M oder n Parallels
The Paintings of Mary Henry and Helen Lundeberg August 14 â€“ October 2, 2009 Sun Valley Center for the Arts
Modern Parallels: The Paintings of Mary Henry and Helen Lundeberg I am not interested in portraying life as such, but I am interested in portraying ideas and emotions. —Mary Henry, 2001 Since about 1942 my work has been concerned ... with the effort to embody, and to evoke, states of mind, moods and emotions. —Helen Lundeberg, 1974 he lives of painters Mary Henry (1913–2009) and Helen Lundeberg (1908–1999) share striking similarities. Although these two artists apparently never knew each other, they approached art making with very similar intentions, as the quotes above illustrate. Their biographies intersected as well. Both women grew up in California, came of age as artists during the Great Depression and worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP) during the 1930s. Each devoted major portions of her career to geometric abstraction. But the work of these artists also diverged in significant ways. While Henry pursued a hard-edged geometry grounded in constructivist principles dating back to the early 20th century, Lundeberg never fully abandoned representation, creating compositions of interlocking planes of color that evoke landscape or architecture. The similarities, and also the differences, between these artists’ careers tell a story broader than that of two West Coast artists who happen to be women. The trajectories of their careers also illuminate the history of modernism in the United States—a meandering story of shifts between realism and abstraction. Born in Chicago in 1908, Helen Lundeberg moved with her family to Pasadena, California, in 1912, a year before Mary Henry was born in Sonoma. The California art scene would be important in the lives of both artists, and Lundeberg, in particular, defined herself as a Californian. After studying English Literature at Pasadena Junior College, Lundeberg enrolled in 1930 at Stickney Memorial School of Art in Pasadena. Among her teachers was Lorser Feitelson, whom she would later marry and with whom she would collaborate artistically for decades. Nearly ten years later, Henry earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1938 and that same year joined the WPA’s Federal Art Project
in Oakland. In a 1964 interview with Mary Fuller McChesney, Henry described her experience as a WPA artist as essential to the development of her artistic career and as something like a graduate course in fine arts. Lundeberg, who worked as a WPA artist off and on from 1933 to 1942, shared Henry’s view of the project, discussing its importance not only to her career personally but to the progress of American art in general with Betty Hoag in 1965. Lundeberg’s and Henry’s participation in the FAP took similar forms. Both spent portions of their time working as easel artists—they received a stipend for creating easel paintings and were required only to present their work each month in an informal progress report. Each made lithographs, and each worked on large mural projects for public buildings, including mosaic murals. As easel artists, they were free to paint whatever they wished, but when working on public art projects like murals, the FAP often dictated not only subject matter but imagery. Lundeberg, whose tenure with the WPA was much longer than that of Henry, was given responsibility for designing several major mural projects including
Helen Lundeberg, detail of The History of Transportation, 1940, photo by Stacie Brew
though, participation in the FAP gave them a legitimacy as artists
Mary Henry, Coast Range, 1941, lithograph, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art, Portland
The History of Transportation, completed in Inglewood, California, in 1940. A 240 ft. long “petrachrome” mosaic mural made of cast concrete and terrazzo panels, the mural told the story of transportation from Native Americans on foot and horseback to modern scenes of car, train and air travel. Lundeberg described the mural as straightforward storytelling, made in a style and with a purpose that differed from those of her easel paintings. Henry, too, made different kinds of work for different aspects of her WPA service. She described her lithographs as realistic but stylized and some of the murals she worked on as merely decorative, but her FAP easel paintings, she said in 1964, were already abstract and non-objective. Coast Range, 1941, illustrates Henry’s point about her lithographs; typical of the Regionalist aesthetic that dominated American art at the time, it is a realistic view of a town nestled into steep hills that rise above it. The cube-like buildings and the faceted planes that form the hills behind anticipate Henry’s later turn to hard-edged geometry. It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of the FAP to Lundeberg’s and Henry’s careers. For many artists, both male and female, the FAP was a critical professionalizing stage of their artistic training. Helen Lundeberg, Fantasy, 1948, oil on cardboard, Jeri L. Waxenberg Collection For women artists,
