Mary Henry: The Fabric of Space

Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art is pleased to present MARY HENRY: THE FABRIC OF SPACE an important solo exhibition of select small jewel-like abstract drawings that Mary Henry created in her lifetime, spanning the mid-70’s until the end of her life.  Remarkable for the interplay of color value and form in their construction, these works on paper vibrate with a visual intensity that is both unique and palpable.

“I think her compositions are always so well structured and she used color in beautiful and unexpected ways. But I’m also interested in how her career is part of the larger story of modernism in America — from her early realist work for the WPA to her transition to Op Art and her embrace of hard-edged geometry. I think she always stayed true to the utopian beginnings of geometric abstraction, seeing it as the most fundamental artistic form — an art with universal meaning made for everyone.”     
Courtney Gilbert, curator of visual arts, Sun Valley (Idaho) Center for the Arts

Born in 1913, Mary Henry attended the California College of Arts and Crafts at a time few women were sincerely accepted by the public and the art world as artists. Then, in the late '30s, Henry experienced a life-altering moment whose full effect wouldn't command her life for another 25 years or so: a lecture by the Hungarian Constructivist pioneer and Bauhaus champion Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. 

So impressed with her work and discipline, Moholy-Nagy offered Henry a job teaching with him at the “new” Bauhaus school he had started in Chicago, the Institute of Design, where she graduated with an MFA in 1946.  Henry was gripped by Bauhaus' formal ideas and Moholy-Nagy's fascination with pure expressiveness through line and color. Those ideas brewed and steeped in Henry's imagination as she lived a life of domesticity: married with children.  It wasn't until 1964, the year she got divorced and became a working artist, that Henry would truly pursue her ambitions.

“Like other artists of the time, she was handicapped because she was a woman.  Mary Henry wanted to be recognized as an artist period, not as a ‘woman artist’. High praise for a woman was that ‘she paints like a man’.”  
Lois Allan, “Matriarchs of Modernism”

Thus initiated, Mary Henry’s artistic journey began to perfect a spare yet expressive visual language out of geometric shapes and bold graphic colors.  Henry emerges as a second-generation geometric abstractionist and one of its most supple champions; she located spiritual essences in her work and elicited the highest passion. Through the years, Henry has received praise in publications like Artforum and Art Ltd. However, while her work has been exhibited widely and her individual works have found their way into a number of important public and private collections, Henry has remained a cult regional figure that the contemporary art world is just learning about.

“To have a concept of life is of no value to anyone if it cannot somehow be expressed…a painting can be all things to all men; the greatest value it has is that it can mean something personal to each new observer and still something else to the person who painted it.” 
Mary Henry

Mary Henry’s paintings are characterized by crisp, clean lines and an unemotional use of color, highlighting an extraordinary intellectual clarity. Working from small-scale sketches, she perfected her compositions and color choices before moving on to larger scale canvasses. Like Zen koans, Henry’s work explores depth and profundity through the simplicity and balance of her compositions.

“What I would like most of all to be able to do would be to find in my painting the connection of humanity to the universe - a truly symbolic relationship made visible. This is, I believe, my concept of the spirituality of my painting. I continue with non-objective work using geometric shapes. I believe it is the way that best expresses what I feel and what I think is the deepest, most significant art form now and for the future.” 
Mary Henry

Major exhibitions: Mary Henry's artwork is in numerous collections including the Portland Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, the Institute of Design (Chicago), the Whatcom Museum, the Sheldon Museum, Microsoft, Safeco, Amgen, and Hewlett-Packard.   She was the focus of a major retrospective in 2007 at the Wright Exhibition Space in Seattle, curated by Matthew Kangas.   Henry was the 2006 recipient of the Twining Humber Lifetime Achievement Award and 2001 Flintridge Foundation Award that afforded her a stove to heat her studio.

Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art believes it is essential to keep significant NW artists in front of the public through shows such as this one that focuses on a single person and places their work into a global context.  Today Mary Henry is considered a “matriarch of modernism”, a self-directed and disciplined creative force.  As one of the region’s most rigorous and historically important artists, Henry is only now receiving the acclaim that is her due.