Helène Aylon, a New York–based artist known for her pioneering work involving feminist, environmentalist, and Jewish themes, died on Monday of coronavirus-related causes, according to her New York gallery, Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects. She was 89.
“She leaves behind the many people whose lives she deeply touched, as well as a prodigious and diverse body of art that arose from her lifelong engagement in spiritual and societal concerns,” the gallery wrote in its email announcing Aylon’s death.
In a 2012 profile in the publication Na’amat Woman, which focuses on Jewish women, Aylon divided her career into three periods—one focused on the body, one focused on nature and ecological concerns, and one focused on the notion of God and the patriarchal constructs attached to it. These seemingly disparate interests often intertwined in her art, allowing her to create poetic meditations around the idea of change—in humans, on the planet, and over time.
Aylon started out as an abstract painter making process-based works. She considered female painters such as Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner as influences on her and her work, and she absorbed from them an interest in testing what paints and dyes could do. In Aylon’s hand, these mediums are often blotchy and elusive, seeming to resemble forms that are in the process of shapeshifting.
Aylon showed with the famed New York dealer Betty Parsons early on. In an Artforum review of a 1975 show at the gallery, Roberta Smith wrote, “Despite all she leaves to chance and to the natural tendencies of her materials, she has developed her own special kind of control, as do most artists who start out with an unconventional technique. She achieves—or her paintings are currently achieving—a pleasing variety of rich brown and beige tones, lines, cracks, ripples and Rorschachian stains.”
After Parsons gave Aylon a show in 1979, the artist didn’t have another New York solo exhibition for 40 years, when Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects mounted a survey of works the artist made between 1969 and 1973. Marc Selwyn Fine Art gallery in Los Angeles staged an exhibition of her ’70s art earlier this year.
Aylon’s disappearance from the eye of much of the New York art world may partially be attributed to her departure from her studio practice. During the 1980s, she got rid of her studio altogether, and embarked on more ambitious projects focused on ecofeminist concepts. The work put her at the forefront of a movement that also included Agnes Denes and Mierle Laderman Ukeles.
Many of them were specifically related to her anti-nuclear activism. For 1982’s The Earth Ambulance, she drove a truck with pillowcases containing dirt from places near nuclear reactors and uranium mines, ultimately carrying them out on stretchers and depositing the earth in a park near the United Nations. For another project called Bridge of Knots (1995), she had Japanese women write down their dreams on pillowcases, and she strung their creations around Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, also near the U.N.
Born Helène Fischer in 1931 in New York, the artist was raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood and married a rabbi, Mandel H. Fisch, at 18. The couple had two children, Nathaniel and Renèe, and Fisch died when Helène was 30. After his death, she created a new surname for herself, Aylon, based on the Hebrew name for Helène, Aylonna.
Soon after, Aylon went to study art at Brooklyn College, where artist Ad Reinhardt was her mentor. His advice, along with words from painter Agnes Martin, turned her toward abstraction, though it wasn’t until she went to San Francisco’s Antioch College to get an M.F.A. in women’s studies that she was “rescued by feminism,” as she put it. She read texts by Adrienne Rich and Maya Angelou, and discovered that she could be both a mother and an artist simultaneously.
In the later part of her career, she focused largely on her Jewish identity, considering the roles that female followers of the religion have played over the years. For a decades-long project called The Liberation of G-D (its name a reference to how observant Jews attempt to avoid spelling out the lord’s name), Aylon systematically went through the Old Testament to discover places where scripture had written women out of the narrative and preserved God’s masculine authority. At one point, she wrote, “Did God say these things to Moses, or are they patriarchal attitudes projected onto God? — as though man has the right to have dominion even over God.”