they might not otherwise have had in the eyes of the art world establishment. In this way Henry’s and Lundeberg’s stories are emblematic of those of women of their generation. In a 1980 interview with Jan Butterfield, Lundeberg stated that she always took it for granted that she could be an artist as a woman. While this may be true, it seems unquestionable that the FAP offered both her and Henry greater access to the professional opportunities and recognition they deserved. The FAP also gave many artists the chance to experiment stylistically in an era of important artistic evolution. While Lundeberg enjoyed the research that went into her WPA mural projects, she preferred the intimate and experimental easel paintings she created as part of a small group of artists, spearheaded by Feitelson, who identified themselves as Subjective Classicists or Post-Surrealists. In fact, in her 1980 interview, Lundeberg spoke of working on a very small scale after leaving the project precisely because she wanted to create work that was her own—not public and not dictated in form and subject matter. Feitelson and Lundeberg felt the term Subjective Classicism best expressed their artistic aims in the 1930s and 1940s, but Post-Surrealism is a better descriptor for the historical context of the movement. The ideas behind Post-Surrealism grew out of Feitelson’s interest in the psychological aspects of European Surrealism—particularly its exploration of juxtaposition and incongruity as producers of new meanings, or, as Surrealist Max Ernst famously described it, “The chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Feitelson strongly objected, though, to the Surrealists’ embrace of the unconscious and automatism as sources for artistic creativity. Instead, he, Lundeberg and their colleagues created carefully and rationally constructed paintings that juxtaposed unrelated objects or placed them into unusual settings. While the Post-Surrealists expected viewers to interpret their enigmatic paintings subjectively, they also created
Helen Lundeberg, Enigma of Reality, 1955, oil on canvas, ©Feitelson Arts Foundation, reproduced by permission of Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood
them consciously as reflections of the inner workings of their own minds. Lundeberg often explored similar ideas and themes in her Post-Surrealist paintings. In 1948, for example, she made Untitled Composition (Landscape) and Shadow of the Rock, both of which juxtapose a large boulder and a dead, Helen Lundeberg, Green River, 1963, spindly tree placed into a desert oil on canvas, ©Feitelson Arts Foundation, reproduced by permission of landscape. These paintings pose Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood more questions than they answer: How did these boulders arrive in the middle of a desert? How did a tree ever survive there? They also probe age-old themes such as the relationship between life and death and the impermanence of organic life compared with the permanence of inanimate objects. In Shadow of the Rock, Lundeberg heightens the tension of the image by placing the tree in the shadow of the looming boulder, precariously balanced on its narrow end. Biological Fantasy, 1946, owes a greater debt to the biomorphic abstraction of European Surrealists like André Masson and Matta. In it, she opposes two pairs of biological figures, each of which resembles bundles of neurons. Set into an eerie, moonlit landscape, the pairs face each other across a distance, gaping holes in their middles resembling open mouths or staring eyes. Lundeberg seems to offer these creatures and their antagonistic stance as a metaphor for the workings of the human mind. In 1950, Lundeberg made a painting she called A Quiet Place, which began as a series of flat, abstract planes that she planned to use as the setting for a still life. After finishing the background, however, she felt the painting was somehow finished and set it aside. A Quiet Place was her first fully abstract painting, but Fantasy, made two years earlier, already shows Lundeberg moving toward geometric abstraction. Similar to Shadow of the Rock in that it features large boulders set into a desert landscape, the complex composition recedes into space on the right side of the painting. Lundeberg emphasizes the illusion by painting black bands along the right and bottom sides and a band of Mary Henry, Untitled, 1964, dark blue along the top, all recedink and watercolor on paper, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art, Portland ing toward the right of the painting
