PAFA acquires 32 new works, from the feminist erotic to a haunting 'floating puppet'

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has acquired 32 works of art — by gift and purchase — which serve to bolster the museum’s effort to build its contemporary holdings and add to its growing body of art by women, academy officials said Wednesday.

The works include the purchase of Elizabeth Okie Paxton’s Sick a-Bed, which the Boston School artist first showed at the academy’s prestigious annual exhibition in 1916. The academy also purchased Joan Semmel’s provocative Indian Erotic (1973), almost the antithesis of Sick a-Bed.

Semmel’s piece, which was created during the feminist artist’s rethinking of figurative art in the early 1970s, is an intense depiction of copulation.

“She was one of the most important figurative painters ever,” said the academy’s curator of contemporary art, Jodi Throckmorton. Semmel was the academy’s 2017 commencement speaker.

“That we were missing her as a figurative painter and a feminist was a major gap,” said Throckmorton, who added that the purchase sought “actively to build on” the academy’s Linda Lee Alter collection. In 2010, Alter donated to the academy 400 works by female artists.

The Paxton painting serves as a kind of bookend to Semmel – a painting of a child’s sick bed, far removed from the active feminist arousal of Indian Erotic.

Anna Marley, the academy’s curator of historic American painting called the Paxton work a gem.

“It is a master work by an artist who is widely thought to be as gifted a painter as her husband, William McGregor Paxton, though,” Marley noted, “like many women artists, she did not achieve the financial success and recognition of her more well-known husband.”

The purchase of a number of other works was also announced Wednesday, including a Paul Chan sculpture and installation that was exhibited earlier this year in the academy’s Morris Gallery. Throckmorton likened it to a “floating puppet” of the kind often seen billowing outside car dealerships.

But rather than hawking cars, Chan’s “black-hooded figure conjures haunting images of marginalized populations,” Throckmorton said, “and provides poignant commentary on our current political and cultural climate.”

Paul Chan’s “Pillowsophia (after Ghostface)” (2015). Nylon, fan, shoes. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

The academy also purchased a large mixed-media panel by William Villalongo; a Robyn O’Neil drawing; two mixed-media pieces by Marcy Hermansader; six Gilbert Lewis paintings and drawings; a mixed-media textile wall hanging by Jessica Willittes; and a video work by Nhi Vo.

In addition to making purchases, the academy has received a number of gifts, including six photographs from the 1970s by Philadelphia photographer Judy Gelles. The images explore the impact of motherhood on the young artist.

Judy Gelles, “Self-Portrait Watching the Soaps” (March 3, 1979). Blanc & white archival pigment print. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

The academy also received three photographs by Bruce Katsiff; four busts by Harry Rosin (1897-1973), who studied at the academy and lived for many years in Bucks County; two paintings by Francis Speight (1896-1989), who taught at the academy for nearly four decades; one print by Elizabeth Osborne, former longtime member of the academy faculty; and one painting by Robert Gwathmey, who attended the academy, taught at several area institutions, and was active in progressive social causes to the degree that the FBI routinely kept him under surveillance.

Academy officials said about $352,000 from acquisition funds was used to purchase works.