Mar 172023

Sheila Isham, “Chung Fu II– Wind with Lake”, 1972

Hollis Taggart in NYC is currently showing Beyond the Brush: Sheila Isham 1969-1978, which showcases the artist’s dreamy spray gun paintings.

From the press release-

Isham led an extraordinary life traveling around the world with her diplomat husband, carefully absorbing and transforming the myriad cultures and traditions she encountered into her own distinct abstract style. Beyond the Brush explores Isham’s enduring interest in philosophy, nature, and spirituality through the lens of a specific technique and decade in the artist’s illustrious career: her spray gun works from 1968 through 1978. Although Isham’s work is held in some of the country’s most esteemed museum collections – including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum; Washington, D.C.; and Minneapolis Institute of Art; to name just a few – it has not been the focus of a major solo exhibition in the United States for over a decade. Spanning both floors of Hollis Taggart’s recently expanded flagship at 521 West 26th Street, Beyond the Brush intends to reintroduce audiences to Isham’s ethereal works and celebrate her remarkable ability to translate the metaphysical into the visual.

Born in New York City in 1927, Sheila Isham married Hayward Isham, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, after she graduated from Byrn Mawr College. Her husband’s career caused the couple to frequently relocate internationally, while Isham’s inquisitiveness led her to fully immerse herself in each culture, diligently studying local beliefs and traditions. In Germany, she became the first American to be accepted at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied from 1950 to 1954 under German Expressionists. In 1955, Isham accompanied her husband to Moscow, where she immersed herself in Russian avant-garde art, and in 1962, to Hong Kong, where she began a rigorous study of classical Chinese calligraphy as well as Eastern philosophies. During her time in Hong Kong, Isham was especially influenced by her studies with the master Feng Kanghou, who oversaw her calligraphic efforts. After a brief return to the United States, the Ishams moved to Haiti in 1974, where the artist became especially preoccupied by the natural world and studying the effects of light.

While in Hong Kong and upon her return to the United States in the early 1970s, Isham became interested in merging Eastern and Western artistic traditions and philosophies. This spiritual inquiry led her into the atmospheric color abstractions that are the focus of Beyond the Brush. Aiming to achieve an impressionistic light effect and to imbue her abstraction with spirituality, Isham embraced the spray gun – an instrument that releases pigment under pressure – which she had been experimenting with since the mid-1960s. This technique, along with her delicate palette, allowed her to create cloud-like forms that capture the sensation of ethereality. As Patricia Lewy notes in her catalogue essay, “Isham followed an internal drive to affirm a higher consciousness through color and form,” leading her to develop of a singular, meditative visual language. Beyond specific cultural influences, it is Isham’s commitment to spirituality and interest in the sublime that provides the strongest thread between the works in Beyond the Brush.

“We are thrilled to devote both floors of the gallery to this incredibly rich decade of Sheila Isham’s career,” said Hollis Taggart. “Though Isham – now in the ninety-fifth year of her life – contributed greatly to the art of the twentieth century, her fascinating life and oeuvre has not been studied or exhibited extensively, especially in the past decade. With Beyond the Brush, we hope to not only begin to give Isham’s work the scholarship it deserves – starting with Patricia Lewy’s scholarly catalogue essay – but also to share the sheer beauty of her canvases with wider audiences.”

This exhibition closes 3/18/23.