But for the efforts of several art historians who sought her out in the last decades of her life, Theresa Bernstein would have been just another forgotten female artist. Fortunately, one of those historians was Gail Levin.
She is distinguished professor of art history, American studies, and women's studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as author of books on Lee Krasner and Edward Hopper, and a former Whitney Museum curator. In addition, Levin is the editor of a book on Bernstein and the curator of the artist's first retrospective, "Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art," a traveling show that recently arrived at the Woodmere Art Museum.
To say that Bernstein, who died in 2002 two weeks shy of her 112th birthday, never got the recognition she deserved isn't altogether true.
Born in 1890, in Krakow, Poland, and raised in Philadelphia, Bernstein was singled out for her talent as a teenager, winning a scholarship at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design). She began exhibiting her paintings while still in college and won a prize for her oil painting White Roses in Wanamaker's Sixth Annual Competitive Exhibit of Art Students in 1909.
After graduating, Bernstein moved to Manhattan with her parents and studied with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League in 1911, his last year there. Her paintings were included in numerous group exhibitions in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and she showed alongside a who's who of 20th-century American artists, among them Childe Hassam, John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and Stuart Davis. She married a fellow painter, William Meyerowitz, and shared a model, the eccentric poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, with Marcel Duchamp, a chess-playing pal of Meyerowitz's.
Bernstein did not achieve the success and fame of her peers, Levin posits, because she continually promoted her husband's work over her own. She never had the support of one devoted gallerist (as had Georgia O'Keeffe and, later in life, Louise Nevelson, a onetime student of Bernstein's), and the social-realist strain of painting she practiced was eclipsed by abstract expressionism. Looking at her paintings at the Woodmere, though, which span 1914 through 1995, it's hard to pin down a signature style that remains identifiable through her various periods of experimentation, a quality relatively common in the works of her famous peers.
Bernstein's paintings keep changing, except for her fondness for a palette of ochres and browns and for scenes involving multiple figures and crowds. Considering those penchants, it's interesting that her most affecting paintings are of single figures, such as her colorful portrait of von Freytag-Loringhoven, The Baroness (1917), in a chartreuse-yellow jacket and green hat, which seems to capture not just her physical being but also her essence, and of darkened interior scenes with a few figures (Carnegie Hall With Paderewski, 1914) and nocturnal landscapes (Moon Over Cityscape, 1913).
It's fun to see Bernstein going out on a limb, as she sometimes does, and one wonders whether she painted more works like the hyper-expressionistic Baby Carriages, Laundry Day, Park Slope Brooklyn (c. 1923) that have subsequently gone missing. Looking at this chaotic scene of mothers and carriages set against looming, humanoid apartment buildings, my mind immediately jumped to Chuck Connelly's comically dystopian paintings of the late 1980s. A group of paintings inspired by Bernstein's love of jazz is another curious but delightful segue - and almost into abstraction. In a clever touch, her colorful Cab Calloway-Minnie the Mooch (1935) is accompanied by a video showing Calloway performing his hit.
Levin could have organized a more circumscribed retrospective, I occasionally thought, seeing some of the minor works included in this show, but I enjoyed getting to know the unedited Bernstein and her travels through the 20th century.
Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org. Through Oct. 26.
Icebox Project Space
Anna Neighbor, Timothy Belknap, and Ryan McCartney visited about 60 artists' studios in pursuit of their shared vision for "Begin Where You Are," a show of works by 32 Philadelphia artists they've curated for the Crane Building's Icebox Project Space.
The organizing principle was to gather Philadelphia artists with distinct modes of working and an earnestness of purpose to match, a mind-set among artists that has existed here since Eakins, if not earlier, but is rarely recognized as a local phenomenon.
You realize - seeing the ethereally painted, carved-plywood pieces by Virgil Marti; a 41-minute film of the American flag furling and unfurling by the artist team Kocot and Hatton; the large, round, mostly black paintings by Quentin Morris; and autobiographical, tabloid-influenced "self-portrait" drawings by Anthony Campuzano - that Philadelphia has made profound and singular impressions on its artist inhabitants.
Crane Arts, 1400 N. American St., noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. 215-232-3203 or www.cranearts.com. Through Sept. 13.