Toni LaSelle: A State of Becoming presents a selection of paintings and works on paper by American Modernist Dorothy Antoinette (Toni) LaSelle (1901-2002). This exhibition focuses on her works during a time of significant artistic exploration for the artist. Over the course of her prolific career as an artist and teacher, LaSelle assimilated Bauhaus principles of design, other European avant-garde movements and contemporary American painting, all of which culminated in the development of her own unique contributions to mid 20th century abstraction. The selection of works on view is exemplary of LaSelle’s exploration of color, space and movement throughout her entire oeuvre.
LaSelle paintings in the 1940s
Toni LaSelle's 1946 painting Space Movements, Still Life, is a quintessential example of her interest in stained glass design as well as her assimilation of European modernism. LaSelle twice visited Europe, first in the late 1920s and then a second visit cut short by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Among her goals was to visit Europe's grand cathedrals in order to study their extant stained-glass windows.
In 1938, Mary Marshall, head of the Art Department at TSCW (now known as Texas Women's University), and Dr. Hubbard, president of the university, had asked LaSelle to direct two graduate art majors in their production of stained-glass windows and light fixtures for a new chapel being built on campus, known as the Little Chapel in the Woods. LaSelle spearheaded this project, and it resulted in stained glass design visible in LaSelle's fine art production in paintings but more prevalent in her works on paper.
Two features of Space Movements, Still Life are the composition’s overall stained glass-like pictorial space and a nod to Piet Mondrian’s compositional principles of Neoplasticism. Mondrian espoused a formal vocabulary of straight lines, rectangular planes and primary colors. LaSelle was also an authority on Mondrian, giving a lecture on the artist at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now known as the Dallas Museum of Art) in 1965.
LaSelle’s own composition, however, is far more painterly compared to Mondrian’s. Her brushwork is looser, the color palette more variegated and the paint application more fluid than the geometric elements prevalent in Mondrian’s iconic “purist” works, which feature clearly rendered horizontal and verticals lines, as well as strict adherence to primary colors. In a group of works on paper from a 1953 notebook, we again see LaSelle’s utilization of solid lines and geometric shapes of color.
The bold lines in these and other works from early in her career laid the foundation for her full embrace of the grid as a compositional and organizational device in her hard-edge abstractions of the 1960s.
Toni LaSelle: A State of Becoming
—Alison de Lima Greene
In the summer of 1948, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a memorial retrospective dedicated to Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Art News critic John Alford observed: "The effect is of a light-filled space in which chromatic and linear patterns excite the senses as they are excited when going from a cool room into the glow of a hot afternoon in early summer…. It is tremendously sensual, with an impact that affects not only the eyes, but the dilations of veins and the nerve-ends of the skin."
One likely visitor to the exhibition was the maverick Texas modernist Toni LaSelle. As was her habit after her first classes with Hans Hofmann in 1944, she spent the summer of 1948 in Provincetown, and she would have had easy access to New York, either while traveling to and from Denton, or having made a special excursion. Furthermore, her experience of Cape Cod's marine atmosphere, as well as her 1927 sojourn in France, would have primed her to respond to dappled light that animated many of the Post-Impressionist's most seductive and luminous paintings and it is easy to imagine that she felt a certain kinship with Bonnard. One work in particular, Dining Room Overlooking the Garden, 1930-31, must have captured LaSelle's attention. Created over a two-year campaign in Arcachon, an Atlantic fishing village west of Bordeaux, Dining Room was among Bonnard's most acclaimed canvases, and it had entered MoMA's collection in 1941. Measuring some 62 by 44 inches, it was also among the largest paintings in the 1948 memorial exhibition, exuding warmth from its radiant orange and gold palette.
LaSelle's appreciation of Dining Room is distilled in an extraordinarily beautiful painting, Untitled (from a Still Life), from that same summer. Little known until recently, it is unique among LaSelle's canvases of the late 1940s, a period in which she drew inspiration from the Provincetown harbor, as evidenced by her sketchbooks and the open spatial rhythms of Puritan, 1947-50. In contrast, Untitled (from a Still Life) suggests an interior environment, with a treatment of stacked space that is unusual in LaSelle's work. Her palette succinctly echoes that of Bonnard's Dining Room-the pink, orange, and green hues rarely appear in her paintings of that era-and the cone-shaped device that dominates the center of LaSelle's painting mimics the ginger-colored vessel in the lower center of Bonnard's tableau. However, Untitled (from a Still Life) is not simply an hommage to Bonnard; LaSelle asserts her own sensibility in the underlying structure of the composition and her measured slabs of impasto. Furthermore, LaSelle seems to have taken pleasure in recomposing Dining Room, using similar shapes and blocks of color, but reorganizing them into different configurations. It is also tempting to speculate whether LaSelle rotated the orientation of her canvas as she completed the painting. And unlike Bonnard's strongly vertical and monumental canvas, LaSelle's Untitled (from a Still Life) is a compact 24 x 20 inches.
