|Other people also seemed to regard Tryggvadóttir as a virtual newcomer to the New York scene. Even though she had exhibited regularly with well-known artists and in respected galleries and museums all over Europe, she found reputable New York galleries unwilling to take her on and give her a one-man show. In 1961 she was finally offered a contract by a old friend, Rose Fried, who gave her a one-man show, the only one given to Tryggvadóttir by a New York gallery to the end of her life.
Ignorance, or lack of interest in European art, were probably not the only reasons why Tryggvadóttir failed to find American sponsors. From 1961 onwards many American abstract painters of Tryggvadóttirs generation, some of whom had achieved stardom during the heyday of Abstract-Expressionism, were fighting a losing battle with a new art movement, namely Pop Art. Thus Tryggvadóttir was doubly a victim, first to McCarthyism, then to the fickleness of artistic fashion.
I have discussed the negative effects of Tryggvadóttirs European exile at some length, I would not like to leave the reader with the impression that she spent her decade away from New York mourning missed opportunities, isolated and out of touch with current events in the world of art. The fact is that both Tryggvadóttir and Alcopley were extremely active during this period, and their circle of friends counted some of Europes most influential artistic figures. No sooner had they arrived in Paris in 1952 than Sonja Delaunay bought a work of Alcopleys and introduced the couple to old Dada stalwart Jean Arp, whose friendship they could count on while he lived. Delaunay also introduced them to Michel Seuphor, a leading critic and promoter of abstract art. Seuphor became one of their closest friends, wrote the introduction to Tryggvadóttirs first one-man show in Paris in 1953 and the little book on her work mentioned in the letter to Barr.
Through Seuphor and the Réalités Nouvelles exhibitions, which they both took part in, Tryggvadóttir and Alcopley met colleagues such as Henri Michaux, Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages and Julius Bissier, as well as gallery owner Denise Réne, who promoted their work. Tryggvadóttir also became friendly with some French artists of the younger generation, the most prominent being Yves Klein. Included in their circle of Parisian friends were also two Scandinavians, Richard Mortensen and Olle Bærtling. Jean Dubuffet they already knew from the late 1940s, when he had been in New York to show his work at Pierre Matisses Gallery (see One-Man, Two Visions, as well as a number of interviews with Tryggvadóttir in Icelandic newspapers and magazines).
Tryggvadóttir and Al Copley were also in contact with colleagues from New York as they passed through Paris. Alcopley made a special effort to bring American and French painters together by setting up a Paris branch of The Club in December 1954. That same year Helen Frankenthaler dropped by with Clement Greenberg, Ad Reinhardt as well, and Mark Tobey and Isamu Noguchi were frequent visitors all through the 1950s (see archive of letters).
Tryggvdóttir and Al Copley only lived in London for about two years, 1957-59, during which time they were frequently travelling on the Continent, to Paris, Germany or the Low Countries. Tryggvadóttir also made a point of spending a part of each summer in Iceland with her daughter. Their contact with British artists were thus neither as extensive nor as close as with Parisian artists. Still they were on friendly terms with some representatives of the older generation of abstract artists, most notably Barbara Hepworth and Herbert Read, who included Alcopleys work in a survey of modern art that he published shortly afterwards. Through their participation in group exhibitions at the Drian Gallery, they also struck up a friendship with sculptor Lynn Chadwick and painter Anthony Hill.
Tryggvadóttir was by no means neglected by European galleries and museum while she lived in Europe. She exhibited regularly with the Réalités Nouvelles group in the Musée dArt Moderne de la Ville de Paris, she took part in group exhibitions of modern Icelandic art in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and was invited to show with a distinguished group of modern artists at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. Among the respected galleries promoting Tryggvadóttirs work in Europe were the Galeries Colette Allendy and Arnaud in Paris, the Birch gallery in Copenhagen, the Parnass gallery in Germany and the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.
At the beginning of her Paris exile , Tryggvadóttir seems to have come to terms both with her predicament and current artistic criteria in Paris. By which I mean some of the variations on geometric or Concrete art espoused by the leading lights of the Réalités Nouvelles group, the Galerie Denise Réne, and of course, Michel Seuphor.
If there was a common tread running through the work and theorising of the Réalités Nouvelles artists, it was the idea of the separateness of the work of art, its complete independence from what we call objective reality, including the world of nature. Even in her most rigidly constructed Concretist compositions, she is constantly drawing the viewers gaze into natural space, past variously tilting monochrome planes towards a clearly defined horizon somewhere in the upper part of the canvas.
