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Friday, May 27, 2016

Gertrude Abercrombie

Demolition Doors, c. 1957, Gertrude Abercrombie
Abstract Expressionism, Jazz, poetry,
film, drama, all came together to
form the "Beat" era.
Many (many, many) years ago as I was growing up in a remote corner of southeastern Ohio, I was vaguely aware of what was known as the "Beat Generation." They were called by some "beat-niks," their characteristic image being a black turtleneck sweater with tight blue jeans or black leotards (for the women). Long hair had yet to become fash-ionable for men but was appro-priate for females while pointy goatees were favored by males. They played improvised jazz and recited bad poetry exploring, while at the same time influencing American culture in the urban post-World War II era. They were the generation which came just before the onslaught of baby boomers (like me). The bulk of their work was published and popularized throughout the 1950s, its central element being a rejection of standard narrative values, spiritual quests, the exploration of religions, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation. All of this not to be confused with "hippies," which came later, but otherwise were virtually identical except for a more colorful mode of dress. The Chicago painter, Gertrude Abercrombie, was an early card-carrying member of the "Beat Generation."

Gertrude Abercrombie, though no great beauty,
painted some of the ugliest self-portraits I've ever seen.
Gertrude and Jazz great
Dizzy Gillespie, 1948.
Gertrude Abercrombie has often been called "the queen of the bohemian artists." She was involved in the Chicago jazz scene, being friends with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan, whose music inspired her creative work. Gertrude Abercrombie was not, as one might expect, an abstract expressionist. Born in 1909, her artistic roots went back much further than the so-called New York School, which was, in any case, a thousand miles removed from the "windy city." Gertrude's meager training dated from the late 1920s when she earned a degree in Romance Languages from the University of Illinois and later studied very briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago. She also spent a year studying commercial art at Chicago's American Acad-emy of Art. Her style and content was a rather pristine Surrealism, which she apparently de-veloped quite apart from any then-prevalent French influences. Abercrombie's Slaughter-house Ruins at Aledo (below), from 1937, is typical of her early work.

Slaughterhouse Ruins at Aledo, 1937, Gertrude Abercrombie
Gertrude Abercrombie had
rather unique tastes in fashions.
Gertrude Abercrombie's first job was that of drawing gloves for Mesirow Department Store advertisements. She also worked briefly as an artist for Sears. In the mid-1930s Gertrude moved from her family's home and became active in the regional art scene. Within Aber-crombie's avant garde social circle was the lawyer, Robert Livingston, whom she married in 1940, and in 1942, gave birth to their daughter, Dinah. They divorced in 1948, the same year she married the music critic Frank Sandiford. Dizzy Gillespie performed at their wedding. The couple were active in Chicago's bo-hemian jazz scene. They met musicians through Sandiford and Abercrombie's own skills as an improvisational pianist. The couple divorce in 1964. Gertrude was the inspiration for the song, Gertrude's Bounce, by her friend, Richie Powell.

A Terribly Strange Tree, 1949,  Gertrude Abercrombie
By the time the Beat Generation was in full swing during the late 1950s Gertrude Abercrombie's health had begun to decline. She endured financial difficulties, alcoholism, and arthritis, causing her to become reclusive. Bound by a wheelchair Abercrombie was eventually bedridden. After 1959 her paintings diminished in number and scale. During the final year of her life, a major retrospective of her work was held at the Hyde Park Art Center. Gertrude Abercrombie died in Chicago in 1977. Her will established the Gertrude Abercrombie Trust which distributes her work and the work she owned of other artists to cultural institutions throughout the Midwest.

Design for Death, 1946, Gertrude Abercrombie--
said to have been Charlie Parker's Favorite Painting.
White Cat, ca. 1935-38,
Gertrude Abercrombie

Black Cat, Gertrude Abercrombie



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