That last name sounds familiar. We associate it with a man who had an adventurous and independent spirit: Davy Crockett. Turns out that Davy's trailblazing qualities have traveled the generations and were imbued in his ancestor, artist Flora Crockett.
Never heard of Flora Crockett? Well it's time you did. The paintings by this forgotten artist were recently lauded by leading art critic, Roberta Smith, for the New York Times as " a body of work that could hold its own in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art or the Museum of Modern Art and in the history of abstract painting." Roberta's "first sighting" of this extraordinary work took place at an exhibition mounted by Meredith Ward at her New York City gallery. The very day Roberta published her discovery, I hurried uptown to see the works for myself.
My first hand view did not disappoint. Crockett's paintings are sparkling. Her color sense is joyous. Hues of complimentary colors of orange and blue, red and mint green, yellow and lavender are brushed on loosely in biomorphic and geometric shapes.
In later works, Crockett further defines shapes, and speaks to negative space, by delineating her canvases with bright, tangled lines.
Crockett paints with a knowing hand. One can see the influence of famous artists like Leger, Miro, and Kandinsky. But Crockett has a signature, crisp, beaming color palette and her free-flowing compositions are unique. Take a look at this painting by Crockett on the left and Kandinsky on the right to compare:
Crockett's artwork also reflects the time that it was painted. This body of work was completed between 1965 to 1973 when Crockett was in her seventies. It was just after the Color Field paintings of artists such as Rothko and Frankenthaler re-invigorated the use of color by making it the point of their work. This painting by Crockett in particular recalls the blocks of color employed by those artists.
By now, you are likely wondering why you never heard of Flora Crockett before. It is a classic tale of a struggling artist working hard to support herself while trying to save money so she could take time off to paint. Sadly the pressures of putting food on the table seemed to impinge on Crockett's artistic creation. A graduate of Oberlin College with a major in art and mathematics, Crockett was employed in the fields of art education, design, sales and engineering during her life. This left time for only 3 solo art shows in her lifetime, the last one in 1946.
Yet her efforts to further her own art education show that her art remained very important to her. In 1918, she married an Italian sculptor and, in 1924, they moved to Paris. There, Crockett found work directing a school for orphans. Somehow she also was able to continue her education at the Sorbonne, the Louvre and Leger's Acadamie Moderne, where she eventually became the director.
After her marriage failed, she returned to New York in 1937, and in 1940, she rented an apartment on 14th street. She lived and painted there for the rest of her life, holding down a variety of jobs to make ends meet. Her last art show was a group exhibition in New York's Overseas Press Club of America in 1965 when Crockett was 73. Interestingly, all of the paintings so celebrated by the New York Times (and seen in this post), were painted after that show.
What sparked this late-in-life creative explosion? Meredith Ward explained to me that by the time Crockett reached her seventies, she was able to retire and finally could devote her days to her passion, ushering in her most productive artistic period. Flora Crockett painted solely for her own pleasure, in her little 14th street apartment, which, in part, explains the paintings' modest size (most are only 24" wide). According to Meredith, at this stage Crockett would not even let her family see her work, turning canvases around to face the wall whenever someone came to the apartment. It's fascinating. Given the freedom of leisure, Crockett's creative genius finally and exuberantly burst forth. And, with the confidence of age, she kept it all to herself, not needing the affirmation of others.
After Crockett's death in 1979, her nephew, Austin Hart Emery, inherited her paintings. He stored them in a barn in Albany. Meredith Ward told me she heard of the works through a friend, who then introduced Meredith to Emery's daughter Mary Emery Lacoursiere, an artist and designer living in Nantucket.
When Meredith Ward saw photographs of the paintings, she was immediately intrigued by this forgotten artist and began the process of cleaning the paintings and mounting the current exhibition. She hinted that there may be more works by Crockett still in storage. How fabulous.
Will the Whitney or MOMA heed Roberta Smith's advice and purchase a Flora Crockett? I hope so. It would be sad if these dynamic and happy paintings were hidden away in private collections. The world should finally be able to appreciate the art of Flora Crockett.