Gruber's work was internationally exhibited, but around here she was perhaps best known not just for her longevity, but for her ability to successfully shift between, and evolve her practice through, different media. The Pittsburgh native and Carnegie Institute of Technology grad (class of 1940) started out as an abstract painter (her mentors included the great teacher Samuel Rosenberg), then moved into metal sculpture, plastic sculpture, photography and video.
Her best-known work was probably the 20-foot-tall metal tower called "Steelcityscape," which in the late '70s and early '80s was displayed under the City-County building's portico, Downtown, and is set to be installed in Mellon Park this fall
Meanwhile, Gruber was past 60 when she took up photography — the medium in which she had her last big Pittsburgh show, 2009's The Analytical Eye, at Silver Eye Center.
Gruber, who lived in Churchill, was active into 2010, too, and after news of her death broke I caught up with one of her final collaborators: Deanna Mance, who teamed with Gruber on the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh's 2010 show exchange.
Working with an artist more than six decades her junior was Gruber's idea, says Mance, who's now 29. The older artist had met the younger while giving her an award the year prior, and phoned to suggest they collaborate in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibit Exchange, displayed at the Downtown's 937 Liberty Gallery.
"I was totally thrilled," says Mance. "Totally lucky, miracle experience for me to have."
While Gruber was by then growing frail, "She wanted to keep going, which was inspiring," says Mance. The younger artist ended up creating new work to complement or modify existing pieces by Gruber. In a review of the show, I described the result this way:
"Gruber's ‘Steel Temple Ruins,' an austere, tinted black-and-white photo of the disenfranchised mill smokestacks at Homestead's Waterfront shopping district, hangs alongside Mance's colorful, candy-striped abstract drawing of the same scene. The two also team on ‘Mixologists,' a cheerfully macabre take on a child's toy incorporating dismembered baby dolls, featuring Gruber's Plexiglass sculpture and Mance's line work."
Gruber "was always thinking of new and innovative ways" to work, says Mance. "Mixologists" was especially interesting: Gruber supplied Mance with a plastic sculpture she'd made in the 1980s and told her to modify it. "She let me take it apart and add some drawing pieces inside." To help, Gruber also sent Mance a list of words "that would inspire me." (The "Mixologists" photo at right is courtesy of Gruber's assistant, Dan Mohan.)
Even at 91, Gruber "was very witty and a great storyteller, actually," Mance adds.
The Silver Eye show, whose photos dates from 1982-2001, likewise exhibited Gruber's passion for experimentation, incorporating sepia-toning, archival inkjet printing, hand-tinting and digital manipulation.
Half of the images in that show were made with infrared film or digital infrared to create images "in which sunlight on fields shines like snow, and cloudy skies glimmer pink," I wrote in my review for CP. "The effect can offer an impressionistic oak-lined Louisiana path (‘Down the Lonely Road') or the blue, white and gray moonscape of ‘Salt Cities of Mono Lake.'"
The show also included Gruber's iconic "Dream City": "A dirt lot provides the extended foreground for a solemn 1997 view of the old Lawrence Paint Building, near Station Square, while in the distance Downtown's skyscrapers shine behind their Point, like a magical island in the fog."
As Mance sums up, "We've lost an incredible artist in Pittsburgh."