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Block Museum Exhibitions Focus on 20th Century Women Artists

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September 14, 2005 | by Judy Moore

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Four exhibitions celebrating and reevaluating the contributions of several women artists will open to the public Sept. 23, at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston campus.

One exhibition will be the first ever devoted to the graphic work of Chicago-born architect/artist Marion Mahony Griffin, who became one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s principle designers at the turn of the 20th century. A second exhibition will salute the creativity of American women printmakers who lived and worked during the first half of the 20th century. The third will explore the paintings, prints and drawings of printmaker Maybelle Stamper. And the fourth will feature the works of pioneering video artist Steina Vasulka.

“Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature,” curated by Debora Wood, senior curator for the Block Museum, will be open to the public from Sept. 23 through Dec. 4, in the Alsdorf Gallery.

The first woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois, Mahony Griffin began her career in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio, where she developed the striking “Japanese-style” presentation drawings associated with Wright’s office. In 1911 she married fellow architect Walter Burley Griffin, and together they embarked on a career that including the experimental Rock Crest, Rock Glen residential development in Mason City, Iowa, and the winning plan for the Federal Capital of Australia at Canberra.

Like her husband and collaborator, Mahony Griffin believed that buildings should reflect the character and culture of their natural surroundings. Her architectural presentation drawings are distinctive in their tall, narrow format, with a mixture of landscaped horticulture and natural growth linking the structure to its natural environment. By emphasizing natural materials and continuous horizontals, her drawings illustrated that architectural design and forms of the natural landscape are inseparable.

Drawn primarily from the Block Museum’s collections, “Drawing the Form of Nature” will include a number of the Griffins’ presentation drawings created for prominent architectural commissions in the United States, examples of Mahony Griffin’s work as a landscape architect, and her little-known series of intricate botanical drawings and paintings of Australian landscapes.

“The juxtaposition of Mahony Griffin’s architectural renderings and her botanical drawings will foster a better understanding of her work and create new interest in Mahony Griffin as an artist,” said David Robertson, director of the Block Museum. “This exhibition will present Mahony Griffin as a unique, talented artist in her own right.”

Accompanying the exhibition will be an 80-page catalog with essays on Mahony Griffin and color reproductions of her work. In addition, the Block has planned several programs, including “In Wright’s Office,” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, a lecture by exhibition curator Debora Wood focusing on Mahony Griffin’s work for architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and “Marion Mahoney Griffin Reconsidered,” a daylong symposium Saturday, Nov. 5 exploring the significance of Mahony Griffin’s work. Symposium speakers will include David Van Zanten, professor of art history, Northwestern University’s Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences; Christopher Vernon, senior lecturer, School of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts, The University of Western Australia in Crawley; Paul Kruty, professor of history and preservation, The School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; James Weirick, professor of landscape architecture, The University of New South Wales in Sydney; Alice Friedman, professor of architectural history, Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.; and Anna Rubbo, associate professor, department of architecture, The University of Sydney. In addition, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, the Block will host “The Art of Fine Landscapes,” a talk by award-winning garden photographer Linda Oyama Bryan and landscape architect David Van Zelst. They will explore relationships between gardening traditions of various styles and centuries and contemporary landscapes and gardens.

The exhibition “Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910-1960,” Sept. 23 to Dec. 11, in the Main Gallery and Print, Drawing, and Photography Study Center, will survey the graphic work of 80 women including Mary Cassatt, Elizabeth Catlett, Bertha Lum, June Wayne and others who were active in the medium during the first half of the 20th century. American women printmakers such as these and others worked both independently and in tandem with their male counterparts creating innovative and arresting works. However, they have been underrepresented in the history of printmaking, a condition this exhibition from the Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., begins to correct. In a related program, “Paths to the Press” curator Elizabeth Seaton will present the Phyllis Weil Ellis lecture “Crossing Paths: American Women Artists as Printmakers, 1910-1960” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6.

“Maybelle Stamper: Works on Paper” is the Block-organized companion exhibition to “Paths to the Press” exploring the personal and introspective work of Maybelle Stamper, who withdrew from the public eye at the height of her career in the 1940s. This exhibition, in the museum’s Print, Drawing and Photography Study Center, presents a selection of her paintings, prints and drawings, which are sometimes aligned with Symbolist styles.

“Orbital Obsessions,” Sept. 23 to Dec. 11, in the Ellen Phillips Katz and Howard C. Katz Gallery, includes excerpts from Steina Vasulka’s pioneering mid-1970s videos “Signifying Nothing,” “Sound and Fury,” “Switch! Monitor! Drift!” and “Snowed Tapes,” all made with an invented device called “Machine Vision.” In these works, Steina focuses on time, space, and movement, and the means by which the mechanical can inform and engage with electronic media.

For more information, call (847) 491-4000 or visit the Block Museum website at www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.