Berry Campbell is pleased to present Complexed Squares, its third exhibition with Yvonne Thomas (1913-2009).
With seventeen paintings from 1963 to 1976, Complexed Squares highlights a decisive phase in the French-born painter’s career, as she moved beyond Abstract Expressionism to develop a distinctive personal style that resonated with artistic currents of the ‘60s.
A regular on New York’s art scene, Thomas was best known for her lyrical, gestural abstractions that followed the teachings of her professors and mentors, principally Robert Motherwell and Hans Hofmann.
In Complexed Squares, we see her exploring a new painterly vocabulary–using systems to determine her series of repeating geometric forms, switching from oil to acrylic, deploying her intensive hues to stage playful optical illusions.
When Berry Campbell exhibited the artist’s paintings from 1963-65 in 2019, New York Times co–chief art critic Roberta Smith described Thomas’s “modest but radiant proto-Minimalist” works as “perhaps the best in her career.”
The current show takes its title from Complexed Squares, the artist’s 1964 painting that announces a new direction for Thomas. Traditionally an oil painter, she switched to acrylic.
Working on a horizontal canvas nearly four feet long, she painted criss-crossed swathes of translucent, vibrant color, creating varying tones and variations where they meet. It’s the signature geometric form of Hofmann, activated with the exuberant palette and illusionistic sensibility of Pop and Op art. The squares are “complexed,” Dr. Lisa Peters writes in the exhibition catalog, because the shapes are “implied, revealed, and the unintentional result of overlapped color.”
(In the ‘60s, when “square” generally meant uncool, the punning title might have suggested other meanings as well.)
In other paintings from 1964, Thomas draws from European art histories in her color experiments, evoking stained glass and the sumptuous effects of religious painting. In Transition, a shimmering golden ground is the backdrop for an ethereal gathering of squares that float and recede according to their hue and saturation. For Squares, Thomas chose a surface blend of cobalt and ultramarine blue–the one that Raphael used in his Madonnas to signify Heaven–achieving the effect with her new chosen medium, acrylic.
The exhibition continues with Thomas’s next series, a group of horizontal canvases that suggest arches, columns, windows and other architectural forms. In these mostly untitled works from 1969 to ’76, painted in a minimal palette, Thomas’s shapes use their kinetic energy to trick the eye, causing viewers to question their vision. “Forms that appear solid and three-dimensional suddenly seem to become windows,” Dr. Peters writes in her catalog essay. “Positive becomes negative space and vice versa. Some oblongs rise up before us as solid shapes—roadblocks or columns; others are portals in which the motion of the world is beyond our reach.”
Born in Nice, Thomas emigrated to the United States with her family in 1925, living in New England before settling in New York. She first studied painting at Cooper Union, dropping out in 1931 when the Depression threatened her parents’ livelihood, and putting art on hold to become a successful fashion illustrator.
In 1936, she resumed her artistic education. She studied at the Art Students League with Vaclav Vytlacil, a student of Hofmann, and then at the Ozenfant School of Fine Art, founded by the French Cubist Amédée Ozenfant. In 1948, she met her most influential teachers. Her friend Patricia Matta introduced her to the Subjects of the Artist School, where many of the best-known Abstract Expressionist painters were based. Thomas enrolled as a student during the one year of the school’s operation, from 1948–49. When Motherwell took over, she continued to work with him closely as she developed her own style. Then, starting in 1950, she studied with Hofmann at his Provincetown school and later in New York. He helped her nurture her lifelong explorations of color.
By then, Thomas was a well-known figure in the downtown art community. Thomas lived with her husband, Leonard, in Greenwich Village with their two daughters. They entertained often with friends including Duchamp (another French transplant), Elaine de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt, Fay Lansner, and many others. Thomas joined “the Club,” the legendary gathering of Abstract Expressionists initiated in 1948. She participated in 5 Stable Gallery annual exhibitions from 1953 through 1956.
Thomas was soon exhibiting regularly. In April 1960, she had a solo show at Esther Stuttman’s New York gallery. Donald Judd was one admirer, praising Thomas’s joyous lyricism in his Arts magazine review. “The paint and the canvas are identified with one another, continued into each other, and the consequent speed and thinness of the surface engender the clarity and singleness of the poetry,” he wrote.
The Complexed Squares attracted critical attention as well, as Thomas debuted her new abstractions in a solo 1964 show at the Newport Art Museum in and in two 1965 exhibitions at Rose Fried Gallery in New York. Writing in ARTnews, a critic praised Thomas’s “impressive recent abstractions in which several squares of roughly equal size are lined up, shifted and maneuvered into position by means of color. . . ..These may be ideologically related to Hofmann, but they are sufficiently different from his absolute squares of color to achieve uniqueness.”
In recent years, Thomas’s earlier work has been part of the surge of interest in women Abstract Expressionist painters. In 2016, her paintings Cyclops (1955) and Transmutation (1956) were included in the Denver Art Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism.
Three of Thomas’ paintings are featured in the traveling exhibition Action, Gesture, Paint that opened at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and is now on view at Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Arles, France and in 2021, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., acquired Thomas’s Portrait (1956).
Complexed Squares features just one chapter in a long career of artistic reinvention by Thomas. In 1993, when the Aspen Art Museum surveyed the career to date of the artist, who spent many years in the area, critic John Yau celebrated her defiant rejection of boundaries and categories. Her ability to draw on O’Keeffe’s modernism, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism “forces us to rethink definitions of each style,” he writes.
What’s consistent is the impact her art has on the viewer, Yau adds. “Thomas uses abstraction to challenge our need to recognize both what we see in art and the way we look at the world.”
BERRY CAMPBELL PRESENTS YVONNE THOMAS: COMPLEXED SQUARES
Event Title: BERRY CAMPBELL PRESENTS YVONNE THOMAS: COMPLEXED SQUARES
Event Description: Berry Campbell is pleased to present Complexed Squares, its third exhibition with Yvonne Thomas (1913-2009). With seventeen paintings from 1963 to 1976, Complexed Squares highlights a decisive phase in the French-born painter’s career, as she moved beyond Abstract Expressionism to develop a distinctive personal style that resonated with artistic currents of the ‘60s.
Start date: September 8, 2023
End date: October 14, 2023
Location name: Berry Campbell
Address: 524 W 26th Street, New York, NY 10001