Sunday, August 04, 2002

Cincinnati modernists reunited

An exhibit brings together visionaries, 50 years after their climb to the art world's summit

By Marilyn Bauer,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To work in Cincinnati then was like a vacation. Anything went in 2- or 3-D. No prescriptions. We were in the Midwest, but in tune with Europe and New York and the recent great past. When you had an idea it could flower.

        — Preston McClanahan

        They thought their art would change the world.

        And, indeed, the Modernists were open to new ideas and ways of transforming what they beheld into brilliant canvases of color and shape. They broke with tradition. They were Bohemians, the vanguard, visionaries whose mantra, “embrace the new,” echoed in museums, galleries and design studios.

        “There was a happy confluence of driving, open-minded workers who were always thinking and feeling out of the box in response to the dark colors, the heavy-handedness, the rococo, the flaws in the ointment,” says Preston McClanahan a Cincinnati painter of the time who now lives in Massachusetts. “And we were totally responsive to the light, the life, the soul of the modernist movement.”

        Giants of the genre live among us: Noel and Coletta Martin, Edith and Charles Harper, Margaret Newland Wenstrup. They continue to work every day, although they aren't able to sell the way they did 50 some years ago. They are accomplished artists at the top of their fields whose creativity touches every part of their lives.

        Cincinnati Modern: Art & Design at Mid-Century, an exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery at the Aronoff Center for the Arts through Aug. 31, brings the Cincinnati modernists back together. Some have called them living legends, but they are really treasures — national treasures who chose to live in our town.

Coletta and Noel Martin

[photo] Coletta and Noel Martin
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Coletta Martin, 80, is beautiful. She has big bright eyes and high cheekbones, a quick smile and a perky ponytail. It's easy to see why she was once a model. She's been married to her childhood sweetheart for 60 years — she says he's a superstar — and talks about the time she sold his paintings for train fare home from New York when he went to war.

        “I really wanted to stay in New York,” she says. “But as soon as Noel left, I wanted to go home. Some people say I was influenced by the Modern Art Society, but I was influenced by what I saw in New York.”

        Ms. Martin is a bold, fastidious painter. Her large canvases suck you into their fields of blazing color and the swirls of shapes and voluptuous angles propel you on a kaleidoscopic rush of ecstasy. Enormous sweeping curls painted or sewn onto gem-toned fields of warmth are exciting and sensuous and open to interpretation.

        “I don't know anyone who works harder,” says David Lusenhop Jr., who curated the show for the Weston. “She has an enormous body of work.”

        That includes squeeze bottle “drip” paintings, playful paper cutouts, books, drawings, banners, altar cloths, collages and a costume for Suzanne Farrell's sister, who was also a ballerina.

        She is known for her flair; she makes her own clothes and hats. She has raised two children. Her husband, the “superstar,” is a fan of her work. She, obviously, is a fan of his.

        Noel Martin, 81, had an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art when he was only 30 years old and, according to fellow modernist Allon Schoener writing in a 1989 issue of Cincinnati Arts, he became “one of the most creative and innovative graphic designers and typographers in the United States.”

        “The show ... Four American Designers, had me and Leo Lionni, Herbert Matter and Ben Shahn,” Mr. Martin remembers. “It changed everything for me. The word was out there and a lot of people saw my work.”

        The word out there was that this young man from Cincinnati had changed American design. He was self taught — starting in 1947 when the Cincinnati Art Museum hired him as its first designer. Graphic design wasn't taught in this country and the design community was mired in an industrial Art Deco rut. So he consulted books and magazines and the work of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and the Constructivists. The museum had a small print shop in the basement that became his laboratory as he prepared exhibition catalogs and brochures.

        His wonderfully pristine style led to a stable of clients, including The Atlantic Monthly, Champion Papers, Exxon Corp., Dreyfus Corp. and Federated Department Stores, to name a few. He continues to work for the museum and is designing the exhibition catalog for its Native American show.

        “Noel began with cubist paintings. He was heavily influenced by his friend and teacher at the art academy, Ralston Crawford,” Mr. Lusenhop says. “He continued down a path that got increasingly more abstract and finally non-objective — purely form and color.”

        On Mr. Martin's studio wall are the paste-up pages of a history of printing he is working on. Another wall is filled with souvenirs: a wasp nest, a Peruvian charm, a proof sheet of black and white photos and a small drawing. Obstructing the doorway and extending to the side are boxes filled with canvases — each a beautifully articulated abstract composition

        “I did a lot of these,” he says, smiling.

        Many are abstractions of nature: a tree from his yard, a cluster of plants. They are free, bold, simple and incredibly sustaining to view.

        Certainly a talented artist, Mr. Martin also is known as a teacher. After graduating from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1940 with time out for military duty in a camouflage battalion in the Army Air Force, he began to teach.

        “Noel's early CAC classes were eye-openers,” says Mr. McClanahan, who also is represented in the Weston show. “Shapes became reality rather than what they may have represented. It is the prime fundamental: form and content in balance. And there was the best jazz in the classroom, too, from Noel's take-out record player.”

        Margaret Newland Wenstrup

[photo] Maggie Wenstrup in her Pierce Township home
(Tony Jones photo)
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        “It wasn't until I got to Noel's class that I started working in abstraction,” Maggie Wenstrup says. “I felt inspired. He was a wonderful teacher, full of ideas.”

