New YorkSonia Gechtoff: The 1960s In New York: A Series of Transitions
David Richard Gallery is pleased to present Sonia Gechtoff (1926-2018), The 1960s In New York: A Series of Transitions, an exhibition that looks critically into this pivotal and transformative period following the artist’s move from San Francisco in 1958. Like the preceding decade, during the mid-1950s with Gectoff’s arrival in the Bay Area, the 60s were full of change and experimentation in New York. This presentation maps several such transitions, including: changes in Gechtoff’s painting medium and method of application; experimenting with collage and lithography; but most profoundly, the notable change of the imagery in her drawings and paintings.
The presentation will include paintings and drawings, the mainstay of Gechtoff’s repertoire from the 1950s and 60s. Both media share strong relationships to one another with bold marks, paint laden strokes on canvas, full bodied gestures with graphite on paper, and equal attention given to figure and ground that spans both decades. However, this presentation will focus on the technical, formal and aesthetic changes that occurred in the 1960s with respect to Gechtoff’s paintings and drawings and will also include the new media of collage and lithography from that period.
About the Exhibition:
Prior to and during her move to New York, Gechtoff was on a high with tremendous success and recognition. She had a whirlwind of positive experiences in San Francisco with several museum exhibitions and solo exhibitions including: Guggenheim Museum, New York, “Younger American Painters 1954-55”; Six Gallery, San Francisco, CA, 1955; de Young Museum, San Francisco, 1957; Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1957 and 1959; the San Francisco Museum of Art (currently SFMoMA); “Annual Exhibition” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958 and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, 1958. Her artworks were included in several international biennales and exhibitions, including: US Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair as well as the Biennale de Paris, 1959
However, during the 1960s, that waning decade of Abstract Expressionism in New York, everything was different for Gechtoff. Pop Art, Op Art, Geometric Abstraction, Color Field painting and many new artists and forms of expression were emerging and taking the spotlight from Gechtoff and her Abstract Expressionist peers. She felt the need and desire to grow, explore, try something new. However, she loved expressionistic and gestural abstraction, so she imbued it with her memories and passions, such as grand opera, architecture, and the dramatic forces of nature—both the awe-inspiring type such as celestial bodies, the passage of time with the moon and tides as well as the menacing variety such as smoke, fire, tidal waves and powerful storms.
Regarding technique, Gechtoff moved away from the palette knife, which was her signature tool for marking the canvas and delivering thick impasto applications of paint in bold and determinative strokes. In large part, this was a result of her move from oil paint to the new acrylic medium that had become very popular in the 1960s. While she did continue to work in both oil and acrylic during that decade, her migration to brushes was distinctly noted in both media. The painting presented in this exhibition, Sea Door, 1966 is an oil painting, but the predominance of brush strokes is evident. By the 1970s, her migration to acrylic paint was complete and continued throughout the remainder of her career.
The challenge with the acrylic paint for Gechtoff was learning how to deliver the same thrust and power in her stokes using brushes instead of her trusty palette knife. Thus, she turned to her lifelong passion and reliable medium, graphite and pencils, to work out her new approach with the acrylic medium; while it might seem odd, it was actually ingenious. Even though graphite could not deliver color, it could deliver form through modeling and judicious use of light and shadows as well as hard edges and movement. This foreshadowed an approach that she practically invented which was using graphite and pencil to model and provide values, transitions and depth on top of acrylic paint. In fact, the graphite drawings on colored supports were introduced in the 60s and are presented in this exhibition. Specifically, Gechtoff hand-painted her drawing paper with a flat monochrome color of acrylic paint to which she then drew on top.
Gechtoff felt that acrylic did not have the same tactility, plasticity or body as oil paint, so she needed to develop new ways through other media to capture the same texture, body, depth, bold gestures and drama. The edges between forms (most notably, and emerging during the 60s—and discussed later herein—the architectural structures), extremes between light and dark, and the use of shadows, became even more important as she moved from oil to acrylic. She explored graphite and drawing through the 60s and continued leveraging that medium through the 70s, 80s and 90s. In the later decades she began drawing on gesso over wood supports as it allowed her to build the graphite layer by layer, creating tremendous depths and layers of darkness with sharp strokes and edges.
Gechtoff always stated that drawing was on an “equal footing” with painting. It was “not less than” nor a “preamble” to painting, it was as vital to her studio practice and as integral to her thinking as painting. Her passion for both media led her to combine the two in early graphite drawings on large format hand-painted paper in the late 1970s. In the 80s, 90s and 2000’s she drew with pencil on the surfaces of her acrylic painted canvases and this combination was her preferred method of making paintings both on paper and canvas through the rest of her career.
