The Colors of Carnival: Kohlmeyer in top form
By Chris Waddington, NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE
Ida Kohlmeyer was a fine golfer and a 37-year-old mother of two with a businessman for a husband when she began studying art at Newcomb College in the 1950s.
“I suppose I looked like a perfect dilettante,” Kohlmeyer said, laughing as she walked amid the stacks of abstract canvases and monumental sculptures that fill her Metairie studio today. “Still, I think it’s hideous to see people give up living the life they want, to blame middle age or children and settle for much less than they are capable of.”
Four decades after her late start, the 82-year-old artist is one of the few locals with a national reputation, her work enshrined in museums from New York’s Metropolitan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She still works seven days a week, filling commissions and gallery walls around the United States and abroad. And she hasn’t neglected her hometown: a current exhibit of paintings and sculptures brings a dose of color and bold calligraphy to the big front room of Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St.
The new work has all the virtues viewers have come to expect from Kohlmeyer since she found her mature, abstract style in the early 1970s. In these paintings one encounters floating ranks of emblems and scribbled marks that suggest a private alphabet; a direct emotional transcript that is all her own yet also an extension of the “automatic writing” techniques of the Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists of her generation. Her sculptures bring this same feeling to the third dimension, underscoring the totemic power that lurks even in her quickest painted gesture. And in both mediums, Kohlmeyer’s hot, New Orleans palette is as local as she is. Her work radiates all the joy and clashing dissonance of Carnival; and like Carnival it draws upon a deep, instinctual knowledge of life’s dark side.
In the last year, Kohlmeyer’s own life has been darker, with an eye injury that required 6½ hours of surgery and a recovery of many months. The new exhibit testifies to her recovery — and a new seriousness. Though no one could mistake these large-scale, spontaneous pieces for the work of a brooding invalid, still the dark outlines of her symbols and more liberal application of impasto paint suggest an emotional fervor not always present in the stained surfaces and drifting imagery of her earlier pieces.
Kohlmeyer describes things more simply: “My work is about my inner spirit. It’s about love and gratitude reduced to an essence of color and form.”
In Composition 94-30, Ida Kohlmeyer draws on her New Orleans roots, using hot colors that recall the dissonant palette of Carnival
Inspiring by example
“For me aging has been a process of growth and expansion. I keep making new friends and new paintings,” Kohlmeyer said.
Such continuing growth has held the attention of artists and curators around the country.
“I meet many young artists — especially young artists — especially women — who carry around Ida Kohlmeyer catalogs,” said Jane Kessler, an independent curator from North Carolina who organized the artist’s nationally touring museum exhibit a decade ago. “She outgrew the early influence of Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko and other important artists she met in the ’50s, taking the substance of what she learned to create something truly original.
“To study a long career like hers reminds one that it takes perseverance and struggle to give depth to an artist’s work. You don’t get that without spending the time and having the discipline of a life commitment. It’s a at such work,” Kessler said
To painter Pat Trivigno — once her teacher at Newcomb — Kohlmeyer always seemed marked by promise. “She was a voracious student, with a passion for painting and a professional’s instinct for the business side of art. There was never an issue for her of being held back because of being a woman,” he said.
Over the years the two artists have continued to meet, developing a deep friendship. “She’s as much my teacher now as I ever was for her. It moves me to see her tremendous will, her desire to be expressive and find herself,” Trivigno said.
Her will also touched many younger artists in the course of a decade of teaching at both Newcomb and the University of New Orleans. Margaret Wirstrom, another New Orleans painter who started her career after having children, recalls Kohlmeyer’s support when the illness of a child almost forced her to drop out of art school in the early 1970s.
“Ida talked me through that crisis. She called me at home, and offered to help find the right doctors, to arrange everything to keep me in school through that semester. I wouldn’t have stayed — and might not have gone back — if it hadn’t been for her support,” Wirstrom said. “Perhaps her own experience as a mother let her understand. She never set herself up as a role model for women — she’s not into that separatist thing — but her success was inspiring.”
Wirstrom also recalled Kohlmeyer’s key role in nurturing the nascent art scene of New Orleans. “She was a great example for all of us — working at the Contemporary Arts Center, always visible at openings, almost militant in her insistence that art be taken seriously in New Orleans. She helped make this a town for professional artists.”
In the studio
These days Kohlmeyer has given up most of her public life to concentrate on her art. Just a step away from the art-filled home she shares with her husband, Hugh, Kohlmeyer maintains a studio where she works with two studio assistants and a daughter who handles day-to-day business.
To get there, a visitor goes through the house — a crowded gallery full of modern art and hundreds of African and Pre-Columbian works. “I need to have this stuff around,” Kohlmeyer said, gesturing at shelves full of African sculpture. “Still, I can’t say how it plays out in my art. It’s a bit like my garden. I love roses and have collected over 200 varieties, but I’d be fibbing if I said I walked from the garden to the studio inspired to paint.”
The studio is more orderly than the house: a white-walled factory for art that reminds the visitor that an art of spontaneity requires patience, organization and discipline. Paintings-in-progress are carefully stacked to one side: new pieces and canvases that have waited eight or 10 years for completion.
“I’m at my best now. I’m finding that I can go back to old pieces, see the problems that kept me from finishing them, bring them to their highest possible state of completion,” Kohlmeyer said.
In effect, her oeuvre is growing at both ends, and the results of this productivity are plain to see: The studio holds another exhibit’s worth of paintings readied for a pair of upcoming shows.
A separate room holds huge abstract sculptures in various stages of completion. Elsewhere one finds the models for “The Krewe of Poydras” and Kohlmeyer’s Aquarium columns — arguably the finest public works in the CBD. On the vast wall that she uses in place of an easel, a single small canvas hangs beside a table piled with paint tubes and hundreds of brushes. The floor below shows the wear from decades of dripping paint and regular scraping. Shelves climb another wall, bearing ranks of metal containers, each dated, each packed with slides of a given year’s art.
With a proud smile, Kohlmeyer picked up one box and opened it: “You see, I really am a hard worker,” she said.