        Ms. Wenstrup, 72, sits inches from a tree brigade of red devils impaled on long wooden sticks. Her fantasy of a house situated in a wooden glen, over a bridge and past two gigantic stumps, is filled with the riches of her 30 years of collecting folk art. She's a blur in a white blouse and long black skirt, short checkered socks and clean white Keds. Her bangs swing over sparkling blue eyes; she is a generator of positive energy.

        “I collect mainly Kentucky artists, African American. Aren't these sweet?” she says, pointing to a bureau topped with a large population of carved and painted people. A moment later she whisks over to a windowsill where a grouping of miniature brown and white pottery from North Carolina stand in a row.

        “I couldn't bear for them to be broken up,” she says. “So I bought all of them.”

        Her precisionist paintings of geometric shapes are buried behind doors and in her studio, where her cut and twisted Naugahyde pieces shimmer in silver and the high contrast of black and white. Her current work that she sells through a gallery in Philadelphia seems to combine pop art geometrics with the folk art on her walls in a collaboration that may be described as op naive.

        “Maggie's work is repetition, surprises, rhythm, pattern-oriented,” says Mr. McClanahan. “Some of Maggie's paintings were precursors of the later Op-Art. Her enthusiasm and energy are formidable and that is translated through her work.”

        Ms. Wenstrup usually paints in her barn, but a bug bite has brought her inside. The cramped confines of her studio don't bother her a bit. Her cats curl around her ankles as she talks about the past.

        “I used to copy calendars 'cause I was from Kentucky and we didn't have an art teacher,” she says. “That was my beginning. Later I went to the art academy and was in a class with a lot of the veterans. Unfortunately, a lot of them were wounded in the head and didn't get into their painting.”

        “Maggie was probably the earliest Cincinnati artist to deal with very severe geometry,” Mr. Lusenhop says. “She studied with Crawford in the mid-1950s and began to work nonobjectively. She is in several national collections because of the quality of her work. She just sold a piece to Fidelity Investments in New York.”

Charles and Edith Harper

[photo] Charlie and Edie Harper
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        Charlie and Edie Harper (both 80) met the first day of school at the art academy.

        “We sat next to each other and liked each other pretty well,” Ms. Harper says.

        When Mr. Harper won the first Wilder Travel Scholarship, they used it for a honeymoon and traveled out west. They painted, she photographed and they “toodled” up a mountain road in Carmel, Calif., to meet photographer Edward Weston and all of his cats.

        “That was a highlight,” says Mr. Harper. “When we got home, it was 1945, I had a show of watercolors at Closson's.”

        “We went to look for a job together,” says his wife. “Isn't that stupid? We didn't do any good.”

        He got a job working as an illustrator for an agency and was quickly put to work on the Procter & Gamble account.

        “I decided to change the course of my life,” he says. “Because I couldn't stand drawing happy housewives. So I created a style for myself.”

   What: Cincinnati Modern: Art & Design at Mid-Century exhibit.
   When: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m Tuesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday (open late on Procter & Gamble Hall performance nights), through Aug. 31.
   Where: Weston Art Gallery at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, downtown.
   Suggested admission: $1.
   Information: 977-4165.
        According to Mr. Lusenhop, that style was utterly unique and it wasn't long before national magazines commissioned Mr. Harper's screen prints.

        “His was a definitive style — geometric abstractions primarily of animals,” Mr. Lusenhop says. “He became what he says is a nature artist, but with a completely different take. It was about an understanding of form and shape and the personalities of the animals.”

        “I'm a fur and feathers artist,” says Mr. Harper, laughing at the distinction. “That's frowned upon in art circles. I found you could draw anything with straights and curves. A lot of it was Mondrian's influence, too.”

        Ms. Harper calls her paintings “tongue in cheek religious paintings.” They are exactly as charming as they sound. One large canvas with a class of children standing in front of a church with a big stained glass window is called “Everybody Smile and Say Cheesus.”

        “There's one called "Palm Sunday,”' Mr. Harper says. “She didn't want to draw a donkey. They're hard to draw, so she made everybody looking down the street. It's called “Here He Comes.”

        Ms. Harper has favored photography over painting and continues to shoot. An untitled print in the Weston show is a striking abstract composition, painterly in black and white.

        “She is probably the most under-appreciated photographer in Cincinnati,” Mr. Lusenhop says. “Charlie's work received a lot of attention but in the case of the wives like Coletta or Edie, there were families to raise, there were practical reasons why they weren't able to show as much. Edie is only about 5 feet tall and she had this great German 8-by-10 camera she would haul around the city and set up these shots, sort of like Ansel Adams, on top of her car.”

        When Mr. Harper went to war, his wife was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers (“It became dullsville,” she says) to photograph their experiments with soil, concrete and airplanes.

        “That's why we won the war,” Mr. Harper says.

        Mr. Lusenhop is glad he had the chance to bring this generation of influential, yet often overlooked, artists to the forefront through his exhibition. Of course they are of this generation, too, as they continue to work and explore through abstraction.

        “They were the movers and shakers of the art world of the time,” Mr. Lusenhop says. “They had tremendous influence. If there's a short list of great Cincinnati artists, they're on it.”

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