Peter Blum Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of over 30 paintings and works on paper by Swiss-American artist Sonja Sekula entitled, "Works from 1942 – 1963." This is the second gallery exhibition surveying the work of the artist and will be presented at 176 Grand Street, New York. The exhibition opens on January 28 and runs through March 18, 2023.
Sonja Sekula was born in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1918 and moved with her parents to New York in 1936. She began studying at Sarah Lawrence College and subsequently at the Arts Student League in 1941. Joining the burgeoning 1940s–50s artistic community of New York, Sekula mingled with expatriate Surrealists in André Breton’s milieu and was friendly with Abstract Expressionists including Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock. She became neighbors and close friends with John Cage and Merce Cunningham, for whom she designed dance costumes. Sekula first exhibited at the seminal gallery of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century in the exhibition 31 Women in 1943; later showing at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1948, she would have five solo exhibitions there over the next decade. Sekula was also included in the influential landmark 1951 exhibition, 9th Street Show.
The period from the early 1940s through the end of Sekula’s life in 1963 illustrates the artist’s experimentation, distinctive mark-making, and poetic musings that define her multidimensional approach and diverse styles. Her works in the 1940s emphasized biomorphic forms and the painterly style of European Modernism, oscillating between Surrealism as conveyed by Roberto Matta, and that of the newly emerging tendencies of Abstract Expressionism. Evoking her New York surroundings, Sekula created imagery modeled on the cityscape with architectures of multi-perspectival spaces. Travels to New Mexico and Mexico during the mid-1940s and an appreciation of North American Indigenous cultures would also influence her work.
Struggling with mental health issues throughout her life, Sekula’s severe breakdowns in New York beginning in the early 1950s would lead her to permanently move back to Switzerland in 1955. She would then favor works on paper on which she would occasionally inscribe poetic or diary like texts. Considering Sekula’s under-recognition after her death, Samantha Friedman, curator at MoMA, has noted that this is perhaps due to her psychological issues, her identifying as a queer woman without the support of a prominent male artist or critic, and her refusal to adhere to a singular style. In 1963, Sekula would take her own life in Zurich, leaving behind an oeuvre of remarkable importance that has only begun to be reassessed over the past decade.
"As I write to you looking out my window I think of all the contemporary American poets and artists who represent their outlook on this strange country and I find myself beginning to realize that I shall be one of them, I shall be an American painter…"
— Sonja Sekula, letter to her mother, 1947
"A young falcon’s beauty, to which her transparent, green, dark-ringed, slightly protruding and very open eyes added a dreamlike steadfastness. An invisible cloud enveloped Sonja, giving her gestures a softness and slowness. She was caught in a shroud that separated her from the world."
— Charles Duit, letter to André Breton, 1944
"I hope you will continue to speak to me in that ever-sparkling way of yours."
— André Breton, letter to Sonja Sekula, 1944
“It is the women’s era too, they are at last coming forward painting pictures of sensitivity, emotion and worth. Modern times have demanded that man be more scientific, deductive. Women have always been more instinctive and emotional. Today the feminine and the masculine element in painting have been completely eliminated. Women are doing creative work that are completely accepted by the public as good art.”
— Sonja Sekula, interview in The League, published by The Arts Student League of New York, 1945
"Out here [in New Mexico] I have an old ruined house in the woods. You can see the mountains + the desert beyond. It’s full of birds + at night time you hear the coyotes crying – when it gets very cold the air is like phosphor + the moon more transparent than ever. I work. Not much, but I work."
— Sonja Sekula, letter to Robert Motherwell, 1946
"I would like to tell you so much I hope for you. I believe in your courage in your strength in everything that you are."
— Sonja Sekula, letter to Frida Kahlo, 1946
“With John Cage at Monroe Street in New York in my youth , I still felt a natural joy in life, there I could forget the surrounding I had been born into and become absorbed in the understanding of immediate communication. I miss the silent understandings of the conversations and the cheerful company.”
— Sonja Sekula, notebook entry, 1957
"Don’t forget that I, am a, woman, a belly, a, sword, a, nipple, a, sex, a, dream, cross, and, a Sunday, and, a mirror."
