Read what co-curators Doria Hughes and Eva Jiménez-Cerdanya have to say about Rosemarie Beck's Phaedra.
Painted by Beck when she was in her mid-70s, the “Phaedra" cycle was the last of her great mythological cycles, drawn from her reading of the ancient Greek play Hippolytus by Euripides. Beck had recently retired as a Professor of Art at Queens College, and was teaching at the New York Studio School. Prior to Phaedra, Beck had worked from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the myth of Orpheus, Sophocles’ Antigone, and several narratives drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Drawn to literary and mythological subject matter, this daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants started out as an Abstract-Expressionist painter in the early 1950s, when she studied with Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston, but by the middle of that decade, forms and figuration had begun seeping inexorably into her canvases. From then on, she forged her own path as an unabashed figurative painter, steeped in narrative yet also fully Modernist.
Now at 74 I’m going officially to begin my Phaedra paintings. These will be my last. I hope I can make several before “curtains”.
- Rosemarie Beck, April 9, 1998, personal journal
photography by Cary Whittier
Welcome! The Rosemarie Beck Foundation maintains the studio where Rosemarie Beck painted fruitfully during the last decade of her life, and where many of her props and still life objects reside. Until her death in 2003, Beck shared this extraordinary space - located in the historic Kenkeleba House in lower Manhattan - with the painter Martha Hayden. It now houses the Rosemarie Beck Foundation’s collection of artworks, and is the site of our Studio Internship program, jointly administered with the New York Studio School. “Phaedra’s Women” is the RBF’s inaugural exhibit of Rosemarie Beck’s artwork in her final workspace, lovingly preserved as she left it. We hope you enjoy this first glimpse into the magical world of an extraordinary artist!
The big Phaedra with 5 women-in-waiting is pretty rich - stuff I love - cloth + clothes + “poses” the very metaphoric stuff of painting.
Rosemarie Beck, June 4, 1998, personal journal
The large scale of this work allowed Beck to run riot with color, juxtaposing apple green against aqua while various degrees of magenta spread across the canvas from one end to the other. Two cats prowl the foreground, casting deep shadows; their wary stances reflect the heightened emotional intensity emanating from the sickbed. It is a world inhabited only by women: some watching, some listening and some absorbed in other labors. The quality of their collective concentration is underscored in the reiterated rhythm of inclining chins, downturned lips, focused eyes, curving backs. Their clothing and the fabrics that they are handling individuate them, implying a diversity of character and style, but their synchronized energies are that of a single organism, in which each part functions individually as intended, while acting under a shared purpose. - Doria Hughes, RBF Collection Manager and Archivist
The movement in the painting is in the folds and volumes of cloth. I take cues from the figure on the top right corner, with her back to us, pushing the front of her body against the mass of a green curtain. Her action reveals a hidden theme in the painting: fabric is the liquid, water-like, tactile substance that the figures inhabit. Its color is a shared destiny. Fabric that is not just dense, it is luminescent. Like in El Greco, it is an energy field. In the foremost space a young figure is absorbed in the craft of sewing. She is the maker - or repairer? - of this luminous substance that enfolds it all. - Eva Jiménez-Cerdanya, Artist and RBF Studio Intern
Drawing is first - always. It is the central factor, and maybe the most personal aspect of the process after all.
- Rosemarie Beck, August 17, 2001, personal journal
Doris Aach as Phaedra’s Nurse
In the 1970s, while teaching at Queens College, Rosemarie Beck became good friends with her colleague, the eminent painter Herb Aach, and his wife Doris. An astute and sensitive individual, Doris attracted Beck’s attention and garnered her respect, especially during the difficult years of caring for Herb after he was stricken with cancer. In August of 1984, Beck wrote in her journal “I marvel, under [the] weight of insurmountable obstacles, at Doris’ capacity to push for life - for any kind of life.” It was around this time that Doris began to occasionally pose for Beck’s drawings. However it was after Beck herself became widowed in 1989 that the two women’s friendship solidified. It’s clear that Beck saw in Doris both an intelligent woman and a good listener, a natural choice to model the figure of Phaedra’s Nurse.
“The tide of love at its full swing is not withstandable. Upon the yielding spirit she comes gently, but to the proud and the fantastic heart she is a torturer with the brand of shame."
- Phaedra's Nurse to Phaedra (Hippolytus, by Euripides)
The tragedy of Phaedra, based on the play Hippolytus by Euripides, is the means by which Beck frames her series’ primary figures - Phaedra’s Nurse and the Attendants - who were considered of secondary importance by Euripides. These latter working women - perhaps in a nod to Las Meninas by her venerated master, Velazquez - busily adorn the walls around their queen with large bolts of cloth, as if to mark out the space as female territory. These women are always on their feet, engaged in physical labor that seems incidental to the drama playing out in their midst. Yet their omnipresent labor cannot be ignored. The image of a woman handling cloth with professional skill inevitably leads us back to Beck herself, a woman who demonstrates assured mastery of the wrought canvas. In addition to painting, Beck was a gifted seamstress, whose small jewel-like textiles are so lavishly embroidered with deftly sewn threads that they resemble her paintings in all their richly-hued detail.
It is my fate as a painter that I am perennially caught between opposing forces: Beginning - ending, finish - complete, flat + deep, formed + forming (made + unmade)
Rosemarie Beck, June 8, 1998, personal journal
The seated and inclining character of the Nurse, the wise older female confidant who listens and advises, is one with which Beck also identified throughout her adult professional and personal life. For instance, the Cassandra-like character of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, who warns and is fatally ignored, is one that Beck used as a personal moniker in her correspondence. Her recently published lecture series, “Letters to a Young Painter”, modeled on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Painter”, emerged out of her role as teacher and mentor, a role which galvanized her and which she took very seriously.
I believe a work of painting should aspire to a rich complex of simultaneities. Simplicity may be a great desideratum but not my way. Over the years I found myself growing - not less simple as seems to be prescription for the work of old age - but more complex.
- Rosemarie Beck, June 8, 1998, personal journal
This Phaedra was painted in 2002 by Rosemarie Beck the year before she died. The seated woman in the immediate foreground, holding herself upright while focusing her anguished gaze upon the viewer, is Phaedra herself, queen of Athens and wife of Theseus. Deep in the background, his unabashed nudity framed by the geometry of a doorway, bare flesh set off by a blue-clad intermediary - Phaedra’s Nurse, perhaps? - is Hippolytus, the object of his step-mother’s illicit desire. Ancillary female bodies engage in a variety of domestic activities in the interstitial space between these two figures. Beck positions Phaedra and Hippolytus at a distance from each other, yet she closes the separation between their bodies through her clever usage of the picture plane’s two-dimensionality. Although the two never physically touch, never transgress the laws of gods and men–never even look each other in the eye–yet their bodies are ineluctably joined on the surface of the canvas through the medium of the paint itself. The tragic destiny foretold and set in motion by the cruel gods is presaged at the point where Phaedra’s green-tinged coiffure intersects with Hyppolytus’ naked foot.