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Portraits of Two Artists : Present and Past : Henrietta Shore : A Return From Obscurity

Henrietta Shore is back. Sort of.

In 1986, about a quarter-century after the artist had died penniless and forgotten in a San Jose sanitarium at the age of 83, Shore was the subject of a full retrospective of paintings, drawings and prints at the little Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art in Northern California. (She had moved from Los Angeles to Carmel in 1930.)

Subsequently that exhibition traveled south, without fanfare, to the Laguna Art Museum, where it was seen by Michael Quick and Ilene Ford, curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who last year acquired two pictures by the artist for the museum’s collection of American painting and sculpture.

And finally, the Turner Dailey Gallery on Beverly Boulevard is currently showing 15 paintings, nine lithographs and six pencil drawings--the first gallery presentation of Shore’s art in 39 years.

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If this modest but nonetheless noteworthy spurt of activity doesn’t exactly seem to constitute a tidal wave of enthusiasm and acclaim, that depends on what you’re comparing it to. Weighed against the voluble fanfare surrounding Georgia O’Keeffe--the painter (or should I say saint?) whose name is most often murmured in the vicinity of Shore’s radiant, and frankly strange, floral paintings--these recent developments hardly register at all. Yet, compared to the near total obscurity in which Henrietta Shore has languished since before World War II, they add up to a veritable tsunami.

Who was Henrietta Shore? The question is not so simple as it seems. This largely unknown artist turns out to be something of a paradigm for an entire era in modern American art.

Her biography certainly can be sketched with relative ease. Born in Toronto in 1880, the seventh and youngest child of a comfortable bourgeois family, she went to New York at 20 to study painting with society painter William Merritt Chase. The apprenticeship was brief. Soon she switched to more rigorous and demanding classes with Robert Henri, whose admonitions to paint from the immediate world at hand would mark Shore’s art for the rest of her life.

Following a “grand tour” of European capitals and a stint at a London art school, Shore joined her brother and his wife on an extended journey to California in 1913. (Her departure meant that, by a few short months, she missed seeing New York’s landmark exhibition of European modern art, the Armory Show.) In Los Angeles she decided to set up a studio, exhibited her work wherever she could and helped to found the Los Angeles Modern Art Society. She stayed for seven years.

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In 1920, just as women in the United States finally got the vote, Shore returned to the East and co-organized the New York Society of Women Artists. (She also became an American citizen.) Missing California, she returned to Los Angeles in 1923 and stayed another seven years, eventually moving to the Monterey Peninsula, where she worked until the beginning of the war.

Through middle age Shore enjoyed at least a modest success. She won prizes, garnered gallery and museum shows on both coasts (and one in London) and was the subject of a small, 1933 monograph with essays by the impresario Merle Armitage, San Diego Fine Arts Gallery director Reginald Poland and, most notably, her colleague and friend, the photographer Edward Weston.

From 1939 on, details are sketchy. Although Shore lived for another 24 years, no postwar paintings by her hand are recorded with any certainty, and the circumstances surrounding her commitment to a sanitarium in the late 1950s are vague. Whatever the facts, her quiet brand of modernist easel painting was emphatically swept away in the years following the war, by the arrival of New York School abstraction and its West Coast variants. Outside the narrow realm of occasional academic research, we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of it since.

Until lately. The return of Henrietta Shore is by no means complete, but that it’s happening at all deserves a careful hearing.

Together, the two paintings at LACMA and the exhibition at Turner Dailey reveal a typically provincial artist of undeniable skill who worked hard, blossomed late and was possessed of occasional flashes of dazzling brilliance.

Shore did not begin to come into her own as a painter until she was about 40, while two-thirds of the 15 paintings in the gallery exhibition were made in the decades before (only five are dated after 1920). Portrait studies such as “Meditating,” circa 1910, and “On the Street"--undated, but redolent of Robert Henri and the cheery grime of his so-called Ash Can School aesthetic--are prosaic examples of period style, as are the few conventional landscapes in the show. By sharp contrast, the 1929 “California Cactus” is an exquisitely riveting picture.

Except for a late cycle of murals, all Shore’s work is small. “California Cactus” is no exception, but it’s nonetheless powerful for it. Against a shallow ocher ground, two flame-tipped succulents and a pair of leafy stems fill the space, rather like animated pinwheels. One cactus, reserved and demurely elegant, is shown in upward-reaching profile at the rear, while the second, showier plant is rendered frontally, as if it had somehow miraculously turned to meet the spectator’s advancing gaze.

