Physicists and mathematicians, like figure skaters, are said to peak early, doing their most brilliant and creative work in their twenties. Artists follow a different trajectory, with many careers carrying on long past the age when most people have left the workday world behind. Whidbey Island painter Mary Henry is clearly a case in point. At 93 she is still going strong, with two separate exhibitions this month highlighting her rigorous abstract compositions, including one major work hot off the paintbrush. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us to talk about this Northwest legend.
A quick tour of Pioneer Square this month includes a number of shows in which artists grapple with serious and troubling contemporary issues: photographs of incarcerated youth at James Harris; explorations of racial politics at Pacini Lubel; and exhibits exploring death and struggle in the animal world at Punch and Shift Galleries - "Nature, red in tooth and claw".
Strolling through these worthy, but disturbing, shows is the perfect run-up to a visit to Howard House and the exhibition of the paintings of Mary Henry. Her paintings are a bracing immersion in an alternate artistic reality, in which order replaces chaos, rationality overcomes conflict, and art offers the possibility of healing what ails us. I always feel somehow cleansed when I spend time with her work, like a quick sauna followed by a cold shower.
Mary Henry is a Northwest Georgia O'Keeffe, a determined woman living alone in a remote and scenic setting, creating a distinguished body of work quite independent of popular trends. Her geometric abstractions are a celebration of an art moment whose last high point was nearly half a century past. Henry is unafraid to do work which brings to mind iconic painters like Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy (her teacher), as well as Joseph Albers, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, and the Op Artists.
And yet, few would describe her art as derivative, owing to both its utter sincerity, and the way in which she has made the crisp language of geometic abstraction something peculiarly her own. Her art can range from the playful (something rare in the work of her geometric predecessors), to a level of austerity that flirts with the sterile. This is particularly true of the large diptychs at the Wright Exhibition Space inspired by a mid-70s visit to Alaska's North Slope, which is unlike the work of her erstwhile predecessors in its stripped bare imagery and palette - huge monochromatic rectangles and stripes with only a slight visual pulse, work that is perhaps a bit too literal a transcription of her response to the vastness and emptiness of the tundra. The enormous 4' X 12' diptych North Slope #9, for example, two cool gray rectangles flanked by two warm gray squares, is too neutral as a composition to move us with either its static geometry or its nearly monochromatic color.
After the Alaska series, and Henry's move to Whidbey Island, her work decisively changes direction. Linear compositions, simple block grids, and monochrome are replaced by increasingly lush color, and an increasingly vibrant palette. It's fascinating to watch an artist in their seventies hit their stride, and the titles of these rich works - "After Scarlatti", "The Sun in Scorpio", "Giverny" - reveal Henry's new focus. "Both Sides Now", done in the late 80s, is a modified Mondrian, the canvas crowded with interlocking rectangular strips and blocks in simple solid, nearly primary colors. There's a musical rhythm here that's energetic, determined, and precise.
It's at Howard House where we can best appreciate the transformation Henry has achieved in making early modernist painting something alive and individual. The show, almost all works of the last 15 years, is neatly divided into more Mondrian-inspired grid works in the rear room, and more offbeat neo-Constructivism in the front. Both groups of work are visually engaging, inventively varied, and instantly likable. We're constantly reminded of the utopian roots of the Constructivist experiment, whose original adherents, like Henry, believed utterly in the ability of art to elevate the viewer's own spiritual state. But there's lightness to Henry's art, and a sweetness, which her deadly serious Communist forbearers, for whom art was a revolutionary tool, would have found alien indeed.
Take a work like the delicious "Ilya On My Mind" (I do mean delicious - I'm reminded of Creamsicles). A great deal of the canvas is simply unpainted white ground, weightless but active, like the air whistling through a garden trellis. The rest are playful, geometrical shapes in the colors of summer - aster red, sunflower gold, dry season sky blue - and two circles in jet black, for ballast. The tight grid of "Both Sides Now" has been cut up with scissors, enlivened with curves, and pasted back together in fragments. There's openness and an almost childlike optimism - the black hole is the smallest form in the composition. There's also an appealing hand-made quality to the painting, partly due to the artist's decision to create her precision shapes by hand, without the use of tape or masks, and partly due to the slightly uneven texture of the painted surface itself.
The newest of the works on view at Howard House is also the largest, a 17-foot tall wall mural designed by the artist and executed by assistants. It shows the artist entirely undaunted and undiminished by age, or self-doubt. In its bold, assertive shapes and colors, it states as clearly as any manifesto the artist's conviction that pure form, intelligently extracted and arranged, is a more direct connection to what really matters than the complaints of the flesh, the vagaries of daily life, or the march of so-called progress. Who am I to doubt?