HANNAH HOLLIDAY STEWART: Cosmic Mysteries

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her studio- Matthews Gallery

It’s not a stretch to call Hannah Holliday Stewart‘s (1924-2010) sculptures cosmic. In the artist’s heyday, the bronze forms that emerged from her Houston studio were often over 10 feet tall and thousands of pounds. She aspired to create physical manifestations of complex ideas in science, mythology and other fields, a system of “pure [abstract] symbols as constant as numbers and letters of the alphabet,” as Paul Klee said in one of Stewart’s favorite quotes. The themes she explored were so vast that Stewart’s work was at times cosmically misunderstood.

In preparation for our posthumous solo exhibition of Stewart’s work this July, we’ve been digging through the sculptor’s carefully organized personal files. One folder marked “Press” holds a 1994 newspaper article from Stewart’s childhood home of Birmingham. By that time Stewart had lived far away from Alabama for a lifetime, building a reputation in Texas and the Desert Southwest as one of the first female sculptors to win competitive public art commissions. “Ms. Stewart talks of such abstract notions as harmony and energy and spiritual awakening,” puzzled the Birmingham Post-Herald reporter. Throughout the rest of the article Stewart scratched out or rewrote swaths of the writer’s analysis in black ink, clarifying concepts and modifying terms. “[I] always go back to classical order and laws,” she scribbled at the bottom.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Artist Process 1- Matthews Gallery

Stewart was born in 1924 in Marion, Alabama. She studied art in Alabama and Georgia for her BFA, and completed her MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. After working at foundries in Florida and Mexico, she landed a teaching job at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and later at the University of Houston.

By the 1960s Stewart’s work had grown to a monumental scale, and a passionate group of Texas art enthusiasts rose to support it. In an era when female sculptors had to fight for recognition, Stewart’s bronze monoliths were popping up all over Houston—and beyond. In 1962 a swooping, Brancusi-esque bird form called “Libertad” appeared in the courtyard of Houston’s World Trade Center, and in 1972 an 11-foot-tall sculpture titled “Atropos Key” landed on a hill in Hermann Park. A commission for a monumental work in Dallas’ Samuels Park spread her name across the state.

“I found myself devoted to her work very early, I think,” says Dayton Smith, who befriended Stewart around 1969 when he was working for a Houston photography studio. “I realized the significance of it, the weight of it, shall we say.” Over the next few years Smith helped Stewart in various ways, photographing her artwork, transporting sculptures, and organizing a 1973 solo exhibition at Houston’s Jamison Gallery on Hermann Park.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Artist Process 2- Matthews Gallery

“As I got to know her, I became aware that she was a very literate person, very intelligent,” says Smith. “Her work really did relate to what she encountered in her learning.” Smith noted that Stewart explored many fields of knowledge, from science and architecture to music and mythology, allowing concepts in each field to influence her three-dimensional objects. In 1975 and 1976 she mounted her first major solo show at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, exhibiting a series of large plaster models (including “Adam’s Rib“, from the photographs in this blog post) that were based on smaller bronze maquettes. But even as Stewart’s legend grew, Smith says misconceptions about her work persisted.

“The word spiritual often comes to mind, but spiritual is such a misunderstood term in our society,” explains Smith. “If you look at the word itself, the Latin root of it is ‘spiritus’. That means ‘wind.’ We can see the wind when it carries things, when it moves things.” Stewart worked to bring the invisible—a musical note, kinetic energy or a wisp of air—into the physical world.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Artist Process 3- Matthews Gallery

More mysterious still to many of Stewart’s friends in Houston was her abrupt disappearance from the art world. Smith last saw Stewart in the late 1980s, when she was teaching at St. Thomas University and exhibiting in an impressive array of art institutions across the country. A few years later Stewart packed up and moved away from Houston, settling in Arizona, Alabama and then Albuquerque, New Mexico. She never exhibited her artwork publicly again. Why would a woman who once showed at the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Museum and prominent galleries in New York, New Orleans and many other cities suddenly leave it all behind?

Smith has a few hunches. Stewart often said that she was inspired by the Desert Southwest, and sent Smith an image of her working in her new studio in Flagstaff. The move to Birmingham probably had to do with the declining health of Stewart’s brother and two sisters, who lived in the area. When it came to her art career, Smith thinks Stewart may have needed room to spread her wings and find new inspiration.

“Once we were talking about something she’d observed,” recalls Smith. “That sometimes to make it in your own town you have to leave and come back with something big. That people could get too used to you, but that perhaps you could come back and be accepted. Maybe she was planning that.”

Follow our blog in the coming weeks as we unravel the mysteries of Hannah Holliday Stewart’s life and artwork, and make sure to attend the opening of HANNAH HOLLIDAY STEWART: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered on July 4 from 5-7 pm.  Also pick up the July/August issue of American Fine Art Magazine to read more about the show, and follow our investigations on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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10 Women Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 2

Marina Abramovic- 10 Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

Click here to read the first part of this blog post.