Through carefully modulated tones, the leaves of this latter cactus get progressively brighter and more radiant as they approach both the frontal plane of the picture’s space and the center of the plant; there, at the compositional nucleus, an eye-shaped bud of golden hue stares resolutely back. A nearby pair of sinuous tendrils, which occupy the foreground between the painting’s unblinking “eye” and our own, begins to register an aura of exploratory searching. These California cactuses may be mundane desert plants, but Shore has masterfully orchestrated them to exude a numinous quality of bristling, sentient awareness.

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Shore was by no means a prolific artist. In her mature work she painted slowly, laying on oil colors--green, violet, orange, magenta, cerulean--in thin, carefully built up, seemingly brushless glazes. Reflected through transparent color, light seems magically to glow from within the deepest recesses of the canvas. This extraordinary quality of illumination connects her to, on one hand, the conservative and fashionable plein-air landscape painters of the day, and, on the other, to progressive photographers such as her friend Weston. While her best paintings blew away the mawkishly nostalgic revery of so-called California Impressionism, they productively engaged in rigorous dialogue with Weston’s luminous photographs.

At LACMA, the abstraction called “Life” (circa 1921) shows how downright peculiar Shore’s visionary images could certainly be. This vertical canvas features two jack-in-the-pulpit-like forms, from which emerge white, streamlined, faceless bodies, one male and the other female. In the gray field between them arises a dark blue, biomorphic form (imagine the shape of an attenuated peanut). This blue shape, which flickers between being a negative space and a positive form, erotically suggests both a cave-like opening and a swelling tumescence.

“I have worked to develop the gift of understanding of nature,” Shore wrote to her brother, Egerton, in an inscription inside a copy of her monograph, “that I might best use that gift through my drawing and painting to express the love received from and given to God.” The painting, “Life,” employs modernist devices to fashion an abstracted depiction of Adam and Eve.

Any understanding of Henrietta Shore and her art must take into account another peculiar feature of this odd canvas, which seems to me decisive. The male figure in the picture emerges from a cuplike stem, or calyx, which grows rather awkwardly from an unseen place off the right edge of the canvas. By stark contrast, both the female calyx and the central blue “spirit” grow directly from an organic, abstract, red-orange shape, which is centrally placed and certainly reminiscent of the floating leaf of a waterlily.

Indeed, a lily pad it may well be. (At Turner Dailey there’s a small, handsome lithograph of a waterlily, dating from the end of the decade.) But I looked at this odd shape for a long while before I realized what else it resembles. Unlike Adam, the abstracted figures of both Eve and the “spirit” are growing from an old-fashioned painter’s palette.

The fundamentally modernist idea that a painter could invent herself through art became the pivotal realization for Henrietta Shore’s work. Likewise, that a woman could invent herself through art was the pivotal realization for Henrietta Shore’s life.

Shore’s birth in 1880 had placed her, as a woman and as a painter, at a decisive juncture in American society. By the end of the century, full-scale industrialization was rapidly transforming women from robust producers into passive consumers, while art--the human ability to make things--was metamorphosing into leisure. Together, these twin developments caused the very idea of painting to be feminized. In the mind of mainstream America, art of any kind was becoming a less than manly thing to do.

The fact of Henrietta Shore’s gender is of course the central reason for her almost total obscurity today, just as it was basic to the cruel poverty and suffering she was to experience in her own lifetime. The trauma of the Depression generated a reactionary, no doubt inevitable elevation of artistic traits associated with stereotypical masculinity, which re-emerged in the postwar years as the “dynamism,” “muscularity” and “action” of Abstract Expressionism. The woman from California was swept into oblivion.

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Shore’s “Life” is certainly not among the greatest modern pictures of its time, nor could it even be claimed among the handful of the artist’s most accomplished works. Those would come later, in stunning canvases such as “California Cactus” and “Gloxinia by the Sea.” (The latter I’ve seen only in reproduction, but if this painting from the early 1930s is even half as impressive in person as in a photograph, it ranks as Shore’s consummate masterwork.) Still, the historical significance of “Life” is equally certain--especially for a city and a country whose artists have played an influential role in framing feminist cultural issues since the 1960s.

This peculiar painting is also among the first direct pieces of evidence of the full spread of early modernism into the provincial culture that was the United States circa 1920. Furthermore, it’s as clear a testament as could be imagined to the utterly indivisible relationship between modernist artistic principles and progressive social thought. The painting’s new public home at LACMA, which signals at least the nominal return of Henrietta Shore, couldn’t be more meaningful.


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