The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present Judith Rothschild: An Artist’s Search from October 25, 2001, through February 17, 2002. Spanning her 50-year career as a painter, the exhibition includes her early abstract pieces as well as landscapes inspired by the Monterey coastline (Rothschild resided in the Big Sur area of California in the early 1950s). The exhibition also presents examples of the artist’s relief paintings, which Rothschild focused on for the last 20 years of her career. In the introduction of the catalog, guest curator Jack Flam, Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History at Brooklyn College, describes the artist’s work as displaying an “articulation of a luminous and transcendental vision of life…something that had been at the core of Judith Rothschild’s artistic ambition from the very beginning.” A version of this exhibition was initially presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was shown in 1998. Three of the works in the exhibition are from the SFMOMA permanent collection.
After graduating from Wellesley College with a degree in art history in 1943, Rothschild briefly studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan. While studying in Hans Hofmann’s studio, she became heavily involved in abstract painting. Hofmann’s teaching focused on the tension between strong color and vigorous brushstrokes. Based upon this principle, Rothschild’s accomplishments in abstraction brought her to the attention of the American Abstract Artists group, to which she was elected a member in 1945.
From the beginning of her career, Rothschild bridged the polarity between “pure” abstraction and figuration by concentrating on humanistic subjects, as exemplified in Grey Tangent and Mechanical Personages, both from 1945.
Upon moving to Big Sur area in 1947 with her husband, Anton Myrer, Rothschild began to use scenic motifs of the California coast as a starting point for her abstract pieces. She further grounded these works in complex literary and mythological themes. Rothschild’s California period also includes abstract representations of structural elements common to the coast, such as piers and boats. The characteristics of this period of Rothschild’s work are best expressed in Byzantium, 1955. Before entering the relief-painting phase of her career, Rothschild worked on minimalist landscapes, focusing on color that represented the simplicity of nature.
After 1970, Rothschild dramatically shifted her technical approach to painting. She began incorporating abstract structures that suggest figuration. With these forms Rothschild developed a cohesive representation of both figuration and abstraction, and in her Gothic series, begun in 1976, she developed a fixed image for use in her relief paintings that is comprised of organic and architectural characteristics. Death of Patroklos (1987) best exemplifies the artist’s exploration of these forms, and demonstrates how her use of color became the primary distinction in her later paintings. In describing the “quasi-narrative quality” that the painting shares with much of her work from that time, Jack Flam notes that “the dark forms themselves seem almost to verge on figuration and to suggest a specific action.” Judith Rothschild continued to work on her Gothic series until her death in 1993.
Versions of this exhibition were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1998 and at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., in 1999. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue that examines Rothschild’s life and art with one hundred reproductions and text by exhibition curator Jack Flam. Hardcover edition available in the SFMOMA MuseumStore.