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Sonia Gechtoff, Abstract Expressionist Painter, Dies at 91

Sonia Gechtoff.

COURTESY NYEHAUS GALLERY

For many years, the majority of the art world has treated the Abstract Expressionist movement as being predominantly male. But in the recent years, a series of exhibitions, most notable among them the Denver Art Museum’s 2015 exhibition “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” has reversed that line of thinking and brought to the fore a group of notable female painters from that era. One of the major rediscoveries, for many, was Sonia Gechtoff, who has died at 91, according to New York’s Anita Shapolsky Gallery, which has shown her work for years.

Gechtoff is most commonly associated with a group of Californian artists who, during the 1950s, engineered their own abstract style shortly after their New York peers rose to mainstream fame. She lived in San Francisco for much of that decade with her husband, the artist James Kelly, whom she married in 1953. The Bay Area artists they associated with knew that, by not working in a figurative mode, they were doing something truly radical. (When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s director, Grace McCann Morley, showed Abstract Expressionist painting, she was publicly accused of being a Communist.)

Drawing inspiration from the painter Clyfford Still, who had by then received widespread praise for his monumental canvases resembling torn wallpaper, Gechtoff developed a style that made use of wisps of paint. Jules Langsner, writing for ARTnews in 1959, noted that her work often immersed the viewer by way of “vast cascades of paint.” The works often depicted landscapes and, in a few cases, Gechtoff herself, although unaware viewers would’ve merely seen pure abstraction. Colorful smears of caked-on oil often appear to burst out of dark backgrounds, and the paint is densely layered on, so that it appears to explode out of the canvas.

The Abstract Expressionist movement in New York had developed a reputation for being masculine, macho, and generally hostile toward women. Barnett Newman typified the movement with his hard, bold pictures that supposedly depicted biblical scenes and natural phenomena, while female artists like Lee Krasner, who was married to Jackson Pollock, were expected to wives first, then painters. But not so in the Bay Area, Gechtoff said. “I felt that they treated me equally, that they weren’t thinking of me as a woman painter, but as another painter,” Gechtoff said of her male cohort, which included painters like Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and Hassel Smith.

Sonia Gechtoff, The Beginning, 1960, oil paint on canvas, 69 x 83 inches.

©SONIA GECHTOFF/DENVER ART MUSEUM: VANCE H. KIRKLAND ACQUISITION FUND

Gechtoff’s work was a staple at Ferus Gallery, the trailblazing Los Angeles space founded by Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz in 1957. Showing there alongside artists like John Altoon, Diebenkorn, Still, and the late painter Ed Moses helped elevate her reputation and bring her work eastward, to New York, where she and Kelly, who died in 2002, moved in 1958.

Gechtoff was born in Philadelphia in 1926, and went to art school in the city, first at the School of Industrial Art. She discussed in interviews how she took an anatomy class there, and how that allowed her to hone her drawing skills, which she would later come to rely on in her works on paper. In 1951, she left Philadelphia, going to San Francisco instead of New York, she said, because New York was too expensive.

When she did eventually move there, however, she began producing paintings made on paper using acrylic, which dries more quickly than oil. By the mid-1980s, Gechtoff had combined all of her techniques in a series of painting-drawing hybrids for which she was lather canvases with acrylic and then draw in pencil on top of it. Writing in 1982, New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer said these pieces, which had been on view at New York’s Gruenebaum Gallery, “carried her work in this medium to a remarkable level of realization.”

“Sonia Gechtoff not only contributed to the dialogue of 20th-century visual art, but cemented the importance of how influential the West Coast Abstract Expressionist scene was to the moment as well,” the Shapolsky Gallery wrote in a statement.

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