“An artist’s centennial: NOMA exhibit a retrospective on Ida Kohlmeyer,” Southern Jewish Life

Ida Kohlmeyer. Synthesis BB, 1983. Mixed media on canvas.

An artist’s centennial
NOMA exhibit a retrospective on Ida Kohlmeyer
by Lee J. Green, Southern Jewish Life – March 2013

Ida Kohlmeyer’s love for her native New Orleans and in some instances her Jewishness comes out in her abstract expressionist art. The New Orleans Museum of Art is honoring her memory with “Ida Kohlmeyer: 100th Anniversary Highlights.” The exhibit features significant pieces of hers from NOMA’s permanent collection in an exhibition running through April 14.

Born in 1912 to a Polish immigrant couple, Kohlmeyer was an inspirational woman and artist whose determination led to her prolific body of work, according to exhibition curator Anne C. B. Roberts. “We are delighted to celebrate the centennial of a dynamic artist who had a tremendous impact on NOMA, the city of New Orleans and the art world at large,” said Roberts.

Kohlmeyer studied English literature at Tulane, then her interests transferred to Latin American art after she met and married Hugh Kohlmeyer in 1934.

In 1947, when their second daughter was born, Kohlmeyer started taking classes at the John McCrady Art School in New Orleans. With two young children at home, Kohlmeyer then earned her Masters of Fine Art degree in painting from Tulane University’s Newcomb College at the age of 44. She would go on to become one of the most celebrated abstract expressionists from the South.

After receiving her degree, she took summer classes from the noted Hans Hoffman in Massachusetts, where she was influenced by abstract expressionism.

Her first solo show was in New York in 1959. She would have dozens of solo shows across the country, especially in New Orleans. Solo shows in the region included Montgomery, Jackson, Birmingham, Monroe, Laurel and a 1997 memorial tribute show in Mobile, shortly after she died.

In 1966 the Peace Corps commissioned her to do a painting that would be presented to the Corps’ founding director, Sergeant Shriver.

In the early 1980s she did a set of five sculptures, the Krewe of Poydras, across Poydras Street from the Superdome.

She also did the Aquatic Colonnade, a series of 19 metal sculptures at the Aquarium of the Americas. Originally installed in 1990, the sculptures were restored last year after years of fading in the sun, and to take care of some minor damage from Hurricane Katrina.

The stained glass windows in the Forgotston Chapel at Touro Synagogue were designed by Kohlmeyer, and the original watercolor is displayed in the social hall.

The selection of works in the NOMA exhibition touches on the breadth of Kohlmeyer’s professional career. Her play between color and line is evident in her early work inspired by Hoffman, her teacher, and colleague Mark Rothko, both of whom are also Jewish and pillars in the abstract expressionist canon.

Whether muted or bold, it is color that defines shape, space and sentiment. The organic shapes, often delineated by color, create a dynamism that moves the viewer’s eye around the picture.

The relationship between Kohlmeyer and NOMA has spanned half a century. In 1953, Kohlmeyer submitted Cityscape — New Orleans to the annual juried exhibition. Though it did not win, other works would win in 1957 and several subsequent years.

Kohlmeyer would later have solo exhibitions at NOMA in 1957, 1974, 1985 and 1997. Her paintings, drawings and sculptures have also been included in numerous group exhibitions. In all, her work was in over 200 solo and group shows during her lifetime.

Ida and her husband, Hugh, were also avid collectors of art from around the world and donated numerous works to NOMA from their collection.