Saturday, February 4, 2017

Four: Early 20th Century in America

In the first half of the 20th century, American women painters fall into three revealing groups:
Social Documentarians
Desert Abstractionists

Social Documentarians:

There was a strong trend among American women to use painting to document different cultures, especially those that were threatened. We have already seen Grace Hudson's paintings of Pomo indians and Evelyn McCormick's records of early California architecture.

Tonight we're going to consider two others in this trend. In Canada, Emily Carr documented the culture of the native tribes, and in New York, Florine Stettheimer portrayed the lifestyle of upper class Manhattanites in the 1920s.

1871-1945: Emily Carr, Canadian

> Emily Carr was the most important Canadian artist of the early part of the Century.

> Emily's major contribution was to apply the aesthetics of European Modernism to Canadian subjects.

> In her first phase, her goal was to document the cultures of Canada's native tribes; however, her modern interpretations are more evocative than literal.

> In the middle of her career, Emily abandoned art because she could not make a living from it. After her art began to receive some recognition, when she was in her 50s, Emily resumed painting.

> Her focus shifted to the landscape of Western Canada and her style became more lyrical and more personal.

> She belongs in this story because:
  • Canada is part of America, and her home in Victoria is closer to California than to the major cities of Canada.
  • She attended art school in San Francisco.
  • She was interested in art as documentation, like California artists Grace Hudson and Evelyn McCormick.

1871-1948: Florine Stettheimer

> Florine Stettheimer depicted the lifestyle of upper-class society in Manhattan in the 1920s and 1930s.

> She used a fake-naive style to create humorous detachment.

> She refused to compete in the art market, showing her work mainly in her own apartment, and declining to sell her paintings.

> She saw marriage as a threat to her independence, and lived with unmarried sisters.

> The Stettheimer sisters were famous for holding gatherings of artists and intellectuals, called salons, in their apartment.

> Florine also created stage designs for a few famous productions, and she was an excellent poet.

Desert Abstractionists:

Three American artists withdrew to the desert in the middle of their lives.

> Agnes Pelton was a modernist painter and a pioneer of transcendental abstraction.

> She started her career in the 1910s in Greenwich Village. She was doing figurative compositions in a Symbolist style.

> At the age of 50 she moved from New York to Cathedral City, a small village in the desert near Palm Springs, California.

> Here she did two kinds of painting. 
  • Most importantly, she produced abstractions that expressed the tenets of Transcendentalism.
  • In order to support herself, she painted lovely desert scenes. 
> Agnes was considered a role model for the younger artists in the Transcendental Painting Group, which made her the first president of the group.

> Her work was widely exhibited in California in the 1930s and 1940s, but she died a neglected figure.

> Georgia O'Keeffe was one of the most important American artists of the 20th century.

> Her career was defined by her relationship with well-known art showman, Alfred Stieglitz. As her mentor, her promoted her career. As a photographer, he doted on her image and his many photographs of her increased her fame. He also became her husband.

> She first came to prominence in the 1920s as one of America's first abstractionists.

> She soon turned to more representational work, but her style was to simplify forms to their essence, until they become almost abstract.

> She painted cityscapes and landscapes, as well as intense close-ups of individual objects.

> In her 60s, Georgia moved to New Mexico, and began to focus on desert subjects such as animal skulls and cactus flowers, as well as the landscape around her home.

> For the next two decades she was very productive, and received great recognition.

> Georgia's life as a desert recluse, and her talent for posing, made her a popular figure with photographers, and earned her great fame in the press. 

1912-2004: Agnes Martin

> Agnes Martin was a significant Abstract painter in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s

> She as in her 60s when she found her signature style.

> She invented a new form of abstraction that combined certain principles of Minimalism with the basic motivation of Expressionism.

> Her intention was to create work that would generate the types of peaceful and harmonious moods that she liked to experience, but she used the simplest possible means, eliminating detail and complication.

> She was born in Canada, but she spent her adult life in the US, and became a citizen when she was 40.

> In mid-life she moved from New York to New Mexico, where her full talent came to fruition.


Four women painters of the first half of the 20th century are generally considered Surrealists. Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage were from the US, Frida Kahlo was Mexican and Leonora Carrington was an English-born Mexican artist.

> Kay Sage was one of the most prominent Surrealists in America.

> Her approach to Surrealism was to replace recognizable symbols with mysterious  architectural forms in austere, unidentifiable landscapes.

>The major period of her career was from 1940 to 1955.

> She is known for her marriage to Surrealist Yves Tanguy.

> She committed suicide at the age of 65 due to depression and failing eyesight.

1907-1954: Frida Kahlo, Mexican

> Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter who specialized in self-portraits. She was active in the 1930s and 1940s and the early part of the 1950s

> She celebrated the primitive style of Mexican national and indigenous culture.

> She considered herself a realist, but she used symbols in a way that associated her with Surrealism.

> She was married to the famous Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, who also served as her mentor. Their marriage was notoriously stormy, largely due to his affairs with other women.

> Her life was defined by pain due to childhood case of polio and serious injuries from a bus accident in her late teens.

1917-2011: Leonora Carrington, British

> Leonora Carrington was a dedicated Surrealist throughout her career. Like Salvador DalĂ­, she used inscrutable symbolism from her own personal dreams.

> She was active as a painter from the 1940s through the end of the century.

> She was always recognized by the art world as an important Surrealist, but she is less famous than other Surrealists because she did not promote her work strongly, and most of it is held in private collections.

> She is known for her affair with Surrealist painter Max Ernst, and for a bout with mental illness in her early 20s.

> She was born in England, but she spent her career in Mexico City.

> She was also a prolific writer.

1910-2012: Dorothea Tanning

> Dorothea Tanning was a leading Surrealistic painter in the 1940s.

> In the 1950s and 1960s, Dorothea developed a unique style of painting in which bodies and body parts, vague faces, and biomorphic forms are shown as if through as prism, with planes faceted like jewels.

> In the 1970s she switched from painting to soft sculpture.

> In the 1990s, when she was in her 80s, she began to concentrate on writing, both fiction and nonfiction.

> She is known for a long-term marriage to Max Ernst.

> She is one of the few women painters to be self-taught.