Tryggvadóttirs need to touch base in nature seemed, if anything, to increase during her stay in Paris. Perhaps it was a way of emphasising her independence, her own separateness vis-a-vis the prevailing Concretist ideology. Asked by an Icelandic newspaper reporter to describe her largely non-figurative collages of 1950-52, Tryggvadóttir calls them mostly landscapes. In 1955 she had another one-man exhibition in Iceland, this time of works that exhibited many of the lineaments of Concrete Art. Again she described these works unhesitatingly as Icelandic landscapes in an interview. Preparing her one-man exhibition in Iceland in 1967, which turned out to be her last one, Tryggvadóttir called her current paintings improvisations on the Icelandic landscape.
These comments of Tryggvadóttirs are really just a confirmation of what we actually see in her paintings, namely that she always was more dependent on the Icelandic landscape, or her memories of this same landscape, than on the cultural landscape of France – or whatever place she happened to be living in. But in one important sense, though, are her paintings thoroughly marked by her stay in France.
Tryggvadóttir had tried her hand at collage from the end of World War II onwards. While she waited in Iceland for some resolution of her visa problem, she poured her energies into collages and papier collés as never before. Since Tryggvadóttir had little money and no studio, perhaps it was a case of making do. In 1951 she also gave birth to her only daughter, which would also have cut down on her painting activity.
These collages and papier collés were markedly different from Tryggvadóttirs earlier work in this medium. Art historian Björn Th. Björnsson describes them in his History of Icelandic Art: Their distinguishing feature is the network of black lines, continuous or open, enclosing the coloured planes, interspersed with areas of untouched white paper, infusing the collages with air and light. (See Björn Th. Björnsson: Íslenzk myndlist II, Reykjavik, 1973, pp. 282-283.) Björnsson goes to say: Had she returned to New York, these collages would no doubt have become just a diverting interlude, but having settled in Paris, she found a way of developing them further through the medium of stained glass. (Op.cit.)
This is also the opinion of the present writer. The Concretist style of flat planes of colour, the artists unrelenting search for ever more expressive media and last, but not least, the presence of the splendid stained glass windows of Notre Dame, St. Denis, Chartres, Bourges and Le Mans; all of these factors can be said to have propelled Tryggvadóttir in the direction of stained glass. From 1953 and until her death, she devoted virtually as much time to her stained glass design as to her painting. (Tryggvadóttirs view on stained glass are cogently expressed in her article Painting with Light Through Coloured Glass, Leonardo, Vol. 1., No. 2, April 1968, pp. 125-135.)
Tryggvadóttirs stained glass windows have been justly praised. There has been a tendency to regard them as a separate manifestation of her creativity, and to ignore the extent to which they infuse her oil paintings with what for the lack of a better word I would call vibrancy. Tryggvadóttirs early style has already been characterised as expressionistic, concise and tactile. She would work on each painting either with a spatula or a broad brush, until each form took on a temperament of its own and assumed a direction of its own, to quote art historian Björnsson again (op. cit., p. 282). With the advent of Concrete ideology, Tryggvadóttirs formal language tightened considerably, resulting in such rigidly constructed paintings as the National Gallerys red, black and white Composition of 1954.
Having reached this cul-de-sac, Tryggvadóttir engineers a clean and explosive break with the Concretist tradition – a break facilitated, I believe, by her involvement with stained glass. In the painting in question we find forms that have left their Concretist moorings to glide unrestrainedly towards the edges of the canvas. But more important, these forms have had much of their outer skin scraped away to reveal other layers of paint, all the way down to the bare canvas. This procedure resembles nothing more than the subtractive methods of the stained glass artist, who controls the translucency and texture of his glass panels by scraping away at the surface paint before firing. By scraping away at her colours, all the way down to the white primer, Tryggvadóttir is in effect emphasising their translucency and the importance of the painting surface as a source of light. Light was always a central concern for her, see her often-expressed admiration for Rembrandts inner light, but in her earlier paintings light seems to emanate from the colours themselves, not through them as in this case.
There is a particularly close connection between Tryggvadóttirs stained glass and her landscape abstractions of 1955-56, where the underlay or primer has been dissolved into what looks like a etherous substance where abstract shapes flit about. From then onwards we become aware of an intensification of light in Tryggvadóttirs oils, to the extent of dissolving their main structural features, what Björn Th. Björnsson calls their inner fortifications. (Op. cit., p. 282.)
It does seem to the present writer that Tryggvadóttir did at one stage worry about the dissolution of structure that was taking place in her paintings through light. This does go some way towards explaining the structural reparations that seem to take place in her paintings around 1956. In these paintings Tryggvadóttir continues to deploy variously scraped or striated forms, but they are bunched tightly against each other, as if to diminish or prevent any light from emerging from behind them. In some of these paintings the colour planes form a tight interlocking pattern covering the entire canvas, thus moving whatever action there is up to the surface of the painting. I would like to hazard a guess that this is where Poliakoffs influence made itself felt, albeit briefly, in Tryggvadóttirs art.
