Friday, 20 December 2013

Gretchen Corazzo celebrates her Centenary on 18 December 2013 - She is number twenty-five of the 31 Women

Artist and sculptor Gretchen Schoeninger Corazzo celebrates her one-hundredth birthday on 18 December 2013. Her century is being celebrated by a retrospective exhibition at the Box Factory for the Arts on Broad Street, St. Joseph, Michigan. Gretchen is an American sculptor, photographer, illustrator, collage and assemblage artist, printmaker and a musician.  She is another of those multi-talented women who have been active artists all their lives, yet have somehow managed to evade both fame and notoriety. In her nineties she stopped making the large concrete sculptures which formed her output for some time. As a centenarian she still works daily on a smaller scale with collages.
Born on 18 December 1913 in Ravinia, Illinois, Gretchen’s life has spanned the entirety of twentieth century innovations in American art. She has created sculptures in the same vein as Louise Nevelson and Esphyr Slobodkina, working with found objects to form abstract constructions, as well as working in cement, clay and plaster.  Although today she is unknown outside her home state, she was involved with the wider avant-garde from an early stage.  Her husband, painter and architect Alexander Corazzo is hardly any better known than Gretchen so her obscurity cannot be blamed on him, unlike for example her friend Xenia Cage, who was conveniently ignored in the creation of the John Cage myth.

Gretchen’s talents were encouraged throughout her childhood. Her mother, Hester B. Hall was a schoolteacher and her father Joseph Schoeninger was an entrepreneur specialising in printing processes. Her parents wanted an unrestrictive education for their offspring and were quite prepared to move to a new area to put the children into a more progressive school, the family relocated several times. In 1922 Gretcehen and her siblings boarded at the Heidehoff Schule near Stuttgart in Southern Germany, whilst their father negotiated the bringing of the advanced rotogravure printing process from Germany to the States. This was a shrewd investment. The rotogravure process would become widely used in the newspaper and publishing industry and is still used today, printing everything from glossy magazines to vinyl floor coverings.

In April 1923 the family was still in Germany and we get the first hint of Gretchen’s future as a sculptor. The Schoeningers stayed in the home of Anton Lang, who played the part of Jesus Christ in the famous Oberammergau Passion Play. More importantly for Gretchen’s artistic development, Lang was an art potter and he gave her clay to model.  She said that after this, “I always had a piece of mud in my hands, making something.”  This self-deprecating comment shows her instinctive preference for clay work and sculpture.  In adulthood she never regarded herself as a painter.

Later the family settled in Chicago, where Joseph set up his new printing press and Gretchen attended a small liberal arts elementary school in Chicago. In art classes she was allowed to do as she pleased and created large posters of Hercules and other classical figures. She retained an enthusiasm for Greek mythology throughout her life. The family spent several summer vacations by a lake in Wisconsin, where Gretchen’s mother tacked yards of wallpaper onto the walls of the barn for the children to create murals of their activities. 
 In 1925 the family moved to Carmel in California, another significant move for their artistic daughter. Carmel was a nest of creativity and Gretchen would befriend writer John Steinbeck, photographer Edward Weston and Poet and environmentalist Robinson Jeffers. However education was initially a problem in Carmel, Gretchen’s mother was dissatisfied with the local schools and took on the task of educating her children. Gretchen studied art largely alone until the end of 8th grade, when she entered Monterey High School. Following her previous freedom, high school was dull, art lessons mere academic exercises. She enjoyed biology lessons and made charts showing bird migration and for a while expressed a wish to become a veterinarian. Her interest in the natural world would resurface and become an integral aspect of her art many years later.  After high school, Gretchen produced posters for various local organisations. She also painted a theatrical backdrop for The Carmel Arts & Crafts Clubhouse which was good enough to be used in a Los Angeles theatre, but she had not yet found her artistic direction.

In 1932 John Cage, then just 20 years old, had moved to Carmel, and was reduced to living in a garage, with no suitable space for a piano. He was allowed to use the Schoeninger’s Steinway. Gretchen became firm friends with Cage, they spent hours in conversation.  Coincidentally she also befriended another young artist, Xenia Kashevaroff, who would soon become Cage’s wife, though John Cage and Xenia did not actually meet each other until the following year. Another close friend was ecologist Ed Ricketts, who apparently knew everybody. His lab in Monterey, Pacific Biological Laboratories, was not an antiseptic workplace so much as a party venue, renowned for its experimental home-brew. All the local artists, writers and intellectuals would gather for extensive evenings of celebration.
In her early twenties Gretchen moved to Los Angeles to attend the Chouinard School of Art, but soon grew disillusioned by their commercial ethos. Looking for another direction, she spent some months writing and illustrating articles for a local newspaper, the Pacific Weekly. Her illustrations were monochrome linocuts, the Rotogravure process popularised by her father was beyond the reach of small publications.

