New YorkHidden Figures: Abstract Expressionist Women Painters in New York and California, 1950s and 60s
David Richard Gallery presents Hidden Figures: Abstract Expressionist Women Painters in New York and California, 1950s and 60s, an exhibition of paintings by Sonia Gechtoff, Nina Tryggvadottir, Beate Wheeler and Anthe Zacharias.
This is the inaugural exhibition with the gallery for Gechtoff, Wheeler and Zacharias and the second exhibition for Tryggvadottir.
All four of these artists developed their signature visual language early in their careers. The sources of inspiration and techniques developed by each artist were distinct, yet similarly rooted in the aesthetic milieu of Abstract Expressionism. Gechtoff often used dark colors and black combined with bright and bold colors to create strong color contrasts between the central focus and ground. Thick, impasto surfaces were her signature created with the palette knife and powerful, bold, sharp strokes across the canvas. She often worked large scale and the paintings always had a commanding presence. Trygvadottir, also using a palette knife, painted easel-sized works comprised of blocky, planar shapes of color that floated over darker grounds. The painting surfaces were textured with rich pigments and the geometric shapes that seem to float in clusters. Wheeler’s paintings have a flatter surface and pigment applied with brushes. She used a wide variety of color laid down with distinct strokes that often melded one into the other. From a distance, the adjacent color combinations created new and different hues, demonstrating her command of color and color interactions. Paintings by Zacharias are powerful with bold, strong strokes and very thick applications of pigment. Her paintings from the early 1950s had a darker and more neutral palette, but with extremely thick layers of paint, the mass alone gave them a physical and literal presence. In the late 1950s, using less paint with deft application, the surfaces had more texture and detail with far less mass.
Each of these painters studied under notable and respected artists and scholars; they were peers and enjoyed friendships with other important artists of the time. However, the recognition of their technical, aesthetic and historical significance did not happen contemporaneously. While each remained passionately committed to their painting practice and abstract art, their careers did not fully develop in New York. Zacharias and Wheeler became more reclusive in the 1970s content to work in their studios, while Gechtoff pushed ahead and tried to remain active in galleries and the local scene. Tryggvadottir died young in 1968.
Bi-coastal or transatlantic changes in geography during seminal periods in each of these women’s careers had a significant impact on their critical recognition and commercial success. Gechtoff, Wheeler and Zacharias were originally from New York and Philadelphia before they made their way to the Bay Area for work and studies, each of them returned to New York in the late 1950s. Tryggvadottir, originally from Iceland, came to the US in 1943, only to be deported in 1949 during the “Red Scare” and then returned to New York in 1959.
On the cultural and historical fronts, there are several connections between these women. Gechtoff and Wheeler were among the first and, ultimately, life-long residents of Westbeth Artists Housing in the West Village of Manhatttan. Also, Gechtoff and Tryggvadottir both had direct ties to the New York School of artists. In 1954, Gechtoff was included in the exhibition, “Younger American Painters” and her work presented alongside Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Gechtoff was also very close to many of the members of the San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism who had numerous affiliations with the New York School. Tryggvadottir and her husband Alopley were part of the New York School and close friends with and colleagues of the other founding members. Zacharias and Wheeler were friends with Mark di Suvero from their time in the Bay Area and both exhibited alongside di Suvero at the March Gallery in Lower Manahattan in the late 1950s.
About Sonia Gechtoff (1926-2018):
Sonia Gechtoff, was born and raised in Philadelphia. After graduating in 1950 from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she moved to San Francisco in 1951 where she was greatly influenced by the painting of Clyfford Still. She taught at the California School of Fine Art working alongside Hassel Smith and Elmer Bischoff and associated with other Bay Area Abstract Expressionist painters such as Madeleine Diamond, Lilly Fenichel, Deborah Remington, Jay DeFeo and James Kelly, who she later married. San Francisco had a tremendous impact on Gechtoff, she was very much involved in the unique cultural scene and felt the local support. It is where she had her greatest career achievements, such as developing her bold use of the palette knife to create long, sharp strokes of pigment across the canvas and the corresponding early recognition with solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art (currently SFMoMA) and De Young Museum. Gechtoff moved to New York in 1958 and worked there until she passed away in early 2018. Given her interests in figuration, architecture, landscape and earth elements, representational elements became more prevalent in her paintings and drawings, while abstraction and gestural brush strokes remained constant. She switched from oil to acrylic paint and traded the palette knife for graphite to maintain strong defining strokes and boundaries in her work.
