Louisa Chase Lives On in Art and Through Friends

On view at the Parrish Art Museum and in New York
Mel Kendrick, who will be one of the speakers at the Parrish Art Museum’s “Artist to Artist” talk in Water Mill regarding Louisa Chase, took this photo of her in Springs in 2012, four years before her death.

In her 2016 New York Times obituary she was called “one of the brightest young stars in the much-heralded resurgence of painting in the 1980s” and was awarded with a New York City solo exhibition the same year she graduated from Yale University with a M.F.A., but Louisa Chase did not find art or life particularly easy.

A group of her works is on display in the Parrish Art Museum until October in a gallery she gets all to herself. Mary Heilmann and Mel Kendrick will discuss their friend in an event there on Friday, March 8.

During a chat in the gallery recently as she was collecting her thoughts about Chase and what she was going to say in the talk, Ms. Heilmann said the pieces in the space “show how she worked in all these different ways: realistic, Abstract Expressionist, and childlike. That one over there looks like a little 4-year-old got busy,” she said, referring to “Yellow Spooks,” a diptych of scrawled and hatched lines.

One of the paintings, called “Terrible Twos,” spoke to Ms. Heilmann in particular. On a pink background, blue blocks seem to be falling. Scribbled in oil stick on the surface are the words “No No.” Ms. Heilmann said she believed that painting was her reaction to her cancer diagnosis. “It would have been around the time,” she said. Not one to take anything with resignation, Chase traveled extensively for alternative therapies. “She went all over the world for treatments, and I think she traveled on her own,” Ms. Heilmann recalled.

“She had that strong personality,” she said. “And that would have been her reaction: ‘No No.’ ”

Ms. Heilmann said she met Chase very soon after her arrival in New York City. “It would have been the mid-’70s, right after she left school. She started showing right away, she was so good.”

She added that she thought Yale’s conservative painting department at the time may have been a struggle. “She was probably under some pressure to do abstract painting. It was culturally natural in the early 1970s. But you can see how imagery sneaks into her abstract work.”

Although the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1940s and ’50s were known for their bravado and boys club exclusivity, the painters and sculptors of the ’60s and ’70s were not much more evolved in their estimation of female artists. “Art was hard for girls,” Ms. Heilmann said. “It’s probably what made me get into it,” she added, noting that she came from a family of boys. “The art world reminded me of sports.”

The women coming to the city at the time seemed to flock toward each other. “The women’s connection story is really beautiful,” Ms. Heilmann said. “There was a group of a dozen or so of us,” artists such as Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Pat Steir, and Chase who were often brought together through galleries willing to show women’s work.

As painters, it was an even greater challenge to be noticed when conceptual art and anti-form sculpture were what drove the discussions over drinks at Max’s Kansas City, a nightspot at Park Avenue South and 18th Street that served as an artists’ clubhouse the way the Cedar Bar had for the previous generation of artists. “I felt competitive with the women,” she said, “but it was not a lifestyle, like the guys.”

Ms. Chase began teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design soon after graduation, but returned to the city in 1980 to begin teaching at the School of Visual Arts. The two artists not only hung out in the city and taught together at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, but also rented rooms at the Cozy Cabins in Wainscott in the early ’80s before both of them bought their own houses. They came to the South Fork to paint and spent many an evening gossiping and talking about work over glasses of wine.

“I’ve spent a lot of time at the Parrish and looking at the chronology of her work,” she said. “But she does jump around. I don’t see her work in a linear way.” Even though Chase died early, Ms. Heilmann said she feels “like she has some immortality with her art. I feel her presence here” in the gallery.

In the paintings, she has found some connections to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, maybe even a little Mary Heilmann in a particular passage where a blue line is placed on top of and behind a painted square. “That’s a little tricky to do formally.” When told that the built-up pink surface in “Terrible Twos” could also be Heilmann-esque, she said, “I take that as a great compliment.”

“Was she looking at all of these people?” she wondered, “I think she was more welcoming of associations depending on her mood. . . . Part of making art is having a conversation with yourself.”

“House on the Water” is a 1997 lithograph by Chase on view at the Parrish.
Louisa Chase’s art is on view as a solo show in one of the Parrish Art Museum’s permanent collection galleries. The works include, clockwise from top left, “Untitled” from 1988, “Yellow Spooks” from 1986, and “Terrible Twos” from 2011, a personal favorite of her friend and fellow artist Mary Heilmann, above, who will speak about Chase and her art soon at the museum. Parrish Art Museum and Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York