Many years ago, when living on the third floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, I would brace myself as the Swedish landlady and her husband, one flight below, would have at it. After receiving the rent check the beautiful landlady would send a thank you card with a painting of a mother nurturing her child. In Mary Cassatt’s paintings of idyllic motherhood, the landlady could escape her domestic abuse.
Although by today’s standards the paintings of mothers and children in domestic settings seem to emphasize a traditional role for women, Cassatt (1844-1926) was something of a feminist in her day. She went against her family’s wishes to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and later moved to Paris to pursue her art, putting her career above marriage. Toward the end of her life, when she could barely see, she became a suffragette. For more than 100 years Cassatt has been a role model for women artists.
Although primarily known for her colorful paintings and pastels, Cassatt was also a printmaker. The Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick is showcasing 17 drypoints from its renowned collection, as well as five color prints from a private collection, in “Mary Cassatt Prints: In the Company of Women,” on view through March 3, 2013.
“With this exhibition, we focus on treasures from our collection that are rarely displayed due to their inherent fragility as light-sensitive works on paper,” says Suzanne Delehanty, director of the Zimmerli. “We continue our tradition of organizing important exhibitions of prints and focusing on the achievements of women artists. The works in this exhibition also complement the Zimmerli’s renowned collection of Japonisme by demonstrating the important influence of Japanese art on Cassatt’s print oeuvre.”
Cassatt embarked upon an ambitious project of color intaglio printmaking inspired by a major exhibition of Japanese color woodcut prints she saw in Paris in 1890. One year later, Cassatt exhibited a set of 10 color aquatints showing contemporary Parisian women in the course of their daily activities. Among the 23 prints in the exhibition are two works from that set, “The Fitting” and “In the Omnibus,” as well as three other important color prints.
Cassatt was born in what is now Pittsburgh. Her father was a stockbroker and land speculator, and her mother came from a family of bankers. The family moved to Philadelphia when Mary was six.
Her upper middle class upbringing included travel as a part of her education. She took lessons in drawing and music and learned German and French. In Paris Cassatt was exposed to Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet as well as Degas and Pissarro, both of whom would be future colleagues and mentors.
Back in Philadelphia, at the age of 15, she began her studies at PAFA, where Thomas Eakins was a classmate. Frustrated with drawing from casts, rather than a live model, Cassatt moved to Paris and studied privately with masters from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which did not yet admit women.
She maintained a studio in her Parisian apartment. Cassatt’s art reflects her thinking about this living and working arrangement, especially for the women who visit and entertain, as well as privately care for their own and their families’ daily activities. The topic will be explored by Williams College Museum of Art curator Nancy Mowll Matthews, who will speak on “Visiting Mary Cassatt: The Paris Apartment in Cassatt’s Art,” Sunday, October 14, at p.m.
Cassatt arrived during a tumultuous time in the French art world, as artists were breaking away from the Academy style and Impressionism was getting underway. The American artist continued in the traditional style before eventually finding her way to Impressionism, taking a sketchbook with her to record what she saw outside of her studio.
In 1877 Edgar Degas invited her to join the group of Impressionist painters and assumed a mentoring role in her career. She worked side-by-side with Degas, learning pastels and copper engraving from him. Inspired by his experiments in printmaking, Cassatt began making prints of her own. Cassatt broke new ground as an artist with her own experimental printmaking practice, employing drypoint (image is incised into a plate, usually copper, with a sharp point), aquatint (the plate is incised with rosin), and etching (the plate is incised with acid) in innovative combinations.
“Mary Cassatt’s prints stand out in the crowded field of avant-garde printmaking during the 1890s. She found an ideal vehicle for her lucid depictions of contemporary women when she took up the drypoint needle,” says Christine Giviskos, associate curator of European Art at the Zimmerli, who organized “In the Company of Women” with Marilyn Symmes, director, Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and Curator of Prints and Drawings.
Ultimately Cassatt moved away from Impressionism toward a simpler, more straightforward style and found her place in tenderly observed scenes of mothers and their children. She was attracted to the simplicity and clarity of Japanese design.
The Zimmerli’s exhibition showcases Cassatt’s ability to capture the specific moods, relationships, and spaces of the women of her day. The two girls intently studying in “The Map,” the dignified young woman in “Reflection,” and the focused mother and child in “The Stocking” are just three examples of Cassatt’s mastery in conveying moments of quiet female intimacy and absorption in thought.
