New York, New York
Summary of Nell Blaine
Arriving in New York in the midst of Abstract Expressionism's rise, Nell Blaine became a part of, and in fact helped to create, a vibrant community of young artists, poets, and musicians who drank up Abstract Expressionism's commitment to abstraction, color, and gestural brushwork but found new subject matter in intimate depictions of friends, nature, and mundane views. Blaine, along with Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, helped to usher in a new, Contemporary Realism, that took up the familiar and everyday that in some ways anticipated the subjects of Pop Art but that was more lyrical and introspective.
Blaine's evolution from an abstract painter to a painter of portraits and landscapes may seem an about-face, but she remained interested in the dynamic relations between form and color and creating an intimate viewing experience no matter what her subject matter. Her adaptations to a mid-life medical condition created new challenges but also new ways of working that enhanced her intimate portrayals of friends and her surrounding environs that continue to influence contemporary landscape painters.
- Pulling inspiration from the gamut of modern art as well as jazz music, Nell Blaine created dynamic paintings that pulsed with vibrant colors and layered perspectives that captured the felt sense of nature, places, and people. Though initially dedicated to abstraction, Blaine carried the compositional effects she learned from Hans Hofmann into her realist paintings.
- Blaine's participation in the trend toward figuration in the 1950s, a trend that encompassed such diverse artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Bearden, and Jane Freilicher, demonstrated that realism, even when subtle and quiet, was a powerful response to the growing cacophony of Cold War consumer culture.
- While immersed in the social scene of the Abstract Expressionists, Blaine's closest friends, all represented by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, created a smaller, more intimate community that engaged in collaborative projects with poets that were often more playful and intimate than the grand scale of her Abstract Expressionist colleagues.
Progression of Art
Red and Black
Nell Blaine's painting Red and Black features curvilinear shapes in black, blue, and red that sit atop a lightly painted, milky white background. The shapes are not strictly geometric but have a more organic quality in the way they fit together and relate to one another dynamically and recall some of the chance-inspired collages and paintings of Dadaist Jean Arp. This piece is an important example of Blaine's early commitment to abstract painting after she moved to New York City. Less gestural and more controlled than some of the other artists working in this genre, this painting shows the influence of her teacher Hans Hofmann, who advocated for abstraction and the visual tension of a push-pull composition.
Exposure to jazz music also influenced Blaine's work. Reveling in its sound, she began to think of her abstract compositions as coming together the way jazz musicians form their unique sounds. She once stated, "We painters were in love with the idea of creating new forms and rhythms related to the spirit we felt moving in this music.... Like each improvisation in jazz, each color in abstract painting was to have a life of its own in the picture. Color relationships were to be more keenly felt and weighed. So it was with the role of the players in a jazz ensemble. " In this painting, then, each form, can be seen not as an individual shape but as a part (or note if you will) in the larger composition of the painting.
Oil on canvas - Collection of estate of the artist
Nell Blaine's painting depicts a street scene rendered in simplified, geometric shapes and a myriad of colors that makes the work look slightly abstract while simultaneously being reminiscent of Fernand Leger's Cubist forms. One can see numerous cars on a busy street, but the focal point is the right half of the canvas in which a large male figure seems to either rest his hand on the headlight of a parked car or perhaps straddles a motorcycle while he looks downward.
Blaine was still deeply absorbed in Abstract Expressionism when she made her first trip to Europe in 1949; however, during her stay, she fell under the influence of the city sights as well as the nature around her and began to experiment with the depiction of more realistic imagery in her works. This painting, an early example of the beginning of this shift in her work, shows one of her first incorporations of the figure. This change was due in part to French artist Jean Hélion, who Blaine met during her stay and whose open studio sessions she attended with other young artists. Art historian Martica Sawin explains, "It was his late 1940s hard-edged, more stylized paintings of newspaper readers, umbrellas, and nudes that played a part in leading Blaine back to the figure. " While her paintings would eventually become more figurative and gestural, here we see the beginning of her transition away from abstraction.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
Wharf Studio, Gloucester
Wharf Studio is a lush celebration of color. In the foreground, a small vase of pink flowers, a green glass, and a colorful plate of food sit atop a teal colored table. Behind the table, one sees a wicker sofa covered in green cushions and vibrantly striped blankets. Further in the background, a wall of windows lets in the streaming sun.
