March 14, 2018
Sonia Gechtoff - The End of an Era in the Male-Dominated Abstract Expressionism
March 14, 2018
By Phillip Barcio

Sonia Gechtoff - The End of an Era in the Male-Dominated Abstract Expressionism
March 14, 2018
By Phillip Barcio

Throughout her life, Sonia Gechtoff heard the same questions again and again. Every interviewer asked her about her years as a pioneering, California Abstract Expressionist painter, and one of just a few females to become widely acknowledged within that movement. Gechtoff arrived in San Francisco just as the conversation amongst Bay Area artists about the relative values of abstraction and figuration was at its most divisive and fertile. Her work stood out immediately. She was the first artist to be given a solo show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. And she was also a major presence on the social scene. She associated with many of the most important west coast painters, musicians and poets of the 1950s and 60s. Her mother even ran a small gallery across the street from Six Gallery, where Allen Ginsberg debuted his groundbreaking work, “Howl.” But Gechtoff was also a prolific and imaginative artist who continued evolving as an artist until the day she died, a couple of weeks ago, at age 91. Undeniably, she was a great source for anecdotes about a mythical time. But the story of the rest of her work is what still needs to be told.

In Search of Expansiveness
The best word to describe everything Gechtoff accomplished as an artist is “expansion.” Her earliest memories of making art were from age six, when her father, also an artist, set up a canvas beside his own, handed her paints and brushes and told her to paint. From there, she expanded, excelling in high school art classes. She earned a scholarship to study art at university. Looking at her resume, it seems she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But when she went there, it was a technical design college. She chose a technical art education, which would let her teach, on the advice of her mother, who feared she would end up poor like her father. Gechtoff resisted at first, but in retrospect, she realized that by forcing her out of her comfort zone, that technical education expanded her skills. She even credited it with inspiring the large body of pencil “hair drawings” she later created.

After college, Gechtoff longed to expand geographically. She considered moving to New York, but the high prices of that city made her fear having no time to paint. A friend told her about the exciting painting that was happening in San Francisco, which was considerably less expensive, so Gechtoff headed west. The vibe in the Bay Area when she arrived was influenced by the lessons of Clyfford Still, who had been teaching there for years. His philosophy focused on painting for its own sake. Coming from a background that emphasized image specificity, Gechtoff was liberated by the idea of just letting the paint find its own way. She embraced the technique of applying paint in thick layers with a palette knife, started painting giant-sized canvases, and began using bold, physical gestures. She let the medium collaborate with her body and her subconscious in whatever way it wanted, and in the process developed an expressive, emotive, abstract style.

Poetry in Motion
Unlike many of her Abstract Expressionist peers, Gechtoff did not completely abandon the image. Nor did she abandon her own narrative voice. Both in her early abstract canvasses, as well as in the paintings she went on to make later, a strong sense of the figure remains. In other words, unlike the Abstract Expressionist “all over” painters who were rejecting traditional composition as a way of expressing a subject, Gechtoff maintained a traditional sense of the decorative, expressive power of composition. Her work incorporates centralized compositional elements, which suggest the presence of a figurative subject, like a story is being told.

Early on, the central figures grow out of the middle of her images, in a circular formation. Gechtoff often said these early works were self-portraits, and suggested that this was her attempt to express a metaphorical representation of “the female mythic figure.” But besides the poetic narrative Gechtoff infused into her work, she was also a master of conveying abstract elements, which gave her paintings their power. She employed lyrical, sweeping, painterly marks, confident impasto layers, and dramatic color relationships, which convey deep emotion. And of course her willingness and ability to work on a large-scale overwhelmed viewers with feeling.

A Rising Exuberance
In the 1970s and 80s, Gechtoff abandoned Abstract Expressionist techniques and gravitated toward more flattened surfaces, and harder edges. Her compositions took on a more architectonic quality. These paintings convey a sense of revelation. It is as if mysteries were beginning to form in her early work, and as time rolled on secrets were gradually being revealed. Then in the 1990s, her forms started to become more jagged. She adopted the physical characteristics of forces of nature, such as fire, water, and wind. This was the distinctive style she maintained for the rest of her life. Though still abstract, her last paintings are direct, dramatic, simplified, and highly communicative.

Two years ago when the Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition debuted at the Denver Art Museum, Gechtoff was one of only three living painters included in that show. She was also a contrarian when it came to the version of history that show was working to dispel. Its basic narrative, which is undeniably true, was that female Abstract Expressionist painters were largely diminished by their male colleagues, and by dealers and curators. But Gechtoff pointed out that was only the case in New York. That, she explained, was where all the money was being made, so it was the most competitive. But Abstract Expressionism was a nationwide movement. Its full story has never been told. When Gechtoff was in San Francisco, she described it as a meritocracy. Good painters were rewarded, regardless of their genetic characteristics. In that spirit, hopefully Gechtoff will be afforded the respect of having her legacy not only be written in terms of one art movement. Hopefully her whole life and her dynamic, prolific career will be regarded in its full measure.

By Phillip Barcio

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January 17, 2017
Globalocation: Celebrating 20 Years of Artnauts
J. Willard Marriott Library
The University of Utah, 01/17/2017

The University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library will host the art exhibition Globalocation: Celebrating 20 Years of Artnauts, Jan. 20-March 3.

Artnauts, an art collective formed 20 years ago by George Rivera, professor of art and art history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, consists of 300 global artists who serve as goodwill ambassadors, acknowledging and supporting victims of oppression worldwide. Their creativity has generated over 230 exhibitions across five continents. Five faculty members from the U’s Department of Art and Art History are members of the collective, Sandy Brunvand, Beth Krensky, V. Kim Martinez, Brian Snapp and Xi Zhang.

Globalocation derives from “Globalocational Art” — a concept used by the Artnauts to refer to their exhibitions in international venues. It is the mission of the Artnauts to take art to places of contention, and this anniversary exhibition is a sample of places where they have been and themes they have addressed.

“The Artnauts could not exist without the commitment of the artists in the collective to a common vision of the transformative power of art,” said Rivera. “The Artnauts make their contribution with art that hopefully generates a dialogue with an international community on subjects that are sometimes difficult to raise.”

Krensky, associate department chair of the Art and Art History Department, had the opportunity to travel with Rivera in Chile as part of an Artnauts project, working with mothers who were searching for their children who had mysteriously disappeared during a time of political unrest.

“When I travelled to Chile in 1998, George and I spent an afternoon with the Mothers of the Disappeared, and the meeting changed my life,” said Krensky. “It was from that moment on that I placed a picture of them on my desk to look at every day. I was so moved by what they each had lost — a son, a brother, a father — and yet what remained for them was a deep, deep well of love. They were fierce warriors and stood up to the government to demand the whereabouts and information of the people who had disappeared, but they lived within profound love.”

The 20th anniversary exhibition at the Marriott Library is a retrospective of the traveling works the Artnauts have toured around the globe. The exhibition will be located on level three of the library. The opening reception is open to the public and will be held on Friday, Jan 20, 4-6 p.m. Rivera will speak at 4 p.m.

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