Getting to Know an Overlooked Pioneer of Bay Area Abstraction

The art world has paid attention to other artists from the same era, but we have not done the same with Sonia Gechtoff, and it is time that we did.

by John Yau2 hours ago

Installation view of Sonia Gechtoff: The 1960s in New York: A Series of Transitions, David Richard Gallery, New York (all images © Sonia Gechtoff Estate. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photographs by Yao Zu Lu.)

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There are many reasons why Sonia Gechtoff should be better known. She was a key member of a group of women artists who were central to the flowering of abstract painting in the Bay Area between the late 1940s and the late ’50s. The other two artists were Jay DeFeo and Deborah Remington. Gechtoff and her husband, the painter James (“Jim”) Kelly, lived at 2322 Fillmore Street, in a three-story, four-unit building. Their next-door neighbors were Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo, who began working on her monumental painting “The Rose” in 1958. 

In 1954, Gechtoff was included in Younger American Painters at the Guggenheim Museum (May 12–July 25, 1954), curated by James Johnson Sweeney. The exhibition included works by Richard Diebenkorn, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Kenzo Okada, and Jackson Pollock. Of nearly 50 artists, three were women. In 1957, she was the subject of a solo show at the de Young Museum, and was in Objects on the New Landscape Demanding of the Eye, the inaugural exhibition at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles (March 15 – April 11, 1957), where she later had a solo show. She also exhibited at another important venue, the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco. In 1959, Gechtoff and Kelly moved to New York, shortly after her mother, Ethel, who ran the East West Gallery — which showed Bruce Conner and Manuel Neri — died of a stroke. Things would never again be the same.

Installation view of Sonia Gechtoff: The 1960s in New York: A Series of Transitions at David Richard Gallery in New York

Although Gechtoff, who died in 2018, remained in New York for the rest of her life, and showed fairly regularly, while raising two children, she never received the attention she had as a young artist living in San Francisco. (The same fate befell Remington, another West Coast transplant.) DeFeo and Hedrick, it should be noted, did not come to New York, even for the opening of 16 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art (December 16, 1959-February 17, 1960), organized by the legendary Dorothy Miller, because they could not afford the trip. DeFeo was one of two women in the exhibition; the other was Louise Nevelson.

Gechtoff and Kelly moved to New York just as the art world was shifting its attention to Pop Art and Minimalism, which downplayed the artist’s hand in favor of the machine-like or mechanical. With this shift, the city, which was not particularly sympathetic to women artists, became even less open. With few exceptions, women who were not part of a club or associated with a style might as well have been invisible. Gechtoff not only was from the West Coast and connected to gestural painting and Abstract Expressionism, but she and Kelly had two children, which was unheard of among artists of her generation, especially women. 

Installation view of Sonia Gechtoff: The 1960s in New York: A Series of Transitions at David Richard Gallery in New York

If, like me, you are interested in what happened outside of New York during the 1940s and ’50s, and in the reception of women artists such as DeFeo, Gechtoff, and Remington later in their careers, then you should go to the exhibition Sonia Gechtoff: The 1960s in New York: A Series of Transitions, at David Richard Gallery (October 23–December 23, 2021). 

Most of the works are on paper — it took a while for Gechtoff and Kelly to find a place that enabled them to make art while raising children. In them, we see the artist searching for a way to extend her possibilities as well as respond to the changing situation of her circumstances and the art world without, as they say, jumping ship.

Formally, the works on paper can be broken down into the following groups: two suites of lithographs she produced at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1963 (one in color and one in black and white); graphite drawings done between 1960 and ’65; and collages dated between 1962 and ’63. “Sea Door” (oil on canvas, 97 by 51 inches, 1966) is the only painting in the exhibition. Shortly afterward, she stopped working in oil and began using acrylics.

Sonia Gechtoff, “Flag Icon” (1962-63), pastel, graphite, and collage on paper, 18.75 inches by 14.75 inches

During the 1960s, Gechtoff (by then in New York) stopped applying impasto brushstrokes with a palette knife. Her turbulent gestural drawings, dense with lines, began to swirl into a circular form, as seen in the drawing “Circle 1” (graphite on paper, 26 by 19 inches, 1962). I wonder if this shift had to do with her childhood: Gechtoff’s parents were Russian-born and her father, Leonid Gechtoff, who encouraged her to paint starting at the age of five, was a well-regarded genre painter. Gechtoff grew up in Philadelphia surrounded by Russian icons, which may have influenced her color choices and attraction to abstract forms, especially the circle, which is regarded by many cultures as sign of divinity and rebirth.

In Icons, the suite of lithographs Gechtoff made at Tamarind, at the invitation of its founder, June Wayne, she explored the circle, sometimes with gestural, leaf-like forms inside. In other works, the gestural lines are outside the circle, enclosing it or floating above it like a bridge whose supports partially frame the circle on the left and right side. In these pieces, she reveals her interest in abstract icons and architectural structures. Her other great interest is in the dance that she engendered between expansive movement and containment. 

Both lithography and collage were new mediums for Gechtoff, who preferred the immediacy of marking making with graphite or a palette knife. By shifting from a direct connection between tool and surface to one that required steps, she essentially focused on reinventing herself without abandoning her love of marks and gesture. In the collages, she began incorporating figurative references, including the female torso, as well as layering images to interrupt the gesture and rupture the plane. 

Two suites of lithographs on paper at Sonia Gechtoff: The 1960s in New York: A Series of Transitions at David Richard Gallery in New York

The painting “Sea Door” (1966) suggests where Gechtoff’s explorations during the first half of the ’60s led. Using a palette knife and her short, fast stroke, she has composed a largely blue arched doorway framed by red, and containing yellow, red, and pale blue impasto strokes and forms within. The visual collision of color and form must have been akin to what Gechtoff felt when she moved from San Francisco to New York, and became pregnant. Her color choices — red, blue, yellow — evoke the elemental forces of fire, water, and light. 

While Gechtoff, DeFeo, and Remington began as gestural artists, they all found their way to another possibility. Given their commitment to drawing and use of fluid lines in their early graphite work, it might be useful to see where they went, while they were living in San Francisco and after they went their separate ways.

The art world has paid attention to the path DeFeo took after she stopped working on “The Rose” (1958-66) and is starting to look at what Remington made after she moved to New York in 1965, but we have not done the same with Gechtoff, and it is time that we did. 

Sonia Gechtoff: The 1960s in New York: A Series of Transitions continues at David Richard Gallery (211 East 121st Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 23.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the… More by John Yau


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