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  • John Yau

A Forgotten Painter and Her Visionary Abstraction

Hyperallergic John Yau October 12, 2019

During her lifetime, Sonia Gechtoff was feted on the West Coast and for many years showed her work in New York, but the art world has yet to adequately address her achievement. Sonia Gechtoff, who lived in San Francisco from 1951 until 1959, actively contributed to the burst of abstract painting that became a worldwide phenomenon in the late 1940s and ‘50s, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism in San Francisco and New York City, Art Informel in Europe, and the Gutai painters in Osaka, Japan. Gechtoff and her husband, the painter James (“Jim”) Kelly, lived at 2322 Fillmore Street, which one of its residents, the poet Joanna McClure, dubbed “Painterland.” Her next-door neighbors were Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo, who began working on her monumental painting, “The Rose” in 1958. It is likely that Gechtoff, who used a palette knife to make swirls of slashing strokes, inspired DeFeo to begin using it. In 1957, due in part to her innovative use of the palette knife, Gechtoff had a solo show at the de Young Museum, and was included in the inaugural exhibition, Objects on the New Landscape Demanding of the Eye, at the legendary Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles (March 15 – April 11, 1957), alongside Clyfford Still, Frank Lobdell, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, and John Altoon. And yet, while Gechtoff was feted in San Francisco and in Los Angeles during her time on the West Coast, and for many years showed her work regularly in New York, where she lived from 1959 until her death in 2018, the art world has yet to adequately address her achievement, unlike her next-door neighbor, DeFeo. As the curator Gwen Chanzit, who organized the important traveling exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism (2016-17) for the Denver Art Museum, told Artnet News on the occasion of the artist’s death: Sonia’s experience exemplifies the difficulty of women painters in New York during the 1950s and ’60s. Her early success as a central figure in Bay Area abstraction was cut short when she made the move to New York City. […] She met with tremendous gender bias in New York. Eight years ago, after viewing Sonia Gechtoff: The Ferus Years at Nyehaus (October 29 – December 17, 2011), I became particularly curious to learn what she did after the art world had largely passed her by, when she went from being highly visible to nearly invisible? The current exhibition, Sonia Gechtoff: Forces of Nature on the Grand Stage: Paintings from 1988 to 1995, at David Richard Gallery (September 10 – October 26, 2019) focuses on work she made when she was in her 60s, at a time when the art world was preoccupied with artists associated with the Pictures Generation. The show also includes one early painting, “The Chase” (1959) and a number of drawings and prints dated between 1958 and ’65. Separately and together, the drawings from her 30s and paintings from her 60s are revelatory. In the later paintings, all of which are done in either acrylic or acrylic and graphite (another of her innovations), Gechtoff pursued the implications of her earlier work by introducing architectural elements (portals suggesting a desirable elsewhere to be attained), as well as iconic presences (celestial orbs), into her representations of a consuming natural force (think tornadoes and flames). To these concerns, she added a love of mountainous landscapes and Japanese art, particularly of Hiroshige, whom she acknowledges in the largely red and blue, “Hiroshige Revisited” (1988), which recalled the use of vermillion and Prussian blue in 18th– and 19th-century Japanese woodcuts. Over the course of her career, she melded her early inspiration from Clyfford Still (his jagged forms) with her love of Henri Matisse (floral motifs in a palette of violets, rich reds, deep greens, and electric blues) into something all her own. The only other artist associated with the Abstract Expressionism who used violet and vermillion so liberally was Norman Bluhm, who is only now beginning to get his due. Another thing that struck me while looking at Gechtoff’s work was that perhaps the art world prefers painters with a signature style because it makes looking easier. If you assume that style is all that you need to recognize, then you have relieved yourself of the responsibility of examining the painting itself. In Gechtoff’s case, it takes time to see what she is up to, partly because her work does not look like anyone else’s, and partly because she walks a wayward line between abstraction and figuration, where some of her forms seem figural, some are emblematic and abstract, and still others remain elusive and even non-decipherable. In contrast to the endeavors of many New York abstract artists, Gechtoff never became reductive nor did she make all-over paintings. Rather, she stayed true to the figural current running through her early work. Rejecting purity, she mixed styles (hard-edge and scumbling), flat areas of acrylic paint and patches of shading done in graphite. All of these technically meticulous approaches, which she fitted into a single painting, require the viewer to slow down, look closely, and recognize that the abutting of different styles was neither purely formal nor ironic. They were motivated by Gechtoff’s metaphorical, visionary view, which was at odds with the accepted convention of literalism. Admittedly, it has taken me a long time to discuss the actual paintings, but that’s because I spent a long time looking at them before I began seeing them. As with any strong, innovative artist who challenges accepted modes, viewers have to learn Gechtoff’s visual language. In “Moon Rising” (1989), we see two celestial forms (a white moon and a salmon-colored star) against a red ground (sky) in the upper part of the painting, rising above stylized mountains that are made of green, violet, and blue forms. Their shapes recall Classical Chinese art. Some artists might have been likely to stop with these juxtapositions, but not Gechtoff. Spaced evenly across the surface are a series of vertical lines made with evenly grained graphite, suggesting columns that fade in and out of the colorful shapes at the top and the bottom of the canvas. I have no idea what these columns are meant to be, other than they act as a sign for an architectural presence. Are they an abstracted temple, indicating the sacredness of nature? Their referent doesn’t matter because I believe in Gechtoff’s sidereal vision. Similar columns appear in the lower portion of “Paestum” (1991). Named after an ancient Greek colony in southern Italy famous for its three temples, “Paestum” is a painting of a deep violet portal, buttressed by the columns on either side, that opens onto a fiery world. Set against a black ground and surrounded by a jagged, red, smoldering form, with the moon peering above it, the portal separates us from the conflagration (sacred purifying fire) beyond, which we can only glimpse. By connecting the civilized world (the columns) with the primordial (a lava-like mix of reds), Gechtoff collapses measurable and immeasurable notions of time and space. In “Celestial Red” (1994), the surface of a half-hidden star glows with smoldering reds, pinks, and violets. It rises above a large rectangle of darker reds that takes up most of the square painting. Inside the rectangle, surrounded by a scumbled violet-and-red ring, violet, indigo, and orange circles float against a black ground. Could Gechtoff be transforming the diagrams of the occult English Renaissance cosmologist, Robert Fludd, into a visionary abstraction? The painting evokes an abstract alchemical map of the macrocosm and the microcosm. Think of what her fellow West Coast painter, Jess, did with Fludd’s work, and this possibility doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Fire (its uncontrollable, consuming force) is a recurring preoccupation for Gechtoff. In her drawings from the late 1950s to the mid-60s, she keeps returning to flames, often contained by a geometric structure. The tension between the Apollonian (cool, strict order) and the Dionysian (wild, unpredictable forces) is one of Gechtoff’s constant themes. By bringing aspects of them together, and making them inseparable in a single work, she suggests, like William Blake, that we should embrace both, because, in doing so, we might be led to a place of revelation. Sonia Gechtoff: Forces of Nature on the Grand Stage: Paintings from 1988 to 1995 continues at David Richard Gallery (211 East 121st Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through October 26.

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