and creating the appearance of a shadow-box. A tiny planet painted into the black border at the bottom echoes a moon floating in the central part of the composition. Despite Lundeberg’s illusionistic rendering of the rocks, landscape and moon and planet, Fantasy is fundamentally a geometric composition of planes of color. The 1955 painting Enigma Helen Lundeberg, Untitled, 1959, of Reality illustrates Lundeberg’s oil on canvas, ©Feitelson Arts Foundation, reproduced by permission of synthesis of geometry and Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood Post-Surrealism in the 1950s. She divided the painting into two parts, depicting on one side a still life on a table set into an empty landscape. A long stepped wall runs along the right, casting a hard-edged shadow through the middle of the composition. On the other side of the canvas, a vase of flowers rests on a table in front of an easel, the wall and floor creating two more planes of color. As in Fantasy, Lundeberg used a geometric structure of interlocking planes as the support for illusionistic and enigmatic imagery. In 1943, while Lundeberg was active with the Post-Surrealist group in Los Angeles, Henry was finishing three years of teaching art at Iowa State University before returning to Northern California. There she attended a lecture by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian émigré who had been a teacher at the Bauhaus school in Germany before arriving in Chicago where he founded what eventually became known as the Institute of Design, an American version of the Bauhaus. Adherents to the same principles as those that guided the Russian Constructivists and De Stijl artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, Bauhaus theorists promoted a unifying approach to art, architecture and design based on the most fundamental and elemental forms. For visual artists, this meant a non-referential art made purely of line, color and form. Bauhaus artists like Wassily Kandinsky also endorsed the notion that this artistic purity was the only route to spirituality in art. Moholy-Nagy’s lecture is often cited as a turning point in Henry’s career. A 1939 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art had already introduced Henry to abstraction, Mary Henry, Untitled, 1964, but after hearing Moholy-Nagy ink and watercolor on paper, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art, Portland speak, she moved to Chicago
to pursue a Master of Arts degree at the Institute of Design. There she studied with Moholy-Nagy himself, who offered her a job after her graduation. Instead, already a mother, she followed her husband, an entomologist, to Arkansas. Once there, she devoted most of her time to her family, making drawings like I’m Sad and
Henry and her family returned to Northern California in the early 1950s, where her training as a WPA artist led to several mosaic mural commissions, including one for Hewlett-Packard. By 1964, her children grown, she had divorced her husband and moved to Mendocino where she encountered a thriving counterculture. A series of drawings she made that year reflect both her background in mosaics—they seem to shimmer with color—and a sense of liberation that drove her complete embrace of abstraction in the 1960s. Although not fully geometric, these untitled drawings layer areas of black cross-hatching with planes of bright color in exuberant and totally non-referential compositions. In Mendocino, Henry began making extremely large, hard-edged, acrylic paintings that reflected both her Bauhaus education and the influence of Op Art in the 1960s. In On/Off 8A On/Off 8B, 1967, a five by twelve foot diptych, circular bands of bright Mary Henry, On/Off 8A On/Off 8B, 1967, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art, Portland color create the optical effects of projection and recession. In 3 C 2 7 3 (Linear Series #5), 1966, narI’m Lonely, 1949, and Spring in Arkansas, 1950, that illustrate row alternating stripes of black and white paint appear to vibrate her constructivist training. In them, Henry renders architecture and on the canvas. Lundeberg never shared Henry’s interest in Op Art, landscape with straight lines, sharp angles and faceted planes that but the undulating bands of different blues in Blue Planet, 1965, foreshadow her later paintings. suggest it had some impact on her work during the period. By the end of the 1950s, Lundeberg’s transition to geometric By the 1970s, Henry had moved away from Op Art toward abstraction was cemented. She pointed to Sunny Corridor, 1959, the constructivism that would define the rest of her career. She as the painting that marked this transition. It also embodied her moved to the Seattle area and then to a cabin on Whidbey Island unique approach to abstraction—hard-edged paintings made with where she made paintings that adhered to the purity