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“PITTSBURGH”: Because she was a woman suspected of having a “radical” agenda, Elsie Driggs was not permitted inside the steel mill depicted here. Her only agenda was art and the capturing of the beauty she saw in “the great velvet forms of the Jones and Lochland Mills.” The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 S. Pine Street in Doylestown. The curator’s gallery tour begins at noon February 12 and 19; $15, non-members; $8, members. Museum hours Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. Admission costs $6.50, $6 seniors, $4 students, free for members and children under 6. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. (215) 340-9800.

A Life in Art: The Long Heroic Career of Elsie Driggs

Stuart Mitchner

The work of Elsie Driggs (1898-1992), who was still producing extraordinary art in her late eighties, deserves better than a label like “precisionist.” For all the brilliant, painterly precision to be found in the Michener’s new exhibit, “Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical,” that’s not what this spirited and many-faceted retrospective is all about.

Look for information about this artist online, however, and you’ll find that she’s invariably tagged with the same label, having been the only female member of the Daniel Gallery group that art critics of the time referred to as Precisionists. According to the headline for her brief New York Times obituary, Driggs was a “Precisionist painter”; the term surfaces twice more in the course of the abbreviated entry, and it’s been automatically echoed in several reviews of the new exhibit, which will be on view in the Fred Beans Gallery at the Michener through April 13. Thoughtfully arranged by Curator Connie Kimmerle, this show transcends terminology and is definitely worth a day trip to Doylestown.

Against Odds

“Heroic” was one of the words that kept coming to mind as I viewed the 60-plus watercolors, pastels, collages, oil paintings, and mixed media constructions ranging from the 1920s to the late 1980s. It required real courage and commitment for this painter to relaunch herself at the age of 70 after keeping a relatively low artistic profile in deference to the work of her artist husband Lee Gatch. Although her reputation seems to have been a match for his when they married, she spent the years of her prime, from 1935 to the mid-1960s, without her own studio in the little house in Lambertville that she shared with her husband and their daughter Merriman, who was born in 1938. Needless to say, her responsibilities as wife, supportive colleague, and mother, not to mention the lack of a sufficient work space, necessitated creating on a smaller scale, with watercolors, pastels, and collages. She kept her spirits up by telling herself that if Paul Klee could paint in a closet, she could manage in a kitchen. The work she did during this period (much of it from the late 1930s) is well represented by the series of urban water colors updating Dante (Walkers in the City; Milling Workers, 72nd Street), as well as the ones inspired by the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Merrymount and Pilgrims). Another literary inspiration was Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The watercolors, I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed and Balloons, are charming poems in themselves, deftly and lightly making visual music in the spirit of the Dickinson line, “Inebriate of air am I/And debauchee of dew.” A passage from “You’ve seen Balloons set — Haven’t You?” in the artist’s hand is laid in with the work so that you can appreciate how well Driggs’s imagery evolves from Dickinson’s, at once firm and delicate, playful and severe, with swan shapes formed by the lines sustaining the balloons, “So stately they ascend…/Their Liquid Feet go softly out/Upon a Sea of Blonde.”

Once an extension was added to the house in 1966, she finally had the benefit of her own studio, but when her husband died in 1968 she moved on. Most people at the age of 70 proceed toward a more comfortable, less challenging existence. Elsie Driggs returned to Manhattan, where her life as an artist had begun.

Velvet Mills

The first thing you see as you enter the gallery is Pittsburgh (1927), her best-known work and the one that has most often been singled out as an example of “Precisionist” art — a notion that makes sense only as long as the clean lines have been reduced to postcard size in exhibit brochures. See the work in person and you have to wonder what such smoothness, liquidity, and depth have to do with an aesthetic based on the word “precision.” At first the industrial outline reminded me of the blending of formal design and technology in some paintings in the Zimmerli Museum’s 2006 Moholy-Nagy retrospective where the label of choice was “Constructivist.” Those bridges and factories made impressive compositions but the color and texture of the structures had nothing like the mysterious beauty of Driggs’s steel mills. Contrary to what other reviewers have suggested, no smoke is “belching” from those four smooth blueblack columns. Writing of Moholy-Nagy’s factory landscapes, I said that what you smelled was not smoke but paint. With Pittsburgh, smell has nothing to do with it. You feel what you see; you don’t need to touch it; the deep blue plushness of it touches you. The four classic columns the smokestacks have metamorphosed into and the form of the whole have an enigmatic quality, something undefined and suggestive; the sky seems to glow with Alpine light and the smooth, snow-soft forms in the lower right-hand corner can be imagined as the edge of the cloud-wrapped summit the artist is standing on. In case you wonder what’s behind the image, the museum provides one answer in the form of her unpublished essay about a trip to Italy two years previously, where she describes “the great velvet forms of the Jones and Lochland Mills” and how “beautiful” and “cool and classical” she found them, telling people, “That’s my Piero della Francesca.”

The typescript of “The Search for Piero della Francesca,” written in the late 1970s when Driggs was taking a course in writing at NYU, is displayed in effective proximity to Pittsburgh. Besides providing some answers as to the source of the light shining through her oil paintings from the 1920s, as well as illuminating the remarkable work she did in the late 1980s, the essay gives you a sense of the young artist looking forward to her first trip to the continent: “Let me see Cézanne’s paintings as I look out the window of my train,” she writes, “and let me meet Leo Stein [as she did] who made the art world see Cézanne through his eyes.” What she hopes for is what she gets: “The sun shone as I traveled south and I did see the dove cots, the pines, and those angular fields that lie like patches…all pure Cézanne.”

Writing of her discovery of della Francesca, Driggs admits that at first he “had nothing to do with my vision. I liked life and movement. He was too static and classical, and yet I was drawn to him.” In fact, the Italian master haunts her work both at the beginning and end of her career, as you see when you come to the view of Hoboken she painted in 1986 when she was 88. Dear old dirty New Jersey’s Hoboken has become an Umbrian hill town dwarfed by a soft blue Italian sky.

It’s a remarkable creative arc — from Art Deco-period Manhattan through the long Lambertville interlude of smaller works inspired by figures such as Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Dante, to her moving transformation of Hoboken and her surreally lovely painting of a no less Italianate sky with a portion of the Javits Center adrift in it, produced at the age of 88. These two works, painted so late in life, overwhelm all the feeble little ist-words. Precisionist, surrealist, impressionist, expressionist, constructionist become so much verbal clutter under the sky and clouds and light of ageless art.

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