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.

The 10 Artists Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 2

To top off our list of art history’s most influential players (click here for part 1), we had to make some tough decisions. Would Monet still be known today if not for a fateful trip to the seashore with Boudin? Who had a greater influence on abstract expressionism: Pollock or De Kooning? Browse our choices and let us know if you agree or disagree in comments below or on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Eugene Boudin, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Trouville, Eugene Boudin

 6. Eugene Boudin (1824-1898)

French painter Eugene Boudin grew up riding across the English Channel on his father’s steamboat between his home village of Honfleur and the city of Le Havre. Boudin’s mother put an end to the voyages when the young boy nearly drowned, and the family moved to Le Havre to open a picture frame shop. Perhaps it was these early years at sea—and that terrifying dip in the tumbling waves—that drove Boudin to create the small but dynamic compositions that would directly inspire Impressionism.

As a young man Boudin opened his own framing shop and showed work by artists such as Constant Troyon and Jean-Francois Millet. At 22 he started painting full-time, capturing coastal scenes with an impeccable eye for light and a keen interest in the social interactions of beach-goers. He was greatly influenced by the 16th century Dutch masters, and was one of the first French painters to work in the outdoors.

Boudin moved to Paris on a scholarship when he was 23 and soon met the teenage Claude Monet. Monet was working as a caricaturist on the streets of Paris, but Boudin convinced him to travel to Normandy and paint en plein air. In 1874 Boudin showed work in the first Impressionist exhibition alongside Monet’s pivotal Impression, Sunrise, which was painted in Le Havre and inspired the name of the new movement. Without Boudin’s encouragement, Monet may never have moved past charcoal.

Pissarro, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Two Women Chatting by the Sea”, Camille Pissarro

 7. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) 

Picasso and Matisse called Paul Cezanne “the father of us all”, but there’s always a mentor behind a master. Cezanne was heavily influenced by Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. “He was a father for me,” Cezanne said. “A man to consult and a little like the good Lord.”

Pissarro grew up on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies and attended a boarding school near Paris. In school he studied the French masters and excelled at drawing and painting. He moved to Paris in 1855 to apprentice with Anton Melbye and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. While Corot worked on his paintings in the studio, Pissarro insisted on painting en plein air and often finished works in one sitting.

The artist was criticized for his technique, which often exposed the rougher, less picturesque side of the French landscape, but his quick, intuitive methods attracted a small group of artists who would soon be known as the Impressionists. Pissarro became their patriarch, and was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions. However, it was his switch to Neo-Impressionism at 54 and his great influence on Post Impressionism that landed him on this list. Pissarro’s impulse to look deeper into the landscape and trace every rough edge would inspire Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne in their revolutionary explorations of perspective that would fracture (and eventually completely dissolve) the classical picture plane.

Pablo Picasso, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Dora Maar au Chat, Pablo Picasso

 8. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) 

Pablo Picasso is arguably the most famous—and prolific—artist of the 20th century. He created roughly 13,500 paintings and hundreds of thousands more prints, engravings, illustrations and sculptures over the course of his 75-year career. Though he’s famous for co-developing Cubism, it was his explorations into all corners of the plastic arts that made him so influential. No matter the medium or style, Picasso had a hand in radically changing it all.

The artist was born in Malaga, Spain. His father was a professor of art who began formally training his son from a very young age. By 16, Picasso had gained entrance to the prestigious Royal Academy of San Fernando. In the early 1900s he moved to Paris, where he met art collector Gertrude Stein and many of the most famous artists of the time. He started working with Georges Braque in 1909, and the close friends developed a style that pushed Cezanne’s explorations of multiple perspectives to new extremes.

Cubism encouraged artists to analyze objects and break them into thousands of pieces, and similarly shattered the art world into myriad Modernist movements from Futurism to Constructivism.

Pollock, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollock

9. Jackson Pollock (1912- 1956) 

Jackson Pollock was called “Jack the Dripper” and “The Worst Living Artist in America” by the media, and a large slice of the public saw him as a reclusive drunkard who dealt the killing blow to order and sense in art. Sometimes when you’re drumming up an art revolution, things have to get messy.

Pollock grew up the youngest of five brothers in Arizona and California. He and his brother Charles moved to New York City in 1930, where he studied at the Art Students League and worked for the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1936 he took an experimental workshop on liquid paint that would later influence his famous drip paintings. Under the watchful eyes of collector Peggy Guggenheim, art critic Clement Greenberg and his wife Lee Krasner, who he married in 1947, Pollock would become the figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement and radically change the world’s definition of art.

Greenberg saw Abstract Expressionism as the final step in painting’s inevitable reduction to its most essential elements. There was an unmatched purity to Pollock’s atmospheric, gravity free color fields that only the eye could traverse. “Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced,” Greenberg mused. Whether you agree with the critic or not, Pollock undoubtedly subverted figurative painting in an unprecedented way, and changed art history in the process.

Andy Warhol, click here to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol

10. Andy Warhol (1928-1987) 

Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Austro-Hungarian immigrants. In third grade he developed Sydenham’s Cholera, a disorder of the nervous system that left him bedridden for months at a time. Isolated from his peers, the shy child became a voracious student of pop culture. Just a few years later he would build his own towering pedestal using the very figures and symbols that he pinned on his bedroom walls.

Warhol graduated from high school in 1945 and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology for commercial art. In 1949 he moved to New York City, where he worked in the publishing and advertising industries and got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in pictorial design. In the 1950’s RCA records hired Warhol as a designer, where he pioneered innovations in various image-making techniques, most notably in screen printing. At the same time he was using similar processes—and subject matter—in his fine art, which he showed in galleries around New York. It was an approach to art that offended many critics at the time, who accused Warhol of succumbing to the homogenizing forces of consumerism.

This was Warhol’s true impact on art history: to show contemporary artists that they couldn’t avoid or ignore the foundational social changes affected by the mass media. Whether he was exploring identity, vanity, sexuality, fame or nothing at all, Warhol was molding the mercurial landscapes of Modern and Postmodern art.

Don’t forget to read part 1 of this series, and connect with us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest to let us know who you would choose!