Sonia Gechtoff, along with Jay DeFeo and Deborah Remington, was part of the Abstract Expressionist heyday that took place in the Bay Area between the late 1940s and late 1950s. One of the centers of this spasmodic outburst was Clyfford Still, who taught at the California School of the Arts (1946–50). Gechtoff, who moved to San Francisco from Philadelphia in 1951, was inspired by Still’s work to paint with a palette knife. Still’s solemn, evocative abstractions enabled Gechtoff to shed her earlier attachment to Ben Shahn’s Socialist Realist style and concerns.
While DeFeo has had major museum shows, particularly in the last 20 years, and Remington has recently received the attention it deserves, Gechtoff remains under the radar. Her first solo exhibition at the de Young Museum in 1957 was also her last. I suspect that’s because she didn’t do anything as dramatic as DeFeo, who worked on The Rose (1958-66) for almost a decade, or became a completely different painter, as Remington did shortly after a two-year stay in Japan did . The trajectory that Gechtoff followed seems less obviously dramatic until you look closer.
I first became aware of Gechtoff when I saw the exhibition Sonia Gechtoff: The Ferus years in the now defunct Galerie Nyehaus (October 29–December 17, 2011), which was accompanied by a catalog with an informative interview by Marshall N. Price. Although Gechtoff has been in important shows of her era, including Younger American Painters at the Guggenheim Museum (May 12–July 25, 1954), curated by James Johnson Sweeney, she has for years been overlooked in historical reviews of Abstract Expressionism and Bay Area art of the 1950s, though her credentials are impeccable. In 1957 it was the inaugural exhibition of the legendary Ferus Gallery. According to Price, “Sonia’s most important innovation was her work with the putty knife – making sharp, sharp strokes of paint. […] This was later taken over by Jay DeFeo.” Gechtoff and her husband, the painter Jim Kelly, lived next door to DeFeo at 2322 Fillmore, where he founded The Rose in 1958.
All of that began to change when Gechtoff was included in the landmark exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum (June 12–September 25, 2016), curated by Gwen Chanzit. This helped put them on the map. (DeFeo and Remington were also on the show.) What hasn’t happened, and has yet to happen, is a close examination of the arc of Gechtoff’s career.
In 1959, three years after Jackson Pollock’s death, and as the New York art world quickly turned its attention to pop art, minimalism, and color field painting, Gechtoff and Kelly moved to New York. While her work would never again generate as much excitement as it did when she lived in California, this lack of resonance did not deter her – as the survey exhibition convincingly demonstrated Sonja Gechtoff at 55 Walker (Gallery Bortolami, Kaufmann Repetto and Andrew Kreps Gallery).
Comprised of 21 paintings and works on paper created between 1958 and 2017, a period spanning almost half a century, the exhibition marks an important step in the art world’s engagement with Gechtoff. From using a palette knife to using acrylic and graphite in the same painting to incorporating different sources into a single collage-like image (architecture, landscape and flames and wave-like shapes), Gechtoff has confidently pushed her art in new directions, from the realms inspired by collage, which she made in 1962 and 1963, none of which are on display in the exhibition. Working simultaneously in New York under the sign of pure painting and later the “death of painting”, it is easy to understand why she was marginalized. Her work didn’t fit into any of the New York art world’s narratives of progressive art. The fact that drawing was a serious part of her practice and that she didn’t work on a monumental scale probably didn’t help her either. It also didn’t help that she and her husband had two children.
Of the 21 works in the exhibition, 19 were created between 1984 and 2017, the year before her death. Eight of these works, executed in acrylic and graphite on paper, are no larger than 16 1/2 x 15 3/4 inches. Created when the art world was fascinated by Neo-Expressionism, these and other late works make it clear that Gechtoff had no downtime. Beginning in the 1980s, she combined figural allusions to landscape and architecture with abstract passages that evoke spasmodic changes such as crashing waves and turbulent skies. She seems preoccupied with the passage of time in both the daily and the larger, cosmic sense.
In the collage-like acrylic and graphite painting “Hiroshige Revisited” (1988), Gechtoff divides the vertical pictorial plane horizontally. In the upper part of the horizon line, which is framed on both sides by flat columnar shapes, it shows the famous symmetrical cone of Mount Fuji in blue and violet against a dark red sky with red storm clouds. Below the horizon line is a red tongue-like shape. Should that be read as lava? Is it a reference to the early history of the dormant volcano? What should we make of the blue pillars on either side of the mountains, partially overlapping Mt. Fuji on the left? How are we supposed to read the green broken by vertical stripes drawn in pencil?
Hiroshige made two sets of woodcuts in 1852 and 1858, which were titled together Thirty-six views from Mount Fuji. Gechtoff reinvented Hiroshige’s serene views by adding her own elements. The pillars remind us that Mount Fuji has become a monument, while the stormy red sky and lava formations suggest that nothing stands the test of time. Given the devastating effects of climate change, Gechtoff’s view seems prescient. Finally (and this is what lifts the painting into another realm) “Hiroshige Revisited” strikes me as more than just the reading I’ve suggested.
In Celestial Red (1994), Gechtoff has depicted a molten red and pink arch in the top quarter of the painting rising above a large, fiery, dark red rectangle. A large black circle is inserted into the rectangle, surrounded by a band whose colors reflect the arc bending in blue and violet. Inside the circle are eight orange, purple, or blue balls. The black circle becomes a portal, an opening that calls forth another dimension or world that we cannot fathom.
What do the eight balls mean? What does the partially obscured red geometric shape inside the black circle mean? The different shades of red convey melted heat, which seems to be one of Gechtoff’s main preoccupations. Without resorting to arbitrary juxtapositions, her pictures resist a reductive reading. This resistance can be read as a metaphor. Like DeFeo and Remington, Gechtoff attained a resonant, independent vision that, in her case, spans seven decades. It’s time we took a closer look at what this wonderful artist has accomplished.
Sonja Gechtoff goes to 55 Walker (55 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through August 26. The exhibition was organized by Bortolami Gallery, Kaufmann repetto, Andrew Kreps Gallery.