In this work, one finds two recurring themes in Blaine's art. Room interiors became a favorite subject of hers once she made the transition from abstraction to realism in the 1950s. It also shows the inspiration she took from the many places she visited and lived; in this instance Gloucester, Massachusetts, which Blaine subtly references in the glimpse of the water through her studio windows.
While realistic in subject matter, Blaine loosely renders objects with broad brushstrokes, reveling in her love of Impressionism. Here one experiences the sense of the place, an intimacy that would be lost if the work was more precisely rendered. Not abandoning the lessons she learned from her abstract compositions, Blaine explained, "Realism in painting consists of order, rhythms, growth, and shapes, rather than the actual appearance of things."
Oil on canvas - Collection of Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts
In this painting, Nell Blaine depicts a series of city rooftops in a range of pastel colors and shades of blue. The surface of the roof that dominates the foreground appears to shimmer in the fallen rain.
After her diagnosis of bulbar-spinal polio in 1959, Blaine had to adapt to painting with her left hand and limited range of mobility, as she was confined to a wheel chair. As a result, her paint handling became looser in many ways and her subject matter closer to home, in this case the view of New York City rooftops from the window of her Riverside Drive apartment.
One of Blaine's striking abilities is to turn mundane, even dirty, things into beautifully colored compositions. Art historian Martica Sawin observed that "garbage into flowers is a good metaphor for Blaine's vision, a vision that dwells on natural beauty and sees the world in rainbow colors, even when looking at city rooftops." Writing about this series for an 1968 ARTNews article, poet and critic James Schuyler stated, "It is one of those 'least' views with which the city abounds: its apparent merit not anything to see, but that you can see further across the street.... And how extraordinarily beautiful it is, painted like this, an inextricable delight of interlocking shapes, a plane geometry of the continuous right-angled skin of the city. So many surprises and incongruities.... "
Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
Three Friends at a Table II
This painting features three figures, two women and a man, seated at a large table scattered with saucers, cups, a tea kettle, fruit, and a vase filled with abundant flowers. Blaine retains her vibrant color palette and intimate choice of subjects, but Three Friends at a Table II feels less brushy and impressionistic than her work usually does and instead exhibits a new crispness and detail. Additionally, the background with individual works of art hanging on the wall and the view through the window are more delineated in the composition compared to other backgrounds in Blaine's paintings.
Importantly, this work is a striking example of one of Blaine's later interests beginning in the mid-1960s - portraiture - and one of the biggest she painted while in her wheelchair. Featuring her lover, Carolyn Harris, and friends Flora Kriezi and Marshall Clements, art historian Martica Sawin describes the closeness Blaine captures: "Although each of the immobile three is lost in his or her own thoughts, there is a quality of unspoken intimacy that holds them together. Since Blaine had only limited movement in her left arm and less in her right, it was necessary to move back and forth in the wheelchair to get from one side of the canvas to the other. Yet the painting does not seem in any way disjointed, probably because the strong, trapezoidal shape of the table with its colorful objects draws and holds the eye, which only afterward begins to scan the weary faces of the three friends. " Blaine explained her new-found interest in portraiture, saying, "[S]uddenly it just seemed terribly exciting to get a face that's alive, that is a kind of permanent image of this person with some life coming through it. Mostly I paint people I know very well, and I like to paint them over and over and keep on sort of penetrating. "
Oil on canvas - Collection of Estate of the Artist
A large, pink spotted lily fills the center of a bouquet, accompanied by another closed lily and smaller white flowers with vibrant green leaves. The clear glass vase rests on a small table covered in a light blue cloth, and a soft greenish-pink subtly pulsates in the background.
