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Weekly Alibi Forgotten '50s

Ella Stewart Clayburn at Mercury 53

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  It amazes me that the smug, God-fearing Eisenhower years were also the years of Abstract Expressionism, that big splash that rerouted the art world's attention to New York and forced everyone to reconsider what a painting is and does. Then again, those young men fresh out of the service, fired with ambition and ready for a fight, are a kind of '50s archetype, too. Between the bull sessions at the Cedar Bar they were slapping paint on canvas with the same brash energy with which their contemporaries approached building a prosperous postwar America. Like their decade, they were ebulliently modern, and as the art market would quickly show, they were empire-builders, too.

Very '50s, too, was the way women were relegated to the roles of patroness (if they had money to spend) or studio drudge (if they didn't). If they were interesting-looking they could also be life-class models. But as painters, women were ignored, their work dismissed for its "inherent weakness" and "silly femininity," as Robert Hughes remembers the standard complaints of the time. Before the '70s, even important artists like Lee Krasner and Grace Hartigan were seen primarily in relation to the men they were attached to.

No wonder Ella Stewart Clay- burn, whose work is on exhibit at Mercury 53, drop-ped the first name from her signature. Not to compare her to a Hartigan or a Krasner, whose contemporary she was (they are major figures, and she isn't), but her pictures are a wonderful discovery for their vigor and honesty and for being a product of a very specific time and sensibility. They are vintage Ab-Ex.

Clayburn attended the Art Institute of Chicago but, in the late '40s, was drawn to New York and the lectures of Hans Hoffman, the most influential teacher of the de Kooning-Pollock circle. The mostly small, untitled and undated words, many on paper, give a glimpse of her somewhat restrained palette and studiously improvisatory hand. Two monoprints in muddy browns and grays are among the most interesting. By limiting her colors so severely, Clayburn focuses attention on the incidental textures produced by the plates. And a lovely, small landscape-like abstract, executed in tiny, busy brushstrokes, uses only unmixed black and red--the latter color limited to two dots.

Some of Clayburn's gestures seem a little held back, perhaps because they are hampered by scale. But they are miles from "silly femininity." Overall the paintings are intellectual, solidly authentic and accomplished. Incidentally, Mercury 53 is a furniture store/gallery, and its period furniture is a nice complement to Clayburn's work, so identifiably and appealingly of its time.

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