Also on view at the Zimmerli is “Art=Text=Art,” a fascinating exhibit of how artists such as Trisha Brown, Dan Flavin, Jasper Johns, Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, and Lawrence Weiner use text, language, and the written word. The exhibition continues to January 6, 2013.
“‘Art=Text=Art’ features absolutely seminal pieces that are essential to understanding contemporary art and relationships between art and language,” says Delehanty.
QR codes have become ubiquitous these days — they are even used on tombstones! — so it is only fitting that one of the works in “Art=Text=Art” is a QR code. Scan your QR code reader over it, and it takes you to the online catalog for “Art=Text=Art.”
The works here are from the collection of Werner and Sarah-Ann Kramarsky, the nation’s foremost drawing collectors who are dedicated to sharing their collection and promoting the importance of drawing for learning and stimulating imaginative creativity. A goal for the Kramarskys is to encourage viewers to draw.
“Art=Text=Art” shows how artists since the 1960s have revolutionized drawing while incorporating language.
“I hope viewers will pause in the exhibition to puzzle out how words have a visual appearance apart from their powerful verbal meanings, how illegibility can often be more eloquent than literal interpretation, or how all data visualization is never a given, but must be constructed,” says Symmes, the Zimmerli’s curator of prints and drawings and director of the Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts, who oversaw the museum’s installation of “Art=Text=Art.”
One will need to several visits to the Zimmerli to appreciate “Art=Text=Art.” The first is needed to take it all in visually, and at least another visit is needed to read all the text, and the meta text, of “Art=Text=Art.”
Text and language are all about code, and William Anastasi explores this in his “Word Drawing Over Shorthand Practice Page.” The symbols for short hand loop and scroll over the long form of the words themselves, and the practice pages are what drawing was once thought of for painting. But are we to read and understand these words, and if so, do they hold meaning? “Plebiscite,” “poise,” “histrionic,” “snuggle,” “ravenous.” It reminds this viewer of word games.
Most of us know Trisha Brown as a contemporary modern dance choreographer and performer, but she has had a decades-long practice as a visual artist. Here we see pencil drawings on graph paper, but she does not follow the grid, instead finding her own way through the order and control.
“Drawing, for Brown, is a form of mental exercise, a way of attaining the intense focus necessary to create or perform her works,” according to the catalog. “These works on paper were meant to convey to her dancers a sense of the rise and fall of the dance.”
Richard Serra’s rusty steel sculptures wave and wend their enormous way through museums, but in “Art=Text=Art,” we see his 8-by-10-inch lists of verbs. “‘Verb List’ holds the kernels not only of the artistic revolution brewing in American art during the 1960s, but of the monumental body of work that Richard Serra has been creating ever since,” writes Delehanty in the catalog. “Serra made ‘Verb List’ shortly after he moved to New York in 1966, following two years of travel and study in Europe. Living in New York’s then rough-and-ready Soho district, he was part of a circle of artists, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers who were breaking down the boundaries between painting, sculpture, drawing, performance, and film to create works of art that directly reflect the artist’s actions and engage the viewer.”
Serra was in his late 20s when he created “Verb List” in 1967-’68. At the time, he did not consider it a work of art but thought of it as a way of figuring out his own direction as a young artist. In a recent interview, Serra said: “The ‘Verb List’ gave me a subtext for my experiments with materials. The problem I was trying to resolve in my early work was: How do you apply an activity or a process to a material and arrive at a form that refers back to its own making? That reference was mostly established by line. In a sense you can’t form anything without drawing.”
The exhibition’s online catalog includes essays about each work by 39 contributors. Artists’ books that can only be seen partially in the gallery are shown here in full digital format.
“Since the beginning of civilization, humankind has created systems of words and images to capture an ever-expanding realm of knowledge and experience,” writes Delehanty in the forward, citing Sumerian cuneiform tablets, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and the invention of the first printed page. “When Picasso and the Cubists attached fragments of actual newspapers to their drawings in the opening years of the 20th century, they challenged us to adopt new ways of seeing and thinking.”
Visiting Mary Cassatt: The Paris Apartment in Cassatt’s Art, Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Sunday, October 14, 2 p.m. $10 general admission.
Mary Cassatt Prints: In the Company of Women. Through March 3, 2013.
Art=Text=Art. Through January 6, 2013. For more information, visit www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu/about/visit-us