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Tracking Loren MacIver

In my first college painting course, which I took several years after completing an art history degree, my teacher Arnold Trachtman said that my painting of the bathroom sink reminded him of Loren MacIver’s work. I had no idea who she was, and without the convenience of the Internet, never looked her up. But 20 years later, when I saw that the Alexandre Gallery was presenting an exhibition of her paintings, I recalled Arnie’s offhand remark and made a pilgrimage of sorts up to 57th Street.

After seeing MacIver’s work, I wondered how such an accomplished and distinctive painter could have flown so completely outside my radar. A lifelong New Yorker, MacIver died in 1998 at 90. The Pierre Matisse Gallery took her on in the late 1940s, back in the days when galleries rarely represented women, and kept showing and selling her work for fifty years. The prevailing story is that she was largely self-taught, and that what minimal art training she had consisted of Saturday classes at the Art Student’s League when she was ten. It’s said she did not crave fame, and was reticent about her work, which depicts the objects and incidents of her daily life in a fragile, ethereal style reminiscent of Marc Chagall and Paul Klee. Although her name isn’t as well-known as female contemporaries like Georgia O’Keefe, she represented the United States at the 1962 Venice Biennale, had a retrospective at the Whitney, and placed work in many prestigious collections.

"Crocus," (1944). Oil on masonite. 14 x 10 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Alexandre Gallery.

“A Classicist of the Ordinary”
MacIver worked small, usually about easel-sized, depicting objects from her immediate surroundings and views of the city. Although the imagery rarely includes figures, the paintings are infused with MacIver’s singular tranquility. During the late forties, when painting was becoming physically big, angst-ridden, and unprecedentedly theoretical in its exploration of new modes of non-representational painting, MacIver kept her canvases compact and continued developing an intimate brand of lyrical abstraction that remained mimetically based. Her glazed colors, applied in multiple layers of sketchy, delicate brushwork, are vibrant and rich; light seems to emanate from obscure objects, which can appear real or merely suggested. Thus, MacIver’s warm, poetic interpretations of ordinary life and the objects that populate it stood out against a jangle of painterly turmoil and discursiveness. Unlike the iconic painters of the day—the Pollocks, Newmans, Rothkos, and Reinhardts—who were intent on changing the course of art history, she eschewed theory and resisted the urge to contrive elegant commentary to satisfy art critics. “I have no theories of art,” she said in a 1993 ArtNews interview with Jonathan Santlofer. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s just me.”

There are indications that MacIver was neither gormless nor self-abnegating when it came to her career. She certainly recognized that being a woman could affect it negatively. When she was in her late teens, she adopted a moniker that obscured her gender. MacIver scholar Jenni Schlossman discovered in the census records that MacIver was born “Mary Newman,” but changed “Mary” to “Loren,” and adopted MacIver, which is a variation on her mother’s maiden name, McIvers. Yet at bottom, her anti-theoretical stance appears to have been resolute and genuine. It seems to have set her apart and enhanced her persona as an outsider, a naïf in the edgy territory of Abstract Expressionist histrionics, loftiness, and, arguably, pretension. During the forties, her work was acclaimed for its honest exploration of domestic subject matter and its frank, unapologetically female viewpoint, but in the late fifties and sixties, her paintings lost much of their currency to Abstract Expressionism and later to Minimalism. Nevertheless, MacIver, unlike contemporaries such as Louise Nevelson and Lee Krasner, had no urge to drain her work of content customarily considered “female,” and refused to do so simply to be taken seriously in a decidedly masculine arena.

"Patisserie," (1970). Oil on canvas. 19 3/4 x 28 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Alexandre Gallery.