How do you measure influence? It’s easy to focus on art’s brightest stars and most famous imagery, but zoom in on the tapestry of art history and you’ll see that its fibers are often woven from close personal relationships and direct channels of inspiration. We tend to remember names like Caravaggio, Picasso and Pollock and overlook the other fish in their schools. The following women might not have received as much attention as their male contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean they had a lesser hand in directing the grand flow of things. Check out our picks, and let us know who would be on your list in the comments.

Georgia O'Keeffe- Ten Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

6. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

It was 1908, and a young O’Keeffe had just won a prize from the Art Students League for her still life Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot when she gave up painting all together. The artist was worried that she’d never truly distinguish herself in the realm of realism. Three years later she started fresh, enrolling in an art class taught by Arthur Wesley Down, who encouraged his students to let their emotions guide them.

“I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for,” O’Keeffe said. The artist created a series of innovative abstract charcoal drawings that caught the eye of her future husband, New York photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. She would continue throughout her career to build an emotional vocabulary of abstracted forms, strongly influencing her modernist contemporaries and later inspiring feminist artists like Judy Chicago. She’s now considered the Mother of American Modernism.

Peggy Guggenheim- Ten Women Who Changed Art History Forever- Matthews Gallery blog

7. Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)

Guggenheim was born with the promise of a healthy inheritance. Her father died on the Titanic when she was a teenager, and at 21 she inherited more than $30 million in today’s currency. What to do with so much money? Guggenheim’s passion was art. Her first job was at the Sunwise Turn bookstore in New York, a bohemian hotspot that inspired her to move to Paris in 1920. There she met Man Ray, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and other influential modernists. By 1938 she’d opened a modernist gallery in London, where she showed the likes of Kandinsky, Calder, Ernst and Picasso.

The gallery got lots of attention from the public but lost money in its first year, so Guggenheim decided to open a museum instead. When World War II forced her to delay her plans, she focused on a buying “one picture a day” for her future museum collection. Ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Miros, four Magrittes, three Dalis and one Chagall later, Guggenheim had one of the most important collections of 20th century art in existence. Her influence endures in the rich archives of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Frida Kahlo- Ten Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

8. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Kahlo was born to a German father and Amerindian and Spanish mother in 1907, but she always claimed she was born in 1910 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. That might have been a slight distortion of the truth, but her life and art certainly mirrored the pain and the passion of Mexico’s modern rebirth. When she was a teenager, Kahlo was involved in a bus crash that left her in a full body cast. In the months afterward she took up painting to combat loneliness and boredom.

“I am the subject I know best,” Kahlo said. She drew influences from traditional Mexican folk art and American and European modernism in her colorful self portraits and still lifes, building new links between cultures and art movements but tightly focusing her subject matter on her own health and relationship struggles. During her lifetime, Kahlo was mostly known in Mexico as the on-again, off-again wife of muralist Diego Rivera, but in 1938 she had a solo show in the United States and a year later she exhibited in Paris, where the Louvre acquired one of her paintings.

Andre Breton called Kahlo a surrealist and others saw her work as Naive Art, but the artist defied labels. “I never painted dreams,” she said. “I painted my own reality.” Kahlo opened the door for women artists to openly explore their most personal experiences in their work, something that surely influenced the next artist on our list.

Louise Bourgeois- 10 Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery

9. Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)

Bourgeois’ artistic journey began in 1924 when she discovered that her father and her English tutor were having an affair. Her mother turned a blind eye, but Bourgeois spent the rest of her life staring the betrayal full in the face. A born and raised Parisian, she started studying art after her mother’s death in 1932 and met Fernand Leger soon after, who told her she was more of a sculptor than a painter.

After gaining some notoriety in Europe, Bourgeois moved to New York City in 1938 and hit a wall. Though she was respected among artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, her work wasn’t well known outside avante-garde circles. She was brutally honest in her explorations of memory, sexuality and family power dynamics, erecting monstrous spiders in sculpture gardens and immersing her viewers in scenes of violent patricide.

In 1982 the 70-year-old artist mounted her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and finally told the story of her father’s infidelity to the public. She identified her body of work as the genesis of a genre called “confessional art”. Every piece in her oeuvre is autobiographical, a retelling of the trauma she’d experienced as a child and the effect it’d had on her life thereafter. By the time she died in 2010, she’d captured the imagination of a new generation of artists and scholars.

Marina Abramovic- Ten Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

10. Marina Abramovic (born 1946)

Considering the ephemerality of Abramovic’s work, the performance artist’s rise to become one of the contemporary art world’s most notorious and polarizing figures is a remarkable story. Abramovic was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia. Her mother kept tight control over her life through her early 20s, and she completed some of her first performance art pieces before her curfew at 10:00 pm. In her early work, she explored consciousness and the limits of the body within the context of performance art, pushing herself to exhaustion in various endurance tests.