She worked for a while as a nanny to the children of Jake Zeitlin, who ran the famous Zeitlin’s Rare Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles.  In her spare time she continued to draw and paint and Jake Zeitlin acquired one of her drawings of geese, which he framed and hung over the mantelpiece. This was her first sale. She still managed a social life, visiting amongst others John and Xenia Cage who were now married and living in Echo Park.
A chance conversation led Gretchen to the journey which would finally settle the course of her life, both artistically and personally. A friend of her mother’s talked to her about the Bauhaus. In Germany the avant-garde art and design school had been closed by the Nazi’s, but in 1937 Bauhaus instructor and constructivist artist Moholy-Nagy and former Bauhaus student Hin Bredendieck had arrived in Chicago and had found backers for a new arts school.

Gretchen moved to Chicago and enrolled as a student at the New Bauhaus, she recalls that the enrolment process was not onerous. She learned woodworking techniques, sculpture, physics, semantics and photography. Gretchen enjoyed the very practical approach of the workshop and learned techniques that would prove invaluable in her later work.  She studied in the school’s sculpture class with Alexander Archipenko, the Ukranian born cubist sculptor whose use of negative space has been influential in art schools over decades. She worked in clay but although her original clay pieces have not survived, one is not forgotten. A photograph of her crystalline abstract called Osiris, which Gretchen says was created with Brancusi in mind, was exhibited in Chicago more than 50 years later. Clearly for Gretchen the appeal of pure abstraction was enhanced in this creative environment.
The photography course, taught by Moholy-Nagy himself, would reinforce Gretchen’s interest in abstraction and negative space, with the students encouraged to experiment in the darkroom with photograms and outdoors by interpreting shadows. Gretchen’s photograph titled Negative Exposure, depicting a dramatic abstraction created by shadows cast on wooden stairs, is one of many now held in the Art Institute of Chicago’s hugely important collection of early C20 photographs. Negative Exposure has been exhibited a number of times.  Yet another significant project, also under the tuition of Moholy-Nagy, was to create sculptures for the blind. A strong sense of form and texture were essential for this project, Gretchen recalls that her sculpture, whilst intended to be abstract, resembled a staircase.

After class Gretchen was part of a social group which included abstract painter Alexander Corazzo. He was born in France, moving to the USA at the age of 20. He and Gretchen had much in common, as well as art they were both musicians. In 1939 they were married, by then they were no longer at the New Bauhaus. Quite apart from the school’s financial difficulties, the fine art students had had a falling out with Moholy-Nagy, when he downgraded painting in the school’s curriculum, re-emphasising the importance of design. Alexander became a WPA artist and was obliged to create a certain number of paintings in order to get his monthly stipend. Gretchen worked mainly in clay, which was not fired but cast in plaster. This was far cheaper than casting in bronze and the clay could be recycled.
Gretchen also tried her hand at stone carving whilst earned her living by working for a design company which created 3D dioramas for museums. In 1941 Alexander Corazzo joined the American Abstract Artists, though Gretchen did not. As well as abstract paintings and clay sculptures, they were both creating mobiles and assemblages and some were exhibited in 1942, in the couple’s only joint exhibition, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At that time assemblage art was unusual outside surrealist circles, but there was interest in mobiles as an abstract art form after Alexander Calder’s originals in the 1930’s.

In 1941, John and Xenia Cage arrived in Chicago. They lived in the same house for a time and Xenia introduced Gretchen to Peggy Guggenheim. This resulted in Gretchen being invited to exhibit at the Exhibition by 31 Women, she was one of only three sculptors alongside Xenia and Louise Nevelson. Titled simply Abstraction, Gretchen’s piece had been lost in the mists of time, by 2007 she could no longer remember what it was like.
1943 was a year of change for the Corazzos, when Alex joined the army. He was posted to Burma and Gretchen moved back to Carmel and stayed with her mother, whilst working as a gardener. This interlude presaged some of her later work, especially the seed paintings she created in the 1980’s. When Alex returned from the war they moved back to Chicago and while Alex attended the Illinois Institute of Technology to study architecture, Gretchen continued to create her abstract sculptures. They enjoyed the thriving artistic and intellectual life of the city and friends in this period include architect Mies Van de Rohe & his daughter Waltraut, also Rue Shaw, president of the Arts Club of Chicago.

By 1947 Alex Corazzo was concentrating on his career as an architect, though Gretchen continued showing at the Arts Club’s annual shows. The Club also built up an important collection of modern pieces, but sadly they don’t appear to have retained any pieces by Gretchen Schoeninger Corazzo.
Once they had a family, Alex and Gretchen moved to a farm in Chesterton, Indiana. Perhaps they decided that city life was not ideal for their daughters, Nina and Michelle. Chesterton had a thriving artistic community and the new environment encouraged Gretchen to experiment and diversify. She continued sculpting but also learned to spin and weave. She began to breed sheep for the colour of their wool, which she would use in her designs. Her enthusiasm for natural colours and materials extended to the huge diversity of seeds which she found herself surrounded by in the countryside. She began collecting seeds and creating pictures using these and other natural elements.

During the next few years Gretchen took up silk screen printing and in the 1980’s she returned to sculpture, creating assemblages and cement pieces. Her garden became her exhibition space, with larger abstract works displayed to good effect in the landscape. With both parents immersed in the arts it seems inevitable that their children too would become involved, though Alex Corazzo died from a heart attack in 1971. His daughter Michelle Corazzo is a ceramicist, following her mother’s example as a three-dimensional artist. Nina Corazzo has become professor of Fine Art at Valparaiso University, whose Brauer Museum acquired a found object collage by Gretchen in 1987. Nina Corazzo helped greatly with my research when she interviewed her mother for me during 2007, providing much of the detail included here.
Gretchen describes her small later assemblages as ‘Trash Art,’ which she creates in her garden studio, using both natural and manmade object collected by friends. Most recently she has been creating collages which she describes as being ‘of a more political nature’. Valparaiso University’s Christopher Center Gallery exhibited Gretchen’s work in 2007 and 2008, and her photograph, Negative Exposure, was exhibited in 2009 as one of the Art Institute of Chicago’s ‘Modern Treasures’. Her 2013 centennial exhibition includes her most recent collages.

Gretchen Corazzo died early in 2016. She was one of many lesser known artists who have been small but significant cogs in the wheels of twentieth century abstract art, which spread to the US from Europe before 1910 and continues to have a major impact on the work of artists and designers throughout the world in the twenty first century.
My grateful thanks go to Nina Corazzo and to Gretchen Corazzo, without whose very kind assistance and co-operation I could not have written half of this biography.


Comments, corrections and further information about Gretchen Corazzo and her artworks are very welcome.
You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.


  1. Interesting article about Corazzo. I will be making the trip to St. Joseph and look forward to seeing her exhibit and work in person.
    Also, will you be doing any writing on female artists of color? Their stories are even more elusive then some of the other women you have been featuring.

  2. Thanks Suzanne. I enjoyed researching Gretchen, such an interesting artist who is also a photographer, as I am. Just to warn you that the Gretchen Corazzo exhibit at the Box Factory may be over by now. Their phone number is 269.983.3688 if you want to call and check. I wish I'd been able to see the show but I'm UK based and don't get to see US exhibitions.
    The stories of artists of colour certainly need telling, but unfortunately isn't on my agenda right now. Time constraints mean I have to confine myself to the 31 Women for the duration of this project, which includes a book as yet to be completed. After that I will probably turn my attention to UK artists, of all races. It's easier to research nearer home!

  3. Hello Susan,
    I have been following your posts re '31 women' with interest from a personal/professional level but I am now interested in my position as editor of the ISAA Review (the journal of the Independent Scholars of Australia Inc). We are publishing an edition on the theme of 'historiography' in June this year and it occurs to me that your project - compiling the biographical and art historical details of the 31 women arts, and drawing attention to the original exhibition, involves several layers of history writing. I think I remember reading a piece of yours that outlines why and how you are doing this important project but I cannot seem to find it on your blog. Does such an article exist? I hope so, and if so could you direct me to its web coordinates please? Sue S

    1. Sue, thanks for your interest. It occurs to me that it might be best to communicate via email, I can tell you more. click on my profile to find the link. S

  4. Hi Susan, my initial article trying to explain my motivation for starting Project 31 Women is at:-
    What really prompted me to begin was my own ignorance, which made me realise how women artists are obliterated from history. I wanted to rescue at least the lesser known of the 31 Women from obscurity.