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Filling in the Blanks 

Once a strictly regional figure, Walter Anderson has grown in stature since his death almost 40 years ago, aided by recent biographies and an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Yet his image, now as always, is fixed in the public mind as a kind of Van Gogh of the Gulf Coast, a half-mad hermit who spent months at a time living like Robinson Crusoe on Horn Island with only pelicans, crabs and raccoons for company. But it was not always so. Although his mysticism was seen early on, the young Anderson was a family man whose friends included old-school chums from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts as well as legendary New Orleans painters such as Paul Ninas, among other colorful confidants. This new Friends show explores what they had in common.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Archie Bonge, who was quite a promising painter when his life was tragically cut short at age 35 in 1936. Nun, an imposing oil of a young woman with an assembly of nuns behind her, is realistic yet dreamlike, fraught with psychological intrigue. Is it a nun's flashback to her worldly life, or a newly inducted novice's parting glance at her forsaken glamour? No matter, it's an image of remarkable presence and boundless mystery. Bonge was survived by his wife, Dusti, who became Mississippi's first real "modernist," exhibited with New York City's leading abstract expressionists at the Betty Parsons Gallery in the 1950s, and who eventually outlived him by almost 60 years. Here a representational watercolor of fishing boats, circa 1940, reveals stylistic affinities with Ninas, while other works such as her 1939 Child's Plate, Stork, share similarities with Anderson as well.

Ninas, of course, was a local legend, a grand character in the Hemingway mold, a painter and teacher who influenced many New Orleans artists before his death in 1965. Best known for his highly stylized paintings and drawings of the Caribbean islands where he lived before settling in this city, his local work sometimes melded social realism with his flair for tropicalia, as seen in No Parking on This Block, a French Market scene in which some tough characters share space with the chickens and produce. The almost odd man out here is George Wiggins, an illustrator and friend of Anderson and Archie Bonge from their Pennsylvania Academy days. Like a cross between Reginald Marsh and George Bellows, Wiggins is represented by his famous, circa 1930 Fight Gallery lithograph, a boxing scene where the action in the ring is matched by the no-less-kinetic gestures of the audience as it screams for blood. Nothing could be further from Anderson's mystical Horn Island scenes, but there are parallels with his mid-1920s figure studies, as well as those of Ninas. In all, Friends offers quiet insight over spectacle, enabling anyone with an interest in Anderson, Ninas and other regional art legends to see them in a colorful new light.

Like most successful artists, Ida Kohlmeyer is known for a certain look, in her case a colorful sort of abstract symbolism, and like other successful artists, her earlier work may not seem nearly as familiar as her signature style. Kohlmeyer started off as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s after studying with Hans Hoffman, the expatriate godfather of the movement. As ab-ex waned in later years, Kohlmeyer experimented with other styles before settling on the "semiotic," or symbolic, abstraction that was her calling card from the 1980s until her death in 1997. Becoming Ida Kohlmeyer explores the work of her transitional years, including the pure, asymmetrical abstraction of her 1966 Aloft, as well as her mandala-like, vaguely biological canvases of the late 1960s. In fact, her 1969 Contained suggests a cross-section of some strange flower, maybe one of Georgia O'Keefe's blossoms redesigned by a genetic engineer. By the mid-1970s works such as Cluster were beginning to set the stage for her famous semiotic grids. But if you look closely, you can see the varied contents of this show as a kind of do-it-yourself Ida Kohlmeyer kit -- all the pieces of her mature style are here, all they need is the balance and color harmony that she eventually refined into her own painterly equivalent of perfect pitch.

click to enlarge Archie Bonge's oil painting Nun is filled with psychological intrigue, an image of remarkable presence and boundless intrigue.
  • Archie Bonge's oil painting Nun is filled with psychological intrigue, an image of remarkable presence and boundless intrigue.
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