Sergei Poliakoff was a painter of dense forms and heavily textured colours, which he used for the construction of flat abstractions which did not differentiate between subject and ground, nor did they appear to refer to any reality outside the painting His paintings usually form networks of eccentric-looking planes latching tightly on to each other, so there is not the faintest suggestion of space in them. During her years in Paris, Tryggvadóttir certainly didnt know Poliakoff personally, but the two of them had an influential friend in common, namely Sonja Delaunay. Poliakoff also showed his works in Paris at least twice while Tryggvadóttir and Alcopley lived there, once in the Galerie Bing, which had taken on Alcopleys work through Sonja Delaunays effort. If, as I think, Tryggvadóttir did take Poliakoffs work into serious consideration at this point, she was not the only Icelandic artist to do so, for his eccentric shapes also make their appearance in the work of both Thorvaldur Skúlason and Valtýr Pétursson. Be that as it may, by the time Tryggvadóttir moved back to New York, all trace of Poliakoff had disappeared from her work.
Tryggvadóttir and Al Copley arrived in New York at a time when many of their friends, the Abstract-Expressionists, had entered a back to nature period. In 1960 de Kooning was painting the first of his abstract pastoral landscapes, Still had exhibited massive nature-inspired abstractions in 1959, Gottlieb was at work on a series of imaginary landscapes, Rothko was painting works with a strong suggestion of natural space, and nature was very much present in the paintings that James Brooks and Kline were showing in 1959-60.
There is hardly any way of proving that all of this acted as a stimulus to Tryggvadóttir. The fact remains, though, that her first years back in New York usher in a period of intense and deeply personal painting activity, culminating in magnificent landscape-inspired abstractions. In these abstraction, say from 1960-65, Tryggvadóttir returns to the massive blocks, so reminiscent of Icelandic basalt columns, which characterised her early work, while making them lighter, more airy. In spite of their elevated appearance, these paintings have not spirited themselves out of reach, but seem to refer directly to the inner workings of the Icelandic landscape, the rumblings of glaciers, the convulsions of magma, the violent clash of disparate elements. But they are first and foremost part and parcel of the nature formed by our thoughts. (Op.cit., p. 284.)
During Tryggvadóttirs final years as a painter, c. 1963-67, her works develop increasing airiness as well as an almost Oriental delicacy of touch. Instead of massing her colours and scraping away at them with a spatula, the artist goes to work with a light brush, gently covering he ground with thin fields of paint combed together at the edges. These fields form the background to a staccato rhythm of short brush strokes spreading out from the centre towards the edges of the canvas. For the first time the term écriture, so beloved of apologists of French abstract painting, seems appropriate. This change of emphasis was probably brought about by a number of factors, Tryggvadóttirs constant need to make things new, her exposure to Japanese calligraphic art during two trips to Japan in 1960 and 1963, or perhaps simply by the arthritis which had made it difficult for the artist to work with a spatula.
Whatever the reason, Tryggvadóttir continues to produce abstract variations on the theme of the Icelandic landscape. But increasingly the viewer gets the feeling that she is less extrapolating from the physical reality of landscape than taking in other, and much less tangible phenomena; the wildly light of spring, the utter stillness of summer nights, the leafy sound of autumn.
Nína Tryggvadóttir died on June 18th at the age of 55. Is one justified in seeing in the sombre colours of her last paintings a touch of foreboding – even dread? I prefer to regard their melancholic aspect as a reminder less of death, but of the regeneration, the new beginning implicit in death. This is the subject matter of a poem written by Tryggvadóttir in the 1940s:
Is a new beginning –
A flight from the past
A formless feeling
A new punishment
A new death
A new life
|The fact is that both Tryggvadóttir and Alcopley were extremely active during this period, and their circle of friends counted some of Europes most influential artistic figures.|
|Tryggvadóttir and Al Copley were also in contact with colleagues from New York as they passed through Paris.|
|Tryggvadóttir was by no means neglected by European galleries and museum while she lived in Europe.|
|Even in her most rigidly constructed Concretist compositions, she is constantly drawing the viewers gaze into natural space|
|Preparing her one-man exhibition in Iceland in 1967, which turned out to be her last one, Tryggvadóttir called her current paintings improvisations on the Icelandic landscape.|
|Tryggvadóttir did at one stage worry about the dissolution of structure that was taking place in her paintings through light.|
|Tryggvadóttir and Al Copley arrived in New York at a time when many of their friends, the Abstract-Expressionists, had entered a back to nature period.|
|During Tryggvadóttirs final years as a painter, c. 1963-67, her works develop increasing airiness as well as an almost Oriental delicacy of touch.|