Abramovic moved to Amsterdam in 1976, where she began a close relationship and artistic collaboration with performance artist Ulay Laysiepen. The duo continued to test their psychic limits, and also explored the idea of combining their identities into a single entity. They separated in 1988.

In 2005, Abramovic did a series of performances at the Guggenheim, and in 2010 she mounted a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. There she performed a 736-hour piece called The Artist is Present that was the subject of a documentary and received global attention.

Abramovic has been accused of chasing fame and creating a cult of personality. No matter her motives, the artist is a thought-provoking figure who’s impossible to ignore. She’s not a part of art history just yet, but she certainly makes a good future candidate.

Check out the first part of this blog post here, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more art news.

SECRETS OF THE WAREHOUSE: Hannah Holliday Stewart

Sculptor Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews Gallery

It’s just across town, but the complex that houses our storage unit seems universes away from the cheerful adobe utopia of Canyon Road. We punch in a code and roll through the gate into a desolate world of sharp edges. Seas of asphalt release masses of hot air and long rows of dull aluminum doors form the impenetrable walls of an industrial fortress.

Sculpture by Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryAs the shadows grow longer the sun’s rays swing sideways and those doors become enormous reflectors. The forbidding barrier transforms into a glowing, many-paneled modernist painting—Gerhard Richter’s Strip series in metal. At this time of day, it’s easy to imagine the units as a series of chests concealing mysterious treasures. What secrets hide behind this shimmering force field? Luckily, we have one of the keys.

With one great heave, we send the door to our space skittering up into the ceiling and find ourselves peering into another, much more fanciful, metallic landscape. We’re here to take stock of the life’s work of Hannah Holliday Stewart in preparation for a visit from some interested collectors.

Polished, patined bronzes large and small cluster on shelves, tabletops and patches of cement between stacks of cardboard boxes. They’ve accrued a thin layer of dust since we last visited, but it hardly dampens the strange energy that seems to simmer just beneath their surfaces. Stewart’s graceful abstract forms hold all the power that they possessed when we first laid eyes on them last year in Stewart’s studio, where they’d been sitting quietly since her death in 2010. It’s jamais vu: the feeling of encountering something you’ve never seen before.

Sculpture by Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryStewart was born in Marion, Alabama in 1924. She received her graduate degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art, moved to Houston and swiftly embarked on rapid rise that was uncommon for female artists at the time. At the crest of a new wave of social changes, Stewart and other artists such as Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann revived old legends and symbols that identified the woman as a powerful creative force capable of crafting her own destiny. Under Stewart’s paradigm, Nefertiti reclaimed her throne, Icarus had feminine curves and the symbol of the Aquarian Age was a densely muscled female torso.

Much of Stewart’s work is in bronze, a medium that set her apart from some of her female contemporaries who worked with fabric, wood and mixed media. It was a material that allowed her to look to the promise of the future as well as the legends of the past. In one corner of our storage space is a stack of boxes filled with overflowing folders. Along with the career-spanning work that was left in Stewart’s studio, the artist’s family gave us access to all of her personal files. That’s how we found an artist statement she once scrawled in a notebook:

[My] early interest in natural forces has sustained me throughout my life as a sculptor. My goal is to render visible the hidden realities of pent-up contained energy. The direct fields of reference are Sacred Geometry, Astronomy, Myth & Physics … Each Sculpture is an energy form, the movement arrested in space, a form sustaining an energy. My work is a response to these patterns and delineations and communicates with viewers through the universality of symbolism and form.

Sculptor Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryTo contain these gargantuan forces, Stewart was often compelled to produce her work at a monumental scale. Photographs in her files show her roaming through a forest of many-legged monoliths in her studio, or manipulating their twisty canopy atop a spindly ladder. In 1972 she was commissioned to create a monumental sculpture for Houston’s Hermann Park, a rare honor for a female sculptor—especially one who was known for her non-objective work.

The spotlight shone bright on Stewart for many years: she exhibited at the Smithsonian, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Then, 20 years before her death, she abruptly left the Houston art scene without saying goodbye.

Sculptures by Hannah Holliday Stewart, Matthews GalleryAt a studio in Albuquerque that we would visit after her death, the artist spent the remaining years of her life producing sculptures in solitude. The mystery of her departure from the art world has yet to be cracked. Many of her friends from Houston were still puzzling over it in her obituary.

Perhaps there are clues to the more shadowy parts of Stewart’s life hidden in her files, or in the beautiful invented language that she often etched into her sculptures. It’ll take more dusting than we have time for today to unravel the intricacies of her life and work, but one thing is clear: Stewart helped pave the way for a new generation of women sculptors.

As we reach for the long rope hanging from the door, we take one last look at Stewart’s peculiar menagerie. A bronze self-portrait peers out from a tangle of supernatural creatures on a tabletop, its eyes blazing in a shaft of sunlight. Then the treasure box slams shut.

Click here to see more behind-the-scenes images from the warehouse, and make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for updates on Hannah Holliday Stewart’s work.