Critical Essay

fig. 1

FAY LANSNER in American art history

The history of art is traditionally told through masterworks, but postmodern art theory expanded our awareness of artists who worked side by side with their more famous peers, shared their education and experience, but did not gain an equal measure of promotion, prominence, or even luck. Revisionism helps us retrieve the work of once celebrated artists like Fay Lansner who, during the period 1955 to 1965 participated in at least eighteen group shows in the New York area, and from 1965 to 1975, more than thirty exhibitions throughout the United States and in Paris. Her work was the subject of thirteen one woman exhibitions from 1951 to 1975.

When Fay began her art training at Tyler College of Temple University in 1945, American art was in the final years of an isolationist period that thrived between the World Wars. French art, which had dominated since the Impressionist era of the 1870s and 80s, had increasingly been seen as a threat to American identity. Painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Alexander Hogue were celebrated for their bucolic images of middle America. Conservative critics often praised their “solid” brushwork and “American Scene” imagery as a welcome departure from French impasto and atmospheric canvases. At Tyler, Fay encountered frustrating rigidity among professors who stressed copying the masters and drawing the basic compositional elements—the circle, the square, and the triangle—before they dealt with more challenging subjects. When she attended Columbia University she found an intellectual respite in famed art theorist Suzanne Langer’s class on the meaning of symbolism. But her art classes at Columbia reiterated Tyler’s traditional techniques. By the time she entered Hans Hofmann’s class in Provincetown during the summer of 1948, Fay had tired of these rote methods.

fig. 2

Hofmann, an established art teacher from Munich, was a vital link between modern European and American art worlds. During the period 1948–49 he introduced Fay and hundreds of her peers to essential Cubist principals in tandem with the most essential tool for any artist—the pursuit of the Self. One of Hofmann’s primary tenets was to trust intuition equally with intellect, a meaningful departure from Fay’s previous teachers’ impersonal remarks. Some of her charcoal sketches [fig. 1] show Hofmann’s drawn critique, revealing Fay’s direct exposure to Hofmann’s famous “push-pull” theory for solving with the essential modernist problem: how to render a three dimensional subject while acknowledging the two dimensional surface.

Fay also began to experiment with color in Hofmann’s class. Her abstract pastels from this period are particularly impressive. The vivid hues and lush texture show remarkable confidence and convey a powerful sense of color harmony. [fig. 2] Fay stated, “Pastel is an intimate medium. It is soft, but powerful.” [fig. 3]  As Hofmann’s students became the Abstract Expressionists, they helped to usher the international art capitol from Paris to New York. But Fay used Hofmann’s liberating lessons to establish a personal direction that she pursued even as Abstract Expressionism prevailed in the mainstream.

fig. 3

Fay and her husband, Kermit—then a philosophy student—lived in Paris during 1949–50, where they discovered Existentialism and Fay saw the work of French modernists first hand. This was a formative time that reinforced Fay’s burgeoning creative independence. She was particularly interested in Matisse and his use of flat, intense color defined by strong line, an influence to which she often referred during her long career. These experiences, in conjunction with Langer’s teachings, provided Fay with a solid foundation in figuration and symbolism during a time when such references to the tangible world were often considered passé in New York.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, reference to the figure or other representational imagery denoted an allegiance to Europe, where the human figure was the standard by which ancient architecture was measured and religious lessons were expressed for centuries. The Abstract Expressionists sought to remove themselves from history and material manifestations of the world in order to acquire direct access to the raw immediacy of the creative force. Though most mid-century American abstractionists, such as Barnet Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Irene Rice Pereira, used landscape as a reference for scale and depth, Hofmann encouraged his students to explore the figure as a locus for the exploration of spatial dynamics. Fay employed the female figure to make drawings and paintings that examined both her personal identity and universal verities. With her interest in the Existential self, her exposure to art history, and her need to understand her own psychology, it was natural for Fay to anchor her work in the feminine form.

