Works by Female Artists at Crystal Bridges

Works by female artists – a mid-19th century portrait by Susan Catherine Moore Waters (1823 – 1900) and a life-size recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in 20,763 spools of thread by contemporary artist Devorah Sperber – are the latest works of art announced by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Though strikingly different in materials, style, subject matter and execution, both works are the product of highly creative women working in unexpected arenas or applying unusual approaches.

“Museums are about discovery,” said Chris Crosman, chief curator. “The Waters portrait has real presence, and was painted at a time when it was unusual for women to be working as professional artists. On the other hand, Sperber is playing with the notion of what’s considered women’s work – and putting herself in the company of Leonardo by recreating one of art history’s most iconic masterworks at exactly the same size in a new medium.”

Little is known about Susan Waters, who painted in an era when women more typically expressed themselves in embroidered samplers, quilts and other domestic arts. Waters was born in Binghamton, N.Y. in 1823 and supported her family as an itinerant painter after her husband became ill and unable to work. She was active in the Southern Tier region of New York and nearby northern Pennsylvania. Later in her career, after moving to Bordentown, New Jersey, she became known for her paintings of animals and still-life. Her work is also included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art and the Addison Gallery of American Art, Massachusetts.

In the Crystal Bridges portrait a solemn girl in a formal black dress, accompanied by a large dog, gazes out sternly at the viewer. The richly detailed landscape may offer clues to the locale – Crosman speculates that the grape arbor in the upper right corner may be a reference to New York’s Finger Lakes wine region – but many questions remain to be answered.

“While painted in a ‘folk’ or naïve style, the composition and draftsmanship suggest some formal training,” Crosman said. “How and where did Waters study art, who was the sitter, and where was it painted? We will be researching this work to learn more about it.”
Devorah Sperber has achieved acclaim for taking on art history’s canon, recasting work by artists ranging from Hans Holbein to Andy Warhol in installations utilizing spools of thread to explore optical perception. After The Last Supper,which is currently touring the country and will next be displayed at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah (August 21 – October 31, 2010), is typical of her thread series. Chains of spools are installed so that the familiar image appears upside down, dissolving into pixilated abstraction. Only when the viewer steps up to a viewing device similar to a crystal ball does the image resolve into Leonardo’s iconic mural.

“When you step up to the lens, the whole world opens up to you,” said Don Bacigalupi, director. “Sperber is drawing on centuries of research on the science of optics and the phenomenology of perception, and sing art history in a very unconventional way.”

Born in 1961 in Detroit, Sperber was raised near Denver and studied graphic design at the Colorado Institute of Art. She initially worked in stone, but a Chuck Close retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art inspired her to seek a medium that would allow her to deconstruct images into discreet units. Her past series have used beads, push pin tacks and other craft materials to reconstruct notable works (think, for example, of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm rendered in 165,000 chenille pipe-cleaners) and she has also mined references to Star Trek, Jimi Hendrix and other pop culture icons. Sperber currently lives in New York City and Woodstock, N.Y.

“These are both wonderful additions to our collection in completely different ways, as each builds on other works in our collection” said Bacigalupi. “The Waters portrait expands what is already a strong collection of American portraits, while Sperber’s work resonates with James Turrell’s interest in color and perception, and with Mary McCleary’s method of constructing an image with found materials.”
In response to community interest, Crystal Bridges is sharing more examples from its permanent collection via monthly announcements, with even more to come when the museum opens.