The long-overlooked abstract painter Pat Passlof died two months ago. A comprehensive January show at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center assesses her legacy.
by Ursula Gullow
What to do when your summer school instructor turns out to be one of the world’s best abstract painters? If you’re Pat Passlof, you soak up everything he knows and use it to kick off your own painting career.
In the summer of 1948, Passlof was a 20-year-old student at Black Mountain College. Her instructor was the then-unknown painter Willem de Kooning. She had recently seen an exhibit by de Kooning at the small, but important, Charles Egan Gallery in New York. (This month, 200 of de Kooning’s paintings are being shown in a large-scale retrospective at MoMA). While she might not have been able to articulate it at the time, his work had a profound impact on her. That summer, when she had an inkling that de Kooning would be teaching, she signed up, and then ended up studying with him privately for two years in New York City. Once, she even took the train with him between North Carolina and New York. Though the two were never romantically involved, de Kooning would later introduce Passlof to her husband, abstract painter Milton Resnick. And while he may have thought he was simply taking Passlof, a Brunswick, Georgia, native, on a train ride, Willem de Kooning was in fact putting her on a path that marked the beginning of her lifelong journey as an artist.
Passlof died just two months ago, on November 13, 2011, at age 83. The art world mourned. “The world has lost a truly remarkable painter in Pat Passlof,” said the online art magazine artcritical. “Ms. Passlof had been immersed since the 1950s in the heady, impecunious cultural ferment of Downtown Manhattan,” Margalit Fox wrote in a lengthy New York Times obituary. The Times headline declared that Passlof was a painter of “shimmering abstracts.”
Passlof’s death from cancer was unfortunate, to be sure. But Ashevilleans might consider themselves fortunate this month, as two of our most thoughtful art historians—Alice Sebrell and Connie Bostic—have coordinated a comprehensive exhibit about her life and work. Sebrell, BMCM+AC’s program director, has been working on the exhibit for nearly five years. She has an interest in investigating Passlof’s ties to Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts college where John Cage and Buckminster Fuller taught and studied. Bostic, a BMCM+AC board member, was simply interested. As a result of the two women’s efforts, a sampling of Passlof’s life’s work will be shown this year at BMCM+AC and at Western Carolina University’s Fine Arts Museum simultaneously from January 26–May 27 (the show at Western opens a day earlier than the show in downtown Asheville).
A diligent artist, Passlof left behind an extensive oeuvre of paintings, and the exhibit will contain work she produced throughout her life, including one of the paintings made at Black Mountain College. Still, at Passlof’s request, the exhibits will focus on her later works. “She considered them to be the most mature and successful of everything she’s done,” says Sebrell.
To prepare for the exhibit, Sebrell and Bostic drove up to New York City on two separate occasions to visit Passlof on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Upon meeting Passlof in person, both women were immediately struck by her powerful presence and cunning sense of humor. “We spent maybe three hours with her, and I left there knowing I had to completely rethink my philosophy of art,” Bostic says. Passlof once declared that art should contain “no message, no politics, no political correctness, no ideas, no conformity.”
After her Black Mountain classes in the ‘40s, Passlof continued studying with de Kooning and enrolled in the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan on her parents’ insistence. After graduating in 1951, she immersed herself in the New York art scene, where, as a female artist, she was often overlooked by her peers in favor of her husband, Milton Resnick. At the time, he was hanging out with the likes of Jackson Pollack and Franz Kline. “Back then, there was the painter, and the painter’s wife,” says Bostic, noting the overt machismo within the exclusive abstract expressionist club at that time. Passlof supported and painted alongside other women of her day, and by 1971, Passlof and several of her colleagues were chosen to work on Women Choose Women, a show that opened in 1973 at the New York Cultural Center. It was the first major feminist exhibit to be reviewed by prestigious art publications at that time.
Passlof continued to pursue both painting and teaching, holding a faculty position at CUNY Community School of Staten Island from 1972 until last year. Instead of giving out grades, Passlof wrote eloquent, effusive letters to her students. A collection of those “diatribes” will be printed in the BMCM+AC’s exhibition catalogue. Reading through the letters, Passlof does not mince words: “Art is truth, not fact,” one reads. In another: “Find ways to ‘listen’ to your painting, and small visual events will occur…”
In the Asheville show, Pat Passlof: Selections, you see evidence that the power of Passlof’s work lies in her treatment of materials, her confident brushwork, intuitive color choices and her rejection of formalized perspective. “The way she handled the paint was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” Bostic says, noting that she was most moved by small works on paper containing figurative elements.
In the early ‘60s, Passlof purchased a Manhattan synagogue that she renovated into a live/work studio. The space is around the corner from the studio of her late husband, who died in 2004. Bostic remembers Passlof’s high-ceilinged work space fondly: “There was paint everywhere. There were coffee cups everywhere. It was just a mess! It was perfect,” she says.
Foreseeing that she would need a picture of Passlof for press material, Sebrell snapped a shot of the artist seated in front of her paintings last fall. The photograph (shown here on opposite page) has since been used in The New York Times, and as the cover of a Passlof’s catalogue at The Elizabeth Harris Gallery in NYC. Passlof with her red socks, cane and splattered smock peers over a pair of black-framed glasses with a mischievous grin. “If anybody deserves to be represented in an iconic way, it is this woman,” Bostic says.
Pat Passlof: Selections, 1948-2011 runs January 27-May 27 at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. www.blackmountaincollege.org