Published: December 24, 2001
Marguerite and William Zorach:
By Stephen May
PORTLAND, ME. – Emerging from widely different backgrounds, Marguerite and William Zorach formed arguably the most highly symbiotic, creative partnership of any couple in American art history. Working closely together, each gained early national reputations as modernist painters, after which Marguerite pioneered in creating much-admired embroidered tapestries and William excelled as one of American’s first direct-carving sculptors. Their trail-blazing accomplishments in these fields tended to over shadow her continuing work in oil painting and his in watercolor.
“Marguerite & William Zorach: .” It is on view through January 6. Organized by Jessica Nicoll, the museum’s chief curator, it comprises over 100 paintings, watercolors, prints, tapestries and sculptures that illuminate the unique contributions of the Zorachs to a dynamic period in our art history.
The exhibition catalogue is informative and contains good reproductions and vintage photographs. The essays were written by Nicoll and Zorach authority Roberta K. Tarbell. The 117-page volume, published by the Portland Museum and selling for $24.95, will be a handsome addition to the bookshelves of art lovers.
The union of the two artists came about through decidedly different routes. Marguerite Thompson (1887-1968), born into a wealthy California WASP family, was tutored at home in languages and music. She showed an early aptitude for drawing, and had just begun classes at Stanford University in 1908, when she accepted an invitation from an aunt to live with her in Paris.
In four years in the City of Light, Marguerite met Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein and was exposed to modernist art forms, especially the brilliant colors of the Fauves and the fractured forms of the Cubists. Most influential of all, according to Tarbell, was the work of avant-garde leader Henri Matisse.
By the time the Zorachs met in a Paris art class, Marguerite had absorbed the feisty vocabulary of modernism that emphasized spontaneity, pure and often distorted colors and disjointed forms, and had incorporated it into her work.
The eighth of ten children born into a Jewish family in Lithuania (then part of Czarist Russia), William (1889-1966) moved to Ohio as a child and grew up in Cleveland. His father scraped out a living as a peddler and junk dealer. Capitalizing on his artistic talent, William dropped out of school to study lithography and took art lessons on the side.
When he had saved enough money, he journeyed to Paris in 1910, intending to further his academic training as a painter. Instead, while attending a progressive art school, William met his future wife and was introduced to modernist art.
Up to this time he had been turning out somber academic canvases. He was bowled over by this first exposure to the avant-garde. “The forces creating modern art seemed more alive,” he later wrote, “than anything I had known or anything being done in America.”
As their friendship grew, Marguerite exposed William to the work of such avant-garde titans as Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and the Fauves. They experimented together with the bold new styles, eventually blending Fauvist colors and stylized Cubist forms, along with ideas gleaned from Matisse’s manner, into their own, idiosyncratic images.
In 1912, over her family’s objections, they married in Manhattan and began a bohemian existence, first in Greenwich Village and later in Brooklyn. To satisfy their passionate affinity for nature, they spent each summer in the countryside. They relished the city’s stimulating artistic community, but wanted proximity to rural, natural beauty in warm weather. They sketched wherever they were, and painted, as William put it, “wild pictures from imagination.”
Both Zorachs exhibited works at the Armory Show of 1913, the landmark display that introduced European modernism to the US. They were active in several independent art organizations that championed international avant-garde art and aesthetics, and showed in various galleries in these early years.
Even as their reputation as practitioners of new styles grew, however, they struggled financially. “We were among the advanced artists of that time,” William later recalled, “and our paintings seemed really crazy to the public and to the critics.”
For about a decade the Zorachs summered at inexpensive retreats ranging from the New York suburbs to New Hampshire, Provincetown and Yosemite National Park in California. In 1919, responding to an ad in the New York Times, they rented a summer cottage in picturesque Stonington, Me. They saw much of John Marin, who stimulated William’s sustained interest in watercolors.
In 1922, the Zorachs were introduced to mid-coast Maine, specifically Georgetown, south of Bath, by sculptor Gaston Lachaise and his wife Isabel, who already had a place there. The next year the Zorachs purchased a Nineteenth Century house and 100 acres on Georgetown’s Robinhood Cove. They spent summers there for the rest of their lives.
