Honoré Sharrer’s paintings, which are at once enchanting, humorous, and political, take center stage in a touring exhibition.
At a relatively young age, the painter Honoré Sharrer was embraced by the art world. She won a national art prize in her teens and went on to study at Yale University (though she only stayed for a year). When she was 24, the prominent critic Lincoln Kirstein donated her painting Workers and Paintings (1943) to the Museum of Modern Art. Throughout the late ’40s and early ’50s, Sharrer’s work was featured in several important group shows, such as MoMA’s “14 Americans” (1946), the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Nineteen Young Americans” (1950), the Kirstein-curated “Symbolic Realism in American Painting” (1950), a solo exhibition through M. Knoedler & Co. of her polyptych work Tribute to the American Working People (1946–51), and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “The New Decade: 35 American Painters and Sculptors” (1955). Sharrer’s colorful canvases, with their unique blending of Social Realism and Surrealism, established the artist early in her career as a new American voice.
Today, Sharrer’s work is not particularly well known (though, it should be noted, it is in the collections of many of the top institutions in the country). The narrative of postwar American art has typically overlooked figurative modernists, and Sharrer has been one of the many artists of her period cast aside by the art world’s seemingly insatiable thirst for male-dominated abstraction. The rediscovered mid-20th century female artist, another favorite art-world narrative (see this issue’s article on Carol Rama) and a category Sharrer can also fit into, has brought many incredible women artists to the fore as of late but also serves as a bitter reminder of the cruelty of the past and of the unfairness that still bubbles below the surface of the present. Sharrer was also a part of another group—she was a leftist and a “fellow traveler” of the American Communist party. Her political views held sway over her work and were undoubtedly a major reason why that work, as well as that of her colleagues, was increasingly marginalized during the Cold War.
Yet whatever context Sharrer might be put in, her work rewards a close look—both with her own era in mind and through the lens of contemporary politics and culture. A traveling exhibition of her work, “Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer,” gives museumgoers an opportunity to take that close look. The show, which features some 45 paintings, comes to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) this month (June 29–September 3) after a stint at the Columbus Museum of Art, its co-organizer. It then travels to Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Mass., in September.
The exhibition also includes works on paper, lithographs, aquatints, photographs, and drawings—some studies, others independent works. At PAFA, this section of the show will be expanded, with the addition of some 40 or 50 drawings, many never before seen. “As an art school and art museum we love to explore process,” says David R. Brigham, PAFA president, CEO, and acting museum director. “Sharrer’s was a very interesting one because she clipped from magazines, newspapers, took a lot of photographs, and made a lot of drawings. That multi-source type of approach is a major part of our exhibition.” Sharrer maintained a vast visual archive as reference material for her detailed compositions. Associated Press images and magazine clippings from publications like Paris Match and Time were kept on hand, as well as—according to the introduction written by Sharrer’s son, Adam Desmond Zagorin, to the exhibition’s catalogue—taxidermied birds on loan from Montreal’s natural history museum and nude snapshots of Sharrer’s neighbor, a young housewife.
Sharrer’s process and image sourcing bring Pop Art to mind. Though her work was certainly imbued with social and cultural phenomena and could take on a satirical tone, it always kept a foot firmly planted in the socially engaged art of the 1940s. Sharrer, its not surprising to learn, was a friend of George Tooker’s. “There were some commonalities within their work,” says Brigham, “The technical interests were similar—their slow output, their mass undertakings, the biblical undercurrents, and the interest in Northern Renaissance painting.” The Social Realism of Mexican Modernist artists such as Diego Rivera can also be detected in her work, with its scrutiny of government fat cats and business moguls.
Sharrer was born into an affluent family. Her father was a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Army, and her family lived in several cities in the U.S., as well as in Paris and the Philippines. Sharrer graduated from a private high school in La Jolla, Calif., where she was chosen as queen of the May Day Festival—an ironic occurrence considering that May Day, though a WASPy tradition, was adopted by Communists and Socialists in the 19th century as a day to celebrate workers. During World War II, Sharrer worked as a welder and was briefly married to Arthur Weld, a leftist merchant marine who was active in radical politics. Around this time she also contributed several articles and illustrations to a Bay Area Communist newspaper. She relocated to New York in 1943, and was divorced by 1944 (she married Perez Zagorin, a prominent historian, in 1947). She worked as a welder in a shipyard in New Jersey, and there’s evidence that she was still doing so while beginning work on Workers and Paintings (1943).
That painting, a pivotal work in Sharrer’s early career, was created as a study for a mural competition at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Mass. It did not win but was given honorable mention. The oil on board piece depicts working-class men, women, and children situated in a line, with a cityscape behind them. To the viewer they present several framed paintings—Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) and Picasso’s Girl Before the Mirror (1932), as well as works by Brueghel, Daumier, Millet and Rivera—for the most part, artists known for their dignified depictions of the working class. John Ashbery, years after the painting joined the collection of MoMA, described it as “a collaboration between Norman Rockwell and the brothers van Eyck.”
