The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

All Issues
JUNE 2022 Issue

Perle Fine: A Retrospective

Installation view, <em>Perle Fine: A Retrospective</em> at Gazelli Art House. On view from May 20 - June 25, 2022.
Installation view, Perle Fine: A Retrospective at Gazelli Art House. On view from May 20 - June 25, 2022.

Gazelli Art House
Perle Fine: A Retrospective
May 20 – June 25, 2022

The paintings and collages of Perle Fine (1905-1988) cannot be readily described as beautiful. As a first-generation Abstract Expressionist, her work is distinct in that it seems to hover above the masculine and feminine paradox that defined the movement. Neither emblematic of brash nor fluid gesture, Fine’s surfaces illustrate the hand of an artist that is both intentional and intuitive.

An underlying current of profound emotional intelligence is palpable in the retrospective of her work at Gazelli Art House. Exhibiting the many liberties Fine took in terms of scope and artistic range, the works independently represent near case studies in objective expression. There are paintings with shades and shapes of blue, as well as carefully drawn grid lines across a plane of yellow. Each piece demonstrates that during her fifty-year career, she was more interested in unlocking the depths of feeling, rather than the weight of materials.

Perle Fine, <em>Calligraphy of Rhythms</em> 1950. Oil on Canvas. 29 x 36 inches.
Perle Fine, Calligraphy of Rhythms 1950. Oil on Canvas. 29 x 36 inches.

Fine skilfully balanced tactility with color and line. This is perhaps best exemplified by Calligraphy of Rhythms; a work that synthesises the dimensions of self-awareness and expression. A seemingly modest beige monochrome painting defined by layers of impasto and a dalliance in casted marks, not a single part of the canvas was left untouched. The piece is a trove of discovery, made by a woman unencumbered by the notion of making it flourish for the sake of conformity.

Perle Fine, <em>Study 3 for Downbeat</em> 1959. Painted paper collage, 11 x 8 inches.
Perle Fine, Study 3 for Downbeat 1959. Painted paper collage, 11 x 8 inches.

The temptation of fitting in was hardly a priority for Fine. While she too studied under Hans Hoffman with Lee Krasner and lived in the same West Village building as the de Kooning’s, she approached her social obligations with trepidation. Fine found value and validation in isolation. She championed the perspective that abstract art was a commitment; it was a problem that needed solving, and for her, that meant solitude.

Problem solving was the expressive process for Fine. While she approached her canvases with great intentionality, her sketches reveal the innerworkings of a mind projecting the notations of honest emotion. These small drawings and collages were her playground; several of which are on view at the retrospective.

No bigger than a piece of notebook paper, Study #3 for Downbeat, is a collage of primary colors. Scraps of painted paper overlap to make new shapes. The spirit of the action is as pronounced as the piece is playful.

Fine described the collaged sketches as moveable fields. It was during this preliminary phase that she was able to find the emotion that she wanted to depict by way of arranging the clips of paper. While these would lead to a larger painting, that may or may not have directly referenced the sketch that informed it, it was with these small works that she connected with her intuition, with what was real.

Perle Fine, <em>Surrealist Dreams</em> 1959. Mylar gouache graphite chalk and collage on paper, 22 x 28 inches.
Perle Fine, Surrealist Dreams 1959. Mylar gouache graphite chalk and collage on paper, 22 x 28 inches.

In the collage, Surrealist Dreams, Fine gives a nod to her European influences, as well as her interest in depicting reality. In addition to her signature paper clippings, the work has strips of mylar, as well as a scant amount of chalk and graphite. Most of it is black. She interpreted the earlier movement as “super real,” and with this work one feels the expression of emotion not in what is represented, but in what has been omitted.

By the early 1960s, Fine continued to reduce her compositions towards feelings of nothingness with her Cool Series. These works often depicted similar forms, with alterations made with color. In Cool Series No. 44 Double Square, two cobalt lines run horizontally across a white canvas, connected by another of the same color at the center.

Perle Fine, <em>Cool Series No. 44 Double Square</em> ca 1961-63. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches.
Perle Fine, Cool Series No. 44 Double Square ca 1961-63. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches.

It’s refreshing to consider that Fine wasn’t interested in comparative color causalities, which prevailed throughout AbEx discourse. Conversely, she cited that the series was one of her most challenging; often the color compositions wanted to emote a feeling. This was in opposition with the expressionlessness that she desired.

Fine found that with the crisp lines of No. 44. These three lines carry the eye across the painting, leaving the viewer suspended before its surface. A suspension not unlike her relationship to her contemporaries; harboring neither masculine nor feminine aesthetic, a reserved creator of objective expression.

In a 1969 interview, Fine advanced this perspective in saying, “I can only say this: that I knew that feeling was the basis of everything that I had to do, and I knew that depth of feeling was important… if it didn’t have that depth of feeling, that intense degree of depth of feeling, it would have absolutely nothing.”


Tennae Maki

Tennae Maki is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, where she is researching artist autonomy and commons-based peer-production.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

All Issues