Life & Culture

Material world of four women artists

All four turned to collage as their careers developed


Half of the American women artists celebrated in a new exhibition were Jewish, and all four had much to cope with as they built their careers in the twentieth century. Lilly Fenichel was forced to flee Nazi persecution at 11, Nancy Grossman was pressed into child labour by impoverished parents, while the self-confidence of a precocious Helen Frankenthaler collapsed when the father who worshipped her died before she hit her teens. By comparison, Perle Fine had it easy; her family had already escaped the pogroms in Russia by the time she was born in 1905.

But Fine did have to find new ways of expressing herself to make a comeback in the sexist art world of New York from which she retreated after making her name. She substituted wood for canvas.

For her part, Frankenthaler made a book about her career into art in its own right, exhibiting hand-painted linen covers for 62 copies at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fenichel turned to collaging mat board with paper, while Grossman harnessed the skills she learned sewing gussets for her parents’ tailoring enterprise to stitch leather and metal into assemblages which made her an international name in the 1970s.

“There’s no leather in the Grossman collage we are showing, but there are traces of pattern cutting,” says George Barker of London’s Gazelli Art House, who has put together this show of female abstract expressionists who worked on anything other than canvas. Grossman, 84, whose works are in the collections of the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is the only one still alive, and the one who has most fully revealed the pain of her early life.

“I was the oldest of five children. I have three sisters and one brother and I feel as if I had raised them,” she confessed in a rare 1975 interview. “I was responsible for them most of the time since both my parents worked; we went through some really poor times.” The fact the teenager never stopped drawing when not watching her siblings or helping her parents make garments was overlooked as a potential career path, and when she went home after her first year in art school her father refused to speak to her when she refused to give up her studies and return to the family business. She got through college with three jobs and a student loan, but the woman who remembers being “smacked around a lot” as a child admits: “I was always terrified and anxious and guilty too.”

Helen Frankenthaler, on the other hand, grew up as the daughter of a Supreme Court judge who made her believe she was “a child so exceptional she did not have the capacity to disappoint,” according to biographer Mary Gabriel.

The 11-year-old fell into a deep depression on his death and had a nervous breakdown in her teens but as an adult made her mark in the art world and recovered the social status she enjoyed as a child when marrying superstar Robert Motherwell; in the 60s they were considered the golden couple of the New York art world.

Perle Fine, like Frankenthaler, was one of few women artists admitted into the “Ninth Street Club" - a clique of high-flying abstract expressionists including Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, who invited Fine into their circle. In the 1940s she opened her own New York gallery. But she fled the city for Easthampton in the 50s, suffered serious illness in the 60s and turned to wood collage to make her re-entry into a rapidly changing art world. 

Until she was included with Fine, Frankenthaler and other women whose art was overlooked in their lifetime in last year’s blockbuster show of female abstract expressionists at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, the work of Lilly Fenichal was virtually unknown outside the USA. Born to a Vienna doctor and a fashion designer, she was only 11 when the family was forced to flee Austria in 1939, settling in Hollywood.

She made her living as a movie stylist, costume designer and art director while building her reputation as a member of the LA “cool school” and braving the macho New York art scene in the 50s, gained the respect and friendship of major players like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and taught at the Museum of Modern Art. Like Georgia O’Keeffe before her, however, she fell in love with the light and landscape of New Mexico and eventually defected there for the rest of her life

It would be nearly a century after her birth before she got a showing abroad – and now, like buses which arrive together after a long wait, this is the second time in barely a year her work has been exhibited in London.

Montage is at the Gazelli Art House, Dover Street, until July 13.

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