a quarter century of beating the odds over a rare cancer, liposarcoma.

She had a storied life in Art, beginning when she was 18, studying Gaudi in Barcelona, and went to a bullfight with Salvador Dali.  She graduated from Pomona College, where she studied with Jim Turrell, and got her masters at Hunter, where she studied with Robert Morris and Tony Smith.

Her first loft in New York was on White Street in Tribeca before it was TRIBECA.  Only a few years earlier it had been Barnet Newman’s studio.  Larry Bell and Mel Bochner were her neighbors in the building.

Her first major show in New York was at Leo Castelli’s uptown gallery.  Her work was in one room, Robert Rauschenberg was in the other.  A thrill!

She had a beautiful show one year at the Public Theater on Lafayette St., in the lobby of the theater where Broadway deities Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronin were starring in another of their major theatrical events.

In 1995, for the Venice Biennale’s “Arte Laguna,” she floated “Spozalizio del Mare” in the Grand Canal between San Marco and San Giorgio.  We spent an enchanted week on the island of San Servolo in the Venice Lagoon securing the objects from Venetian history that Susan had made at a Broadway set design studio in Brooklyn, and which she had spray painted gold on the front stoop of her loft at 29 Mercer Street in Soho.  (The stoop retained specks of gold paint for a decade later…)  

The thousand-year-old Venetian ceremony Spozalizio del Mare symbolized the marriage of the Venetian Republic with the sea.  On Ascension Day, the Doge threw a gold ring into the Grand Canal or into the Adriatic.  Susan’s gold ring was created by the guys who had made the yellow floatation collars for the Apollo spacecraft.  

When we were finished fastening all of the objects onto the trampoline-like inner layer of the “ring” and tried with two-dozen strong arms to lift it, Susan worried that it was too heavy and would sink.  She called the guys, who were still in Cape Canaveral, although the technology was now used for oil spill barriers.  They said, “Susan, don’t worry, you could float a Chevrolet on it!”  We dropped it in the lagoon, it floated perfectly and was towed out into the Grand Canal, where divers dropped the anchors.  

In 1997, Susan was at the American Academy in Rome after having her first major cancer surgery.  She had been deeply moved by the courage she saw among other cancer patients and began working on her piece, “Fear Not,” in which she asked people of all walks of life what courage meant to them.  Everyone from Gore Vidal, whom she visited at his villa in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast and sat in his “Ben Hur” chairs, to a Dominican domestic worker on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.  Besides Vidal, her favorite interviews in English were with Astronaut Sally Ride and Congressman and Civil Rights legend John Lewis.

In 2000, Harold Szeemann, who was curating the 2001 Venice Biennale, invited her to show “Fear Not” in the Arsenale.  But he asked her to do an Italian version along with the English version.  Susan spoke Italian well and spent the year doing just that.  She asked the two candidates for prime minister of Italy for interviews.  Only Silvio Berlusconi said “yes.”  Her favorite Italian interviews were with philanthropist Susanna Agnelli, with a fish vender in the Rialto market and with three gondolieri.  The fish vendor first exclaimed, “Courage?  I thought you wanted to talk about fish!”

In the middle of the Arsenale, Susan created a beautiful space with iridescent walls a color somewhere between deep blue and purple.  Samsung gave her cutting-edge jewel-like video monitors, which were new and rare at that time.  Sennheiser donated elegant black headphones that swayed in the air, hanging down in the high Arsenale ceiling.

For the 2005 Biennale, with sponsorship from the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in Venice, she projected her video piece “Blood Roll” across the Campo Santo Stefano onto the institute’s high white facade.  The low rumble of the digital glass globe filled with blood rolling up and down and spinning on a central fulcrum could be heard far outside the Campo…

For the 2009 Biennale, with sponsorship from Telecom Italia, she previewed her second video installation, “Tierra Sin Males,” projecting it across the broad inner courtyard of the 16th Century Cloister of San Salvador designed by Sansovino.

“Tierra Sin Males” had its formal premiere at the 2011 Venice Biennale in Axel Vervoordt's first of four renowned Biennale exhibitions at the Palazzo Fortuny, TRA.  The following year, the 3D version of “Tierra Sin Males” premiered at Art Basel Miami.

Susan’s third video installation, “KAIROS,” premiered in Vervoordt’s third Palazzo Fortuny show, PROPORTIO, for the 2015 Biennale.

And her fourth, “BALAFRE,” premiered in his final Palazzo Fortuny exhibition, INTUITION, for the 2017 Biennale.  Both “KAIROS” and “BALAFRE” evolved out of Susan's six-year collaboration with the scientific team at the Louvre in Paris, using their high-resolution HI-Rox digital microscope.

Susan returned to the Louvre in 2017 and created “HELIX,” which premiered at the Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum in Palermo, Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, coinciding with Manifesta 18.

LEAP! was an exquisite leap of faith at a very dark time for her in 2020.  She had woken up from her fourth cancer surgery with her right leg paralyzed.  The surgeon at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles had unknowingly severed the femoral nerve in her leg.  And COVID was raging.  She began intense physical therapy, although she was told she would never walk again without a walker.  (She did, thanks to a surgeon she happened to hear about a year later, who connected two minor nerves in her thigh to the dead femoral nerve and brought it back to life!)

We went to Venice in October 2022, where she did what she never thought she would be able to do again, to walk up and down the canal bridges on her own — to be able to walk around her beloved Venice.  And she attended the fabulous three-day conference organized by Simone Leigh, the American artist in the 2022 Biennale.

Not long after her 2020 surgery, Susan was enamored of a viral video of dolphins returning to the Grand Canal, reportedly because of the clean waters from the COVID collapse of tourism in Venice.  She loved the video even if it were false.  It turned out to have been shot in Sardinia, but Susan created a video with images of dolphins in Venice and began a series of related drawings.  She was in love with the idea, the cleansing and renewal.  “LEAP is an offer of a moment of wonder,” she said.  As our dear friend Maria Morris Hambourg wrote, “It radiates Susan’s creative joy, love of the world, and generosity of feeling.”  A year later, two dolphins did return to the Grand Canal.

A memorial will be held in Los Angeles on Saturday, February 10, 4:00 pm, at the Skirball Museum, and we will celebrate her birthday next fall with a party at the Explorers Club in New York on November 23.

       — Les Guthman

With Berber girls, Moussem de Tan Tan, Morocco, 2014