Lucia Stern, Exhibit Post Mortem Charles Allis Art Museum, Milwaukee, Dec.-Jan, 06

by Gary John Gresl

Fugue V, fiber collage on fabric, c.1950, Gift of Milwaukee Art Museum & Patrick & Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art, West Bend Art Museum Collection
There recently was an exhibit of work by Lucia Stern, held at the Charles Allis Art Museum. This was the sixth in the series that the Allis titles “Wisconsin Masters”. Unfortunately, due to timing and deadlines, this show could not be reviewed for AIW while still on view. However, Stern’s work and these continuing “Wisconsin Masters” series in the Allis are important to recognize, even if after the fact.

Lucia Stern (1895-1989) was an important figure in Wisconsin progressive art from at least the thirties into the seventies. She was a friend and contemporary of such luminaries of the artist Maholy-Nagy, William Valentier, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Baroness Hilla Rebay, Director of what was to become the Solomon Guggenheim Museum. She exhibited her Modernist non-objective work internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, the Chicago Art Institute, Museum of Non-Objective Art, New York, and exhibits in Russia, Germany, Italy and South America.

In 1989 the Haggerty Museum on the Marquette Campus had a retrospective of her work titled “Lucia Stern, A Reevaluation”. This was especially fitting because Lucia had been a supporter and promoter of the creation of that fine art museum.

Besides her own work as an artist, she had served as a teacher and lecturer at the Milwaukee Art Center (now museum), always interested in raising public awareness of progressive visual art and the beneficial results of art education. She also was known as a philanthropist benefiting the Haggerty and The Milwaukee Art Center.

Her own art was part of the movement of skilled intellectual exploration of non-objective form of which her friend, Maholy-Nagy, is best known. Her work must be placed in the context of the time and environment where she most resided. She was part of the 20th Century’s Modernist Movement, which by the 1960’s was being superseded by the Abstract Expressionists and an emerging Pop Art Movement. She spent most of her time in Wisconsin and Milwaukee, a state where traditional art academy training and influence remained strong into the 1950’s. While her reoccurring use of linear shapes and 2D technique may appear conservative to our 21st Century eyes, she was part of the progressive movement in her day.

Her work usually consists of lyrical linear emphasis with biomorphic and/or geometric forms having two dimensional emphasis, but often layered and transparent thereby exposing underlying subtle textures. The best of it is a result of her skills with the formation of graceful shapes and the use of filmy textiles. She even used cellophane and Lucite, revealing her interest in the effect of light and shadow.

The Charles Allis exhibit included several of her simple black and white drawings, and if one were only to view those, one might come away unimpressed. To the eyes of contemporary art enthusiasts who are used to seeing the work of Outsiders, Earth Works, Primitive Art, Minimalism and the many forms of Post-Modernism, her drawings may appear too basic and undeveloped.

However her layered constructions are often rhapsodic and beautiful, with their wandering linear and biomorphic forms. The subtle sometimes diaphanous materials express a delicate hand and intelligence that must be admired and respected.

While the Charles Allis exhibit has closed, some of her work can be viewed at the West Bend Art Museum, and is also available in the collection of the Milwaukee library branch at 1910 East North Avenue.