Two very different artists came to mind while looking at the eighteen paintings in Flora Crockett: Works from the 1940s and 1950s at Meredith Ward (May 12 – June 30, 2017): Kay Sage and Thomas Nozkowski. In the case of Sage, it was “Untitled” (1941), the earliest painting in this must-see exhibition, that recalls the work of this neglected American Surrealist in its somber mood achieved largely through grays, blacks, and dark greens. The difference — and it is an important one — is the smoke issuing from the narrow smokestack (overshadowed by a larger one) on the right side of Crockett’s painting. Sage would never have depicted something in motion.
The association with Thomas Nozkowski is more complex and, to my mind, far more interesting. All the paintings in the exhibition are done on prepared canvas board, which Nozkowski also worked on for many years, beginning in 1971. They range in size from 18 by 24 inches to 24 by 30 inches, which is comparable to the two sizes Nozkowski has used for most of his career, 16 by 20 and 22 by 28 inches.
These are some other connections, all of which help elevate Crockett’s work to a singular status: she seems to start with something seen and turn it abstract; she does not repeat her palette; she does not repeat her subject matter, nor does she make variations on a theme; her vocabulary includes geometric and biomorphic forms; she seems uninterested in purity, gesture, or paint-as-paint; she has no signature style, but her paintings are recognizable as hers.
The question is: who is Flora Crockett? She was born in Grelton, Ohio, in 1892, attended Oberlin College, and later studied in Detroit to become an art teacher. All this would change in 1924, when, in the company of her husband, the sculptor Edmondo Quattrocchi, she traveled to Poissy, in the suburbs of Paris, where he had been offered a job. Around 1926, she joined Fernand Léger’s Académie Moderne in Paris, where she also studied with Amédée Ozenfant. Other Americans who were at the school during this time included Florence Henri, George L. K. Morris, and Blanche Lazzell.
Crockett spent a decade in Paris, connected to the Academie and showing her work at various venues and group shows. During this time, she undoubtedly saw and absorbed a lot. The interesting thing is that, in contrast to Morris, Crockett did not let her work settle into Cubist pictorial space. She took what she learned about the overlapping of flattened forms and made it into something that was hers. While she learned to pare down her shapes at the Academie, the layered space that she made from superimposing essentially flat, abstract “things” over one another feels very contemporary, as does her use of color. Meanwhile, the tastemakers who fussed over flatness, of the picture plane, American-type painting, dramatic gestures, American triumphalism, and signs of angst, would not have been able to see her work, their eyes fogged over by rhetoric.
In 1937, by now in her mid-40s, she returned to America, divorced and alone. She rented an apartment on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, where she lived and worked until she died in St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1979. The one gallery connection she seems to have made during this time was with Blanche Bonestell, who was known to show women. Despite the lack of recognition, and having to work full-time, Crockett persevered and produced a remarkable body of work deserving of our attention. One reason for our consideration is that, by some standard, she did everything wrong: she made easel pictures on prefabricated canvas board; she made impure abstract paintings; she seems not to have given a fig about what the Abstract Expressionists were up to.
In the 1950s, there was a place called The Club on East Eighth Street, where many Abstract Expressionists, along with their ephebes and supporters, dropped by. It seems that Crockett was not one of them, nor do I know of her trying to show with any artist co-ops around Eighth Street. And yet, her work does not seem to have suffered from this isolation. Rather, her independence and tough-mindedness are singular, and we need to learn more about her and her work.
In the strongest paintings from the 1940s and ‘50s, Crockett made a compressed, layered space in which three or four “things” are superimposed. In “Untitled,” which — like many of the works in the exhibition — is undated, the artist brings together four distinct images. On a dark brown and green ground filled with rounded, exaggerated shapes, which appear derived from a upholstery pattern (except that none of them repeat), Crockett depicts a large, red ring-like object at an angle to the ground, suggesting space. We can see both the inside and outside surface of the red ring. Yellow highlights on the outside surface suggest reflected light. Two other distinct images complicate our experience: a stream of white and gray-blue gently undulates across the bottom third of the painting, passing through the red ring, like a river or a gauzy ribbon; meanwhile, near the ring’s inside top edge, a yellow, softly serrated shape angles down. Is the leaf part of the ground, or is it floating in space?
What are we to make of these four distinct images, which the artist has brought together? The combination feels neither arbitrary nor logical, which adds to its contemporary feel. Crockett seems to be creating a landscape space out of opaque symbols, which is a testament to the rigorousness of her pictorial imagination. None of her patterns or shapes feel contrived or generic. More remarkable to my mind is that she does not seem to repeat herself or become formulaic: everything feels discovered.
In one “Untitled” painting, I felt that Crockett had a strong kinship with Nozkowski and Philip Taaffe. On a solid green ground, she has made two wavering columns, each set in from the left and right edge. The column on the left is a red band with an overlaid salmon band, so that parts of the red one peeked out. On the right she used a dry brush to paint porous, vertical yellow strokes over the green ground. She then edged areas of this porous band with solid yellow, giving it the weight of an actual thing. Over all this, she horizontally stacked four ribbon-like configurations, which alternate from blue to brown. None of the ribbon-like shapes repeat. They are flat but feel solid, like a thing.
In another painting, also “Untitled,” Crockett overlays a ground of large red crosshatches with a charcoal-gray, bone-like shape, which aligns diagonally from the painting’s lower left corner to the upper right. Over these she depicts a semi-transparent, pale green and white ring with a peanut-like shape. What is below peeks through. You do not know what she is up to, but the painting convinces you nevertheless.
In the paintings I have described, you encounter three or four different, abstract vocabularies in a single work. Each was done in the 1950s by a woman whose name is hardly known to us, but it should be. Crockett’s vocabularies, ranging from solid to porous to semi-transparent, have their own distinct material presence, which she never calls attention to. These paintings are to be looked at, savored, and reflected upon. We do not exactly know why Crockett seemed to withdraw from the art world or if in fact that was the case.
Working on a modest scale, in a way that can be described as inward, Crockett shares something with Forrest Bess, Charles Seliger, Myron Stout, and Sonja Sekula, whose paintings were recently shown in America for the first time in many years. Crockett does not suffer in any way by these comparisons. For all sorts of reasons — none of them any good — history passed her by, but now we have a chance to rewrite that history, and to further open it up, and include her.
Flora Crockett: Works from the 1940s and 1950s continues at Meredith Ward Fine Art (44 East 74th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 30.