PORTLAND — The big summer exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art will feature 66 works of four women modernists, Georgia O’Keeffe, Florine Stettheimer, Helen Torr and Marguerite Thompson Zorach.

Historically, in the early 1900s, women artists’ works were considered decorative, not monumental. It was thought that only men were intellectual enough to create monumental art. These four women, who painted and lived in New York City from 1910 to 1935,  did not want to be considered “women artists.” They wanted to be considered simply “artists.” 

The exhibit’s curator, Ellen Roberts, curator of American Art, Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., wanted to explore the work of these artists she felt had not been recognized significantly in the past and the exhibit “O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York” does just that. The quality of work of these four women in the current exhibit is outstanding.

Many great art movements have been rejected at first, then eventually accepted. Artists are courageous pioneers who often have to stand alone. The artists in this exhibit were not truly appreciated during their period.

One favorite work in the exhibit is titled “The Garden,” oil and charcoal on canvas (1914) by Marguerite Zorach. This beautiful work created in flat planes which is associated with Fauvism, is an outstanding example of her work. It shows Zorach as a leader in modern art, giving her well-deserved recognition. This work is owned by the Portland Museum of Art.

Other outstanding works by Zorach include: “Provincetown, Sunrise and Moonset,” oil on canvas (1916) which explores geometric forms, “Ella Madison and Dahlov,” oil on canvas (1918), “Marguerite and Her Sister Edith,” oil on canvas (1921), “Prohibition,” oil on canvas (1920) and “West 10th Street,” oil on canvas (1922).

Possibly the most outstanding Zorach work in the exhibit is the magnificent ”Tree of Life Coverlet,” created in 1918. It is a tapestry on loan from The Smithsonian American Art Museum. The tapestry is made from linen fiber, tabby weave piled-wool yarn, and created in chain-stitch embroidery. It is enormous and breathtaking, with thousands of stitches. The work must be displayed in dimmed lighting to help protect it from fading.

Roberts, who selected the work in this exhibit, said in a lecture at the PMA, “This tapestry raises a craft into fine art.”

The tapestry hangs on an entire wall, along with other fabric works by Zorach, such as an embroidered purse titled, “Pegasus.” These works are special treats to see in Maine because they are so perishable and difficult to pack and transport.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is powerful and exciting. Five out of a series of six works titled “Jack-in-the-Pulpit,” a breathtaking work, can be seen at the entrance of the exhibit. O’Keeffe’s works are more well-known to the general public, than other artists in the exhibit but all artists are on the same high quality level of creativity. O’Keeffe’s “Jack-in-the-Pulpit 3,” oil on canvas (1930), is amazing and vibrates with life and mystery, with the flowing lines and sensuality known in many of her works. 

Other outstanding works by O’Keeffe include: “The White Calico Flower,” oil on canvas (1931), “Apple Family” oil on canvas ( 1921), “Red Flower” oil on canvas (1919), and “Horse’s skull with Pink Rose,” oil on canvas (1931).

Florine Stettheimer, an artist of the same period who painted in New York, is not as well-known, but her work deserves reflection. She didn’t sell her art, but created it for her own fulfillment and to make a creative statement after World War I. Her bright, cheerful yellow paintings reflect the times, and depict some of her artist friends, as well.

Stettheimer’s work is playful, as seen in her work “Asbury Park South,” oil on canvas (1920), with images careening across her works in little character studies of whimsical joy, a feeling of freedom people experienced after the end of World War I.

Helen Torr’s work is more somber and abstract, and her images begin to take on the Cubist style. She was married to the artist Arthur Dove, and many critics felt he was an influence on her work. But in this exhibit her work evolves as her own distinct style, setting a serious atmosphere in the gallery in which it hung. Torr’s “Sea Shell,” gouache and charcoal on paper (1928), is arguably one of the best Torr works in the exhibit. It has a quality similar to O’Keeffe’s work, and yet it is subdued and surrealistic. Another work by Torr, “Buildings,” charcoal on paper (1920), is clearly geometric and reflects Torr’s early approach to Cubism.

Jessica May, chief curator of the PMA, hung the exhibit in Maine. A mixture of all four artists’ works can be seen together in all galleries, providing a view of how their different styles speak visually to each other.

There is so much to see, it requires reflection and time to visually absorb the different forms of creativity which these outstanding women explored. 

These leaders in the Modern Art Movement and should be remembered and honored, as they are in this important milestone exhibit which reveals visually a Renaissance of their work and its impact.

An outstanding hardcover catalogue with colored plates of each artist’s works is available in the museum gift shop.


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