Today, their handsome old house, with stunning views down a broad lawn to the cove, is occupied by their daughter-in-law, Peggy, widow of Tessim Zorach. The interior is decorated with Marguerite’s stenciled wall designs and murals. Artworks by both Zorachs, including paintings, watercolors and sculpture, are everywhere.
Williams’ small wooden studio, an old shed he bought from a local road commissioner and moved next to the house, remains intact, filled with his sculpting tools and small pieces of work. Other sculptures dot the grounds, interspersed with flower plots.
A bronze caste of William’s famous “Spirit of the Dance,” an aluminum version of which graces New York’s Radio City Music Hall, is silhouetted dramatically amidst fir trees on a ledge overlooking Robinhood Cove. As was often the case, this large work was the result of a collaborative effort by the Zorachs. William relied on his wife’s mastery of design to produce the preliminary sketch upon which the sculpture was based. “Marguerite had an unusual and refined talent for executing flat, patterned designs and William for creating them with a third dimension,” writes Tarbell in her catalogue essay.
The couple’s styles and subject matter were so closely aligned at the outset of their careers that it is difficult to distinguish that among early, idealized rural scenes, Marguerite painted “The Garden” (1914) and William “Plowing the Fields” (1917). Each features vibrant colors, simplified forms and flattened perspectives. During summers in Provincetown, each utilized fragmented Cubist forms to bring energy and movement to paintings such as Marguerite’s “Provincetown, Sunset and Moonrise” (1916) and William’s “Mirage – Ships at Night” (1919).
When the birth of son Tessim in 1915 and daughter Dahlov in 1917 made it difficult for Marguerite to find uninterrupted time for oil painting, she took up decorative textiles, which she could pick up and put down as time permitted. Marguerite’s endearing painting of their tiny daughter and the family’s majestic black nanny, “Ellen Madison and Dahlov” (1918) was one of her last works in oil for some time.
Intrigued by the brilliant hues and range of colors available in woolen yarns and the aesthetic design potential of embroidered tapestries, Marguerite created bold landscapes and cozy family scenes that gained critical acclaim and provided much-needed income for the family. They became, said her husband, “an art form of their own unlike anything ever done before.” Many introduced avant-garde motifs into needlework and textile designs.
The couple collaborated so closely on an early tapestry, “Maine Islands” (1919) that “the hand of one artist [is] hardly distinguishable from the other in the finished work,” observes Tarbell. A panoramic view of a cluster of islands with land masses at either end, dotted with smoothly stylized figures reminiscent of William’s sculptures, this work probably represents a view of Penobscot Bay from their summer cottage in Stonington.
A high point of the Portland exhibition is “The Ipcar Family at Robinhood Farm” (1944), a brightly colored, lively depiction of daughter Dahlov, her husband Adolph Ipcar, and their two children in the kitchen of their Maine farmhouse. While such “tapestry paintings,” as Marguerite called them, raised such pieces to the level of fine art, for years she was marginalized by the art establishment, labeled a mere craftsperson doing “women’s work.”
By 1922, William had concluded that three-dimensional art responded better to the human values and emotions he wanted to convey in his work. He gave up oil painting to devote himself to sculpture. As he put it, he rejected paint for the “greater sense of immediacy afforded by stone, bronze and wood.” Self-taught, he started out whittling modest forms out of pieces of wood. Soon, intrigued by the qualities inherent in larger blocks of stone and wood, he began to carve works directly out of each material.
Up to this time, most sculptors modeled their designs in clay or plaster, which were then replicated in marble or cast in bronze by the sculptor or skilled artisans. Direct carving, in which the sculptor himself shapes wood or stone with a chisel or mallet, allows the characteristics of the material – its color, grain and shape – to help define the forms and guide evolution of the design.
Preceded in this country only by French émigré Robert Laurent, who worked in Ogunquit, Me., William pioneered in direct carving. His works, writings and teaching stimulated significant changes in the aesthetic philosophy and techniques of American sculptors.
“The simple, compact forms that are a natural result of directly carving hard stone appealed to a burgeoning school of American sculptors,” writes Tarbell. As a result, “direct carving was dominant technique used by American sculptors during the 1930s and 40s.” Along the way, William Zorach became one of the nation’s best-known sculptors.
