For 2018 Spotlight, the Inman Gallery presents a solo booth of paintings and works on paper by American modernist Dorothy Antoinette (Toni) LaSelle, (1901-2002). Growing up in the American Midwest far from modern cultural centers, she was nevertheless a voracious and intuitive student of modernism, profoundly influenced by images of Post-Impressionism and Cubism she saw in university. LaSelle wrote her Master's thesis in art history (University of Chicago, 1926) on the indigenous masks of New Guinea in the Field Museum collection, due to the masks' influence on the development of Cubism in Paris. After graduating, she traveled to Europe and spent six months studying in England, Italy, and France.
From 1928-1972, she lived in Texas and taught art and design at a university, all the while seeking knowledge of and exposure to the burgeoning concepts and processes of modernism. During sabbaticals and summers, LaSelle sought out teachers and mentors, the most influential being European émigrés Hans Hofmann and László Moholy-Nagy. She became an acknowledged expert on the new trends in art in her region, periodically giving museum lectures on Hofmann, Moholy-Nagy as well as other European artists. In 1942 Moholy-Nagy came to North Texas to teach workshops for LaSelle's students, and she facilitated a show at the Dallas Museum of Art for Hofmann in 1947.
During this time, her own practice began to receive notice. The Dallas Museum of Art mounted a solo exhibition of the artist's charcoal drawings in 1948 and later included her work in group exhibitions along side the European avant-garde. LaSelle's solo gallery exhibition in New York (1950) was well received, meriting critical praise. In 1959, the Ft. Worth Art Center mounted a major retrospective of LaSelle's work, for which Hofmann wrote the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, praising the artist for her creative sensibilities.
Our booth presents work from the 1940s-1960s, a time of significant artistic transformation and maturity for LaSelle. The selection of works is exemplary of LaSelle's exploration of space, color, and movement. From 1944-1953, LaSelle took every opportunity to study with Hans Hofmann, in New York and in Provincetown, MA. The earliest painting in the booth, The Prodigal, 1948, shows LaSelle incorporating Hofmann's teachings on harmonious balance, with both geometric and biomorphic shapes and lyrical color combinations. In the 1946 charcoal drawing, Figure, Space Planes, executed during a Hofmann class in New York, LaSelle experiments with positive and negative space, using erasure as a form of drawing. The artist articulates an intense volumetric space, rendering the three-dimensional flat on the surface of the paper.
She stated of the work at the time:
My drawings are Space and Movement Compositions. They can also be called Space-Time drawings. The plane of the paper, the planes in the drawings, and the space in the drawings are all one thing. They cannot be separated. It takes all three together to create a plastic unit out of a flat piece of paper. They look abstract but they are concrete. They look abstract if one tries to find a still life or a figure. They are concrete, however, expressions of forms and space unified to make new dimensions out of the plane of the charcoal paper. (Dallas Morning News, 1948)
From 1948 on, the depiction of volumetric space became less important and the relationships between objects in space became LaSelle's primary focus. She describes our human relationship with space as seen from above in an essay titled "Are We Conscious?":
Many people say that feeling space is one of the most pleasant sensations they can have. They like a view from a hill-top, they enjoy looking out over a town from a high building. From a high place everything between the horizon and one's feet is set against a background. The space between things becomes as important as the things themselves. (LaSelle, "Are We Conscious?")
Although many works retain a sense of the vertical plane, with gravity exerting its presence (e.g. Untitled (red triangle, 1953),increasingly, in the 1950s, the artist de-emphasized the notion of a horizon line, and the compositions began to resemble an aerial view. In Climate of the Heart #7, 1956, an almost fractal arrangement of objects is achieved, the figure-ground relationship completely abandoned.
LaSelle constantly experimented with dynamic arrangements of shapes and colors. For her, the notebook was a discrete space in which to work; several pages could be completed in one sitting as opposed to working on a canvas over time. In the 1960s, LaSelle shifted from painting on canvas to working in notebooks, where the artist swiftly filled the pages with combinations of rectangular and circular forms in luscious, vibrant hues. For the Frieze booth, the pages of a formerly intact notebook are displayed sequentially, presenting the evolution of the artist's visual thoughts as they are played out over the fifteen pages. These notebooks demonstrate the visual motifs that the artist repeatedly returned to-deliberately simple circular forms juxtaposed with more angular geometries.
Although LaSelle spent the majority of her life in Texas, she was involved with the burgeoning artistic energy in existence as the European and American avant-garde milieus mixed in New York. LaSelle's paintings and works on paper are stellar examples of the vitality of non-objective painting at midcentury, and deserve to be recognized alongside other abstract artists of the Post-War period.