fig. 4 - Past, Present, Future

After their return from Paris in 1950, Fay and Kermit settled in New York City, where Fay quickly became affiliated with many of the nascent New York School of artists. She joined two cooperative galleries, first the Hansa Gallery in the mid-town area, and then The Club in Greenwich Village. She began to exhibit regularly, at these shared spaces and at many commercial galleries. Catalogues and checklists from this period indicate that she first showed abstract work, pastels, and charcoal drawings. But by 1951 she was offering her trademark female nudes and intense colors. During this period, the Lansners began to rent summer cottages in The Springs on Long Island. Eventually, they purchased a house in the village of Bridgehampton where Fay quickly became friends with neighboring artists—including Larry Rivers, Esteban Vicente, Stanley Boxer, and Miriam Shapiro—many of whom she remained close to for the rest of her life.

One of the most consistent themes in Fay’s artwork is images of female figures in sequence that represent simultaneous or metamorphic states of being. In this regard, Fay was specifically inspired by film. She sought to capture cinema’s movement, and the encapsulated energy of each film frame. “I was very excited about the way film moves from frame to frame. That gave me the idea of the multiple image.” Fay returned to this trop often as a vehicle for autobiography. A painting such as her Past Present, Future [fig. 4] of 1962 treats each of three standing figures in distinct styles and palettes, as though she is rendering the various stages of life, or perhaps three of many moods. “In the pictures of the 1950s, I was trying to show the oppositions on the same canvas; the opposition of life and death, hope and fear, dark and light.”

fig. 5 - Cadavre Exquis

Another of Fay’s innovations is her “broken brush” application of pigment. During the 1960s, works such as Cadavre Exquis [fig. 5], a pastel on paper, shows staccato strokes of color rapidly moving across the page to create four female figures that emerge from contrasting tonalities of vivid color. This technique can also be seen in the large oil on canvas, Figure Landscape of 1963 [fig. 6], where short applications of bright color fill the space that envelops a reclining female nude. Unlike many of her fellow artists, such as Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Adolph Gottlieb, who reduced their palettes to non-emotive neutral blacks, browns, and some mid-range ochres and siennas, Fay reveled in high-keyed, Fauvist color. In 1961, the critic Vivian Raynor referred to Fay’s palette: “When she uses color…Ms. Lansner does so with savagery.”

In the 1970s the Feminist Movement motivated many artists to join forces for the cause. Fay was an active participant and a founder of the activist group, Women in the Arts. She tirelessly organized exhibitions, wrote letters, attended meetings, and generously lent her work. But it seems she was just as interested in befriending her fellow members as in promoting her work as an emblem of the movement. While her subject matter has obvious allegiances to feminism, Fay had been painting and drawing the female form for decades prior to the advent of the women’s movement. And though she championed feminist objectives, she held a broader view of her career. “If one addresses oneself only to a feminist view, one limits one’s audience, one limits one’s definitions, and I couldn’t work like that.”

fig. 6 - Figure Landscape

In later years, Fay continued to work in her Long Island studio as well as in her New York apartment. The natural environment in Bridgehampton inspired her to create a large group of vibrant, large-scale floral still lives that manifest her credo, “What I would like to communicate primarily, is a sense of great vitality.” During the 1980s she made a series of compelling charcoal portraits of formidable women, including Georges Sand, Colette, Sarah Bernhardt, and Gwen John. And she translated four of her paintings into large-scale tapestries executed by weavers in Aubusson, France.

There seems never to have been a lull in Fay’s prolific fifty-year career. She seems never to have lost her youthful energy and curiosity. Whether Fay was drawing, painting, using pastels, or designing tapestries, she communicated personal feelings that resonate on a universal level. She remained passionate about her work and about the fundamental idea she relentlessly conveyed: the complexity of the human psyche. As Fay once said: “When it all comes together, intelligence, intuition, tradition, the past, the present, the future, hallelujah!”

—Daphne Anderson Deeds