William enjoyed this laborious process, relishing the manner in which the particular qualities of the stone or wood dictated the shapes of finished pieces. In Maine, he sought out interesting stones, especially unquarried glacial boulders, for use in carving projects.
“They are full of exciting surprises in color and texture,” he noted. “I visualize a head or an animal in the stone and start roughing it out and developing the form that emerges as I chip away the superfluous stone, revealing the form within the rock. This is a measure of the artist’s sensitivity to what is being revealed.”
As his style and technique evolved, William’s sculptured figures became more rounded, volumetric and monumental. The influence of Cubism in particular and modernism in general receded as he responded to other artistic sources. “I owe most,” he said, “to the great periods of primitive carving in the past – not to the modern or to the classical Greeks, but to the Africans, the Persians, the Mesopotamians, the archaic Greeks and of course to the Egyptians.” His appreciation of American folk art and the grandiose forms sculpted by his Georgetown neighbor, Lachaise, also influenced Zorach’s three-dimensional oeuvre.
William’s simplified pieces often focuses on the theme of mothers and infants, as did his wife’s art. Both Zorachs drew on the world around them for inspiration: family, children, love, animals and nature. Marguerite’s “Girl with Cat (Dahlov and Tooky),” a 1930 oil, depicts her teenaged daughter with the family feline in an interesting composition.
William’s “Mother and Child” 91922), a touching mahogany evocation of an embracing mother and infant, and “New Horizon’s” (1951), a bronze inspired by spotting his daughter-in-law Peggy Zorach sitting on a Maine beach with one of her young sons lying across her knees, reflect his mastery of subject and medium.
By Tarbell’s count, Zorach created some 475 works of sculpture during his career. About half were carved of stone or wood and half were modeled in clay for casting in bronze or plaster. “He employed both techniques almost every year from 1917 to 1966,” observes Tarbell, “favoring modeling for large compositions and carving for his more personal works.”
Some of his most appealing pieces are informal portraits of cats, dogs, rabbits, fowl, frogs and fish, whom he observed around his Maine home. In “Reclining Cat” (1934-35) and “Seated Cat” (1937) Zorach adapted the texture of granite boulders to the contours of sinuous felines.
Although he stopped oil painting after 1922, William continued as a vigorous watercolorist for the rest of his life. His evocative Maine watercolors, often inspired by recognizable mid-coast sites, such as “Beach at Bay Point” (1946), are animated by brilliant color and spontaneous execution.
Watercolors permitted him to work quickly and to express immediate responses to nature, while offering a break from the slow process of carving stone and wood. “Their spontaneity,” he said of his watercolors, “gives me a certain release and satisfies my love of color.”
Marguerite, ever the versatile artist, created outstanding tapestries, watercolors and, off and on, oil paintings. Her oils of the scenery around Georgetown, notably the memorably colorful “The Woolwich Marshes” (circa 1935) and “Clambake” (circa 1945) verge on the spectacular. They reflect her keen sense of design, flattened perspectives, simplified forms and brilliant hues. Both are in the collection of the Portland Museum.
Marguerite’s affection for New England, its stalwart people and enduring traditions are suggested in early, panoramic paintings like “A New England Family” (1917-18) and the powerful “Guy Lowe – The Last Lowe of Loew’s Point, Maine” (1928). These are grand, compelling images.
As her children matured, Marguerite found time for large Cubist paintings, highlighted by the enigmatic “Diana of the Sea” (1930). Measuring a substantial 44 by 34 inches, this potent canvas is a treasure of the Portland Museum’s collection. Diana’s chiseled physiognomy is echoed in William’s “Bathing Girl” (1930), carved out of Borneo mahogany.
Early on the Zorachs worked in tandem on tapestries and developed paintings, watercolors and sculptures based on designs created by each other, but as time went on they increasingly did their own thing. “As….[the Zorachs] merged as individual artists with distinct identities, their symbiotic artistic relationship evolved into one that was still mutually supportive, but less interdependent,” observes curator Nicoll. “They forged a rare partnership that allowed them each to hone a unique artistic voice.”
