PHILADELPHIA – Once you’ve caught your breath this holiday season, you’d do well to visit the Schmidt Dean Gallery for the current Jane Piper (1916-1991) exhibition. The gallery’s light-filled, fourth-floor space seems fit for paintings that are as bright and full of life as hers.
Color is the organizing principle of Piper’s work, which builds upon the tradition of early Modernist painting. In “Untitled” (1961), a mid-career oil on canvas, she fills the space with small, kinetic squares of pink, orange, and green, which contrast with the yellow-tinged white marks surrounding them. Piper’s skill as a colorist shows in her ability to mute the white with the vibrancy of her color palette and the confident movement of her brush.
This ability is highlighted by a recurring mirror motif, which opens up new dimensions of light and color. In “Poppies by a Victorian Mirror” (1965), the artist presents identifiable objects, such as a vase and flowers, while continuing to give color precedence. With its distinctly angular lines and larger squares of color, this painting is a compelling counterpoint to the more abstract “Untitled”. The mostly right angles define the objects in space but also lend the picture a feeling of movement that’s similar to the energies one might find in a Cezanne or Matisse.
A lifelong Philadelphian, Piper considered painting an international language, not just something that happens between the Delaware and the Schuykill Rivers and Pine and Vine Streets, the geographic markers of Center City Philadelphia. And yet during her career Piper had no mass following. Her influence was most strongly felt one-on-one, according to those who knew her well. As painter Bill Scott put it to me recently, “For Jane, it was what you made, not what you got. She was not about power; she went after painting.”
In her formative years in the late 1930s, Piper studied under Earl Horter, Arthur B. Carles, and Hans Hoffman. These mentors exposed her to modernist painting techniques, while the Barnes Foundation provided her with opportunities to see works by Cezanne, Matisse, and others. In 1943, Piper married E. Digby Baltzell, who became a renowned sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, authoring several books on the upper class of Philadelphia. Through the next several decades, she raised two daughters, while also influencing the next generation of painters with her painting and teaching.
“Fruit and Flowers” (1974), a work in acrylic and charcoal on canvas, with its yellow triangles and small star off to the right, exudes a liveliness and sense of play that should be able to overpower almost anyone’s melancholy. The bowl of fruit on the table, for instance, appears to gather shape from small pieces of color. Piper uses the paint to imply that the fruit is there, but she allows the viewer’s imagination to fill in the rest.
“Untitled” (1981), bridges the style of her earlier abstractions with the approach she deployed in works like “Fruit and Flowers.” The lighter colors across the bottom create an atmosphere where the upper, denser portion of the painting seems to float weightlessly. The vase with flowers and bowl of fruit gives the green lines the feel of verdant leaves, but they could just as easily be part of the wallpaper. This still life shows the continued influence of Cezanne and Matisse on Piper’s work, in her visual techniques, but it also draws attention to her own distinctive style of painting.
The setting for one of her last works in the show, “Still Life with Vegetable Platter” (1991), is a table near a window. Where Piper’s mid-career work from the late fifties and early sixties shows the artist taking her work to the outer edges of abstraction, this painting seems to bring in the focus, not as an improvement, but as a reminder that visual perception has many manifestations. Her colors are still vibrant, but she has replaced the vibration in those earlier works with a sense of calm. The fruit and vegetables are fuller, the flowers more obviously in bloom, and the window is letting the light in.
Throughout Piper’s career, she had many exhibitions, both large and small, but today she seems under-acknowledged. Schmidt Dean should take pride in mounting this show. The history of mid-century abstraction remains dominated by all the names most of us know by heart. There’s no need to list them here. But this particular exhibition, like the Norman Lewis exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts earlier this year, helps to flesh out the history of mid-century abstraction. It would be ideal for a larger institution to take Schmidt Dean’s lead and mount a fuller, more contextualizing show of Piper’s work. This would serve painting aficionados well, but more significantly, it would expose younger painters to Piper’s interpretation of the modernist project, as well as remind each of us that commitment to our work outweighs whatever becomes of our reputations.
Jane Piper: Four Decades of Painting continues at Schmidt Dean Gallery (1719 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through January 21.