Eileen Agar: Her Jewel-Like Paintings Stretched Surrealism

The history of art by women still has its secrets. Some recent revelations include the visionary abstract painter Hilma af Klint of Sweden, the genius American quilter Rosie Lee Tompkins and Mary Delany, an 18th-century British polymath who created some of Western art’s first collages.

The latest surprise, at least for Americans, is the multitasking British artist Eileen Agar (1899-1991) — a productive painter, collagist, sculptor, photographer and beachcomber (to gather materials for assemblages) whose work can be seen in her first major solo show in the United States. Titled “Eileen Agar: Flowering of a Wing: Works, 1936 -1989,” this knockout is at Andrew Kreps Gallery (through Saturday). Its title, taken from one of the canvases here, signals Agar’s lifelong devotion to nature and to ambiguous meanings.

Agar may be best known for her collages and their fusion of Surrealist imagination and Cubist structure and geometry. But this show homes in on the paintings, which have a contemporary air and are plenty interesting enough. For one thing, they are fairly collagelike (also mosaiclike) themselves, usually centering on single forms built from smaller shapes and motifs. And they show off Agar’s brilliance as a colorist — which was unusual for her generation of British artists — and perhaps indebted to Matisse. Most of the paintings here involve several shades of blue, as if haunted by Matisse’s “The Blue Window” (1913) in the Museum of Modern Art.

Some paintings are almost nothing but blue, like a small 1970 canvas titled “Chess Head.” Its crenelated cylindrical head evokes the game’s king, queen and knight and also resembles a birthday cake or a child’s toy. Several others have deep blue incandescent backgrounds, casting their scenes in a forever of summer twilight.

This is the case with “Flowering of a Wing” (1966), where the action seems to involve a Victorian dressing gown in manly red patterns, being set upon by a large scalloped collar that progresses from yellow to red and to blue. The progression suggests stage lighting just beyond the painting’s bottom edge — an illumination that gives its image life.

The paintings also stress Agar’s familiarity with decorative motifs, which may also have expanded her palette. Most paintings here involve patterns or flattened floral motifs suggestive of textiles or ceramic vessels, as if Agar were a regular visitor (which she wasn’t) to Charleston, the 17th-century Sussex farmhouse that the Bloomsbury group began to fashion into an awkward Gesamtkunstwerk in 1916.

Two figure-like piles of decorative motifs seem to converse in “To a Nightingale” (1979) on a fragmented wrought iron balcony with ram’s horns curls that occasionally suggest faces. “Urn Burial” (1989) centers on a tall, elaborately flowered vase in a coffin; next to it stands another ornate, but more humanoid vessel.

Agar was born in Argentina in 1899, the middle daughter of wealthy parents — a Scottish industrialist who produced windmills and irrigation systems and an American biscuit heiress. She quickly proved to be rebellious, tantrum-prone and intensely interested in nature and drawing. When she was only 6 or 7, her parents packed her off to boarding school in Britain.

Upon their return to Britain, Agar’s parents did all they could to discourage her from being an artist. But she was determined and broke free of their control when she was 21 and studied art. In 1926 she met her life partner, the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard, beginning a peripatetic existence full of familiar names. A few of them: Roland Penrose and Lee Miller who introduced her to Picasso and Man Ray. She also enjoyed friendships with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Paul Nash. With Nash — a war artist, landscape painter and erstwhile Surrealist worthy of more attention — she had a prolonged affair, that nonetheless left their primary relationships intact.

Agar was arguably more self-knowing and outgoing than many artists, and also wrote well. In 1988 she produced a memoir, “A Look at My Life” (in collaboration with the artist, critic and curator Andrew Lambirth). This pithy memoir details her social, sex and working life as well as the British art scene before and after World War II. A new edition, to be released in May by Thames & Hudson, should help bring back her life and work in all their aspects.

Bard died in 1975; Agar lived 16 more years and seems never to have stopped working, or experimenting. Previously in 1940, she forayed into a series of portraits made using dripped paint (like Janet Sobel, ahead of Pollock). The example here is “Portrait,” from around 1949, in which a wide-eyed, doll-like head emerges from a surface of roiled paint that is unlike anything else here.

The downstairs gallery at Kreps holds a kind of coda: four landscapes of monstrous boulders that Agar painted in 1985 in an unusual style of heightened, embellished realism. They are visibly based on photographs (also here) that Agar took in Brittany in 1936 which proved her belief that nature was the true source of Surrealism.

Eileen Agar: Flowering of a Wing,Works: 1936 — 1989

Through Feb. 10 at Andrew Kreps Gallery, 22 Cortlandt Alley, Manhattan; 212-741-8849; andrewkreps.com.

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