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Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical

January 19, 2008 - April 13, 2008


An exhibition of work by famed modernist painter Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) opens on January 19, 2008 and is on view through April 13, 2008 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.  Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical, the first retrospective of the artist's work in over 15 years,includes 62 works spanning her entire career and including her watercolors, pastels, collages, paintings, and mixed media constructions. 

Viewing art as a process of discovery, Elsie Driggs was constantly experimenting with new materials, techniques, subject matter, and ideas.  Intrigued by the awesome industrial and urban forces that were transforming the American landscape during the 1920s and by the Old Masters' principles of composition that imparted structure, order, and simplicity, Driggs described her work as seeking to capture qualities of "the quick and the classical."  As Connie Kimmerle, Curator of Collections at the Museum, explains, "these interests along with her adventuresome spirit and the resilient manner in which she confronted life's difficulties all add another depth to her work."

Driggs, whose reputation was established by such early precisionist paintings as Pittsburgh (1927) and Queensborough Bridge (1927), was one of the few women artists of the 1920s to achieve acclaim in America.  She exhibited her early work in New York at the Daniel Gallery alongside that of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Niles Spencer, and Preston Dickinson, at a time when it was difficult for women to exhibit and sell their work.  Taking the subject matter of their paintings from the world of industry and engineering, these artists were supported largely by the Daniel Gallery and referred to by the critics as New Classicists and subsequently Precisionists.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1898 to a successful engineer and inventor who created designs for the steel industry, Driggs was exposed to machine age designs at an early age.  After studying with George Luks, Robert Henri, George B. Bridgman, and Maurice Sterne at the Art Students League, and privately with John Sloan, she traveled to Italy where she studied the Old Masters and the work of Cézanne. Early examples of her work include Lilacs and Leaf Forms, 1918, which are closely aligned in their modernist design to the work of Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. 

Driggs's first precisionist painting, Pittsburgh, created in 1926-1927, was inspired by childhood memories of the area's industrial pollution and a promise that she would someday return to paint the soaring flames of Pittsburgh's steel plants.  Pittsburgh was purchased by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1929 and donated to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City for its opening exhibition in 1931.   

Driggs married fellow artist Lee Gatch in 1935 and their only child, a daughter named Merriman, was born in 1938.  During most of the thirty years that the couple resided in Lambertville, Elsie had no studio of her own.  She experimented with watercolor and collage techniques from her kitchen table.  "I told myself Paul Klee worked in a closet.  You can always do it," Driggs explained about her makeshift studio. About 1966 the Gatches put an addition on their house; and when Elsie finally received her own studio space, she began producing a series of large oil paintings, using such watercolor techniques as diluted pigments, stenciled patterns, and sprayed backgrounds.  Her subject matter expanded in the late 1960s to include a series of simply rendered, brightly colored, figurative abstract studies of women.

After Lee Gatch died in 1968, Driggs and her daughter moved to New York City.  During the early 1970s, she began creating a series of "standing drawings," many of which take their subject matter from historical figures and legends.  Framed in shadow boxes, these drawings contain elements that are "cut out" and "stand in relief."  In the late 1970s, Driggs began producing assemblages in shadow boxes that included crayon drawings of classical architectural features and actual shoe forms that reference her earlier student days in Italy, particularly her memories of Rome.  In 1986 she returned to oil painting and at age 88, she created paintings inspired by the newly completed Javits Center building in New York City.  The last retrospective exhibition of Driggs's work was displayed in The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. in 1991.

This exhibit features work from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Montclair Museum of Art in New Jersey, Citibank, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, the Corcoran Gallery and Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Organized by the Michener Art Museum, the exhibition is accompanied by a major publication that is being authored by the Michener's Curator of Collections Constance Kimmerle and co-published by the University of Pennsylvania Press and the Michener Art Museum.  With color plates and essays that document the artist's life and work and explore the rich diversity of her art, the publication is available in the Museum Shops. This publication was made possible by a major lead gift from Carolyn Calkins Smith, as well as funding provided by the Judith Rothschild Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Major support was provided by Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest; The Warwick Foundation of Bucks County; and former Senator Joe Conti, Bucks and Montgomery Counties.  The Michener Art Museum's research and publication activities are supported by the Virginia B. and William D. Williams Endowment Fund.  


(above: Elsie Driggs (1898-1992), Pittsburgh, 1927, oil on canvas, H. 34.25 x W. 40 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York  Gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney  31.177)


Related events

In conjunction with these exhibitions, the Museum presents a four-part lecture series on Tuesdays, beginning January 22, 2008 entitled Art History Lecture Series: "Fresh Perspectives and Interdisciplinary Explorations on Precisionism." The four parts will include:

· "Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical" by Constance Kimmerle, Ph.D., Curator of Collections, James A. Michener Art Museum, January 22 at 1 pm.  Concentrating on the artist's lifelong effort to combine qualities of "the quick and the classical," the lecture will explore the ideological and emotional richness of the work of Elsie Driggs
· "Charles Sheeler: Machine Age Art and Artists" by Susan Fillin-Yeh, independent scholar, January 29 at 1 pm.  Fillin-Yeh's lecture will trace the origins of American Precisionism beginning in the early 1900s. She will discuss connections with Cubism and European art movements, photography and a "machine aesthetic" in the decorative arts. 
· "Form Radiating Life: The Paintings of Charles Rosen" by Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator, James A. Michener Art Museum, February 5 at 1 pm.  This lecture presents an overview of the life and work of Charles Rosen, examining both phases of his career and featuring paintings from major museum and private collections that demonstrate this unusual range of styles.
· "Morton Livingston Schamberg and New York Dada" by Michael Taylor, Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 26 at 1 pm.  Join Taylor as he discusses Morton Livingston Schamberg's series of exquisitely crafted paintings of machines and machine parts that he made in Philadelphia in 1916. 

Connie Kimmerle will also be giving a Gallery Talk on Tuesday, February 12 at 1 pm and Tuesday, February 19 at 1 pm at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.  Fee. 

Advance registration required. Please specify requested date when registering. For more information on these programs, please visit www.michenerartmuseum.org or call (215) 340-9800. Fee for attendance. 


(above: Elsie Driggs (1898-1992), Herringbone Sky, 1965, oil on canvas, H. 41 x W. 36 inches. Collection of Martin and Judy Stogniew)


(above: Queensborough Bridge, 1927, Oil on canvas, 40 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches. Collection of the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, N.J.  Museum purchase; Lang Acquisition Fund, 1969.4)


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