Thursday, 9 May 2013

Suzy Frelinghuysen; the 31 Women number ten

7 May is Suzy Frelinghuysen’s birthday, she was born in 1911.
Suzy Frelinghuysen was an abstract painter in the USA before the country had any great tradition of abstract art.  She and her husband, George L.K.Morris, were founding members of American Abstract Artists and also of a smaller group which became known as the Park Avenue Cubists. Their influences came from Europe. Morris was also a member of Abstraction-CrĂ©ation-Art Non-Figuratif, a group formed by important European abstractionists including Sophie Taeuber and Jean Arp.  Suzy Frelinghuysen adapted cubist, mixed media and collage styles into her work, with an emphasis on musical and operatic motifs, because Suzy was also a singer.

Suzy Frelinghuysen in her studio
She was born Estelle Condit Frelinghuysen, in New Jersey, into a wealthy and influential family. Her grand-father, Frederick, was secretary of state to President Chester A. Arthur and Suzy was never forced to sacrifice her wealth and social status for the sake of her art. This was held against her by some from the ‘artists must starve in garrets to be considered authentic’ school of thought and the anti-patrician, anti-European attitude of critic Clement Greenberg. His disparaging opinion of her and her fellow American Cubists was expressed in a 1948 essay, “The Decline of Cubism”. Greenberg was about to ‘discover’ abstract expressionism and already felt that cubism was old hat and probably too un-American.

During her childhood, Suzy was privately tutored in art and music.  She also visited Europe a number of times, although she was not particularly aware of European cubism at the time. Originally a realist painter, she said that she really became interested in trying abstraction after her marriage to painter and sculptor, George L.K. Morris. She adopted the cubist style and her paintings were described as bringing humour and elegance to synthetic cubism.
Synthetic cubism was an evolution of Picasso and Braque’s original, Analytical cubism’. The Synthetic form of cubism simplified the image, flattened the picture plane and often incorporated textual and textural elements.  Collage became a part of these compositions and Suzy Frelinghuysen’s work combined all these elements with enthusiasm and agility. She exhibited in Paris, Rome and Amsterdam as well as in the US.

She was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group (as was Morris) and exhibited with them annually. She was the first woman artist to have work exhibited at the Museum of Living Art, the precursor to MOMA, in New York. In the early 1940’s she returned to the classroom and attended the Art Students’ League of New York, where she studied fresco painting.
She and George Morris had built a modernist masterpiece of a house in the Berkshires, Western Massachusetts and Suzy’s new talent for fresco painting helped to decorate the walls of her home. Today the house is a museum dedicated to its owners’ art and spirit of modernism.

Suzy Frelinghuysen also had a career as an opera singer with the New York City Opera from 1947-51. She received critical acclaim, being described as a “Sumptuous dramatic soprano.” She starred in Ariadne of Naxos and Tosca and, though she loved the music, she suffered severely from stage fright. She retired after a serious attack of bronchitis. She was always passionate about music and her singing career, though brief, continued to influence her art.
She appears to have run these two diverse careers alongside each other and emphasised the similarities in concerns for the arrangement of forms in painting and in opera. Some of her paintings take operatic themes, for example, Composition – Toreador 1944 and in her collages using fragments of musical scores and opera programs.

As a collector and an artist, Suzy Frelinghuysen helped to introduce the art of the European avant-garde into the USA. She seldom exhibited her paintings after 1951, although she continued painting up until her death in 1988. Despite the eclipse of her art since the 1950’s era of abstract expressionism, today Suzy Frelinghuysen’s art is beginning to attract new interest. Her work is in collections in the USA, including at her home in Massachusetts.


My thanks to the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio,

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.


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