Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Women’s Contributions to Modernism: O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York

The Norton Museum of Art, as part of a season celebrating the work of women artists, will present the first exhibition to examine the art and careers of modernists Georgia O’Keeffe, Florine Stettheimer, Helen Torr, and Marguerite Zorachin parallel.The exhibition reveals how each of these women sought recognition as artists in their own right, and how their identity as women shaped the circumstances under which they worked, the forms their art took, and the way their work was interpreted—and often discounted. 

All four women lived and worked in New York between about 1910 and 1935. Zorach and Stettheimer were particularly close friends, and Zorach drew Stettheimer several times. Zorach and O’Keeffe attended Stettheimer’s avant-garde salon, and O’Keeffe eventually gave Stettheimer’s eulogy at her funeral. 

Helen Torr was more isolated, but knew O’Keeffe well, and O’Keeffe admired Torr’s work. Torr also likely knew Stettheimer and Zorach.

These artists came of age during the era of the New Woman, when women increasingly explored the public realm, attended college,entered the labor force, and fought for the right to vote.

Aspart of a larger bohemian dedication to equality,New York’s avant-garde artistic community ostensibly supported women’srights in this era. Yet the art world still treated women artists differently from men, especially as the market reorganized itself around a more exclusive commercial gallery and dealer system,which gave fewer opportunities to women.

This showcases each of these artists’ distinctive, modernist style through nearly 65 paintings, works on paper, and textiles created between 1910 and 1935. Exhibition highlights include:

  • Five paintings from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit series from 1930, demonstrating the artist’s exploration of the suggestive abstraction underlying the natural world:
  • Florine Stettheimer’s Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), which illustrates the artist’s use of humor and satire to capturethe chaotic dance of shoppers in her upper-middle-class world;· 
  • Two haunting and unflinching 1934-35 self-portraits by Helen Torr, which have never been displayed together; 
  •  Key paintings of the female nude by Marguerite Zorach, illustrating both her early Fauvist adoption of the subject to express the joys and energies of nature and later use of it to suggest women’s ambiguous position in American society of the 1920s.  

An in-depth look at the contemporary reception of these works reveals that each artist suffered from having her works interpreted asan expressionof her intrinsic femininity, rather than her own artistic voice. Florine Stettheimer’s work was easy to dismiss because she rarely exhibited it publically, refused to sell it, and used delicate forms and personal subjects that seemed archetypally feminine. Marguerite Zorach’s reputation suffered when she began creating work in the seemingly feminine media of embroidery and batik because she found the demands of oil painting difficult to balance with the responsibilities of motherhood. Helen Torr and her husband Arthur Dove worked alongside one another to develop their artistic styles, but critics described her work as imitating his. Georgia O’Keeffe was the most critically and commercially successfulof the four, but her art was consistently marketed and interpreted as embodying general female sexuality rather than her own distinct aesthetic vision.

These modernists created work that was particularly open to such reductive understandings since it used modes of abstraction, leaving its meaning open-ended. Such interpretations purely in terms of gender were also particularly frustrating for these artists since, as modernists, they sought to express their complex individuality in their art.

“The exhibition showcases each of these artists’ distinctive modernism apart from their gender. Yet, at the same time,their identity as women affected their art,especially how it was interpreted,” said Ellen Roberts, exhibition curator and the Norton’s Harold and Anne Berkley Smith Curator of American Art. “Exposing the inadequacies of this initial understanding of their work is crucial because it still influences how we look at their work a century later. Seeing these four artists’ work in this new context reveals the factors that have limited appreciation not only of their art, but also of that of American women modernists in general. This project thus sheds light on women’s key role in the history of modernism.”

The exhibition is organized by the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida,where it will run through May 15, 2016 with the support of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, where the exhibition will travel and run from June 23 to September 18, 2016.

A fully illustrated catalogue by curator Ellen Roberts accompanies the show.

About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)was born in Sun Prairie, WI.She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Art Students’League in New York but was most influenced by the classes she took at Columbia University with Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged her to look beyond her academic training.O’Keeffe produced a substantial body of work over 70 years and is widely understood as having played a pivotal role in the development of American modernism. She became recognized for her innovative, large-scale close-ups of natural subjects. O’Keeffe received the first retrospective given to a woman artist at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946.Her work is held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Norton Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.

  • Georgia O’Keeffe(American, 1887-1986), Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. IV, 1930. Oil on canvas. 40 x 30 in (101.6 x 76.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1987.58.3. ©Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

About Florine Stettheimer

Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) was born in Rochester, NY. She grew up largely abroad and took her first art classes in Germany, continuing her training at New York’s Art Students’ League when the family moved there in 1892.After more years in Europe, she returned to New York at the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and there began to formulate her own characteristic modernist style using expressively attenuated forms and brilliant colors to incisively and satirically explore her world. Afterher 1916 solo show at Knoedler Gallery, which was a financial failure, she rarely displayed her work publicly. She had her greatest critical success in 1934 as the set and costume designer for Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Her work is now held in the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art among others.

Florine Stettheimer (American, 1871–1944), Spring Sale at Bendel’s, 1921. Oil on canvas. 50 x 40 in (127 x 101.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer, 1951.

About Helen Torr

Helen Torr (1886-1967) was born in a Philadelphia suburb, likely Roxbury, PA.She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1906 and 1912. In 1921, she and fellow artist Arthur Dove left their spouses and began a lifelong partnership in which they together formulated a distinct take on modernism. Torr alternated between pure abstraction and more figurative subjects, using drawing and painting to explore especially the energies underlying the natural world. During her lifetime, her work was exhibited publicly only twice–once in a group show organized by O’Keeffe in 1927 at the Opportunity Gallery and a second time alongside Dove’s paintings in 1933 at Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place.Her work is now held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Modern Art, and Terra Foundation for American Art, among others.

Helen Torr (American, 1886–1967), I, 1935. Oil on canvas. 19 ¼ x 13 ¼ in (49 x 33.7 cm). Smith College Museum of Art, Gift of Nancy Stein Simpson, class of 1963, in memory of Samuel Stein.  
More information and images- Helen Torr

About Marguerite Zorach

Marguerite Thompson Zorach (1887-1968) was born in Santa Rosa, CA.In 1908, she moved to Paris, where she saw the work of European modernists,such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso,and became one of the first Americans to master Fauvist Expressionism. In 1912, she married fellow artist William Zorach, whom she pushed to be more bold and experimental in his work. The two presented themselves as a creative pair to the art world and often exhibited together. When she began to work more frequently in embroidery and batik rather than painting following the birth of the couples’ children, her art began to be seen as less important. Her work is now held in the collections ofthe Norton Museum of Art, Portland Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Williams College Museum of Art, among others.

Marguerite Thompson Zorach (American, 1887-1968), Bathers, circa 1913-1914. 24 x 20 in (61 x 50.8 cm). Oil on canvas. Norton Museum of Art, Purchase, R.H. Norton Trust, 2015.72.