I admit that my heart beat a bit faster when I saw reference to mosaic artist Jeanne Reynal(1903-1983) at the Arshile Gorky Exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum. It was exciting to read about a mosaicist in context, a friend of Gorky’s wife Agnes, a collector of both Gorky and Rothko’s work, and a part of a period of art making called abstract expressionism.
In fact, Reynal is known more as a collector than as an artist in her own right, according to Elaine de Kooning, and several of the pieces in the Gorky exhibit were originally in Reynal’s collection. I was interested to discover that Reynal used a “direct” or “action” method of mosaicing, placing the bits of glass or stone directly into a bed of mortar, akin to Jackson Pollack drizzling and dripping paint onto his canvasbut not exactly. The Webb Gallery which offers the Evening Sonata mosaic, quotes Reynal as saying “The medium of mosaic is not painting with stones, and not sculpture, but an art essential quality of which is luminosity.”
The Anita Shapolsky Gallery had an exhibit, Art Couple: Work of the 1950’s, with mosaics by Jeanne Reynal and paintings by her husband Thomas Sills. The description of the show mentions that Sills was inspired by his wife’s collection of abstract expressionist art, and reminds me of how contemplating art by others is a form of sustenance for many artists, collecting being a kind of art in and of itself.
In the late 1990’s, I went on a retreat at the Jesuit Spiritual Center is Wernersville, PA. This is where I first witnessed Hildreth Meiere’s mosaics in the chapel, and felt a longing to make such a thing. I also remember walking the halls, unable to sleep, and coming across a print of a Mark Rothko painting, in dark blue, deeply still yet vibrant. I suddenly felt at home, at peace.
Abstract expressionism is an awkward term, but I do understand that expression can come through color and form, simple bars of paint. The word “abstract” comes from the Latin abstractus, meaning “drawn away,” separated from practical matters or material objects. But it also has the connotation of “a smaller quantity containing the virtue or power of a greater” like an abstract of an article, the essential points summarized. I come away from art like Rothko’s or Reynal’s with a sense of witnessing something essential.