Book Review:
Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder

  • Posted 7/07/2014
  • Essay 10795

By Margaret E. Bullock and David F. Martin
Foreword by Stephanie A. Stebich
Paperback, 77 pages
Photographs, illustrations, notes, exhibition checklist 
Tacoma Art Museum, Northwest Perspective Series, 2013
ISBN 978-0-924335-39-6 $24.95  

Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder was published by Tacoma Art Museum in conjunction with an exhibition of Helder's work that appeared as part of the Northwest Perspective Series. This book is a well-researched account of Helder's life and art. Tacoma Museum curators David Martin and Margaret Bullock each write a chapter, with the final third of the book devoted to Helder's plates, beautiful color illustrations of her watercolors and lithographs. 

In his chapter, "Lucid Dreams: Z. Vanessa Helder and the Rendering of Reality," Martin explores Helder's background as one of the Northwest's premier artists of the twentieth century. He includes carefully researched details of her early family life, her unusual spirituality, her educational trajectory from Lynden to Bellingham to the University of Washington and then to New York, where she flourished with access to the best museums and teachers. Martin also explores how Helder's friends and contemporary artists likely influenced her unique style of painting, artists such as Bellingham's Elizabeth Colborne, known for her color block prints that stressed a Japanese aesthetic but focused on Northwest subject matter. Martin notes the probable influence of her husband, Jack Peterson, an architect known for his detailed architectural renderings and from whom Helder may have acquired that "hard-edged, illustrative quality" common in her watercolors. 

Martin also details Helder's rich civic life. No matter what community she lived in, he notes, she was always involved in finding new ways of bringing art to the public and promoting the careers of her fellow Northwest artists. She took a leadership role organizing the Women Painters of Washington and helped found The Northwest Watercolor Society. And it was through her work with the Works Progress Administration that she was able to organize successful National Art Week events promoting support for arts and education. 

Martin highlights her many illustrious exhibits including her solo exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, her exhibit at the New York World's Fair, and another at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By 1938, Vanessa Helder was one of the most nationally recognized artists of the Northwest. However, by 1949 precise realism was falling out of favor with critics and collectors. Helder and Peterson eventually moved to Los Angeles, but Helder always maintained a strong support base in the Northwest, especially in Spokane where she spent a significant amount of time teaching painting and lithography. Her masterwork Grand Coulee Dam series currently resides at the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane.

In "Master of her Medium," curator Margaret Bullock gives context to Vanessa Helder's precise yet fluid style of painting by discussing the history of watercolor in America. Bullock recounts that watercolor wasn't considered an American medium until the early 1900s, and its popularity didn't really take off until the 1920s and 1930s. She partially attributes this increase in its popularity to the nature of the medium itself, a medium that requires "confidence and quickness," which, she concludes, "seemed to particularly suit the restless and free American spirit." Bullock also points out that during the Great Depression paintings of the nation's varied regions and landscapes were popular subject matter and particularly well-suited for watercolor paintings. Helder was one of these watercolorists drawn to landscapes, especially to the stark topography of Eastern Washington. 

Bullock does an excellent job placing Helder's art in the context of her contemporaries, drawing parallels to other modernists including photographer Paul Strand and painter Georgia O'Keeffe, and to watercolor artists who also focused on American Scene imagery such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and especially Charles Sheeler, whose "straightforward and tightly defined imagery," strongly resembled Helder's style. Helder's work appeared alongside the work of many of these famous artists in galleries across the nation. 

Nevertheless, both Bullock and Martin emphasize that Helder's work cannot be described as straightforward realism. Bullock describes Helder's paintings as executed in a "modernist-inflected realistic style," and she explains that everything Helder painted was first filtered through her unique perspective shaped by her belief in Transcendentalism, and by her hopes, memories, and dreams. Helder may have described her process best in her own words: "A picture has to be formed in my mind from looking at the subject plus everything that surrounds it." 

Bullock paints a complete picture of Helder's career from its ascent with the rise in popularity of modernism in the early part of the twentieth century to its decline in the postwar years as abstractionism gained favor. But despite the capricious whims of the art world and public opinion, Helder's work retains its influence and its capacity to elicit admiration. Bullock notes, "Though the landscape is stripped down and the images are painted in a somewhat limited palette of greens, blues, and earth tones, the works are vivid and arresting." Indeed Helder's paintings leave an impression, which is why it's so important to let her work speak directly to viewers.

The final section of Austere Beauty is dedicated to reproductions of her artwork over the years, including images from her masterwork Grand Coulee Dam series. This is a well-written and detailed account of Helder's life that reflects the obvious care and the high-esteem with which Martin and Bullock regard Helder and her work. Readers and art appreciators will not be disappointed.

By Eleanor Licata, July 7, 2014

Submitted: 7/07/2014

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