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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mary Callery

Untitled sculpture crowning the Proscenium arch of New York's
Metropolitan Opera House, 1966, Mary Callery

Mary Callery, 1952
It has never been easy for an artist to be what's known as "taken seriously." Such a designation takes, first of all, time, as well as serious, extended studies (often abroad), egregious hard work, intelligence, creative daring, knowing the right people, self-promotion, a single-minded devotion to living the life of an artist, and lastly, no small amount of good, old-fashioned luck. All these work together to varying degrees in the lives of various artists who have achieved such exalted standing. It would seem that they are all so equally important that minus any single one of them and the artist could very well live and die relatively unknown. It might seem that, over the centuries, this formula would have changed at least somewhat, but in actuality, it hasn't. What has changed is that in the past, at least until the 20th century, these demands have been applied almost exclusively to men. However, as more and more women have sought their place among the creative elite, cultural gender stereotypes and expectations made being "taken seriously" almost exactly twice as hard for women as for men.
Mary Callery was as good an example of this as any. She was born in Pittsburgh in 1903, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. As a child, she displayed talent and interest in art. In 1923, she married a lawyer and future congressman. They moved to New York. There, she began taking classes at the Art Students League. With the birth of their daughter in 1926, she became a mother and homemaker. In essence, she did all the right things, made all the right moves, which might have been expected of a bright, intelligent woman of her age and social standing during that period in history. Then, in 1930, without telling anyone, she left her daughter with her husband's mother, and sailed off to France to seek a divorce, continue her studies, and become an artist. There was a gender stereotype for that kind of behavior in that day. It had to do with female dogs.
Mary Callery
Man Ray's
Mary Callery
In France, once more Mary Callery did all the right things, made all the right moves, and met all the right people. She continued her studies, got her divorce, married, and two years later, divorced an Italian textile tycoon and art collector. She opened her own studio in a prestigious part of Paris, which she lent to needy artists, whose work she also collected. Picasso drew her (albeit the back of her head, left). Man Ray photographed her (she was quite attractive) and later etched a print of her (right). Her list of friends reads like a "who's who" of major artists at the time including Matisse, Leger, Calder, American architect, Philip Johnson, and the German architect, Mies van der Rohe. Moreover, amid all this, she also gained a reputation as a Modern Art sculptor, her trademark style involving highly simplified, elongated, human figures in bronze.
Three Birds in Flight, 1953, Regional Enterprise Tower, Pittsburgh, Mary Callery
When the Germans came to Paris, Mary Callery quickly and wisely beat a path back to the safety of American shores (as did a good part of the French art world). Through her French friends she met the movers and shakers of the American art world, the Rockefellers, Georgia O'Keeffe, architect Wallace Harrison, and art dealers Charles Henschel and Curt Valentin. Through these contacts she received commissions for large scale works, including an abstract centerpiece sculpture crowning the proscenium arch of the Metropolitan Opera House (top), part of the then newly-constructed Lincoln Center. It's probably her best known piece. Her reputation continued to grow all during the post-war period until her death in 1977.
Fables of Lafontaine, Mary Callery--designed for children to climb upon.
Some artists' standings and reputations grow after their death, sometimes to an outlandish degree (van Gogh's, for instance). One might speculate that had Mary Callery been a man, that might be the case in her case. Today, however, Callery is relatively unknown and forgotten, though recently, a few writers have started taking note of her work and her life. Ironically, she is far better known for the impressively large and diverse collection of works by the French artists she befriended and supported during her years studying and working in Paris. In the final analysis, Mary Callery bucked the odds. Despite her gender she came to be "taken seriously" as an artist on two different continents. Yet thirty-six years of art history has, for some reason, found her lacking. Someone once said, "fame is fleeting," (obviously someone who wasn't famous). In Mary Callery's case, maybe quite the opposite is true.

Four Dancers, 1971, Mary Callery, screen print,
repeating the style and motifs of her sculptures.


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