Aesthetically, the most notable change in Gechtoff’s artwork during the New York years in the 1960s was her shift in imagery from largely mark making and individual stokes to a coalescence of the strokes into organized forms and pictures, both on paper and canvas. To be clear, the interiors and everything about the shapes and compositions was every bit as expressive and gestural as her work produced in San Francisco in the 1950s. However, the imagery became more suggestive and recognizable shapes in the 60s. The titles were leading and descriptive, but on a cryptic, thought provoking level, and for those in the know. Architecture and the presence of arches, portals and columns became prevalent along with the forces of nature such as crashing waves, spirals of smoke, flames and gusts of wind. It was as though everything that was unthinkable as an Abstract Expressionist painter became available and fair game for her work and picture making. She was still “expressionistic”, but in a different way with different rules.
A large painting from 1966, “Sea Door” is presented in the exhibition. The title aptly describes the perceived action on the canvas, an apparent gush of water forcing through architectural portals in Gechtoff’s iconic palette of regal reds and blues with a little yellow. The masterful brushwork and color mixing on the canvas melds the red and blue into a passage of purple hues, while the red and orange are brushed together in a fiery orange, both centrally located in the picture.
The Icons, as imagery, were ever-present in the 60s as drawings, paintings, collages and lithographs. They were often comprised of spherical shapes or what Gechtoff referred to as “Flags”, that seemed anthropomorphic and downright figurative like one of the large vertical Flag Icon works in this presentation, Untitled, 1963, Acrylic and graphite on paper, 36 x 26 inches. The sphere at the top of the picture is clearly functioning as a head and the lower “flag” portion represents the arms and body of a figure. There actually appears to be a figure between the upper spherical portion and the lower flag, thus representing a figure within a figure.
The Icons had a specific meaning to Gechtoff, referencing her Russian heritage and the religious iconography she grew up around. The spherical shapes are each unique and dynamic, as there seems to be something brewing or emerging out of a primordial goo, spawning certain images, forms and shapes that often found their way as motifs or icons in later paintings. In fact, the “arch” shapes in Sea Door can be seen in earlier drawings of Icons that predate the painting. Sea Door in many ways looks like an Icon. Referencing the series of drawings framed together in this presentation, Six Icons, a couple look like spheres on pyramidal pedestals; in others the sphere disappears and just forms an arch on top; while another pair in the center has a swirling motion of wind, smoke or water within the structure, much like the imagery in Sea Door that appears to be forming an Icon or it is disintegrating into a force of nature. Six Icons is a very narrative piece in this presentation marking yet another change in imagery and discourse emerging out of the works from the 60s.
The collages, already noted above, were one of Gechtoff’s earliest hybrid media that combined hand-painted papers that were torn, drawn and painted on, then collaged along with graphite and pastel drawings on paper.
There are a range of graphite drawings on paper presented. Most are various forms and versions of Icons, but others are Gectoff’s depictions of diptych and triptych architectural forms from the mid-1960s that read as portals or alter pieces, which seems to tie them to the Icons with some spiritual or metaphysical references. Mostly though, the individual graphite marks created within the geometric or architectural structures from the mid-1960s appear to be representations of fire, smoke, wind and waves, hence referring to them as Forces of Nature. Three of the earliest drawings that date to 1960 are part of a series of graphite drawings of the same size and type that Gechtoff began in 1958 (probably upon her arrival in New York) and have a vibe similar to her work from the 1950s with strong, dark and forceful full body strokes of graphite traversing the pages in close and precise proximity to the other lines on the page. All of the drawings from the referenced series from 1958 to 1960, however, do have a dark mass or curvilinear or circular shapes starting to emerge out of the precise yet chaotic lines in different sizes and locations within the diverse compositions. The circular shapes evolve and become more distinct with the three drawings dated 1960. These seem to be the progenitors to the Icon series with the precise yet somewhat chaotic lines serving as a primordial mass. Collectively the different series of drawings argue a common link between Icons and Forces of Nature and possibly some movement between and from one to the other.
The last significant body of work to note in the presentation is the series of lithographs and the related studies. June Wayne, founder of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, California approached Gechtoff to come during the summer of 1963 to create several different series of lithographs: some in two to four colors, some black and white and one lone lavender, black and white Icon. The Six Icon series and a trio of small black and white Icons are presented.
About Sonia Gechtoff:
Sonia Gechtoff, an important Abstract Expressionist painter 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 married.
The move to San Francisco was productive and garnered her much national attention when in 1954 she was included in the exhibition, “Younger American Painters” and her work was presented alongside Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gechtoff had the first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957. She was included in the US Pavillion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair as well as the “Annual” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. San Francisco had a tremendous positive 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 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 the De Young Museum.
Gechtoff moved to New York in 1958 and worked there until she passed away in early 2018. Though she exhibited at prominent New York galleries, including Poindexter Gallery and Gruenebaum Gallery, significant critical recognition was more difficult to achieve. She felt that the San Francisco art community was more open and treated women artists with greater equality than she experienced in New York. However, never stopping and always moving forward, Gechtoff painted and exhibited throughout her entire career and taught at the National Academy Museum and School in New York, New York University and Art Institute of Chicago. Compositionally and aesthetically, her work changed over the decades in New York. 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, sharp 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.
© Sonia Gechtoff Estate, Courtesy David Richard Gallery. All photographs by Yao Zu Lu