Fans of Ida Kohlmeyer, almost certainly this region's best known abstract contemporary artist before her death in 1997, have two -- no, make that three -- good reasons to rejoice this autumn. Or maybe even four, the most immediate being this System of Color retrospective of iconic selections from her vast output. A goal of any retrospective is to put the work in context with the artist's life as well as with the cultural zeitgeist, and this show does that through the strategic yet comprehensive selections of curator Michael Plante, who literally wrote the book on Ida Kohlmeyer. (Published by the Hudson Hills Press, Ida Kohlmeyer is slated for release in late November).
System of Color is neatly complemented by the Becoming Ida Kohlmeyer show at the Ogden Museum, a close-up look at her middle period of the 1960s and '70s, during which she developed her signature symbolic, or "semiotic," style. (The Ogden is now also home to the Ida Kohlmeyer Study Center, featuring more than 26,000 objects including paintings, sculpture, journals and publications as part of its Institute for the Advancement of Southern Art and Culture.) The two exhibitions, book and study center extend her high energy approach to art into an aesthetic hereafter.
In a nutshell, Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer was a New Orleans lady who took up art when she was already middle aged and gained international fame for her paintings and sculpture. Her work was widely exhibited and included in many private and major museum collections. Initially influenced by the abstract expressionists in the 1950s, she settled on a loosely ordered style of organic symbolism in the 1970s, which by the 1980s yielded emblematic works such as her Mythic Series 10B, a truly archetypal Ida. (Kohlmeyer died in 1997, still at work, at age 84.) This show illustrates her long aesthetic journey as well as some of her more colorful side trips along the way.
As a student at Tulane in the early 1950s she experimented with various styles, but it was under the tutelage of abstract expressionist avatar Hans Hoffman in 1956 that her development began in earnest. In 1957 she found herself on the Newcomb faculty with Mark Rothko, whose moody presence reinforced the spiritual approach to abstraction she had gleaned from Hoffman. Her ab-ex works such as Night Landscape and Activated are mostly comprised of rectangular, Rothko-esque blobs and gestural scrawls set against atmospheric background colors like phantoms in a fog. But, take another look at Activated, circa 1965, and her symbolic squiggles start to make an incipient appearance.
Still, what really differentiated her early work from her more mature style is color, which tended to be much more muted early on. Like Hoffman, Kohlmeyer is remembered as a colorist, yet this facet of her approach may have developed only gradually. Hints of this are seen in her 1959 abstraction Transverse, where the colors are more glowing and the blobs more angular, with quasi-calligraphic streaks amid the amorphous washes. That calligraphic tendency appears in some of her earliest canvasses, and comes to fruition in the organic glyphs of her latter years. But not before what might be her most exotic tangent, those late-1960s mandala-like compositions such as Rondo #2, or the star-shaped Quadruped #1. Like most of her mandala period canvases, both are symmetrical, with sexy petal shapes and rich, glowing colors. Rectangular blobs made a comeback in the 1970s, in works such as Striae, where they appear like colorful stacks of folded towels. A series of charcoal and earth tone nudes also appeared around that time in a reprise of her early work, but her 1973 Cluster #25 is in some ways definitive of what was to come. Here her Rothko-like blobs appear stacked in a neatly ordered grid, and the colors are clearly Kohlmeyer -- as bright and spicy as a Creole garden. It was this tropical flair, enlivened by an almost pop-art brashness and a bit of folk-art whimsy, that she used to seduce the viewer with symbolic grids and glyphs that were often thoughtful, even meditative, yet buoyant, suggestive of a certain organic joie de vivre. It was a combination of elements that she made uniquely her own over the final three decades of her life, and in the process she did something with her art that may not be quite as commonplace as one might think: She made people happy.
- Mythic Series 10B is emblematic of Ida Kohlmeyer's 1980s works, the crowning point on a long aesthetic journey for New Orleans' best known abstract contemporary artist.