Tribute to the American Working Class (1946–51), Sharrer’s most celebrated work, takes much of what she was doing in Workers and Paintings and expands it. Brigham says, “These early works are very concrete, very specific, based on journalistic images, and very precise.” The polyptych is an altarpiece to the working class, with a smiling middle-aged man in a cap, red button-down shirt, and brown work pants standing in the center of its central panel in a contrapposto pose like a saint or mythic hero. Behind him, various figures—mostly in work clothes—and images of factories and gears peek through the open windows of a deep green-colored house like tabs on an advent calendar. To the right and left of the central panel there are two smaller panels stacked on top of one another. On the left a scene of a country fair and the parlor of a modest home; on the right a farm scene and an art classroom in a public school. Each panel has numerous figures, and each has dignity, bounty, contentedness, bouts of exuberance (i.e. a man clicking his heels while balancing a rooster on his head and holding a basket of eggs, a boy doing a handstand), and displays of practical and vernacular skill (such as sewing and cooking). The polyptych, which was acquired by the Sara Roby Foundation in the 1950s and given as a gift by the foundation to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1986, took Sharrer five years to complete. A protracted process was typical of Sharrer. “She identified with labor, and painting was labor for her, with works taking her months if not years to create,” says Brigham.
Reception (1958), another important work of Sharrer’s, also took years to complete. The painting marks a transition in her work and her life. In 1955, after Sharrer’s husband lost his job teaching at Vassar because of his politics, the family (her son was two years old at the time) moved to Montreal, where Zagorin took a job at McGill University. The family stayed in the Canadian city until 1964. Meanwhile, Sharrer’s work became less focused on lifting up the American working people, and more centered on a critique of the hysteria surrounding Communism and radical leftism in Cold War America. Of this period, “Reception is the key work, directly taking on McCarthy and the rich and powerful,” says Brigham. At first glance the painting depicts a rather dignified scene. Men—and a few women—in formal wear crowd a salmon-walled room in the French style, many of them engrossed in conversation. Among the guests are Cardinal Francis Spellman, Claire Booth Luce, J. Edgar Hoover, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, all major proponents of the oppressive constraints on left-minded artists and intellectuals. Throughout the room various species of birds perch—on the chandelier, the tables, guests’ hands and heads—completely unnoticed.
After Reception, Sharrer’s work changes yet again. Brigham says, “From there, the work becomes increasingly more surreal and almost Mannerist. She’s using exaggeration and odd juxtapositions, shifts of scale, and everything is presented in a sort of abstract way.” Brigham cites Good Friday (1970–75), in which a family in their Sunday best walks past the feet of a crucifix. “Over to the right hand side are two days mating,” says Brigham. “It’s showing the holiest of holy days and the most normal act of procreation.”
For the next few decades, Sharrer built a visual lexicon throughout her paintings with repeated imagery. There are countless small dogs, cooked turkeys on plates, and bent pieces of silverware. Tabletops, tablecloths, knives, bits of food, and floral arrangements abound, creating mock domestic settings even in non-domestic locations, as in Meat (1974), Before the Divorce (1976/99), Susanna and the Eldest (1981) and Spring and the Estes Brother (1985). Birds perch amongst the scenes as if to expose the folly of humans (typically men), as in Five Men and a Parrot (1997) and Young Man Standing on the Fountain (1988). In paintings such as St. Jerome (1967) and The Play (1997), owls, in their wisdom, sit above the action.
One prevalent theme is Sharrer’s use of the female nude, as in Afternoon of the Satyr (1989) and Roman Landscape (1990). Her take on the female body is at once Classical and provocatively realistic. She paints pale and curvaceous female figures, reminiscent of Rubens, with the type of sturdy thighs that would send R. Crumb into a panic. Yet, her use of dimpled skin, provocative and awkward poses, and contrast with the other imagery in the scenes rips the figures away from a mythic or sexual context, shining a light instead on the way women are seen in society.
Many of Sharrer’s paintings of this period are slyly funny—though Sharrer wasn’t going for the cheap laugh but rather a deeper satirical commentary. Brigham notes that Melissa Wolfe, the curator of American art at the Saint Louis Museum of Art and a co-curator of the exhibition, describes Sharrer as having a “slant view.” “We don’t want to diminish her by just seeing the jokes in her work,” says Brigham. “The slant view, the absurdity, is where Sharrer drives a wedge into power and into gender inequality. That’s what the force of the work is.”
By Sarah E. Fensom