A formidable cast of friends and supporters undoubtedly helped MacIver sustain her unfashionable artistic identity. Despite her self-imposed terseness, her cohort consisted primarily of hyper-verbal poets: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, and e. e. cummings. She and poet Lloyd Frankenberg married when they were 20, and stayed together until he died in 1975. MacIver’s extended family of literati took it upon themselves to champion her painting, which had more in common with their verse of the humble and ordinary than it did with the muscular brio of the NYC painting scene. Nominating MacIver to the American Academy and Institute of Arts in 1956, Marianne Moore characterized her as “a classicist of the imagination, an interpreter of what cannot be painted.”
In an essay Frankenberg wrote in 1960 about their lean early years, he tells how he schlepped MacIver’s paintings all over town trying to sell them. According to this charming account, he did so well that galleries wanted to hire him. Frankenberg’s most important sale was to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then director of the Museum of Modern Art. Dealer Julien Levy told Frankenberg that money had been donated to the museum to buy work by younger artists, so Frankenberg rushed over to see Barr. After examining each painting carefully, Barr bought two—one for his own collection and one for MoMA. MacIver thus became the first woman represented in MoMA’s permanent collection. To be sure, she was very fortunate to have such an articulate and devoted network to explain and celebrate her artwork and her intentions. Yet in this she was not alone. Her prime coincided with a period of high intellectual expectation for painting, and critics often acted as spokespersons for shy or inarticulate artists. Clement Greenberg probably did more for Jackson Pollock’s career than MacIver’s cadre of poets did for hers. And her fortuitous selection to represent the United States at the 1962 Venice Biennale seems to have played a considerably more important role in her career.

Image of Loren MacIver from the 2002 exhibition catalog Loren MacIver: The First Matisse Years. MacIver is shown in her studio at 86 Christopher Street in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Alexandre Gallery.
Image of Loren MacIver from the 2002 exhibition catalog Loren MacIver: The First Matisse Years. MacIver is shown in her studio at 86 Christopher Street in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Alexandre Gallery.

The Venice Biennale
Since MoMA had organized the 1962 American exhibition in Venice, I made an appointment at the archives to get more information about the exhibition and the participating artists. In the early 1960s, the museum was shouldering the enormous cost of both maintaining the American Pavillion in Venice (which was in structural disrepair) and mounting the American exhibition. For museum director Rene d’Harnoncourt, financial considerations therefore were crucial. His task boiled down to securing a worthy exemplar of American art whose work would not cost an exorbitant amount to ship and install. The initial plan, according to d’Harnoncourt’s correspondence, was to have a big show of Mark Rothko’s paintings. Rothko’s work was already in Italy at an exhibition in Rome, so expenses would be minimal. The Biennale committee, however, nixed the idea a mere three months before the event on the grounds that Biennale regulations called for new exhibitions. Having already been presented in Europe, the Rothko show was deemed ineligible. The MoMA staff’s second choice was a show combining the work of sculptor Louise Nevelson, which was readily available from her Paris dealer Daniel Cordiér, and that of sculptor Dimitri Hadzi. Painters under consideration included Jan Muller, who in 1958 had died at the age of 35, Barnett Newman, Richard Diebenkorn, Ad Reinhardt, Jasper Johns, Josef Albers, and Loren MacIver.

With time running out, MoMA painting curator James Thrall Soby, a personal friend of MacIver’s, quickly contacted museums and collectors to determine whether they would collectively lend a sufficient number of MacIver paintings to fill the space. The answer came back in the affirmative, and time worked in MacIver’s favor. Soby sent a telegram to Paris, where MacIver had been living. It read: “museum of modern art planning american representation for venice biennale this summer hoping to devote one gallery to you. other painting gallery memorial show jan muller. center-sculpture louise nevelson. hadzi bronzes in front of building. very much hope you agree. time very short. please cable modern art. love, soby.”

MacIver was elated. “deeply honored, and delighted,” her return cable read, “am writing all love loren maciver.” Nevelson headlined the American contingent with two galleries. But, thanks substantially to Soby’s expeditious research and stalwart advocacy, as his telegram anticipated, MacIver was given a gallery alongside the memorial exhibition for Muller, with Hadzi’s sculptures outside. Most of the twenty-five MacIvers that were hung in Venice were owned by museums (Metropolitan, Whitney, Wadsworth Atheneum, Art Institute of Chicago) and New York collectors with whom MoMA had cozy relationships. The Pierre Matisse Gallery lent three, which were for sale at prices ranging from $5,000 to $7,500.

