Tonight! Gertrude Quastler (1909–1963): Some forgotten drawings

| September 19th, 2013, 1:41 PM

Gertrude Quastler-83

A small exhibition of an unpublished group of drawings by Vienna-born Gertrude Quastler (1909–1963). These evidently private sketches, executed on Long Island towards the end of her life (from around 1958, when she was progressively debilitated by chronic illness), are a parallel to the joyous art for which she is best known. In this group of 75 drawings shown at Pittsburgh’s Brillobox, which gravitate between a near-hysterical playfulness and a darkly neurotic outlook, a modern 20th-century realism can be discerned

Opening reception:
Thursday, September 19th, 2013, 7–10 p.m.
Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15224
On view through January 2014

Other times by appointment or by announcement.

—Daniel Baumann and Graham Shearing, curators

Chance brought the work of Gertrude Quastler to Pittsburgh. One single print is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, others in the Art Institute, Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and other first-rate museums in America. One work made it to the Tate Gallery in London in a touring show. But most of her work is here in western Pennsylvania, for her estate passed to her sister in law, Johanna Zimmerman, a resident of Pittsburgh. Local institutions were given work from the estate, and after her death in 1998 most of the surviving material was put up for sale at a local auction. That sale included a folder of about 140 drawings made by the artist towards the end of her life. 75 of those drawings make up the present exhibition at Brillobox, with a few other works from that same sale.

In 1983 Dr Paul Chew, director of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, organized an exhibition of Quastler’s work, largely drawing on Mrs. Zimmerman’s holdings, and the slim illustrated catalog with research notes by Mary A Schmidt is still the best overview of her life and work (Gertrude Quastler, 1909–1963: exhibition cat., The Westmoreland County Museum of Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, 1983). Quastler’s life was not easy. She was born in Vienna in 1909 and trained as a milliner but a severe attack of tuberculosis in 1932 was to change her life and eventually led to her death thirty one years later. She married her doctor, Henry Quastler, a brilliant radiologist, who continued to care for her throughout her life. They moved to Tirana, Albania, at the behest of King Zog, where Henry worked training radiologists. But by 1939, with the King in exile and an uncertain future in pre-war Europe, they managed to get a passage to America.

In America a brief stint at millinery was abandoned in favour of art classes at Columbia University, but by 1942 Henry Quastler’s profession took them to Urbana, Illinois, and a year later she was studying art at the University of Illinois. From 1943 to 1956 in Urbana she moved from painting to a preoccupation with printmaking, notably the woodcut. Summer holidays in Provincetown may explain that. Today she is best known for this medium and her ambitious woodblock print ‘Counterpoint’ was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She enjoyed a considerable degree of success, exhibiting in New York and elsewhere and represented by the prestigious Weyhe Gallery. In 1952 she and her husband struck up a close friendship with the artist Richard Diebenkorn while he was living in Urbana, which was to prove lifelong.

A certain deterioration of her health caused Henry Quastler to take up a job at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, New York, and the move altered the range and nature of her art. Although she continued to produce woodblock prints, she continued to paint with renewed vigour. And by 1959 she also developed an interest in sculpture, making use of driftwood and found objects to produce realistic and humorous figural work. By the end of her life she was making sculpture out of wire. She also taught.

In 1963, after a long period of hospitalization she returned home and died in the summer of that year. ‘Her husband quietly wrote letters to family, friends and colleagues, and tacked a note to the door; then swallowed an overdose, slipped into bed beside his beloved Gertrude and took her hand into his.’ (from the introduction to the Westmoreland catalog). Richard Diebenkorn was later to record, “Neither my wife nor I can think of a couple we encountered more indivisible.”

Mrs Schmidt writes of the transcendent wit and humour in the work, despite the obvious pain and suffering she endured. This is unquestionably so, but the folder of drawings retained by her family and subsequently sold seems to tell a different, more personal story. These drawings have been kept intact since the sale and shown to very few. When Daniel Baumann first came to Pittsburgh on the announcement that he was to be a co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International, I showed him the drawings and we agreed that now was a good time for them to be more widely shown. He liked them for their intimacy which never turns into confession. “Intimacy is an art in itself,” he said, “it is elegant, generous, and calm, sometimes funny, screwed and even blunt, but it never forces itself into other people’s live the way confessions and social media do.”

Some of the works on display are light and witty as ever but others have a darker purpose, tracing out a more menacing and troubled itinerary. Little cartoons of snails have bared teeth, old men fall over drunk, scenes of brutal violence make appearances, nightmares and bad dreams seem to be documented, executions, suicides, and, to my mind most disturbing of all, scenes of cutting into the flesh attest to disorder that call out for analysis.

Quastler is by no means alone among artists in that she and her work slipped from sight with her death. The chance translation of her work to Pittsburgh and its dispersal, partly preserved them but partly concealed them. Certainly these drawings add to the story. Her papers are now lodged with the Library of Congress, and gradually, through the medium of the Internet she is getting rather more understanding and attention.

—Graham Shearing

About the curators:

Daniel Baumann is an art historian, curator, and critic, and is co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.

Graham Shearing is a writer, critic, and occasional curator living in Pittsburgh.

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