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 Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer  (1912 - 1997)

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Lived/Active: Louisiana/Georgia      Known for: abstract painting and sculpture

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Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer became one of the most prominent abstract artists in the South and started her career late, turning to art in her late thirties in search of a deeper meaning and purpose in life. She moved from an early figurative style in paintings of children to Abstract-Expressionism, influenced by a summer's study in Provincetown, Massachusetts with Hans Hofmann.

Kohlmeyer's life before art was relatively conventional, though her native creative instincts are clear in her feeling for literature. She was born in 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana, gaining her B.A. degree in English literature in 1933 from Newcomb College. She then married a businessman and had two children.

Her artistic evolution began when she took local art classes, accelerating with her study of art at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she eventually received an M.F.A. degree in 1956. She was forty-five years old. That summer the fateful encounter with Hofmann occurred when she took his classes in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and his influence as an abstractionist was reinforced by Mark Rothko in 1957 when both he and Kohlmeyer were teaching at the Sophie Newcomb School in Tulane.

These men influenced her to change her style from representation to abstraction including the blurring of bands of color into large geometric shapes. In the 1970s, she developed a distinctive style using personalized symbols or hieroglyphs, which she continued to use in her work. Kohlmeyer's work would evolve to paintings utilizing grids, and abstract sculpture in a variety of materials from styrofoam to steel.

The artist had numerous exhibitions in galleries and museums including Gimpel Fils, London; the David Findlay Galleries, and Ruth White Gallery in New York City; New Orleans Museum of Art; William Sawyer Gallery, San Francisco; Indiana State University, Terre Haute; and Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina, among others.

Kohlmeyer's work is found in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art; National Museum of Women in the Arts; and National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.; Jewish Museum, New York City; Milwaukee Art Center; Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Houston Museum of Fine Arts; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer died in 1997.

From
Jules and Nancy Heller, North American Women Artists of the 20th Century
Charlotte Steifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

Biography from Commercial Art Consultants:
Ida Rittenberg was born to Joseph and Rebecca Rittenberg in 1912.  Her parents were Polish immigrants who established a pawnshop business in New Orleans, where Ida was born and raised.  It was here that Ida studied English Literature at Tulane University and received her B.A. in 1933.  Her interest in literature transformed into a fascination for the Latin American arts after she met and married her husband Hugh Kohlmeyer in 1934.

Her growing desire to paint led Ida to attend the John McCrady Art School in 1947 and later take classes at Tulane's Newcomb College as a special student under the direction of Pat Trevigno.  She graduated from Newcomb College and received her M.F.A in 1956.  She went on to attend summer classes in Massachusetts where she was instructed by Hans Hoffman and was highly influenced by Abstract Expressionism.  In 1959 she held her first solo exhibition in New York at the Ruth White Gallery.  In 1966 Kohlmeyer was commissioned by the Peace Corps to make a painting as a gift for a retired Sergeant Shriver.  She was also appointed the associate professor of art at the University of New Orleans in 1973, and in 1982 she was acclaimed as an honorary life member of National Women's Caucus for Art.  As a painter and sculptor, Kohlmeyer was well known and represented on both the west and east coasts.  She died on January 29, 1997 at the age of eighty-five.

Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer became one of the most prominent abstract artists in the South and started her career late, turning to art in her late thirties in search of a deeper meaning and purpose in life.  She moved from an early figurative style in paintings of children to Abstract-Expressionism, influenced by a summer's study in Provincetown, Massachusetts with Hans Hofmann. 

AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Pursuing her interest for art in her thirties, Ida Kohlmeyer went on to create brilliant works strongly influenced by the Abstract Expressionist style.  Her oeuvre includes printmaking, drawings, paintings, and sculpture.  Kohlmeyer struggled to break from the artistic influences of the first generation Abstract Expressionists such as Hoffman, Rothko, and Miro whom she so strongly admired. 

