Nor has it dulled her ability to articulate the importance of her genre and a lifetime of incredible memories. I recently had an inspiring conversation with her that kept my head and heart humming with happiness all day long! Of the dozen artists featured in the Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, Sonia Gechtoff is one of three still living—and still producing polished, skillfully crafted art.
Born in 1926 in Philadelphia, Sonia initially learned about art from her father, a landscape and still-life painter. As a teenager, she was creating art as a Social Realist, an international political and social movement that drew attention to the struggles of the working class and the poor. She went on to completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1950 at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, taught art, and had a solo exhibition at the Dubin Gallery.
Word about the innovative art being created in San Francisco was a siren’s call and by 1951 Sonia was living in San Francisco and studying lithography with James Budd Dixon at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA, today the San Francisco Institute of Art). It was an exciting time to be there and an exhibition that included the work of Clyfford Still inspired her to try her hand at abstraction: “By that time Still had left San Francisco,” she says, “so I did not know him, but I saw his work and knew some of his students. I was enthralled by the expansiveness in his paintings and felt I could more fully develop my own concepts in that style.”
She began working on large-scale oil paintings containing expressive gestural brushwork that foretold what would become her signature voice. Using a palette knife loaded with several colors, Sonia applied vast sweeps of paint across her canvases in sensuous, energetic full-body movements. She also created large graphite drawings during this period, a practice that has continued throughout her career.
During her years in California, women, including Gechtoff, became artistic leaders. Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery gave its first solo exhibition to Sonia Gechtoff and Deborah Remington helped found the Six Gallery (the historic artist-run cooperative especially notable for the October 1955 reading of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg that launched the Beat movement). Created over 8 years, Jay DeFeo’s monumental painting The Rose, weighing about a ton and eleven inches thick, began its celebrity turn.
For women abstract expressionists in San Francisco, such as Gechtoff, Jay DeFeo (also in the Denver exhibition), Joan Brown, Deborah Remington, Lilly Fenichel and others, acceptance among the Bay Area male abstract expression contingent was not an issue, as it was in New York: “There was none of that macho bullshit,” says Sonia. “When I came to New York I was horrified at how the female artists were being disregarded. I think it was different in San Francisco because there were no commercially viable galleries there at that time and therefore none of the competition for shows as there was in New York—and we were a smaller group. It gave us permission to be more experimental.”
In 1954, Gechtoff gained national recognition when her work was exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum’s Younger American Painters show alongside Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. It’s fun to see her signature at the top of the second page of signatures in the exhibition catalog—there where she belongs along with the “big boys” of the day! Her painting Untitled is reproduced in black-and-white (No. 16).
In the late 1950s, Sonia and her husband moved to New York. Pop Art was beginning to rise in popularity and she found the atmosphere for abstract expressionism less supportive than it had been in the Bay area. She had taught earlier at CSFA and would teach at New York’s National Academy of Art for 11 1/2 years, forming lasting alliances with many of her students. In addition to showing at galleries in New York and San Francisco (including Six Gallery), Gechtoff’s work was shown internationally in such prestigious venues as the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and the 1961 São Paulo Bienal in Brazil. Works such as The Beginning and Children of Frejus, two of her favorites exhibited in the DAM show, exemplify Gechtoff’s startling originality (see photos).
Sonia Gechtoff has never stopped working. With the exception of a brief 3-month period a couple of years ago due to an illness, she continues to produce. In fact, the year before her illness, she created an amazing 25 paintings on canvas—some what she calls “medium size”—that is, 48 x 48”! Although known primarily for her paintings, Sonia has always done many drawings and has superb graphite and charcoal skills. These days she mostly works on very heavy Arches paper, applying an acrylic ground of one or two colors and then drawing on top of it with charcoal. Her prolific and imaginative abilities never seem to wane.
Gechtoff is a wonderful resource for stories about the beginning years of abstract expressionism and those iconic artists associated with it. She is a phenomenal example of an artist whose entire life is devoted to her art. Knowing her work and her story broadens awareness of that historic moment in American painting history. It adds texture and nuance to a story that has in the past been too focused on a handful of men who were also talented, but perhaps no more—possibly in some cases even less so—than the women who followed their own inclinations and talent over the years.