LaSelle often credited the examples of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Hans Hofmann as the complementary anchors of her artistic inspiration. Adding Pierre Bonnard to this pantheon takes nothing away from her achievements. However, it opens our eyes to the sensuous delight of her work, and her deliberate break in 1948 from both from Constructivist and Cubist aesthetics for a deeper engagement with painterly luminosity. Some twenty years later, LaSelle once again allowed herself a similar spirit of freedom as she embraced commercially produced oil pastels to juggle pinks, oranges, and greens in drawings of exceptional buoyancy. Indeed, LaSelle acknowledged that each work contained the seed for the next. In 1993 she wrote: "Even though the [paintings and drawings] are there, they are also a state of becoming for which a lifetime is not enough."
 In 1948 Dining Room Overlooking the Garden was exhibited under an earlier title, The Breakfast Room (Arcachon). See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pierre_Bonnard_The_Breakfast_Room.jpg. I am indebted to George Shackelford for noting the particular affinity between LaSelle's work and this composition.
 Puritan is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; https://emuseum.mfah.org/objects/27335/puritan?ctx=cf48ed1804ba5869792b10d9348b2ab8f4bf0712&idx=6
 Letter to Berta Walker, an art dealer based in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Murray Smither.
From 1928–1972, LaSelle taught art and design at what is now Texas Women's University in Denton Texas, while simultaneously exposing herself to the burgeoning concepts and processes of modernism. During sabbaticals and summers, she 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 of the time, periodically giving museum lectures on Hofmann, Moholy-Nagy as well as other European artists. In 1942 Moholy-Nagy came to North Texas and taught workshops for LaSelle’s students. Additionally, she was instrumental in organizing a show at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art) for Hofmann in 1947.
During this time, LaSelle’s own practice began to garner attention. The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts mounted a solo exhibition of the artist’s charcoal drawings in 1948 and later included her work in group exhibitions alongside the European avant-garde. A 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.
- The 1950s
Untitled (red triangle), 1953
verso: LaSelle 1953
oil on canvas board
20 x 29 7/8 in (50.8 x 75.9 cm)
25 7/8 x 35 7/8 x 1 in (65.7 x 91.1 x 2.5 cm) framed
"3 Soper Street" notebook, 1953
The title of each of these drawings, 3 Soper Street, refers to the address of one of LaSelle’s studios in Provincetown, MA, where she spent almost every summer, starting in 1944, at the Hans Hofmann School of Art. Hofmann was undoubtedly one of the most influential colleagues in LaSelle’s practice.
“My interest (since 1923) in Space Composition by Color drew me to Hofmann to find out if my realizations had any validity when viewed from his wide experience. I was not an Abstract Expressionist. It took all of the courage I could call up to go to Mr. Hofmann in his own school to communicate on Color-Space Composition but, with no desire or intention to paint as he did."
These drawings are classic examples of LaSelle’s use of geometry—her fundamental formal vocabulary—as well as her interest in design, stained glass and color structure. “3 Soper St. no. 4,” for instance, is a clear indication of her continued interest in the works of Piet Mondrian, while the bold vertical and horizontal black lines recall the works of the French painter Georges Rouault, whose early 20th century Expressionist compositions were often compared to stained-glass (Rouault was trained in the art and outlined his subjects in black which gave the work a stained-glass feel). Equally important, the drawings in this notebook show LaSelle’s transition into a different type of abstraction.
- The 1960s-1970s
"Santa Cruz 1967" notebook, 1967/1970
This notebook contains five works from 1967/1970 and is presented in its entirety. This group is particularly remarkable for its unusually large size (18 x 12 inches), as well as the fact that in three of the drawings, the artist made revisions a few years after their initial execution. While two of the works in this notebook remain as they were in 1967, in 1970 she returned to three of the works, using acrylic white paint to carve into the existing geometric shapes. This act of subtraction became a revelation for her the following year when she commented, “I didn’t know until 1971 that subtracting was adding.” These works thus mark an important step in the evolution of LaSelle’s oeuvre, and underscore her lifelong penchant for experimentation, self-editing and reworking.