Her personal style did not develop until the 1970s.  This style is characterized by her use of grids to develop geometric abstractions produced through automated gestures. Her geometric “pictographs” were seen as series of signs that could only be read visually, whether or not this was her intention. During this period she was most well-known for her Clusters series.  It wasn't until the 1980s that Kohlmeyer's style shifted to Synthesis painting, a less rigid, geometric style with a greater emphasis on color.  The success of her compositions was heavily reliant on her drawn line and mark-making.

Kohlmeyer did not begin sculpture until late in her life. Her sculptures were often made of Plexiglas, wood, and cloth.  These works appear to be related to her paintings and are defined by their more “fluid” line, bright colors, and almost biomorphic shapes.  Kohlmeyer relied on the elements of line and color to produce a large collection of brilliant works with an obvious influence of both Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism and a slightly personal touch.


Biography from Jerald Melberg Gallery:
Ida Kohlmeyer (1912-1997) was often referred to as the "Grand Dame" of New Orleans.  She did what few artists have been able to do – establish a major career outside of New York. 

Kohlmeyer studied under Hans Hofmann and was greatly influenced by other Abstract Expressionists, but she lived and worked in the South.  Despite the odds, she enjoyed national and international recognition in her lifetime.  Kohlmeyer’s joyful abstract paintings and sculptures reflect the spirit of New Orleans and her long fascination with folk and primitive art.  Based on her own developed alphabet of various organic and geometric shapes, the works transpose Kohlmeyer’s passions and delights into colorful and celebratory images.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Ida Kohlmeyer was born in New Orleans, LA, in 1912, to Rebecca and Joseph Rittenberg, Jewish immigrants from Bialystok, Poland.  She graduated from Isadore Newman Manual Training School and entered Sophie B. Newcomb College of Tulane University to study English literature.  Graduating in 1933, she excelled in sports and apparently showed little or no interest in the visual arts.  On a trip to Mexico in 1934, Kohlmeyer’s lifelong interest in the ceramic folk art and masks of Central and South America took shape.

She began her art studies at John McCrady’s Art School in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1947.  In a 1989 interview, Kohlmeyer described her first studio painting class, “I was so new at this that just putting pink next to green was a moment of ecstasy and I let out an exclamation so that the whole class turned around.”(1) Kohlmeyer then pursued her Masters Degree at Tulane with Pat Trivigno, who was a major influence in her life and work.  Her work in the early 1950s was centered mostly on the figure and portraits of children.  However, her art underwent a profound change during the summer of 1956, when she spent time at Hans Hofmann’s Provincetown workshop and became exposed to abstract expressionist theories and colors.(2) 

The next year Mark Rothko came to Newcomb as a visiting artist and set up a studio in the garage at the Rittenberg family home.  He considered his work there a major breakthrough, and Kohlmeyer’s response to his paintings was so intense that her work for the next seven years reflected her reaction.  She learned that a painting should be an “invention and not an imitation,” and she moved from figurative painting towards her own idiom of Abstract Expressionism.(3) 

From the time of Hofmann’s and Rothko’s influence until the onset of her geometric style in the late 1960s, Kohlmeyer explored the freedom of the automatic method ranging from anthropomorphic imagery to non-representational abstraction.(4)  By the mid 1970's, inspired by the work of Joan Mirò and an avid interest in South American Art, she developed her distinctive vocabulary of shapes and symbols originally organized in grid format and later in loose flowing patterns.  That style, which she explored for the rest of her life and eventually translated into sculpture, gave expression to her draftsmanship and encouraged her strong sense of color.(5)

Kohlmeyer taught Art Fundamentals and Drawing at Newcomb College from 1956 until 1965.  In 1957, she had her first one-person exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.  She also was a faculty member at the University of New Orleans from 1973 until 1975.  Henri Ehrsam, at the Henri Gallery in Washington, DC, was the first dealer to take a serious interest in Kohlmeyer’s work, and her paintings were placed in many private and corporate collections.  At the 28th Biennial of Contemporary American Painting, Corcoran Gallery, Kohlmeyer was awarded Purchase Award through the Ford Foundation Grant. 