Floral still lifes, often rendered in a fashion reminiscent of Post-Impressionist artists such as Vincent van Gogh, were a recurring theme in Blaine's art during the last three decades of her life. While she had long been drawn to nature and especially gardens, author Martica Sawin explains how after polio confined her to a wheelchair Blaine "began having [nature] come to her in the form of cut flowers. Delicate bouquets of field flowers or bunches of bright, luxuriant August blossoms...became the subject of close-focus scrutiny, bringing into the interior some of the outdoor color and light that were so exhilarating for her. From the start it was clear that she wanted these flower paintings not to be detached from nature in stiff or contrived arrangements, but to be an extension of the place where they grew, subjected to as little artifice as possible. " Despite her inability to easily explore the gardens she loved, Blaine was still able to capture the grandeur of nature through these intimate flower portraits.
Oil on canvas - Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts
In Emerald Gardens, Blaine depicts a lush garden full of green foliage and flowers in vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows. A pot of red flowers sits on a walkway that meanders into the composition from the bottom right, and the pale blue of the bay and further landscape are hazy in the background.
This painting, created in the final year of her life, is a celebration and culmination of Blaine's decades-long passion for nature and gardens, especially those around her cottage in Gloucester, Massachusetts. So dedicated to the subject, she endured the difficult process of having herself and her wheelchair placed outdoors to engage in plein air painting. Acknowledging her struggles, Blaine stated, "The upheaval and packing are strenuous, but worthwhile once we're there smelling the pine, picking the flowers. " According to art historian Martica Sawin, "She derived great pleasure from the latter, moving in her wheelchair from one bed to another and exclaiming over new blossoms. "
In particular, this painting highlights the importance of light in Blaine's painting in the ways in which she surrounds many of the impressionistic strokes of color with white, creating a sense of reflected light. Blaine revealed her desire to capture the perfect light of nature by explaining, "My true subject is the life of forms as revealed by light. Light reveals or conceals as it moves. Even colors in close values can give a feeling of light saturation.... I have no desire to copy shadows or light patches, although they give me clues and directions and help me structure space. I pick and choose even while I empathize, becoming what is before me and surrounds me. "
Watercolor and pastel on paper - Reynolds Gallery, Richmond, Virginia
Biography of Nell Blaine
Childhood and Education
Nell Blaine's childhood was a difficult one. She experienced little love from her father, Harry Blaine who seemed to never recover from the death of his first wife even after remarrying and having Nell. In contrast, her mother, Eudora Blaine, a devoutly religious woman who had already birthed one stillborn son, almost smothered her daughter with attention and controlling judgement throughout her childhood.
A sickly child, Blaine was both cross-eyed and severely nearsighted and received her first pair of glasses at the age of two. According to Sawin, "Blaine was so thin and pale when she started school that she was put in a 'Fresh Air Class' that required naps, a special diet, and more outdoor activity than the regular classes. Because one eye turned in toward her nose, other children made fun of her and she became adept at defending herself, often with fists, and was thought of as a tomboy. She reacted against parental disapproval by rebelling. " Fortunately, operations on her eyes at the age of thirteen improved her vision and cross-eyedness, which eased her social awkwardness to some degree.
Drawing was one of the few early pleasures Blaine experienced and already by the age of five she declared her desire to be an artist. During high school, she furthered this interest by taking an art correspondence course and working as an illustrator on the school paper; she also created the posters for school plays and earned money creating drawings for the children's page in the local paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Blaine received her first formal art training at the age of sixteen when she enrolled at the School of Art of the Richmond Professional Institute. Because of her family's poor financial state after the death of her father, Blaine received a work scholarship. While at school, Blaine made extra money working for the college newspaper where she interviewed visiting celebrities such as Walter Brennan, Jeanette MacDonald, and Katharine Hepburn, drawing their portraits to accompany her articles.