— Sonja Sekula, diary entry, 1951
There is a dazzling display of ingenuity in Sonia Sekula’s pictures at the Betty Parsons Gallery. This whole column could be devoted to cataloguing the impulsive patterns; to the tiny explosions of color on one; to the furious calligraphic scribbles on another; or to the carpet of color medallions on a third. It may just be said that her color is sensitive and surprising and her ideas neither dull nor obvious. She is the abstract Paganini."
— Stuart Preston, “Chiefly Abstract,” The New York Times, 1951
"…an original concept of space and an unusual glossary of form characterize recent oils and scratchboards by this young painter. Throughout her work there is a sustained mood of mystery, wonder, and irony inspired it seems by the city…Frenetic or calm, billowing or tightly woven, Miss Sekula’s compositions vibrate with color."
— Dore Ashton, “Sonia Sekula,” Art Digest, 1952
“Everyone from the fifties in New York has a Sonia Sekula story, yet, though she contributed to period mythology, she herself has no myth.”
— Brian O’Doherty quoted in Nancy Foote, “Who Was Sonia Sekula?,” Art in America, 1971
“Exile by coming ‘home’ broke the thread of what might have become a more recognized and sustained American career, even if punctuated by recurrent illness.”
— Griselda Pollock, “Seeking ‘It’: Seeing Beyond; Some Thoughts on Sonja Sekula’s Oeuvre,” Sonja Sekula and Friends, 2016
"I work often on paper with oil, small size, as that suits my heart best – Yes, I have big canvases, new, but the point does not go after size and American public must have bigness. O.K. But I stick to my own need and prefer to work small scale for outward and moral reasons. More tranquility, more hope and just as much time put into it.”
— Sonja Sekula, letter to Betty Parsons, 1956
“Again and again, patience and waiting and much silence while we change brushes – from color to color, like butterflies mixing pollen. Something should and will remain – paper, thoughts, and images. May the work left behind lead one step further toward the unfolding of joy. From the near to the unfamiliar distance, where a closeness is also to be found, working with and without remark…the constant fulfillment of mystery.”
— Sonja Sekula, 1957
"Let homosexuality be forgiven...for most often she did not sin against nature but tried to be true to the law of her own—to feel guilt about having loved a being of your own kind, body and soul, is hopeless."
— Sonja Sekula, diary entry, 1960
“Sekula did not settle down and produce a representative style. Her inventiveness led her in dozens of different directions – a sign of its richness – but it also left her vulnerable in the face of the art world’s desire for coherent subjects and oeuvres.”
— Jenny Anger, “Midcentury Multiplicity,” A Future We Begin to Feel: Women Artists 1921-1971, 2021
"As her world diminished, Sekula's work became more modest in scope, less publicly oriented and more inward-looking. Of no small interest are the collages, sketchbooks, haiku and poem-drawings of her last years, as she shook off the art world and entered into a vivid dialogue with herself."
— Grace Glueck, A Golden Girl Escaping Into Infinity, New York Times, 1996
“I paint each hour differently, no line to pursue no special stroke to be recognized by. And yet I do. I trace my own authenticity back 20 years ago – and it is still me though it contains over a 1000 different ways.”
— Sonja Sekula, 1961
Sonja Sekula was born in 1918 in Lucerne, Switzerland and died in 1963 in Zurich, Switzerland. Solo exhibitions include: Kunstmuseum Luzern, Switzerland (2016); Swiss Institute, New York, NY (1996); Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (1996); Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, NY (1947-1957); Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, New York, NY (1946). Group exhibitions include: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2020); Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY (2019); Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland (2018, 2008); Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA (2017, 2015, 2011); Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland (2010); Kunsthaus Zürich (1987); The Whitney Museum, New York, NY (1956); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN (1954); The Art Institute of Chicago (1952); San Francisco Museum of Art (1952); The Brooklyn Museum (1951, 1949); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1950), Museo de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, Brazil (1948); Galerie Maeght, Paris, France (1947).
*All works are subject to availability; all prices are subject to change.
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