Her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, New Orleans Museum of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Houston Museum of Fine Arts, among many others.  Among her many awards was the city of New Orleans pronouncing March 1985 as the official Ida Kohlmeyer Month.  From the outset, Kohlmeyer’s work has been evocative and seductive.  As the artist noted in a 1981 interview, “If you have (an urge to work), if you are willing to use yourself up working, then the North will find you in the South.”(6)  The final images, many of which seem deceptively simple and delightfully spontaneous, are nonetheless the result of constant intellectual appraisal, stern and unrelenting self-criticism and a tenacious search for better, or at least fresher and more distinctly challenging solutions.(7)

Footnotes: 1. Avis Berman, interview with Ida Kohlmeyer, 1989, Archives of American Art, Washington, DC.
2. Jules and Nancy G. Heller, North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1995), 312.
3. Jane Q. Kessler, Ida Kohlmeyer: Thirty Years (Charlotte, NC: Mint Museum, 1983), 12.
4. William J. Ergeran, Jr., “Reflections on Lyrical Power: A Kohlmeyer Study,” Ida Kohlmeyer: Thirty Years (Charlotte, NC: Mint Museum, 1983), 27.
5. Our thanks to the Arthur Roger Gallery for this critical comment.
6. Nancy Grossman and Ida Kohlmeyer, “Artist to Artist,” Art Papers Vol. 5, No. 3 (May/June, 1981), 2.
7. Arthur Roger Gallery.

Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum, Georgia

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Ida Kohlmeyer was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she would reside for the majority of her life. Following her graduation from Sophie Newcomb Memorial College at Tulane University, she married and raised a family. She casually began studying drawing and painting relatively late in life, taking her first classes at the John McCrady Art School in the French Quarter in 1947. Having discovered a passion for painting, she eventually pursued a master’s degree in fine arts at her alma mater. Kohlmeyer produced figurative studies of children and other representational subjects until she graduated in 1956. Immediately following graduation, she spent a formative summer at the Provincetown, Massachusetts, art colony where she studied under Hans Hoffman, the foremost instructor of modernist theory. Kohlmeyer likened her shift towards abstraction to being freed from prison. Her "great awakening" was further cemented by her encounter with Mark Rothko the following year. Rothko, a leading Abstract Expressionist, had come to New Orleans as a visiting artist at Tulane, and he set up his studio at Kohlmeyer’s family home. Rothko’s influence had such a profound impact on Kohlmeyer that she struggled for years to find her own unique style independent from his.

In the 1960s, Kohlmeyer experimented with abstract art and became affiliated with the Ruth White Gallery in Manhattan where her work was shown on a regular basis. She was also represented in the 28th Biennial of Contemporary American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1963. By the 1970s, Kohlmeyer had abandoned figurative elements completely for non-objective subject matter. Her admiration of the Spanish modern artist Joan Miró (whom she had met in Paris in 1956) influenced her decision to develop her own code of schematic symbols, which she employed–often in grid pattern–throughout the rest of her career. Kohlmeyer’s mature work is the result of years of self-examination and continuous reduction of forms. Her paintings speak to the arbitrariness of symbols as well as to the universal desire to communicate. Later in her career, Kohlmeyer would earn acclaim for her sculpture, often quite large in scale and characterized by bold color and striking profiles.

Throughout her active career, which continued into the 1990s, Kohlmeyer successfully exhibited her work in New York galleries and important museums. She considered herself a beneficiary of the feminist art movement and in 1980 received the National Women's Caucus for Art's outstanding achievement award. She described her drive to make art as a "compulsion, a withdrawal from much that is pleasureable in life, a need to work, for which no other activity can substitute, and a constant search for self." Ida Kohlmeyer's work is represented in the permanent collections of such prestigious institutions as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Museum of Women in the Arts, High Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


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