In order to make ends meet, Blaine had to leave school full time to take a job making illustrations for an advertising agency, but she continued her education by enrolling in an evening class. While there, her teacher, Worden Day, encouraged her to move to New York City so she could study under the great abstract painter Hans Hofmann. Putting aside any extra money she could from her job, eventually Blaine saved enough to make the move. Her mother was extremely unhappy about her decision and according to Sawin, she "tried to stop her from going and called the dean of the college, threatening to have her daughter committed. " Blaine, who went despite her mother's concerns, said of her decision that "it was the crucial act of my life. "
Immediately upon arriving in New York in 1942, Blaine went straight to the Hofmann School to express her interest in enrolling. After showing her drawings and paintings to Hofmann, she was given a two-year scholarship and began attending classes. Blaine thrived at school and later reflected, "This was my Mecca, Hofmann, the Master's street, the center of all things I longed to know, the gateway to abstract and all modern art, a holy place. " Her ability to learn from the art world greats continued four years later when she studied etching and engraving at Atelier 17 under Stanley William Hayter.
Once in the city, Blaine quickly made friends and fell into a social circle that included artists Leland Bell, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Robert De Niro along with poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. Experiencing independence for the first time, free from the control of her mother, Nell Blaine reflected: "The moment I hit New York, I was like a bird out of a cage."
While a disciple of Hofmann, Blaine was also inspired by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian, and her earliest abstract works, such as Red and Black (1945), show this influence. Committed to abstraction, she became the youngest member of the American Abstract Artists organization in 1944 and the next year was included in an exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery. Blaine also joined the artist cooperative, the Jane Street Gallery, and quickly became one of the driving forces behind keeping the group prosperous and productive.
Jazz music also became an important influence, and as a result she learned to play the drums, often playing them at the parties she hosted in her apartment, which were famously open to anyone who wanted to attend with guests free to stay as long as they liked. Her interest in music also impacted her personal life; while at a music club, she met Robert Bass and the two married three months later in July of 1943. That same year, the couple made their first visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Blaine found inspiration for her art in the landscape and gardens of the area. Bass also introduced Blaine to painters Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, enlarging her circle of artist friends.
Blaine's marriage was not a solid one, largely due to Blaine's infidelities. Already aware of her bisexuality, according to author Cathy Curtis, Blaine "would have more than thirty lovers of both sexes, often several at a time during her younger days. " The marriage did not last, with the breaking point occurring after Blaine suffered a miscarriage, and it was eventually annulled in 1948. Recognizing her inability to be happy in a traditional domestic arrangement, Blaine stated of Bass, "He was almost too nice. He was very devoted and did everything for me and I got bored. "
After the end of her marriage, Blaine threw herself into her art. She took her first trip to Europe in 1949 and spent significant time in France, where she drew inspiration from the Impressionists. After six months overseas, Blaine returned to New York where her art, while still incorporating the loose, gestural brushstrokes characteristic of abstraction, became more pictorial in nature, and she began to add people and landscapes into some of her compositions.
In the early 1950s, Blaine, along with Freilicher, Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and others, was part of the stable of artists shown at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Championed by gallerist John Myers, the artists often collaborated with poets such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbury, and Kenneth Koch.
Increasingly, the inspiration for Blaine's works came from her travels, which in addition to Europe, included a residency at the artist community of Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1957, a trip to Mexico that same year, as well as repeated summer stays in Gloucester. Finding it difficult to support herself solely through her art in these early years of her career, she supplemented her income by working as a commercial artist; her most notable job came in 1955 when working for the Village Voice she designed the paper's iconic logo.
