NEW ORLEANS (ACNI) – In recent years, bold abstract expressionist works by Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer (1912-1997) have commanded increasingly strong prices at auction houses in her native city of New Orleans. Her success in the market disproves the notion that southern regional art is all about gloomy bayous and Spanish moss. Not only have mature collectors added her paintings to their holdings, her intriguing works also appeal to a new generation of buyers.
In the November Louisiana Purchase Auction at the Neal Auction Company, Semiotic Blue and Semiotic Plum, brightly-colored 1983 companion works filled with symbolic designs, sold for $48,800 and $35,380 to a fortunate bidder. A very early work from 1958 titled Yellow Study doubled its $6000/8000 estimate to bring $16,132.50.
Ida Kohlmeyer: 100th Anniversary Highlights – on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art through February 10, 2013 – celebrates the long career of this well-known local artist. Kohlmeyer and her husband Hugh were also major benefactors of the museum, donating examples of pre-Columbian, Native American, Asian, African, Oceanic, self-taught, and contemporary art from their diverse collection.
Anne C.B. Roberts, the NOMA Curatorial Projects Manager who put together the exhibition, told ACN: “Ida Kohlmeyer was an inspirational woman and artist, whose determination set her apart and led to her prolific body of work. Earning her MFA in painting from Newcomb College at Tulane University at the age of forty-four, with two young children at home, Kohlmeyer became one of the most celebrated female Abstract Expressionists from the South.”
After receiving her graduate degree, the artist spent the summer of 1956 studying with Hans Hoffman in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she began experimenting with abstract expressionism. She also spent three months of that year in Paris, where she studied ground-breaking work by other 20th century artists.
Another influential figure entered her life in 1957 when Mark Rothko came to Newcomb College at Tulane as a visiting artist. Anne Roberts explains, “Not only did they have a professional connection, he rented her recently deceased mother’s home for his family. He used the garage as a studio. He had a room in the Newcomb art building where he had some of his works on view, and the door was always closed. He liked to display his works in an intimate, closed setting. He supported a lot of the tenets that Hoffman had taught her. She was influenced by his work and began using rectangles as a point of departure; her work had similar atmospheric qualities.”
Eventual breaking away from the Rothko influence, Kohlmeyer developed her own unique personal style beginning in the 1970s. That style blossomed in the 1980s with a series of vivid paintings filled with symbols or pictographs arranged on a grid, which could be variously interpreted by individual viewers. While influenced by Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism, her works became unmistakably her own – a quality that delights collectors. In addition to her paintings, she also created an impressive collection of prints and sculptures made of Plexiglas, wood, and cloth.
For the NOMA exhibition, Roberts chose twelve examples which highlight different periods from the artist’s creative life. The curator says, “I think the earliest work in the show is 1956, which was created while she was studying with Hans Hoffman in Provincetown. It was one of the first pieces after she moved decisively from painting figures to abstract expressionist painting. Then the show goes up to the late 1980s.”
She continues, “This selection of works from NOMA’s permanent collection touches on the breadth of Kohlmeyer’s professional career. From her early work inspired by her teacher Hans Hoffmann and colleague Mark Rothko, both pillars in the Abstract Expressionist canon, to her mature style of glyphs, the play between color and line is evident.”
“Whether muted or bold, it is color that defines shape, space, and sentiment. The organic shapes, often delineated by the color, create a dynamism that moves the eye around the picture. As discrete works of art, each piece holds its own power. Seen together, the evolution of Kohlmeyer’s oeuvre around her foundation in color and line takes on a vibrant new energy.”
A simple search will turn up numerous catalogues from exhibitions during the artist’s lifetime, but the best reference is Ida Kohlmeyer: Systems of Color by Michael Plante (2005), illustrated with more than a hundred images of her work. Plante, holder of the Jessie J. Poesch Professorship in Art in the Newcomb Art Department at Tulane University, is the perfect biographer for one of the school’s most famous alumnae. Readers will find a full chronology, a bibliography for further study, as well as a listing of exhibitions, collections, and commissions.
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