by D. Eric Bookhardt, GAMBIT WEEKLY
What: Ida Kohlmeyer: Last Works
Where: Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St., 522-1999
When: Saturday (opening reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.) through Dec. 27
Ida Kohlmeyer would have turned 85 this month. She was arguably the best-known female artist in the South, and her death early this year came as a shock because, in spite of her age, her presence in the art community seemed timeless, unquestioned, a given. One of this city’s select few modem art pioneers, she was such an integral part of the local art scene over the last half-century or so that it seemed almost impossible to imagine her absence. She was, in a word, an institution, and like so many of New Orleans’ most creative institutions, she was almost taken for granted in her own hometown. Almost, but not quite.
The demand for her work has been about as constant as her legendary productivity and shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Her paintings and sculptures reside in museums, galleries and collections all over the world. While this city has produced its fair share of successful artists, Ida Kohlmeyer was one of only a handful of successful female artists of her generation in America. And therein lies a mystery, or, at the least, a mystique.
It sounds incongruous to say that Ida was both an acclaimed modern artist and a respectable Metairie homemaker — but so she was, although she somehow managed to play those roles without really being defined by them. Hence the mystery; although the art can never really be separated from the artist, Ida’s vision was unusually self-contained, offering relatively little insight into the creator behind the creation. This seems doubly paradoxical because she was such a well-known presence. Indeed, Ida was so closely identified with the rise of modern art in this city that we tend to forget she was a middle-aged housewife before she ever picked up a paintbrush. A daughter of Polish immigrants who came to New Orleans in 1900, she studied English literature at Newcomb College and in 1934 married businessman Hugh Kohlmeyer. They were on their honeymoon in Mexico when she discovered the colorful ceramic folk art that became a lifelong source of inspiration. But she did not begin painting until 1950, when she finally enrolled at Newcomb for a second time. What followed was the familiar, if unlikely odyssey of Ida Kohlmeyer the artist.
Of course, it is not unusual for middle-aged folk of either sex to take up art as a hobby, but Ida was serious about it. So serious that she soon moved from her original realistic style to the abstract expressionism that was sweeping New York at the time. And if some people dismissed or even ridiculed it, abstract expressionism eventually took the nation and the world by storm. Along with jet planes, skyscrapers and miniskirts, abstract art became one of the defining symbols of 20th century American life.
Interestingly, abstraction in New York had been sparked by an influx of foreign artists fleeing tyranny and economic chaos in Europe — the same forces that drove Ida’s own family from Poland several decades before. Of those aesthetic émigrés, none was more influential than Hans Hoffman, with whom Ida studied in the 1950s and whose work now hangs with hers at Arthur Roger.
As a teacher and mentor to the great ones, Hoffman is considered the godfather of American modernism. But it was one of his younger protégés, Mark Rothko, the gloomy sage of the New York School, who somehow ended up teaching at Tulane in New Orleans. There he remained as gloomy as ever (he eventually killed himself), but he did leave a lasting impact on Ida Kohlmeyer, whose work revealed his influence for many years thereafter.
Abstract expressionism was a big deal because it was bold, oddly sensual and outrageous enough to epitomize 1950s America. But times change, and by the 1960s, modern art began undergoing an identity crisis from which it has never fully recovered. Of course, every crisis – has a flip side, and in the artistic anarchy of the age, Ida was free to pursue her own vision, wherever it might take her. This she did successfully and in her own way. That entailed a return to her early inspiration — to the vision of the young woman who had been fascinated by colorful folk art while honeymooning in Mexico.
From the late 1970s to the present, she elaborated on the look that is considered her hallmark today, a playful display of organic forms and dazzlingly bright colors in near-pictographic arrangements. Despite its almost childlike playfulness, her work comes across as modem because it is all so sleekly and precisely stylized. It is the look that has been her trademark for the past two decades and which reached its muted final summation in work now on view at Arthur Roger.
Almost forgotten is the brief middle period that led up to all this, a series of paintings and painted constructions that featured stylized floral forms that were strikingly suggestive of intimate female anatomy. In fact, they were a lot like the work exhibited several years later by Judy Chicago in her flamboyant feminist art expos. Only, when Judy Chicago showed her stuff, a firestorm of controversy and accusations of pornography erupted. But perhaps because it was laissez faire New Orleans — or perhaps because she was such a lady — nothing like that ever happened when Ida’s similarly suggestive work was shown here in the late 1960s.
But that is how she was: the outer facade was always smooth and polished no matter what happened along the way. And such was the essence of her mystique. The more she endured — through the loss of friends, loved ones and finally even her husband and much of her eyesight — the mellower and more buoyant her work became. It was Ida’s way of delighting in life itself, in flowers, folk art and in the mysteries of creation.