Francis M. Naumann is one of the most interesting and intelligent art dealers that I have met in my 40 years of writing about art. When he mounts an exhibit— often of a forgotten or neglected modernist associated with Dada or Surrealism — you can be sure that the scholarship is impeccable and that he did all of it.
A widely renowned expert on Marcel Duchamp and the many artists that he knew and influenced, Naumann has analyzed specific chess games played by this enigmatic artist; written about the early, pre-modernist work of Man Ray; and contributed to our understanding of Beatrice Wood, who lived many lives — ceramicist, devotee of J. Krishnamurti, and co-editor, along with Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché, author of the novel, Jules and Jim (1956) and Wood’s lover, of the two issues of the art journal The Blind Man (1917). You may not agree with Naumann’s predilections, but you cannot doubt his passion.
The title of the current exhibition at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art caught my eye: Two Forgotten Women of American Modernism: Sculptor Mary Callery/Painter Peter Miller (January 12 – February 23, 2018). I quickly learned from Naumann that Peter Miller was the name Henrietta Myers (1913-1996) used when she showed her work, and that Mary Callery (1903-1977) occasionally showed under the name Meric Callery. An item on display in a vitrine was a gallery announcement for a group show that included the name Lenore Krasner on the list of artists.
While Callery and Miller are not considered major figures, their biographies and their indispensable work give anyone interested in modern art a lot to think about. And yet, as Naumann rightfully states in the gallery press release: “[…] with the exception of specialized studies in the field of mid-century American modernism, both artists are absent from historical records of the New York art scene in the mid-1940s. There are several reasons for these omissions, one of which may have been gender.” Their absence does not reflect well upon the city’s museums or their curators.
Miller is represented by 14 paintings dating between 1935 and 1950, the years in which Abstract Expressionism came to fruition. While a lot of attention has focused on the ascension of abstraction, Miller seems to have been enthralled with the work of Joan Miró, and eventually owned one, which she and her husband gave to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
There is an early self-portrait that Miller did while she was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She married in 1935 and traveled to Paris before World War II, where she and her husband met Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse and his son, Pierre, who had opened a gallery in New York, and Joan Miró.
After the war, Miller and her husband visited Barcelona once a year while dividing their time between Philadelphia and New Mexico. “Matador” (1935-1940) shows Miller absorbing Miró’s tightly constructed portraits in which all the parts vie for attention. One also senses that Miller is pushing toward something that is all her own.
It is hard to say whether she got there, since the show is a rather limited if intriguing group of works. “Reef” (ca. 1950) shows the influence of Max Ernst’s frottage paintings, such as “The Entire City” (1934). The outlier in all this is the painting “Abstract (Orange)” (ca. 1950), in which Miller depicts talismanic objects against an orange ground, presaging the work of Philip Taaffe after he went to Tunisia in 1986. I imagine that Miller did more paintings like this, and wonder what a show of them would look like. “Abstract (Orange)” is unlike anything else that was being done at the time, and that alone makes it more than a curiosity.
Callery studied at the Art Students League but seems never to have become part of the downtown New York scene, perhaps because — like Miller — she was “born into privilege,” though I don’t agree with Naumann on this point. I think she wasn’t interested in the downtown life. We have to remember that not all Abstract Expressionists lived on or near Tenth Street — that Robert Motherwell and Alfonso Ossorio were not poor, and that Richard Pousette-Dart and Charles Seliger lived in the suburbs, away from New York, where they raised their families.
Like Miller, Callery both made and collected art. The 14 sculptures in the show, most in bronze, were made between 1943 and the ‘60s. What’s striking is that both Miller and Callery were clearly aware of the latest developments in European modernism early in their careers, and yet they never felt they had to overthrow it. The issue of abstraction and representation seemed beside the point to her, and her work straddled both possibilities. She wasn’t driven to empty her work of references or representation. She didn’t seem driven to make something large. Much of the work from the late 1950s and those dated 1960 are no more than two feet in length or width. Their vocabulary of circular and twisting linear elements evoke gesture and dance. She never completely sheds the connection to the figure and to nature, which is to say that she never became purely abstract. Is that a sin? As with Miller, this selection makes me want to see and know more.
Two historical points need to be made about Callery. She met Georgia O’Keeffe in 1943 and for a time they were close friends, so much so that Callery bought a home near O’Keeffe’s in Abiqui, New Mexico. Look at O’Keeffe’s large spiraling sculpture, “Abstraction,” which was modeled in 1946, and the source of it was clearly Callery’s “Song of the Desert” and “Small Song” (both 1945). The other point is that Callery is central to the development of the print publisher ULAE (Universal Limited Art Editions). The press had published reproductions for years, but all that changed in 1955, when Callery became the first artist to publish an original print there ULAE would go on to publish Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
How is that these two women – accomplished artists in their own right — have been left out of art history, and their work, if it is in a museum, is most likely sitting in a dark basement in a crate that has not been opened in years?
Two Forgotten Women of American Modernism: Sculptor Mary Callery/Painter Peter Miller continues at Francis M. Naumann Gallery (24 West 57th Street, Suite 305, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 23.