Insults and Injuries

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Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1918, Chenoweth relocated with her family to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while she was still a child. She began her art training in the late 1940s at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute and completed her bachelor's degree at New York's renowned Pratt Institute. (So much for those who have labeled her provincial.)

Chenoweth's work from the 1940s featured recognizable images done in a modernist, hard-edged linear style. "My Studio," a marvelous oil on board from 1947, is typical. It's a portrait of the artist's home in which the palette is dominated by muted browns and grays set off by shades of black and red, a type of tonal juxtaposition seen in many of Chenoweth's pieces over the next fifty years. Her future as an abstract artist is also foreshadowed in the piece, since the major pictorial elements are composed of the shifting effects of light and the checkerboard tablecloth in the foreground. By 1948, Chenoweth had broken from representation and was creating entirely abstract pieces. Unfortunately, none of these early abstractions, which have been exhibited elsewhere in recent years, are included in the hapless Collage.

In 1949 Chenoweth accepted an art teaching job in Rocky Ford and settled in Colorado. The next year, she attended the University of Denver, where she was a protege of the legendary Vance Kirkland and watercolor master Jack Ball. After receiving her BFA at DU in 1950, Chenoweth attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where she earned an MFA in 1953. At the time, she was one of the few women in the entire country with an advanced art degree. It was in that same year that Chenoweth was hired by Woelffer at the now-defunct CSFAC art school. In 1957, when the school folded and Woelffer went to California, Chenoweth joined the faculty of nearby Colorado College.

Chenoweth's style from the 1950s is related to abstract expressionism, but with a key difference. Though she embraced the gestural and intuitive method of that New York-based movement, Chenoweth continued to make hard-edged compositions. The stunning "Marabout," an oil and collage on canvas, sets passages of automatism next to roughly geometric ones. And the palette, like the one employed in "My Studio," combines dark browns, olive greens and blacks with white, yellows and tints of orange and red. "Marabout," which might mean "about Mary," is a genuine masterpiece.

During the 1950s, Chenoweth's work was widely shown at venues as varied as the Brooklyn Museum and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, but self-promotion was never of interest to Chenoweth, and she gradually withdrew from the exhibition circuit. As a result, her work became known chiefly to her many students and to a small circle of avid collectors in Colorado Springs.

By the late 1950s, Chenoweth was reintroducing subject matter into her prints and paintings. The checkerboard seen in the foreground of "My Studio" is seen again in "Plaza," a wonderful woodblock print from 1958--but here it represents the paving stones of a public square instead of a tablecloth. Once again, Chenoweth combined lights with darks, using quiet browns and grays accented by bright-white details.

Works like "Plaza" and "Tripoli, Libya, Skyline," an oil on canvas from 1958, are closely akin to the thoroughly non-objective "Marabout"--except that there are identifiable objects in each of the newer pieces underneath all those painterly flourishes. But as with "Marabout," Chenoweth has built up "Plaza" and "Tripoli" by putting roughly geometric shapes among expressionist sections. In "Marabout," the effect is totally abstract; in "Plaza" and "Tripoli," it is used to suggest buildings. The same approach is seen in the breathtaking "La Fontana," an oil and collage on canvas from 1959. Torn pieces of paper, some with visible print, are arranged to form an arched doorway through which a fountain is glimpsed. In places, Chenoweth has allowed the paper to create the design of the composition; in other areas, paint is used to flesh out the particulars of the scene.

One unusual art form embraced by Chenoweth was the creation of carved doors. The exhibit includes one of these doors, done in 1960. Chenoweth took a ready-made walnut door and gouged out simple geometric shapes and patterns including a signature checkerboard. She also carved doors to serve as printing blocks, resulting in mammoth woodblocks done on huge sheets of rice paper. Like so many other things, none of these door prints are included in Collage.

Doors were not just a tool for Chenoweth; they also served as subject matter. "Door in Tangiers," which is undated (though it was surely done in the 1960s), and the closely associated "Doorway," from 1968, both feature miniature and essentially realistic doors rendered in wood and paint. Looking twenty years ahead of their time, both seem to anticipate some of the efforts of other, younger artists of the 1980s.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia