ELSIE DRIGGS can laugh about it now, but she died in 1955. Or so some art authorities concluded, a couple of decades ago, because Driggs hadn't shown her paintings in nearly 20 years.
It turned out that Driggs, best known for the precisionist canvases she produced in the 1920s, was alive and well and working in New Jersey. Today, at age 92, Driggs still is working, and on Saturday the Phillips Collection will open the first museum retrospective of her career, which spans 73 years so far.
That career might well serve as a feminist parable. She was born into the Victorian world of 1898 (to a mother who had furiously studied art during the pregnancy, hoping to produce an artist). Driggs had to struggle to establish herself as a serious painter instead of a fashionable "female dabbler," and received less recognition than many male contemporaries of lesser talent. She married one of them, Lee Gatch, and devoted herself to him and their daughter while enduring small-town life, cut off from the urban art world she loved.
From 1953 to 1971 Driggs showed none of her work, which she was creating in her spare time on the kitchen table. When Gatch died in 1968, Driggs immediately left Lambertville, N. J., for New York City, where she's been hard at work ever since.
The 48 paintings in the Phillips show will astonish anyone familiar only with such famous precisionist works as Driggs's "Pittsburgh" (1927), "Queensborough Bridge" (1927) and "Aeroplane" (1928). Precisionism never was a school or even a circle; the name was coined a generation later by an art historian who needed a convenient label under which to discuss the American artists who responded in parallel to the postwar, pre-Depression celebration of industrialism.
Driggs attributes "Pittsburgh," the masterpiece among her precisionist paintings, to the influence of the Italian old master, Piero della Francesca, to whose work she was introduced by collector Leo Stein while studying in Italy in 1922. She went to Pittsburgh hoping to paint the fiery steel mills she remembered from her youth, but discovered that the belch-fire Bessemer process had given way to the unspectacular open-hearth method. So Driggs painted the sooty Jones & Laughlin plant as velvet forms against a smoky sky.
Within two years she moved on to the very different style of "St. Bartholomew's Church" (1929), still classically composed but rendered in warm tones and bold shadowing, with an almost impressionist indifference to detail. Driggs's whole career has been marked by mastery and abandonment of various techniques, and this unconcern for consistency probably has hurt her with collectors; if you didn't know this was a one-woman show you'd think these were the works of a dozen different artists.
Yet there is an Elsie Driggs style, as consistent from the lushly romantic "Chou" (1924) through the coolly classical "Odalisque en Grisaille" (1974) to the glittery "Javits Center" (1986). It's the product of flawless draftsmanship, painterly discipline and an independent eye, and it's delightful.