STUART DAVIS (1894 - 1964)
While upon first glance this work might appear to be a medley of colors, a shoulder length portrait emerges. The patchwork of bright colors in the center of the canvas forms the outline of a female’s neck and face in Portrait of Irene. Her head is turned to the side, her face viewed in profile. And the shape of her cranium is distinct. While the areas of color suggest facial features, none is clear. Her dark hair is tied back in a ponytail. Irene’s collared shirt, with its consistent white tone accented by patches of subtle color, is arguably the most realistic element of this dreamlike painting. The background is purely abstract, as if a color field painting.
For navigating the boundaries between the figurative and the abstract, Kriesberg is often referred to as a “Figurative Expressionist.” He was one of the artists featured in the landmark 1952 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 15 American Painters. Others featured in the show included artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, whose work was strictly dependent on formal elements such as color and line and devoid of any representational imagery. Kriesberg’s choice to paint specific figures and creatures stood in opposition to the aim of the Abstract Expressionists to address the universal. Both Kriesberg’s smaller scale works and the Abstract Expressionist’s grand canvases were highly expressive of the artists’ emotional and psychological states.
A Chicago Native, Irving Kriesberg (1919-2009) was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and New York University. For much of his lifetime, the artist was a resident of New York City where he taught at Columbia and nearby Yale. In addition to creating paintings such as Portrait of Irene he also sculpted and worked in pottery, which he studied in Japan. He also spent time in Mexico and India; both countries have abundant examples of traditional art forms as bright as Kriesberg’s. In addition to bold and expressive use of color, Kriesberg’s depictions of animals and humans were defined by abstraction.
Irving Kriesberg’s painting Portrait of Irene (1957) has much in common with the Abstract Expressionist works on view across the gallery: Philip Guston’s Road (1959) and Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1949, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). Note especially the visible brushstrokes in the contiguous areas of color that fill the Guston and the Kriesberg. Interestingly the background of Kriesberg’s painting almost seems to echo the yellow, orange, green, and earthy bands of color that shimmer in the Rothko. At the same time, Kriesberg’s work is markedly different from the others according to its inclusion of a figure. It is also more intimate in scale than Rothko’s expansive canvas. (The Guston, closer in size to Kriebserg’s, was intended as a study for a larger painting.) While critics may have overlooked Kriesberg in his day due to his ongoing interest in the figure, his work has much in common with the early twentieth century French group of painters labeled the Fauves (wild beasts in French). Artists of this group such as Henri Matisse were scandalized in their lifetime for their bright and unnatural use of color carried on in Kriesberg’s painting. Do you find an affinity between Henri Matisse’s Woman With a Hat (1905 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Portrait of Irene?
Philip Guston, Road, 1959, oil on paper mounted to masonite; Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1949, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, DC; Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905, oil on canvas, SFMOMA.
This is a very abstract portrait - the colors used to depict Irene would likely only appear in an artist’s imagination. What sort of mood do the bright colors of this painting suggest? Lighthearted? What about the golden light behind Irene? A window perhaps? Where do you imagine Irene to be? What do you think she looks like? What do you think of her?