Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Sonja Sekula; the 31 Women number eight, her birthday is 8 April

Sonja Sekula (1918 –1963) Swiss/American abstract expressionist painter & poet
Sonja Sekula had a significant career for eighteen years and it ought to be difficult to call her a forgotten artist. She was prolific and in her short career her work appeared in 18 solo and 36 group exhibitions, with at least another 30 since her death, mainly in Switzerland. Unfortunately she suffered from mental illness and could not maintain a consistent momentum. Betty Parsons, the New York dealer who promoted her work from 1948, dropped her in 1960.

Sonja Sekula in 1945
Sonja was relatively isolated as a person and as an artist, which was due to her mental health issues and also the fact that she was gay, both socially unacceptable at the time. Her work is classified as abstract expressionist and she showed with the New York School artists both at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery when the movement was in its infancy and for 12 years with Betty Parsons.
Sonja worked in a surrealist manner, using automatic techniques to express her inner world, but although she became friendly with old school surrealists including Andre Breton and Max Ernst, she was really too late for Surrealism, it was past its peak. Visually some of her early work remembers Miro and Klee, but the art world was moving on.
She was young enough to move with it for a while, always maintaining her own creative identity. Her experiments in automatism began in the early 1940’s, steering her in similar directions to other abstract expressionists. She experimented constantly and after each breakdown appeared re-born, with a different stylistic vision, an inconsistency which ultimately alienated the art-buyers. Her final works are gestural, spare and Zen-like.

Sonja Sekula was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, to a Hungarian father and Swiss mother. She began drawing as a small child and kept a journal, illustrated with water-colours. She travelled in Europe with her parents, who she would depend on for much of her adult life. She studied art in Florence and Budapest before in 1936 moving to New York, where she studied art, literature and philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. Her art tutor was Kurt Roesch and her literature tutor was Horace Gregory, poet and critic who encouraged her writing.  She also studied with George Grosz, but in 1938 her studies were interrupted when she suffered a severe mental breakdown and was hospitalised for two years.
In 1941 Sonja attended the Art Students League and Grosz introduced her to the European surrealists. At the same time she met Peggy Guggenheim, who would give her first exhibitions. Peggy Guggenheim was eager to showcase young American talent and included Sonja, who had become an American citizen, in her exhibitions.  Her work also appeared in the Surrealist magazine VVV, edited by David Hare. Despite her new American nationality and association with some younger, progressive artists, she remained based in automatism.

Her ‘Night-paintings’, begun in 1942, contained dark, linear structures filled with abstract forms and the calligraphic symbols which became a consistent element in her art, following her through many stylistic changes. The Night-paintings were exhibited by Peggy Guggenheim in 1946 at Sonja Sekula’s first solo exhibition.  Though she suffered a brief creative hiatus after this first one-woman exhibition, the ten year period beginning in 1941 included the happiest and most productive years of her life.
Between exhibitions she travelled, particularly to Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico itself, painting, sketching and researching for her work. Accompanied by her friend Alice Rahon, she visited Frida Kahlo in Mexico, where she also met Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. In New Mexico she became interested in the dances and sand paintings of the Navajo tribes, the influence of their use of colour and symbols is in her paintings from 1945, the sand paintings’ impermanence also fascinated her.

After her investigations in the deserts of North America Sonja created some totemic paintings and her symbolism became looser. She also producing a number of ‘bridge’ paintings inspired by the architectural forms of the bridges of modern America. Hedda Sterne, who was also painting in New York at the time, was working on similar themes.
In 1947 Sekula met writer and composer John Cage who, with his partner Merce Cunningham, were very supportive, they too suffered homophobic prejudice. Cage became her informal teacher and mentor, introducing her to Eastern philosophies especially Buddhism. For the next two years Sekula worked continuously and found the self-confidence to cut her hair and wear more masculine clothing.  She later remembered this time living next door to Cage and Cunningham as amongst the happiest of her life.

In 1949 she travelled to Europe and exhibited her work in London and in Paris. Back in New York she had a show with Mark Rothko. Her images at this time were colourful and busy. They were well received, she was described as the abstract Paganini, after the violin virtuoso. Unfortunately Sonja suffered a serious breakdown, falling ill as this exhibition opened in April 1951. While she was in hospital her work appeared in a hugely important show, the 9th Street Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, where it was exhibited beside most of the New York avant-garde.
Betty Parsons gave Sonja Sekula three more  solo exhibitions in the 1950’s, but the intervening years were very difficult. Sonja suffered repeated hospitalisation and had to return to Europe where treatment was cheaper. She exhibited in France and Switzerland, but earned little. Her frequent changes of style had led to incomprehension amongst potential purchasers for her art; this was the period of huge, ferocious paintings and Sonja’s small, intensely personal work slipped out of favour. There was little space for women painters and none for one as fragile as Sonja.

In Paris, Sonja was dismissed as an American painter, while in America she was now seen as a European; she had become a victim of trans-Atlantic parochialism. Making money as an artist became impossible for her. She had a number of short-lived jobs: as an art teacher, in a bookshop, library etc.

Sonja did continue to draw and paint and use her love of combining words and paint. She created tiny Meditation Boxes, decorated with paint, collage and sand, containing small stones and haiku poems. She was frequently ill but found the courage to express her sexuality in late paintings, including Les Amies and Lesbiennes. These graceful images were amongst her last. After a number of suicide attempts throughout her life, Sonja Sekula hanged herself in her studio on 25 April 1963.
Since 2000 there has been a resurgence of interest in her work in her home country, Switzerland, but her art is still largely ignored by the English speaking art world. When she is mentioned, Sonja Sekula’s personal life creates as much comment as her work.


 Comments and further information about Sonja are very welcome.

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones remain on this blog. To find them click the labels link below.




  1. 31 Women - fascinating project. On spotting the name Hazel McKinley ( I know a King Farlow and was wondering if there is any connection there but no) I came across one work in the new Your Paintings Project which launched in the UK last year. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/this-is-not-athens-but-hammersmith (The project is a collaboration between the BBC and the PCF (Public Catalogue Foundation).

    1. Thanks Geoffrey and you were right first time - Hazel King Farlow was a former incarnation of Hazel McKinley. I will be posting about her soon, her birthday comes next.

  2. Hi where could I find one of her meditatin boxes?

  3. Oh I just bought one of her paintings my first Sonja Sekula you see my art teachers two,of them who both showed at Betty Parsons Marjorie Liebman and Dorothy Sturm would always tell me about Sonja Sekula! Among other stories!!! I'm an artist living in Memphis Tennessee.
    Love your blog.
    Paul Edelstein

    1. Hi Paul, I only just saw your comments! Thanks for your kind comment about my blog. You are so lucky to own a Sonja Sekula painting. I'd love to own a work by each of the 31 Women, but my funds are limited - I have bought books written by several including Drothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington, and have a copy of Frida Kahlo's beautiful diary, I certainly couldn't afford their paintings!

    2. Hello Sue I really enjoyed reading this about my great aunt Sonja. I never met her but my father told me much about her since I was born after her death. My parents have both passed and they left me some of her paintings I love them and had no idea how talented she was. I have many letters from her and her parents that I have been going thru and find it all very interesting. I am interested in selling some of the painting but have no experience in this area. Seems I am finding more and more about her and would love to share with you. My email is destingirl1@live.com and my name Christie