Work of the Week – March 31, 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014


by Adrian Etheridge

Helen Gerardia (1903-1988) was an early member of the American Modernist movement, a progressive style arising during the early 20th century based on optimism and the power of the individual. Geraria was born in Ekaterinislav, Russia, but emigrated to New York City early in her life where she studied at the Brooklyn Museum school and with the Art Students League of New York. After finishing school, Gerardia began teaching first grade in the New York public school system, but she soon turned her art into a second career becoming an influential artist in the American Constructionist and Modernist movement. The artist served as president of the American Society of Contemporary Artists from 1967-1969.

Gerardia was a part of arguably one of the most controversial areas of art, simply because the progressive abstract movement strayed so far from the mainstream view of “art” that many did not consider it art. For many art viewers, abstract art is either the height of aesthetic genius, or garbage, often with no middle ground. Yet, amid this controversy, the ideas of abstract art, especially in the early Modernist movement, are rooted in strong, universal principles. Primarily, this reaction to the industrialization and economic progress of the 1920’s focuses on the importance of the individual in creating his or her own life as well as the shared experiences of the limitations of human kind. The Modernist movement carried through both World Wars and was heavily influenced by the major social changes and habits of the recovering and developing American society.

There are many different schools of the broader Modernist movement, but Gerardia’s style tends to focus on the use of straight lines and rigid shapes as well as a single color paired with black and white. The Modern artist’s work at first appears to be a dynamic collection of blocks of color. But as in her 1970 work Jazz Trio, upon further examination the shapes morph into figural representations. Gerardia creates her art in multiple media, but typically in either oil on canvas or as lithographs, both of which lend themselves well to the stark lines and saturated colors of her work.

The musical style of jazz is also deeply seeded in the roots of American Modernism, beginning around the 1920’s as the movement began to take hold. Gerardia’s piece Jazz Trio interestingly pairs the two movements into one work, possibly showing how each influenced the other. As jazz is often the outpouring of emotion combined with the blending of different characters (instruments, people, cultures such as African and American) the musical genre dovetails with the romantic and often democratic artistic style.

In Jazz Trio, Gerardia uses many triangles and quadrilaterals to create the outlines of three saxophone players. Interestingly, while jazz musicians were often African American, especially at the beginning of the movement, she uses all four of the hues of the piece – coral, navy, black and white – to create each of the three people, showing both the blending of culture and the emphasis on universality. The figures also are unrecognizable in terms of sexual identity, again portraying a sense of equality. Best of all, even through the use of hard lines, this abstract artist has accomplished a sense of fluid motion implying the smoothness of the music. Although the different sizes, shapes, and colors of the multitude of shapes may seem random, the unpredictability accentuates the seeming randomness of the musical progression of jazz. In this one 18.25 x 14.5 inch lithograph, Gerardia managed to communicate the basic humanist principles of Modernism and jazz.

Artwork above: Helen Herardia, Jazz Trio,1970 ca, Lithograph, 18.25 x 14.5 inches. Gift of Tucker Cooke. Permanent Collection. 2008.48.09.61.