When Eleanor Merritt was an art student at Brooklyn College in the 1950s, she studied under two teachers who would be the envy of every MFA student today, Mark Rothko and Ad Rhinehart. But at the time, Merritt says, she was too focused on imitating the great painters she saw in museums to appreciate abstract expressionism. “As a young student in graduate school, I really couldn’t grasp what they were saying, because I wasn’t mature enough,” Merritt says. “They kept hammering us to express something else than what is in front of you—to look beyond reality.”
It took decades for that lesson to sink in, decades in which Merritt made a name for herself with her bold, figural portraits of powerful African American women. In the late-1970s, her portraits began to grow more abstract, as if the long-dormant influence of Rothko and Rhinehart was beginning to take root. Around the same time, Merritt switched from oil paints to water-based acrylics, which gave her brushstrokes greater lightness and fluidity. In the ’90s, she began experimenting with adding paper, scraps of fabric, and other materials to her paint, creating mixed-media paintings that diverged even more sharply from the tenets of classical realism.
Although she has stayed a figural artist—one or more female forms are still typically at the center of her paintings—Merritt says that she finally understands what her teachers meant by “working from within.” Although her recent paintings are more reminiscent of Gustav Klimt than anything by Rothko or Rhinehart, the influence of abstraction is obvious. “It’s taken time for me to get there, but I find that that really guides me now,” Merritt says. “I’m much freer in allowing the materials I’m using to guide me to a final image. I don’t have a preconceived idea in my mind any more.”
Merritt’s retrospective exhibition at the Houston Museum of African American Culture spans the artist’s career—the earliest painting is from 1957 and the most recent is from 2012. HMAAC CEO John Guess first encountered Merritt’s work through his friendship with Merritt’s daughter, who was doing a residency at the Baylor College of Medicine in the ’90s. “I happened to see these paintings of long, angular women on her daughter’s walls, and that stayed with me,” Guess says. At the HMAAC, the exhibition is positioned next to an homage to the late Houston artist Bert Long, Jr. Guess says that Long was a great admirer of Merritt’s work, so it only seemed appropriate to put the two pioneering African American artists next to each other.
For all the changes in Merritt’s work over the year, the artist herself still sees more continuities than discontinuities:
“I always wanted to glorify women. I’m still a feminist, and I went through that whole time in the ’70s when I was very active in the movement to help women artists receive the recognition that they hadn’t been able to acquire in the ’50s and ’60s. So I’ve always wanted to show women as strong, powerful icons.”
Eleanor Merritt: Revelations of Goddesses, thru Aug 3, free. Houston Museum of African American Culture, 5807 Caroline St., 713-526-1015, hmaac.org