Gechtoff’s artworks are included in the permanent collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland; Achenbach Foundation, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Academy of Design, New York; Oakland Museum of Art, California; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; Museum of Art, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California; and Worcester Museum of Art, Massachusetts, among others. Most recently, her paintings were included in the very important exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Museum of Art in 2016 that subsequently traveled to the Mint Museum and the Palm Springs Museum of Art in 2017.
Nina Tryggvadottir (1913-1968):
Nina Tryggvadottir was born in 1913 in Seyðisfjörður, on the East coast of Iceland, where she was raised before moving to Reykjavik with her parents. Tryggvadottir was interested in art from an early age and would take art lessons from her uncle, the landscape painter Ásgrímur Jónsson. In 1935 Tryggvadottir went to Copenhagen to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Art, following which, she lived in Paris. After returning to Iceland at the outbreak of WWII, she went to study in New York on a stipend from the Icelandic State. There, she studied under Morris Kantor, Hans Hoffman and Fernand Leger, and exhibited at the prestigious New Art Circle Gallery run by JB Neumann. She was asked to create stage sets and costumes for a staging of the famous ballet, Soldier’s Tale, by Igor Stravinsky and CF Ramus. After being banned from the US under McCarthyism, Tryggvadottir lived in Paris, where she exhibited at the Musée d’Art Moderne and London, where she showed works at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and also presented numerous solo exhibitions at galleries throughout Europe. She was permitted to move back to New York in 1959 where she lived and worked until the end of her life in 1968.
Tryggvadottir has exhibited internationally and her work resides in numerous private and public collections throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States, including: the Museum of Modern Art, NY; Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, France; The National Gallery of Iceland; The Reykjavik Municipal Art Gallery, Iceland; and Musee D’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France.
About Beate Wheeler (1932-1917):
Beate Wheeler, born in Germany in 1932, fled with her family in 1938 and arrived at Ellis Island in New York. She studied at Manumit in Pawling, New York until 1945, an experimental Christian socialist boarding school for refugee children. After receiving her BFA degree at Syracuse in 1954, Wheeler earned her MFA at University of California, Berkeley under Abstract Expressionist painter, Milton Resnick. While in the Bay area, she met Mark di Suvero and the two moved to the East Village in New York. Together with Robert Beauchamp, Elaine de Kooning and Patricia Passlof, they formed the March Gallery, one of the eight galleries and artist cooperatives that were known as the 10th Street Galleries.
Wheeler married the writer and artist Spencer Holst. They were some of the early residents at the Westbeth Artists Housing in New York’s West Village. Wheeler lived and worked there the rest of her life. She painted regularly and produced drawings and artworks for Spencer’s publications. She exhibited primarily at the Wesbeth galleries and had many dedicated private collectors, including Nelson A. Rockefeller. Following a 15-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, she passed away May 14, 2017.
Anthe Zacharias (b 1934):
Zacharias was born in Albania. Her parents immigrated to the United States and she grew up in New York on the west side of Manhattan in Hell’s Kitchen. She attended Queen’s College from 1952 to 1956 where she studied under art historian Robert Goldwater as well as John Ferren and Barse Miller. She then went to the University of California, Berkeley, where she met Mark di Suvero and studied with George McNeil and Erle Loran, receiving her M.F.A in 1957.
Returning to New York, Zacharias exhibited at the legendary March Gallery in the late 1950s and early 1960s alongside di Suvero and received recognition and mention form Dore Ashton. Between 1960 to 1968, she lived and painted in an old sea captain’s residence at Coentis Slip near South Ferry in the same area as some of the most renowned figures in the art scene of that time: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark di Suvero, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Robert Indiana.
In the mid-60s, Zacharias exhibited at the Great Jones Gallery along with Louise Bourgeois and in the early 1970s, at Green Mountain Gallery in Soho in Lower Manhattan. In the mid-1970s, Zacharias became somewhat reclusive and avoided exhibiting in galleries. However, she continued to paint every day in her studio and evolve her own visual language and experimental methods of application on new and novel supports. Also, from the 1980s through 2000, she was closely associated with Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens and working with local children groups and teaching. She worked on two large commissions for the Park, including a brightly colored 35-foot mural. In 2006, Zacharias contributed a work to the “Peace Tower” shown at the Whitney Biennial of that same year. She continues to paint, albeit on a much smaller scale.Courtesy of the artists and David Richard Gallery. Photos by Yao Zu Lu
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