In their lifetimes – they died within two years of each other, in 1966 and 1968 – William became the more famous, primarily because of the prominence of his commissioned sculptures for public places. His lectures and writings also helped keep him in the public eye. His autobiography, Art is My Life (1967) remains a fascinating description of his career and art, and his Zorach Explains Sculpture (1947) is still in print.
In 1943, the New York World Telegram called William “the best-known of all living American sculptors.” Just after his death, Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times that “at times his reputation prospered to the point of quite dominating the sculpture scene in this country.”
Marguerite, unconcerned that critics denigrated needlework, produced incessantly out of a love of creating. “She felt that whatever you put you hand to was a work of art,” says daughter Dahlov Ipcar. “She worked all the time, but out of enthusiasm and love of the job, not out of drudgery or compulsion.”
The comprehensive, appealing Portland exhibition properly highlights the elaborate tapestries for which Marguerite became best known and the directly carved sculptures that made William famous. It also offers ample examples of their significant accomplishments in paintings and watercolors. In the long run, the gifted Zorachs seemed destined to be remembered for their achievements in all of these mediums.
Over three decades after their deaths, it is clear that the Zorachs were, in many ways, the model artistic couple, inspiring and stimulating each other to do their best work. “For 55 years,” writes Tarbell, they “informed their oeuvres, their lives and their families with their unusual and deep partnership.”
Detailing the diverse achievements that emerged from their synergistic union, this welcome exhibition strengthens the standing of Marguerite and William Zorach as enduring, major figures in Twentieth Century American art.
The Portland Museum’s concurrent show of daughter Dahlov Ipcar’s delightful, color-saturated, collage-style paintings of jungle and farm animals amidst fanciful scenes of nature, documents the significant extent to which the Zorach genius is shared by this multi-talented offspring. A writer and illustrator, as well as exuberant painter, she has authored and illustrated many much-beloved children’s books, as well as four novels.
Growing up around her gifted and innovative parents, Ipcar show early artistic promise, with animals her favorite subject. She studied at progressive schools in New York and briefly at Oberlin College, before marrying Adolph Ipcar when she was 18.
Soon after, they acquired the large Cape Cod house near the Zorach homestead on Robinhood Cove in Maine, where they live to this day. Still going strong at 84, Dahlov Ipcar’s home studio is filled with recently completed and colorful works-in-progress.
“Seven Decades of Creativity,” the first major retrospective of Ipcar’s work, traces her development from early, realistic images of rural life, like “Ice Harvest” (1938) and “Cream Separator” (1945), to her fantastic, complex views of animals in sharp-edged, decorative landscapes.
“Blue Savanna” (1978), for example, shows giraffes, leopards, zebras and other animated animals prancing across a fragmented jungle background. “Sable Nyika” (1988) is a wonderfully colorful depiction of graceful jungle animals gliding across a fantastic landscape. These works have, as Ipcar puts it, “a prismatic dimension that is outside the usual three-dimensional universe.”
She does wonderful things with cloth. “Saint George and the Dragon” (1970) is one of a number of soft sculptures Ipcar has created over the years.
During a visit in her large studio a few years ago, Ipcar was working on canvases of large circles featuring kaleidoscopic views of flora and fauna of various regions of the world. Examples such as “South American Circle” (1998) and “World Wide Circle” (1998) are standouts in the current display.
Book-signings and television interviews, along with reviews of the exhibition, have reminded a broad audience of the grand art of this somewhat underappreciated artist. It is good to see this gifted artist receive her days in the sun, albeit inevitably shared with her famous parents.
The Ipcar exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue containing an interesting memoir by the artist, plus reproductions and photographs. Equally as attractive as the Zorach catalogue, the 60-page book, also published by the Portland Museum, is priced at $18.95.
The Zorach and Ipcar volumes, housed in a special sleeve, can be purchased for $49.95. They will be treasured by old and young alike.
Ipcar is probably right when she says “There are no other artists…who are painting the way I do now.” This eye-popping, appealing display, bolstered by the fine catalogue, confirms that Dahlov Ipcar is one of our more interesting contemporary artists. The exhibition continues through January 27, 2002.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square in the heart of the city. For information, 207-775-6148.
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