Today, women artists who marry artists still have a special set of problems, but they're surely less severe than those encountered in the 1920s and '30s, when the wife's career routinely took the back seat.
That's how it was when Lee Krasner was first married to Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning to Willem, Sally Avery to Milton and Dorothy Dehner to David Smith. Though each of these wives ultimately achieved lasting recognition on her own, none was a spring chicken when it finally happened.
Another case in point has now turned up at the Phillips Collection, where an intriguing but frustrating little retrospective of the work of Elsie Driggs has gone on view. Born in 1898, Driggs is the widow of American lyrical abstractionist Lee Gatch, who had considerable success in the '60s. Now 92, she still lives and works in New York City, where she is variously called "the last living precisionist painter" and "the greatest living woman artist of New Jersey."
Except for those from New Jersey, we can't be blamed for not knowing the name. Soon after her early success as a precisionist painter of pristine, machine-age smokestacks and bridges, and a lonely "Aeroplane" in the late 1920s, Driggs married Gatch, had a daughter, moved to a ramshackle farmhouse in Lambertville, N.J., and, after the last of several shows at Frank Rehn Gallery in the early '50s, so completely dropped out of the art world that some presumed her dead. Amusing evidence is in this show, in the form of an inscription on the frame of a stylized pastel drawing of flowers, which reads: "Elsie Driggs, American, 1898-1955."
In 1955, in fact, Driggs was still privately at work at her kitchen table, and on the attic floor of the farmhouse in Lambertville, though she had kept a very low profile since the late '30s. During the interim years, she worked for the WPA (which her husband never did), and in 1939 completed a mural for the post office in Rayville, La.
It wasn't until after Gatch's death in 1968, when she moved back to New York with her daughter Merriman, that Driggs again plunged into the art world in earnest and, at age 70, began experimenting with styles as various as those of Picasso and Rauschenberg. Her Rauschenbergian "Odalisque en Grisaille," a 1974 collage with watercolor, not only appropriates an image from Ingres; it also makes clear that even at 76, Driggs hadn't lost her early interest in seeking out new ideas and giving them a try.
It was at the Art Students League that she first developed her passion for the new, under "Ashcan" painters John Sloan and George Luks. But her passion for the old was also developed during a year of study with Maurice Sterne in Italy, where she was introduced to the collector Leo Stein and, through him, to the work of Piero della Francesca. She later drew comparisons between her tall, flat, stylized smokestacks and the long, elegant necks of Piero's aristocrats.
On her return to New York, Driggs prowled the New York galleries, including the Daniel and Neumann establishments, which at the time showed several leading American modernists, among them Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Niles Spencer, Andrew Dasburg, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Man Ray and Karl Knaths. By 1924, she had landed in a group show with nearly all of them; by 1928, Daniel had given her a solo show, and she was included in the Whitney's first Biennial Exhibition. The Whitney still owns and displays her work.
If this retrospective tells the tale, Driggs -- even in the '20s -- never settled long on one subject or style, and her whole reputation seems, oddly, to lean on the three hard-edge, stylized, machine-age precisionist paintings on which it has always been based: the black and gray smokestacks of "Pittsburgh," the fractured, cubist-futurist planes of "The Queensborough Bridge" and the magical, lonely "Aeroplane," painted after her first flight to the Ford plant at River Rouge.
How could that be? In fact, the exhibition reveals that she was also making soft and highly distinctive flower pastels that somehow looked as if they had been sprayed on through a stencil. There are also several watercolors in an entirely different mode, made up of nervous outline and puddles of detached color, inevitably recalling Demuth, with whom she often exhibited. The viewer is left somewhat frustrated trying to sort out where her originality lies, and where those three extraordinary paintings came from, not to mention where all that strength subsequently went.
To help us out and give a sense of context to Driggs's show, the Phillips has thoughtfully hung three adjoining galleries with works by several of her modernist contemporaries, among them fellow precisionists Sheeler, Demuth, Spencer and Ralston Crawford, and Driggs's teachers Maurice Sterne, John Sloan and George Luks.
There are also works by Gatch, whom Duncan Phillips admired and collected in depth. Though Phillips did not do the same for Driggs, she is represented in the collection by one work, and this show offers some sense of justice done. It was organized at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, where it was first shown, and where a catalogue was published. The exhibition will continue at the Phillips through March 17.