Staten Island Advance

What she did for love
CSI gallery shows works by the best painter you've never heard of, Kathleen McEnery
Staten Island Advance - May 1, 2005

Famous painters -- Cezanne, Cassatt, Renoir, even Matisse -- are hovering over the current exhibition at the College of Staten Island Gallery, a showcase devoted to a virtual unknown. She is Kathleen McEnery (1888-1971) and she is the best painter you've never heard of. How come? Her life got in the way of her art. Instead of a possibly international career, she chose a husband, children and a home in upstate Rochester. It's the old story: Gifted woman (who is liable to be ignored by patriarchal powers in any event) trades brilliance for Brillo and babies. Naturally, however, there are unique circumstances. Born in Brooklyn, Ms. McEnery was already traveling to Manhattan to study with well-known realist painter Robert Henri as a teen-ager. In 1908, she and other students accompanied Henri to Spain on a travel-study excursion. When that sojourn ended, she moved to Paris. She may not have known Cezanne or any of the other titans of early 20th Century Paris personally, but she knew their work and understood the decisions that guided their approach. After two years, she returned to New York where two of her paintings were shown in the most celebrated exhibition of the day, the Armory Show of 1913. The following year, she married a prosperous Rochester businessman and settled upstate. She continued to paint, mostly portraits of women from her circle of family and friends. They were mostly unsigned and undated. After 30 years, her easel time began to shrink, possibly due to arthritis. Art historian Janet Wolff "discovered" McEnery several years ago and presented her via a big Rochester show. Ms. Wolff and Nanette Salomon, curator of the CSI gallery, are colleagues, hence the CSI show. Last week, Professor Salomon said she expected the McEnerys to be excellent. But she was unprepared. When she and gallery director Craig Manister unpacked the paintings, "We were speechless." FEARLESS FLOWERS The bright face of a young woman in a major hat, against a nearly black ground, is the first thing to see, just inside the gallery. It could easily be a be a portrait by Henri or George Luks, American artists of the so-called Ashcan School in the early 20th century. A little further along, the detailed and feminine "Girl at Breakfast," is a luminous ringer for a painting by American-born Impressionist Mary Cassatt. Celebrity resemblances continue throughout the show. But McEnery is no mimic. She's experimenting. Gradually, the "real" McEnery emerges, a capable draftsman who was a fearless colorist. One still life, "Pink Flowers in a Blue Bowl," attempts to do the impossible: Put a light blue bowl of queasy pinkish/orange zinnias against a tomato red-and-white striped cloth. It can't be managed with such incompatible colors, unless that's the point. But she's undaunted, like Matisse, who also relished this sort of high-wire act. Ms. McEnery comes very close to pulling it off, nearly as close as he did, certainly. But her portraits are often the most powerful works, incisively delineated translations of a subject's likeness and personality that don't forfeit the painter's modernist qualifications. In "Man With a Moustache," a half smile plays on the handsome face of the gold-toned young man who is deployed against a gorgeous collision of red, green and gold forms. Everything about this undated paintings suggests the 1920s. A painting probably made around the same time, "Nude With a White Scarf," is as cool as "Man With a Moustache," is warm, except for the naked, draped young woman in the center. At the fleshy center of a whirlpool of ice-blue draperies, she is thoughtfully downcast, resting an elbow against a raised knee, one hand clapped against her kerchiefed head. Immediately behind her, a neoclassical statuette of a bathing goddess offers a visual rebuke. The statuette is calm, while the model is agitated. The show is so good, you may spend hours in it without noticing. Even then, you long to meet the artist. She's there in two paintings that offer a window on the high-ceilinged studio she used in Rochester. In one of them, she's smocked and standing before her easel, painting a violinist posed, in tails, at the far right, next to a piano. It's the last word: Ms. McEnery may have passed into upstate obscurity for a while. But she didn't stop working.   page97_1

By Michael J. Fressola Reprinted here with permission from the page97_2