Evelyn Statsinger 1948-1955: A Natural Grid
An essay about the early work of Evelyn Statsinger. This one was for a booklet in conjunction with the Richard Gray Gallery‘s solo presentation at the March 2017 ADAA fair.
Evelyn Statsinger 1948-1955: A Natural Grid
The work Evelyn Statsinger made during, and in the half-decade after, her studies at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, evince a young artist as culturally and materially omnivorous as she was materially skillful. She was also, unusual for that time and place, utterly dismissive of dogma and tradition. As a teenager Statsinger attended the exemplary New York’s High School of Music and Art and followed that with a stint at the Art Students League. Her artistic playing field expanded greatly in Chicago, where she encountered New Bauhaus-disciples of Laszlo Moholy Nagy and studied under Kathleen Blackshear, the artist and historian who was one of the earliest and most important proponents of bringing non-Western art into the history.
Statsinger’s first works to gain notice are her 1948 photograms, a medium to which she brought a particularly hand-driven approach, contrary to that of Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Matter and other modernists, who tended to produce crisp, mechanical images and effects that dovetailed with their curvilinear, object-driven aesthetics. Statsinger pioneered a process-intensive photographic image-making. Her photograms were created by exposing each compositional element (string, cut paper, etc.) singularly and then collaging them together to be re-photographed. Faces delineated by string and wire, with knitted wool for veils, crinkled carbon paper for backgrounds, and Japanese newspaper pages for bodies. Comfortable with her materials, Statsinger ran through a range of ideas, from doubled profiles to a kite flyer to a body enveloped in lacy static. Then there are animals, a table top arrangement, and, perhaps most crucially, grids made of string containing what look like Sioux pictographs. The holding grid is of course, both a Bauhaus and Surrealist trope (and Paul Klee, who passed through both movements, was a lodestar to the artist), and Statsinger, uninterested in rules, used it both ways, even giving it new life in delicate copper constructions, which might be described as three-dimensional drawings.
And when she turned her attention two-dimensional drawing, Statsinger removed the technical processes in favor of traditional crayon and ink on paper. Her 1950 Abstraction with Arrow combines the range of textures and compositional concerns of her photograms with an epic sense of all-over patterning. Here is a drawing that is not exactly abstract, but neither is there a discernible subject. Instead, six active shapes seem embedded in a field comprised of minute variable forms, each delicately rendered in space. This drawing has the airiness of the photograms with a new, hand-wrought tactility and a center-less sensibility that seems influenced by Navajo weavings and Northwest Coast Art. They are also curiously devoid of coloration — letting the forms speak entirely on their own terms. In other word, we are in new territory.
Statsinger would till that literal and figurative land further in 1951 while a resident during the inaugural year of Huntington Hartford’s artist colony program in the Pacific Palisades of California. There she worked on a series of monotypes that, for the first time, invited exuberant color into her work. Klee is still in evidence as an influence, as well as Nazca art, but now we can see Miro, too. Here Statsinger used color the way she might have done with string or wool in a photogram — it is color as form and subject unto itself. And rather than focusing on faces or other recognizable subjects, she seems to be developing various parts of her new drawing practice by focusing intently on, say, a globular mass, or a single pyramid. These monotypes, like all of Statsinger’s early work, points back to her education and forward to what was to come. She worked in Chicago for much of the rest of her life, making work of no school save her own.
She was linked variously to the so-called Monster Roster and the Chicago Imagists. Both do a disservice to the sheer diversity and independence of her practice. There are links to Surrealism, of course, as well as her friend and fellow painter Miyoko Ito. But If I was to draw a constellation around her, I would link her variously to Ree Morton, Joseph Yoakum, Harry Smith, Pattern and Decoration, early psychedelia, Anne Ryan, and Terry Winters. Unique artists and movements focused on whole fields of experience in painting, regardless of geography and concerns of the high and the low. Statsinger, who wished to belong nowhere at all, might truly be at home amongst other unfettered seekers of new modes of seeing and making.