An extended stay in Greece in 1959 proved to be a life-changing event for Blaine. While living in Mykonos for the summer, she was highly productive, creating many paintings of the country landscape, flowers, and room interiors. While there, she began to feel unwell. Growing increasingly tired, the thirty-seven year old Blaine eventually collapsed. While the local doctors were unable to discover the cause of her illness, German doctors, who were vacationing in the area, examined her and diagnosed her with bulbar-spinal polio. The life-threatening nature of the illness led to Blaine being flown to Athens where she was temporarily put in an iron lung. She later described the experience: "Sometimes the pain was visual, like a bird pecking at my legs." Later, she was flown home and taken to New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. Blaine later recalled, "It took three months for them to be sure I would live. Apparently all the functions had gone. I was almost completely paralyzed for several months. I could move one hand and one lower arm a bit; my head a little bit. But otherwise nothing. " Eventually more movement would return, but she would only have the use of half her diaphragm, making breathing difficult, and she would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
When a social worker at the hospital told her she would never paint again, Blaine became angry and refused to accept it. Unable to fully lift her right arm, she taught herself to paint with her left hand. While she would continue to have a highly productive career for the last decades of her life, it was only because she completely changed her approach. Years later, Blaine reflected how her polio diagnosis impacted her art, saying, "I tend to work more compactly and I think the forms are simpler. The worst limitation is working so close. I used to be very athletic while painting; I would run back and run forward so I wouldn't lose the knowledge of where that stroke should go. Now I blur my eyes so I will get the all over.... What I did before my illness tended to have the feeling of over-expenditure of energy. What I did afterward represents me myself, free and detached." Perhaps because of her need to reinvent how she painted, Blaine's paintings became more detailed and increasingly featured people, views of building rooftops from her city apartment, and paintings of flowers and gardens.
While recovering in the hospital, Blaine met a nurse Dilys Evans who would eventually become her lover, but Evans's immigration status as a British citizen proved a problem; the two were forced to return to Europe while Evans applied for permanent residency in America. In addition to a stay in England, the couple spent eleven months on a banana plantation on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, inspiring many paintings. However, upon returning to New York, Blaine's relationship with Evans fell apart. Soon after, in 1967, she met artist Carolyn Harris, and the two began a relationship that would last the rest of Blaine's life.
Having struggled financially throughout her career, Blaine unexpectedly benefitted from two inheritances late in her life. When her mother died in 1971, the money she received from her estate allowed Blaine to purchase a house in Gloucester in 1974. From that point on, Blaine and Harris would spend half the year, from June until November, in Gloucester and the rest of the year in New York. Around the same time in 1975, friend Howard Griffin, whom Blaine had stayed with while in London, died and left her his home in Austria.
Many awards and critical praise for Blaine's work happened in the last decade of her career, including two honorary doctorates, of which she later joked, "The students chose me. Isn't that a laugh? Me without even an earned certificate. See what happens when you get old. " Her fighting spirit also did not fade with age. Always one to speak her mind, this tendency increased as she got older, and biographer Cathy Curtis describes how she often wrote letters to express her frustration with various situations, including a letter to President Ronald Regan in support of women's rights; the Scott Paper Company about the texture of their toilet paper products, which she felt had lessened because they absorbed less of the excess liquid from her watercolors than they used to; and to President Bill Clinton about the need to strengthen environmental protection laws.
Despite painting prolifically in the last years of her life, Blaine's health continued to fail. In addition to the complications of polio known as postpolio syndrome, in June 1993 she learned she had breast cancer and underwent an operation. Later the cancer returned in lymph nodes under her arms, requiring further treatment. Shortly after, in June 1996 she contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. Her health never truly recovered. On November 6, the pneumonia recurred, and she died eight days later at the age of seventy-four.
The Legacy of Nell Blaine
Though not recognized as widely as she should be, Nell Blaine's career stands as a microcosm of post-World War II stylistic tendencies - from gestural Abstract Expressionism to the geometries of pure abstraction and eventually to a lyrical realism that included still lifes, landscapes, and interior views. Importantly, she also played a key social role in gathering artists together to create a vibrant community of painters, poets, and musicians who created a collaborative environment that opened many avenues of exploration. She helped to lay the foundation for future generations of landscape and nature artists showing how that genre could be brought into the second half of the 20th century. Her influence can be seen especially in other artists who also turned to her beloved Gloucester for inspiration, including Laurel Hughes, Reed Kay, and Erma Wheeler.
Blaine's perseverance in the face of adversity is also a key aspect of her legacy. Refusing to let polio end her career she taught herself to paint in a new way. Like the Photorealist Chuck Close, she demonstrated to the world that physical limitations do not have to end artistic pursuits.