As the teenage daughter of Russian Jewish emigrés to Philadelphia, Fay Gross began to realize that her home was unlike those of her friends. Their families did not hold lengthy discussions about Socialism and classical music, nor did they speak Russian and Yiddish. This recognition of feeling “different” contributed to Fay’s lifelong interest in the dualities of life and art and her fundamental understanding of the interior life so essential to an artist.
Fay Gross Lansner was born in 1921 to Rachel Skorodok and Meyer Gross. Rachel was from the town of Proskurov in tsarist Russia. She graduated from the Gymnasium and applied her studies to teaching peasants to read and write. In 1920 Rachel immigrated to America to marry her childhood friend, Meyer Gross, who had escaped the Russian draft by crossing Siberia to Japan, finally settling in Philadelphia. The Gross home was a center of lively discourse about progressive politics with extended family and friends. Though Fay’s parents had little interest in the visual arts, her father regularly took his children to the Philadelphia Public Library to listen to recordings of the great symphonies and, sometimes—to Fay’s delight—to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, or the Barnes Collection.
Fay’s first foray into the professional art world was as a student of fashion design at Wannamaker’s Institute in Philadelphia. Her extant illustrations for fashion advertisements are both precise and charming. They reveal an impressive confidence in the use of line and a precocious command of the figure. But Fay was restless in this commercial world and, in 1945, transferred to the Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University. Classes at Tyler entailed traditional studies of basic structural forms—the square, the circle, and the triangle—and Fay was soon bored. She longed to be part of the “real” art world. In 1947 she moved to New York to attend Columbia University and she also enrolled in the Art Students League. This was a heady year that included a course taught by the illustrious art theorist Susanne Langer at Columbia—who shared her ground-breaking work on symbolism with her students—and an extracurricular drawing class conducted by Vaclav Vytlacil, a former student of Hans Hofmann. When not in class, Fay took the opportunity to visit all of the New York galleries and museums.
In 1948, Fay met and married Kermit Lansner, a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia. Soon Kermit secured a teaching position at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio where the couple lived in 1948 and 1949. Many remember these particular years at Kenyon as remarkably inspiring because the English Department summer school attracted literary luminaries such as Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, and Meyer Schapiro. This exciting atmosphere of new ideas, and contemporary literature surely made Fay even more eager to realize her desire to become an artist.
During the summer of 1948, Fay attended Hans Hofmann’s popular drawing class in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She continued to study with him during 1949 in New York City with fellow students Jan Muller, Wolf Kahn, Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan. Hofmann was the first art teacher to focus on the creative process rather than rote copying of masterworks or repetitive studies of geometric forms. For Fay, this was a revelatory departure from the stuffy technical studies at Tyler and Columbia. Hofmann emphasized intuition as a guiding creative force, and he made frequent reference to the intellectual properties of Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and other twentieth-century art developments. Fay found her new creative “home” in Hofmann’s instruction because he stressed the need for artists to balance the intuitive with the intellectual. This duality mirrored her early experience of bridging her eccentric family life and the larger society of Philadelphia, and affirmed her artistic tendency toward sequential imagery.
In 1950, Kermit received a two-year Fulbright Scholarship to study the philosopher Merleau-Ponty in Paris, and Fay embraced the chance to see the origins of modernism first hand. The couple lived on Rue Bonaparte, near café Deux Mag0ts, where Jean-Paul Sartre held court with his students almost daily. While living in Paris, Fay studied first with Fernand Leger and then with Andre Lhộte, but she found both teachers too rigid. More meaningful to her were discussions with Kermit about Existentialism and direct exposure to Matisse’s flat surfaces and strong lines. These influences, along with Hofmann’s liberating teaching style, were seminal contributions to Fay’s lifelong objective: “to render the subjective in an objective way.”
When the Lansners returned to New York in 1951, Fay was thrust into the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Armed with her exposure to European art history and Hofmann’s lessons, Fay quickly became affiliated with her American peers, including Willem DeKooning, Joan Mitchell, and Franz Kline. She was briefly a member of the Artists’ Club, but felt relegated by the founding male leaders. Soon she joined Hansa, one of the first cooperative galleries that had begun to proliferate in Greenwich Village and the lower midtown area. Fay’s first American exhibition was held at Hansa in 1954. Other Hansa members included Allan Kaprow, Jane Wilson, and Wolf Kahn.
During this same period, the Lansners began to spend summers on Long Island. After renting houses in The Springs, a village soon to be made famous by Jackson Pollock, they purchased a farmhouse in Bridgehampton. Fay flourished in this relaxed and supportive environment. The Lansners made many lifelong friends there and frequently hosted art world neighbors such as Larry Rivers, Perl Fine, Audrey Flack, and critic Harold Rosenberg.
The Lansners’ first daughter, Gabrielle, was born in 1956. Erica was born in 1958. Thus began Fay’s own simultaneous identity. Like one of her paintings, she was now mother, wife, and artist. And like her multifaceted figurative tableaux, she effectively combined all these roles. Her daughters recount memories of Fay’s artist friends at their apartment, and they recall their mother surrounded by art materials and the many paintings and drawings she worked on simultaneously. Contemporaneous documents refer to Fay as vivacious, passionate, and determined.
In the 1970s, Fay was often identified as a feminist artist. While it is true that she supported the women’s art cause and that she was a founding member of the Women in the Arts—a group that memorably demonstrated against the Museum of Modern Art’s discriminatory preference for male artists—Fay’s work does not represent feminism as much as it does humanism. Her focus on the female form was a departure for larger ideas like simultaneity, the evolution of the spirit, and the reverence for the figure that began in ancient Greece and was codified during the Renaissance. She willingly allowed her work to be an emblem for feminism, but her mind was not limited by any political agenda.
In spite of her impressive record of more than 60 exhibitions, today Fay Lansner’s name may be known to art historians who study mid-twentieth century American art, but it is also a name often omitted from the retrospective view of galleries and museums today. Perhaps this is because, stylistically, Fay did not adhere to the abstract expressionist precepts that dominated the 1950s and 60s. Though figurative imagery was eschewed by mid-century modernists, Fay pursued a personal aesthetic that grew out of her study of the female form.
Even a cursory review of the foremost art publications during Fay’s most productive years includes frequent mention and often extensive coverage of her work. Fay’s artistic legacy is one of a strong artist, a woman strong enough to remain true to her own principles throughout her long and prolific career.
—Daphne Anderson Deeds