The hastily organized press materials stressed that the show was intended to highlight the individuality of the four invited artists and not aimed at illuminating any particular direction in contemporary American art. This concept, unlike any of the previous American installations at the Venice Biennale, drew skepticism. In a handwritten note to d’Harnoncourt, Tibor de Nagy Gallery director John Bernard Myer said the museum’s choices left him “really depressed.” He was particularly baffled by the choices of Muller (“a very beginning talent”) and MacIver. “Louise Nev. is OK,” he wrote, “but I don’t know who possibly could have chosen MacIver.” Swept up in the intellectual momentum of progressive modernism, mainstream players in the art world were blasé about a more purely intuitive artist like MacIver. A dozen of MacIver’s paintings found their way into the Metropolitan’s collection in 2002, but that was out of 154 paintings that the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Foundation donated from Pierre Matisse’s private collection. Ironically, after Pierre Matisse died and his gallery closed in 1990, the Tibor De Nagy Gallery represented MacIver.

MacIver’s Niche
MacIver’s paintings hold up today because they convey her emotional response to her daily life. Their value is intrinsic to the paintings themselves, and appreciating them doesn’t hinge on the historical context of their creation, their pivotal importance in the history of art, or anything beyond an appreciation of one painter’s enduring process of apprehending the life around her. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, it is the existential timelessness of her work that secures her a niche in art history. In an essay about MacIver’s work, Soby wrote that MacIver used “light as a diagnostic of emotional penetration” and “color as if it were an enchanted dust.” He concluded on a suitably elegiac note: “America may have other painters with more vigor,” but none “whose emotion is more evocatively refined or surely expressed.”

Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and the others were investigating novel avenues of non-representational painting. MacIver’s heartfelt, meditative depictions of household objects, buildings, and landscapes were seen as less ambitious and largely dismissed by trend-making painting theoreticians of the day. Yet judging by the heightened appreciation for artists like Giorgio Morandi, Elizabeth Murray, Richard Tuttle, Ellen Phelan, and Amy Sillman—who, like MacIver, have all invested everyday things and experiences with extraordinary emotion—her perspective turns out to have been equally valid. Beyond that, MacIver anticipated the exploration of femaleness and self-identity that blossomed in the feminist movement during the late Sixties and Seventies. From this perspective, the otherwise thoughtfully curated WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition now at P.S. 1 seems to have missed a chance by excluding MacIver. Certainly she does not belong with the explicitly militant artists whose work qualified as groundbreaking agitprop. But if Mary Heilmann’s restive painting of a blood-red HVAC vent constitutes feminist art—and I believe it does, at least with a small “f”—then so do MacIver’s doleful painting of a fire escape in sooty red light and her forlorn brown Crocus.

MacIver herself probably would not have fretted about P.S. 1’s omission. According to James Kerr, MacIver’s longtime studio assistant and executor of her estate, she felt lucky, and was content with the trajectory of her career. Her show at the Alexandre Gallery—and indeed, her life—demonstrate vividly that making art is fundamentally a personal endeavor, and one that ideally remains unbeholden to fashion or trend. Still, that is a lesson that even MacIver may have struggled to heed. Jonathan Santlofer interviewed her and several other painters in their eighties. “Sometimes it’s very hard to know who you are,” MacIver told him. “Only lately has it gotten easier. I’m more at peace now, no longer distracted by so many outside things and worries. I think artists must learn to leave the voices in their heads alone – let them carry on as best they can without you. Now I just paint.” Twenty years ago, I may have handled my brush in a manner similar to MacIver and chosen kindred subjects. It has taken longer to understand what it is to just paint.


Sharon L. Butler

Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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