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Portrait of an Artist: SELINA TRIEFF (1934–2015) by Robert Henry

Selina Trieff by Jules Aarons, c. 1952.

Selina Trieff. If ever there was a born artist, it was she. As a teenager, Selina majored in art at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, a virtual breeding ground for artists, most of them commercial. But Selina was a fine artist from the start, producing striking images that spoke of her inner life. She took classes at the Art Students League while still in high school, and went on to study at Brooklyn College, and then with Hans Hofmann. In spite of being dyslexic, she graduated summa cum laude, getting A’s not only in all her art classes but in her academic classes as well. I met Selina in Walter Rosenblum’s photography class at Brooklyn College and was struck by her fierce determination, good looks, and sparkling personality. We immediately became fast friends, and when we were in different classes, I would anxiously await her entrance into the cafeteria for the afternoon coffee break. At the time I was engaged to someone else, so friendship was what was in order. But after my fiancée broke our engagement, Selina and I became romantically attached, and the summer after graduation she joined me in Provincetown. We married in November of 1955, and remained together until her death almost sixty years later. I have always felt lucky that we started our relationship as friends, and indeed, that was what we were for the rest of our lives.

Portrait with Pig, c. 1982. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Berta Walker Gallery.

Selina always insisted she was an abstract painter, and when she talked about the paintings she pointed to the shapes between the figures. She was a wonderful talker, humorous and entertaining, but she never talked about the meaning of her work. She sometimes wondered, in private, if she was being too repetitive. Although her subject matter was consistent and limited, it is clear that there was continual progression in the work. It became more and more fluent over time. Selina’s dedication to her art was always apparent, but never more so than when, as a young mother of two small daughters, she would grab any opportunity, such as their nap time, to dash into her studio.

Her iconic images of women have extraordinary power. They are direct and simple. Many of them are virtual, if not actual, self-portraits, alone or in the company of other women, some of whom are clearly her two daughters. At times the women have barnyard animals as companions. Selina started drawing animals at a neighbor’s farm on Martha’s Vineyard, where we had a summer house. She said that she was doing that because she was thinking of making paintings based on myths. She never actually did, but instead created her own myths. Sometimes she presented just the animals, not mythic, but with distinct personalities and expressions, staring out at you in the same fashion as the women in her paintings. The stares were confrontational but not aggressive or angry. They seemed, instead, to be a plea for understanding. Her figures have movement, but that movement is contained, subtle, and personal. Sometimes the women are just there, not interacting, and sometimes they are communicating with each other by way of touch. The relative overall stillness of the works, the figures in the paintings, engender a sense of timelessness. She dresses them in garments that could have been from any period in history. After the early death of her close friend Adele Chiavetta, skeletons began to appear in her work, her personal grieving for the lost friend manifest in the paintings.

Selina and Bob by Robert Frank, c. 1954.

One of the many reasons Selina was so universally loved was her comic, self-deprecating style. She was not very athletic and loved to tell the story of how, as a small girl in summer camp, she was expected to play tennis, and once, charging the net, she ran into it and, being neck high to it, fell backwards and was left with a crisscross of rope burns. Our good friend Bob Rindler recalls seeing this little old woman with paint stains on her pants doggedly going from machine to machine at Willy’s Gym, and how he couldn’t help but befriend her.

In 1999, Selina suffered a serious setback. Having trouble walking straight, she was diagnosed with a condition in which her skull had intruded onto her brain stem. She underwent a successful surgery, but in the process of recovery she developed adult respiratory syndrome, which required an induced coma for a number of weeks. She recovered, but as time went on, she lost fine motor control of her hands. Even that did not keep her from creating. Though her finesse slowly disappeared, the paintings of those final years are among her most moving and powerful aesthetic statements.

Drawing with medium sharpie. c. 2013. A powerful and raw example of one of the artist's last works. Courtesy of Robert Henry.

Robert Henry’s early studies with Hans Hofmann in the abstract expressionist school led to a career spent working mostly as a figurative expressionist painter. His work can be found in many private and corporate collections as well as in twenty museums worldwide.

Selina Trieff’s work is represented locally by the Berta Walker Gallery.

Two Pilgrims on Red, 1991. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Courtesy of Berta Walker Gallery.