This week the Irving and Aaronel deRoy Gruber Foundation will open the forest green door of a new gallery and usher visitors through the life and work of the late visionary Pittsburgh artist Aaronel deRoy Gruber.
Brittany Reilly, executive director of the foundation named in Gruber’s memory, will host a wine and art reception at 5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 24, and a two-hour open house during the afternoon on Jan. 25 at the new Ice House Studios space in Lawrenceville. While these events will serve as the gallery’s public debut, in the future the space will be open by appointment only.
Last week as Reilly walked through the 1,800-square-foot gallery — which now also serves as headquarters of The Irving and Aaronel deRoy Gruber Foundation — she offered colorful commentary on a life passionately and creatively lived.
Next to aging bottles of Day-Glo paint — eye-popping colors included Rocket Red and Horizon Blue — are three Rolodexes Gruber used to catalog her art world contacts. Flattened cardboard containers that once stored Plexiglass serve as impromptu bases.
“She was driven, she was experimental, she was social — there are so many energies I hope to manifest in this space,” said Reilly, as she passed by 10 Gruber photographs — each fixated on tightly-cropped, elaborate patterns — in metal frames and white matting. “It’s exciting to see this eye for geometry while showing it through her other works. By celebrating these mediums, I want to make connections.”
Framed by white brick walls, the space boasts 20-foot, bare wood ceilings and massive windows inviting in natural light. The viewer is greeted by Gruber’s abstract and kinetic sculptures — some highly geometric, some hinting at the structure of cellular building blocks.
There’s also vacuum-formed Plexiglass, metalwork reflective of the region’s steel history and lesser-known works like the acrylic painting, “Beloved Awakening,” with its vibrant splashes of orange and ocher.
Reilly dipped into an adjoining storage room with shelves lined with binders of photographs and the occasional relic. Nearby sat an extra Plexiglass “bubble” bearing Gruber’s engraved signature, as well as books filled with exhibition catalogs and an ancient glass bottle of yellow dust labeled “The oHommel Co.”
“I love this room because of its endless discoveries on every shelf as we go through the inventory,” Reilly said. “In personal and technical ways, this tells us so much about her practice.”
Gruber, a Carnegie Tech grad and member of the abstract art collective, Group A, died in 2011 at age 93. She was an artist who made her mark in painting, photography, sculpture and jewelry.
Her husband, who bought American Forge and Manufacturing on Pittsburgh’s North Side in 1940, was also involved in the arts, helping to fund a Broadway production of “Damn Yankees.”
And art coursed through the Gruber family. A piano sat prominently in the family’s Squirrel Hill living room. Two of their children — all three plan to attend Friday’s reception — pursued art careers as well.
The photographer Terry Gruber, Aaronel deRoy Gruber’s youngest son and a trustee of the family’s foundation, remembers the first time he collaborated with his mother. He was 10 at the time and she asked to employ some of his Bill Ding stacking toys in an abstract work pockmarked with striped and black-and-white circles.
“She was overlaying these gray areas to [the painting] and spray painting these shapes — I wasn’t utilizing the toys anymore so she used them as a stencil,” said Terry Gruber, who has lived in New York City since 1975.
“It was critically acclaimed by me,” he laughed. “I thought it was great.”
What excites Terry Gruber about the new gallery space is how it furthers his mother’s legacy but also provides a springboard for contemporary artists. Reilly — who previously worked on the Carnegie International, the oldest North American exhibition of contemporary art — said the space could be used to showcase the work of new Pittsburghers.
Jamie deRoy, the late artist’s only daughter, is a performer and producer of Broadway and off-Broadway shows. She’s excited by the physical space in Lawrenceville, which is a big step above the Chalfant studio where Gruber worked and stored her wares during much of her lifetime.
“It’s pretty fabulous,” deRoy said. “It’s just a beautiful space — she never really had anything like that.”