of line, a subtle palette and a flexible geometry that bring to mind eleform and color that artists like Kandinsky and Moholy-Nagy had ments of architecture or landscape. She insisted, in fact, that she insisted upon earlier in the century. She created subtle and balnever made a non-referential painting and that she wasn’t interestanced compositions at the same time that she was an intense and ed in remaining true to the flatness of the canvas as, for example, many New York School artists were. Lundeberg never abandoned powerful colorist. light and shadow, either, and the light of Southern California The 1975/1984 remained a constant in her work to the end of her career. While diptych Death of Sunny Corridor suggests light pouring through a window into a Sonoma opposes narrow hallway, other paintings like Green River, 1963, resemble two enormous aerial views of the land. Some of her paintings, like Enigma, triangular fields of 1959, seem almost pure form and color, while Untitled, 1959, yellow paint puncmore realistically depicts the natural world. Lundeberg embraced tuated by narrow abstraction at a moment when a number of California artists were black rectangles beginning to produce hard-edged painting, including Lorser Feiat the sides and telson. Lundeberg retained a highly personal style, however, and center of the comMary Henry, Death of Sonoma, 1975/1984, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of Howard House Contemporary Art, Seattle didn’t see herself at this point as part of a larger artistic group. position. Passiflora
Red, 1985, a six by eight foot diptych, features diamond-shaped bands of red and white. The title, taken from a name for the passion flower, points to Henry’s belief Helen Lundeberg, Untitled (Arcane Forms), 1970, that her paintacrylic on canvas, ©Feitelson Arts Foundation, reproduced by permission of Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood ings were never divorced from the natural world. She believed that geometric forms were universal and that they allowed her to convey spiritual emotions in visual form. Like Kandinsky, she saw constructivism as a route to spirituality. Viewers first approaching geometric abstraction sometimes find it cold, sterile and uncommunicative. In fact, though, its earliest proponents, including the Bauhaus artists, believed geometry was a universal visual language, accessible to all regardless of class or education. Its purity was utopian and idealistic; it is within this tradition that Henry worked. While Henry moved toward pure hard-edged geometry in the 1970s, Lundeberg developed what she called the Arcanum series, from the Latin word for secret or hidden. The paintings layer curved planes of color that suggest caves. Lundeberg described the series, including Untitled (Arcane Forms), 1970, as fantastic or unreal architecture, but as Jan Butterfield has pointed out, they also resemble cellular structures. Made with a soft and muted palette, these paintings are much more three-dimensional than her 1960s work, drawing the viewer into their recesses. The hidden, secretive quality of the Arcanum paintings gives them a psychological charge that echoes that of Lundeberg’s work in the 1930s. Other paintings of the 1970s, like Untitled (Clef), 1975, show her returning to a greater realism in her work while still using planes of color to provide underlying structure. In the 1980s, Lundeberg’s final active decade as an artist, she produced a body of work that blended Post-Surrealist realism with her geometric abstraction of the 1960s and 1970s. She painted a number of fairly traditional still lifes, depicting, for example, pears, flowers, and folded letters arranged on tables. She placed these still life compositions into enigmatic architectural settings made up of flattened planes of color much like her paintings of the 1960s. Strong contrasts of light and shadow heighten the mysterious quality of many of these paintings. These final paintings seem to be a synthesis of the previous five decades of Lundeberg’s career, combining her interest in portraying moods or psychological states
with her dedication to the ordered structure of geometry. Henry, unlike Lundeberg, continued to produce hard-edged paintings until the end of her career. In 2001, she stated of her geometric forms, “I believe it is the way that best expresses what I feel and what I think is the deepest, most significant art form now and for the future. I believe that it is not necessarily a good thing to be constantly trying to be new.” Despite continuing to work out ideas that had occupied her for several decades, in the 1990s and 2000s she made paintings like Lost in Vermillion, 1996, and A Kind of Blue, 2002, that seem as fresh, clean and precise as any of her earlier work. Henry hoped her paintings would reveal “the connection of humanity to the