Music for Music for Art: Vera Klement
To start the year off with a surprise, Dan Ursini, who usually tells us about musicians he finds at YouTube in his Music for Music column, reports today on the visual artist Vera Klement.
Vera Klement’s Woodcuts at Printworks
By Dan Ursini © 2019
For over thirty years, I have been a supporter of the celebrated painter Vera Klement—attending a great many of her show openings, meeting her, and becoming a friend. A highlight of 2018 was the autumn show at Chicago’s Printworks Gallery devoted to works on paper created by Klement and by two of her students from her many years teaching art at the University of Chicago.
In essence, this exhibit celebrated both the artistic vision of Klement and the curatorial vision of Bob Hiebert, a co-founder of Printworks. For decades each has been a defining element of the visual arts scene, both locally and beyond. I was intrigued that Hiebert had chosen a couple of Klement woodcuts from as early as 1952. My own familiarity with her work began with her mid-1980s paintings.
Vera Klement is enjoying an exceptionally long and productive career. She was born in an area of Europe that disappeared from maps after World War Two: the city-state of Danzig, now known as Gdansk, Poland. A Holocaust survivor, she came of age in a now-vanished American cultural capital—the tumultuous and highly intellectual art scene of mid-century New York. The immensely talented Klement was soon championed by Dore Ashton, one of the premier American art critics of the era. Settling in Chicago, Klement, a longtime feminist, co-founded Artemisia in the mid-1970s—the first woman-owned art gallery in Chicago.
Klement is renowned for her large-scale oil paintings, often displaying virtuosic use of color and texture—and economy. With a few brush strokes, she can render the most telling character details. Her use of color betrays considerable audacity and erudition. Here is her Elephant.
Her paintings are laid out on multiple panels, often across two or three canvases. The subjects are timeless shapes like rivers and trees, vessels and doors, and portions of the human figure. These images connect in deeply indirect ways. Klement’s brilliant grasp of visual implication inspires connections that reach well beyond the limits of language. The results can be profound, especially when evoking a horror beyond words—a recurring theme in her work.
Gate, encaustic on canvas, 72″ x 109″, 1987
Gate is a meditation on Auschwitz concentration camp. An outline of its railroad entrance is depicted through imagery of a final destination, tombstone, and black dead air. Of that, Klement wrote in an email, “[T]he area is made of layers and layers of encaustic (melted wax added to the warmed-up paint) blackish layered over deep red, to emulate the fire in the ovens.”
To avoid the cheat of sentimentality, Klement isolates these images against backgrounds evoking oceanic emptiness. In the process, she challenges conventions of dimensionality and point of view. It is as if she starts from zero when she creates an image, and then deepens the surrounding zero as she goes. Beyond that, a panel often shows deeply textured fields—a profuse spray of new flowers or thick chunks of cedar bark or deep vistas of farmland just ploughed. Each is rendered with headlong celebratory energy.
Cthonic Urn, oil on canvas, 2003
That intensity of execution, combined with the multiple panels and the portraits of disconnection and misery, are hallmarks of her work over the last few decades. My favorite, Black Roses, depicts a woman martyr at that transformative moment when the wall dividing the spiritual reality from physical reality becomes a vapor and suffering is overwhelmed by rapture.
Black Roses, oil on canvas, 72 x 78 inches, 2001
Though the show at Printworks showcased many works by Klement and others, I shall concentrate on just one of her early woodcuts. It is usually unfair to expect work from the opening years of a career to deliver a visionary moment. Yet that is what these woodcuts provide, especially The Wake, from 1953. It is built around four characters, each stylized into an elongated teardrop shape. Overwhelmed by loss, they are driven deeper into themselves. The heavy splitting power of the moment is deepened by Klement’s bold decision to surround them with dense patterns of stripes and speckles and checks.
The Wake, woodcut, 24 × 17 1/2″ ; sheet: 26 3/4 × 20 1/2″ , 1953
The Wake skews traditional dimensional conventions; the foreground and background elements look arranged side by side on a common surface. Klement uses the grain of the wood itself for some of the patterning. This raw power is accentuated by the use of off-white Japanese rice paper and black ink. The muscular density of this woodcut may appear the antithesis of Klement’s later large-scale oil canvases, with their majestic airy expanses. But there is a sustained organizing idea behind it all: an uninterrupted experiment with the expansion and compaction of space in presenting imagery. The woodcut also displays the glorious, pulsing energy which is a hallmark of Vera Klement’s entire career. Indeed, the continuity of that momentum across decades of profound cultural change is a tribute to her lifetime commitment to her art.
Note: a few weeks ago, Printworks closed after a 39-year run. Hiebert’s deft decision to include Klement’s woodcuts in his final exhibit is a reminder that such brilliant thinking had been central to the long survival of Printworks. During 2019, major exhibits of Vera Klement’s work will be presented at the Zolla/Lierberman Gallery and the Ulrich Gallery of Art at Wichita State University.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org