Art in America
June 01, 2005
Rosemarie Beck at Lori Bookstein
by Elisa Decker
Sewn with the directness of a quick sketch on pieces of cloth between 1 and 2 feet high, the 13 narrative works in “Rosemarie Beck: Thirty Years of Embroideries” are loosely based on her paintings and revisit their mythological and pastoral themes. Three oils relating to three of the embroideries were also included. While the compositions are similar, the sewn works show a greater liberty with color. This is the first exhibition to focus on the embroideries. Beck made easily over 100, often giving them away to friends. Leaving narrow borders around their uneven edges, she filled her “canvases” with densely packed parallel stitches of richly colored thread, each stitch about a half-inch long. Subtly modulated tones and the dimensionality of the thread give her figures a sculptural monumentality, and the shimmering floss lends a unifying texture and rhythm to the whole.
Beck was born in New York City in 1923. In 1947, with a B.A. in art history from Oberlin College followed by a year of graduate study at New York University, she moved to Woodstock, N.Y. Her early paintings showed the influence of Bradley Walker Tomlin and Philip Guston. Later she worked in Motherwell’s studio. In the late '50s she started painting figures. “I must have been a secret realist all along because I had never stopped drawing from life,” she once said in an interview. Beck's figurative direction was reinforced when she began teaching in 1957 and had access to models. She taught in various places and was on the faculty of the New York Studio School until shortly before her death in 2003.
What started out as pillow coverings decorated with flat graphic shapes gradually became more ambitious, developing stylistically along with the paintings to incorporate complex figural compositions and a deeper space. She continued to make the embroideries well into the ‘90s, when eyestrain slowed her down. It was surprising to learn that Beck never put these extraordinary works in the same league as her paintings; they were made at the end of the day, as she relaxed at the kitchen table. She liked to extend studio time and keep her hands busy, which appeased her intolerance for inactivity.
Stretching the fabric over a lightbulb instead of a hoop support, Beck sewed following the simple shapes she had drawn on the fabric, registering planes by the directional slant of her stitches. In the 1992 embroidery “Antigone,” 16 ¼ by 20 ¼ inches, a large figure wearing a white jumper stands tragically apart in the foreground. Clutching her head and her side, she looks to the cool Delphic skies for justice. On the hot orange sand behind her, four blood-colored men carry her dead brother from his empty grave.
In an undated piece, the elongated body of a winged youth falls diagonally headfirst through the sky in “Untitled (Icarus).” Light-absorbent colors work in counterpoint to shiny reflective ones: Icarus's blue-black waistband and red, gray and indigo feathers set up a contrapuntal movement against his golden flesh tones and the silvery blues, lavenders and grays of the sky. These joyful embroidered improvisations carry more weight than Beck credited them with and deserve an even more comprehensive survey.