Beatrice Mandelman’s Politically Charged Abstractions Get First New York Show
The late abstract painter's works still resonate today.
Chances are, you aren’t familiar with the work of Beatrice Mandelman (1912–1998), despite the fact that she was part of the New York School alongside such household names as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
The artist got her first New York solo exhibition this year, which opened on January 18 at Rosenberg & Co, and runs through April 1. “Beatrice Mandelman and the Sixties,” which features about 30 works, most of which have never been publicly exhibited before, only begins to scratch the surface of the artist’s oeuvre.
Mandelman was a prolific painter, employing vibrant colors in her primarily abstract works, but she spent the majority of her career in Taos, New Mexico, far removed from the center of the American art world.
She got her start as a social realist painter working as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration, and then moved with her husband, fellow artist Louis Ribak, to Taos in 1944, after her time in New York. They they would live in the alluring desert town for the rest of their lives.
The couple were among the leading figures, along with their close friend painter Agnes Martin, of the Taos Modernists, a group of artists active during in the 1960s. “There were painters that drifted in and out,” Marianne Rosenberg told artnet News. “They were clearly the nucleus of that group.”
The gallery is representing Mandelman and Ribak’s estates, which include a combined 5,532 works, on behalf of the University of New Mexico Foundation. “It is sort of an overwhelming donation,” said the gallerist, who described entering the storage facility for the archive as “sort of like going into the cavern of Ali Baba.”
The show highlights a fairly lonely period of Mandelman’s life, after Martin and many other artists had moved on from Taos.
The initial move to New Mexico was in part because Ribak suffered from asthma, but the couple, considered radical leftists at the time, also left New York to avoid undue scrutiny of their political affairs.
“They were, as it turns out now, trailed by the FBI,” Rosenberg said. Shortly after they left New York, the FBI searched the couple’s apartment, and an undercover agent later enrolled the Taos Valley Art School run by the couple. “One would think [the FBI] had more interesting things to do than to follow two left-wing very creative artists to Taos!”
Mandelman’s political leanings are still easily identifiable in the later pieces in the current exhibition, which features, among other works, anti-war collages made in response to the war in Vietnam. Though she sold work throughout her career, the couple never had much money, so many of the works are small, and made with available materials.
It’s work that is still relevant today, both aesthetically and politically. “When I look at the social upheaval that was going on in the ’60s,” said Rosenberg, “you can’t help but draw a parallel with some of the confrontations that we are now experiencing. I’m assuming that she would have marched on Saturday.”
The colors in her collages are vibrant, and the thoughtfully-arranged compositions feature bold shapes that recall the cut-outs of Henri Matisse (she spent a year studying art with Fernand Léger in Paris). And although Mandelman was quick to deny being categorized as a Southwestern artist, the influence of the landscape of the New Mexican desert and its bright light is still subtly recognizable in her work.
“She’s just an incredible creative force,” said Rosenberg, who hopes the show will attract institutional buyers and help increase Mandelman’s presence in art museums. (Sadly, the university is not in a position to start a museum dedicated to Mandelman and Ribak, as they are looking to sell the collection to help fund operations.)
All in all, the show offers a fascinating glimpse into a little-known career, a snapshot of an artist driven by passion and creativity above all. “She addressed her loneliness,” said Rosenberg, “in this artistic explosion, where she found joy in the color and intensity of what she was doing.”
“Beatrice Mandelman and the Sixties” is on view at Rosenberg & Co., 19 East 66th Street, January 18–April 1, 2017.
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