universe” and even her final paintings seem to be a celebration of this idea. Lundeberg’s and Henry’s artistic trajectories spanned decades of dramatic transitions in American art. They came of age as realists, shaped by the Regionalist aesthetic that dominated the 1920s and 1930s. Each of them then pursued artistic agendas that reflected the growing influence of European ideas and émigrés in the 1930s and 1940s—Lundeberg responded to Surrealism while Henry embraced constructivism. In the 1960s, Henry turned toward Op Art and Lundeberg to a form of geometric abstraction that reflected trends in California as well as the development of color-field painting in New York. The parallels and divergences in their careers help to tell a larger story of American modernism and its various, sometimes oppositional, styles and philosophies. Ultimately, though, they tell the story of two women who found in geometric abstraction routes to personal visual languages that sustained lengthy and successful artistic careers. —Courtney Gilbert, Ph.D, Curator of Visual Arts
Mary Henry, Lost in Vermillion, 1996, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of Howard House Contemporary Art, Seattle
Mary Henry, Full Moon over the Mendocino Headlands, 1971, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art, Portland
Helen Lundeberg, Biological Fantasy, 1946, oil on board, ÂŠFeitelson Arts Foundation, reproduced by permission of Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood
Gallery Walk Fri, Sep 4, 5–8pm Join us for drinks and appetizers while viewing the paintings of Mary Henry and Helen Lundeberg. Exhibition Tours Tue, Sep 8 and Tue, Sep 29 at 2pm and by arrangement Trained docents offer visitors new insight into the artwork on display in free tours of our exhibitions. Special Evening Exhibition Tour Thu, Sep 10, 5:30pm Enjoy a glass of wine while you tour the exhibition with curator Courtney Gilbert. Lecture Mary Henry and Helen Lundeberg: Women Artists and Modernism in the United States Thu, Sep 17, 7pm Join us for two short lectures on different aspects of the exhibition. Kristin Poole, The Center’s Artistic Director, will give a talk on the history of women artists in 20th-century America, locating the work of Henry and Lundeberg within this broader context. Courtney Gilbert, The Center’s Curator of Visual Arts, will trace the history of geometric abstraction from Russian Constructivism in the 1920s to Op Art in the 1960s. cover left to right: Mary Henry, A Kind of Blue, 2002, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of Howard House Contemporary Art, Seattle Helen Lundeberg, Blue Planet, 1965, acrylic on canvas, ©Feitelson Arts Foundation, reproduced by permission of Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood
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Sources Butterfield, Jan. “Helen Lundeberg: A Poet among Painters.” In Helen Lundeberg Since 1970. Palm Springs: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1983, 8–32. Elegantly Frugal, Deceptively Simple. Ashland, Oregon: Schneider Museum of Art, Southern Oregon University, 2007. [exh. cat., Mary Henry] Farr, Sheila. “Mary Henry: 93 Years of Life and Art.” Seattle Times, February 23, 2007. Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg interview, March 17, 1965. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Graves, Jen. “Through the Past, Brightly.” The Stranger (Seattle), February 23, 2007. Mary Dill Henry interview, May 12, 1964. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Henry, Mary. “Statement.” http://www.pdxcontemporaryart.com/henry Henry, Mary. “Mary Henry—A Statement” (handwritten statement in files of Howard House Contemporary Art, Seattle, n.d.). Hickey, Dave, and Diane Degasis Moran. Helen Lundeberg and the Illusory Landscape: Five Decades of Painting. Los Angeles: Feitelson Arts Foundation, 2004. Helen Lundeberg interview, July 19–August 29, 1980. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Moran, Diane Degasis. “Helen Lundeberg.” In Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg: A Retrospective Exhibition. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1980, 24–30. Stein, Donna. “Abstract Impact.” Arts & Antiques, May 2008, 82–90. Stern, Louis, and Marie Chambers. Infinite Distances: Architectural Compositions by Helen Lundeberg. West Hollywood, California: Louis Stern Fine Arts, 2007. Taylor, Sue. “Mary Henry at the Hallie Ford Museum.” Art in America, June–July 2005.
This exhibition is made possible, in part, through the generous support of Jeri L. Waxenberg.
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PERMIT NO. 679
An exhibition tracing the careers of Mary Henry and Helen Lundeberg, two California modernists.
Published on Aug 12, 2009
An exhibition tracing the careers of Mary Henry and Helen Lundeberg, two California modernists.