Elizabeth Osborne: A Retrospective
September 8 through October 15, 2022
By DONALD KUSPIT, September 2022
Born in Philadelphia in 1936, and now 86 still living there, the retrospective of Elizabeth Osborne's paintings at Berry Campbell gallery shows the range of her subject matter—she moves effortlessly from figuration to landscape, each work subtly perfected by a deft, nuanced touch, and perhaps above all by her aesthetic mastery of color, but what the retrospective fails to make clear is the psychodynamic import of her paintings, signaled at the beginning of her career by her self-portrait in Black Doorway I, 1966. Standing between a ruthlessly flat plane, its larger upper part pitch black, its somewhat softer, less intimidating lower part oddly greenish, and a canvas, pitch black but with blue paint dripping at its bottom, Osborne conveys a fundamental psychic conflict: between the death instinct, symbolized by the ruthless blackness, and the life instinct, symbolized, however hesitantly, by the green and blue. Osborne herself wears a blue blouse or shirt and black sweater or coat, epitomizing her inner conflict. She stands in a doorway, as the exquisite trompe l’oeil handle suggests, indecisive which door to open—the door to pure abstraction, more or less color field, or the door to figurative painting which she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, a bastion of figuration since its founding in the 19th century. One might say that Black Doorway I shows her faced with a choice between avant-garde purity and traditional representation. The triumph of her painting, testifying to her creative ingenuity, was their subtle fusion in her paintings after nature, among them the relatively serene—for the redundant streaks of black horizon seem to suggest an impending storm, not to say the death that haunts nature that Poussin famously painted--early watercolor Dana Island Series, 1989 to the rhapsodic, elated Garden Tea Hill 3, 2019, a grandly gestural painting, its colors filled with light.
But to me the painting most telling of Osborne’s mentality, all the more so because she has mastered the personal psychological conflict evident in Black Doorway I without resolving it by projecting it into social space, which neutralizes it by implying that it is universal, even as her presence in The Visit (Two Sisters), 1967 shows that it remains an undecidable dilemma for her. We see her, the white mistress of a house, comfortably reclining on an old-fashioned settee, staring at a young black girl, staring at the spectator rather than Osborne. She may be the painter’s model—the painting resonates with ironical art historical allusions, Manet’s Olympia, 1863 among them, and, perhaps more obliquely and insidiously, seems to allude to photographs of African slaves put up for auction sale—but the social and emotional difference seems the main point of the painting. The painter—for I presume the white woman is Osborne, for her dress is a wonderfully abstract painting, full of the green and brown of nature—seems to be staring at the black woman’s dress—which is white, blue, and pink—as though at another painting, rather than at her brown face. She stands on a green carpet, suggesting she is a creature of nature, like the dog who also stands on it, staring at the spectator. The eyes of the white woman—the artist—and the model—the black woman—and the dog (implicitly the spectator staring at the painting?) do not meet. Connected, they form an oblique triangle, confirming the incommensurateness of their positions and with that their social position, not to say their nature.
The settee is on a bright red carpet, a grand plane that almost encompasses the small green plane—the carpet on which the “native” woman strands, precariously it seems as the fact that she stands on its edge, suggesting the “edginess” of the situation. The two women are hardly sisters, and the visit is not exactly a social call: the native woman is there to serve the artist as a passive model, her arms frozen beside her, fixed to her sides, their inertness and the inertness of her body contrasting sharply with the relaxed, wide open arms, they seem ready to move, and the relaxed pose of the artist, studying her appearance but otherwise not relating to her, not treating her as an intimate friend, but some sort of interesting object. Osborne has sublimated the dilemma, not to say emotional and artistic problem, in Black Doorway I, into a social problem, but the opposites remain, if now in higher, more ingenious aesthetic form, as well as in all too human form. Osborne has mastered the conflict by brilliantly aestheticizing and elaborating and humanizing it, but she states it rather than resolves it, which is to her credit, for it is artistically as well as psychosocially inevitable. What Hegel called the unresolved dialectic of master and slave (or servant)—the unbridgeable difference between one’s (superior) self and the (inferior) Other, as it is called today--is brilliantly rendered, in exquisitely good artistic taste, by Osborne, in effect rationalizing its irrationality, justifying a social injustice.
Osborne has painted the female nude again and again, de-sensualizing, de-sexualizing, and de-naturalizing it by treating it as an abstract form, a sum of curves, a sort of arabesque, suggesting the influence of Matisse’s schematic renderings of the female nude—Osborne’s Nude in Blue and Brown, 1989, Nude with Pillow and Nude with Palette, both 2002 are typical—but she seems most at home with nature. Its spreading expanse is more of a challenge because of its variety of forms, nominally together but not holding together, similar but not integrated, the suggestion of disintegration in such works as Floating Islands, 1972-2019, the Dana Island Series, 1989, and Catalina, 2021 more of a challenge than the integrated human body, especially the female body, which has an air of self-sufficiency, self-containment, hermetic insularity. Osborne’s female models are young, beautiful, slim, refined, proudly exhibiting their naked bodies—in sharp contrast to the erratic shapes of the rugged islands, nature uncompromisingly raw and indifferent to the spectator—simply there, more radically naked than Osborne’s female nudes, certainly not appealing to the so-called male gaze as they are, deliberately I would argue because of their exhibitionism. The scattering of islands in the sea, raw forms shaped by it, rising out of it, seemingly spontaneously like the biomorphic Floating Islands, and slowly but surely sinking back into it, as the time-worn Dana Islands seem to be doing, are another symbolic representation of the life instinct and the death instinct, the growing, expanding Floating Islands emblematic of the former, the rotting, shrinking Dana Islands of the latter. Their difference has been Osborne’s theme since Black Doorway I. I think she is more at home with it in her seascapes than in The Visit (Two Sisters), where natural reality is masked and displaced by social reality, however much the artist--the relaxed white woman, full of natural life, as her dress—a sort of artistic second skin--- indicates, while the passive—and impassive--black woman is black as death. They are opposite sides of the same existential coin, reminding me, however obliquely, of the female Fates in classical mythology.
The difference between the Dana Islands and the Floating Islands is as unresolvable as the difference between the resolute abstraction and the uncertain self in Osborne’s Black Doorway I. Her vision of the unresolvable difference—conflict--between life and death has matured, has become more artistically sophisticated—more aesthetically masked--and with that more emotionally manageable than in it is in Black Doorway I, where we see it in all its starkness and rawness. Osborne projects her conflicted self—and conflicted art--into nature, generalizing it as an inescapable truth of being, mastering it by gaining perspective on it—the perspective in her seascapes, in contrast to the lack of perspective in Black Doorway I, where we are confronted by the flat plane and Osborne’s self-representation, both on the picture plane. The seascapes are less upfront, physically and emotionally detached; she is no longer crushed between the Scylla of abstraction and the Charybdis of representation but integrated them in a kind of compromise formation. Osborne’s seascapes are oddly manneristic, for like all manneristic works they make the formal best of a contradiction by bizarrely integrating its terms: her sea is absurdly abstract and absurdly realistic at once, indicating that her art is no longer divided against itself—which is a sign of maturity--as it is in Black Doorway I. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author