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Juanita Guccione: The Shapeshifter

Juanita Guccione, through many forms and styles of painting, stayed true to her inner vision and feminist mission.

Juanita Guccione, Rise of the Phoenix, circa 1973

Juanita Guccione, Rise of the Phoenix, circa 1973, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 54 in.

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While most connoisseurs of Surrealism and abstract painting know the work of I. Rice Pereira, few have even heard the name of her sister, Juanita Guccione. That is unfortunate, because at every stage of her decades-long artistic career (she died in 1999 at 95), Guccione produced powerful, technically accomplished, and absolutely sui generis paintings. Partly because she craved privacy, partly because she dramatically changed her style more than once, and not least because she signed her works with different names at different times, Guccione is far from being as well known as she deserves. She does, however, appear to be emerging from obscurity now—she has had several gallery shows on both coasts in the past few years, and a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012–13, “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” prominently featured her work. Guccione has found a champion in the Weinstein Gallery, a San Francisco specialist in Surrealism and Non-Objective painting, which is sponsoring a book about her life and work, due to appear in the fall of 2018.

Like many women artists in the 20th century, Guccione resisted being pigeonholed into any particular art movement. She painted in many modes, from realist to abstract. An early oil on canvas from around 1935, Shapeshifting, is prophetic in its title. A congeries of curling, interlocking shapes, seen as if through a prism, works itself around a faint remnant of illusionistic traditional picture-space. But it is with Surrealism that she is most closely associated, whether she would approve of the label or not. A 1930s work, On the Street of Chance, is in the realist-Surrealist vein espoused by Dalí. It depicts a dreamscape with a brick road leading off into the vanishing point, strewn with gambling apparatus and chess pieces and lined by giant playing cards that loom up into the murky sky lit by a black sun (the sol niger of alchemy, an image that recurs throughout Guccione’s work).

On the other hand, Guccione made many paintings in an abstract-Surrealist style. Europa (1939) scatters biomorphic abstract forms across a grayed-out landscape, which is distinguished from empty space only by the fact that is has a floor and a horizon. The shapes, some of which have the suggestion of eyes, are beautifully, brilliantly colored, with a dominant rich purple, testifying to the skill with color that Guccione’s teacher, Hans Hofmann, especially praised her for. Guccione would return to the abstract-Surrealist technique throughout her career. For example, Rise of the Phoenix, an acrylic on canvas from 1975, conjures abstract shapes that suggest human figures and architectural elements but without any literal references, situating them in a bright-red energy field in which there is no longer any ground, sky, horizon, or sense of up and down.

After World War II, Guccione created a mythic pictorial world replete with Amazon-like, tattooed women warriors, in which symbols from various esoteric traditions of the world appear like signposts on a road to self-knowledge. In many ways, the artist, who immersed herself in Jungian psychology as well as a broad selection of religious literature, anticipated the New Age movement.

In fact, Guccione was ahead of her time in many ways, not only artistically but in her life, which she lived independently and in defiance of societal expectations. Born Anita Rice in 1904 in Chelsea, Mass., a suburb of Boston, she moved with her family to Brooklyn, N.Y., in her early teens. She and both of her sisters, Irene (later known as I. Rice Pereira) and Dorothy, studied art, with Anita taking classes at Pratt Institute and the Art Students League. Always known for her striking beauty, Guccione found work as a fashion model in New York, but she made her real money as a fashion pirate, using a near-photographic memory to recall competitors’ designs that she saw at shows and then drawing them for her employers so they could duplicate them.

Saving the proceeds from these endeavors, she bought herself passage to France in 1931. In Paris, she studied with Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant but soon moved on, to Italy and Greece, financing her trips by painting portraits for passengers and crew of the steamships that plied the Mediterranean. In Greece she made the fateful decision to go on to Egypt, and while there she was intrigued to hear that artists were welcomed in Algeria and were able to live there inexpensively. By the end of 1931 Guccione had joined the artists’ colony of Bou-Saada in northeastern Algeria, a city known as the Gateway to the Sahara and home base of the Ouled Nail, a nomadic Bedouin tribe. That was her jumping-off point; for the next three years she lived among the Ouled Nail, crossing the Sahara with them twice and painting and drawing what she saw. The Ouled Nail are a matriarchal society, and Guccione felt fully accepted by them. When the local French authorities warned her that it would be dangerous to travel with the Bedouins, she defiantly replied, “I know I am safer with them than I am with you.” The traditional tattoos of the Ouled Nail women made a big impression on Guccione and feature prominently in her work from that period and later.

A century earlier, Algeria was where Orientalist painting got its start, when Eugène Delacroix arrived with the new French colonial overlords and imbued what he saw with a Romantic aura. Romanticism and exoticism were not for Guccione, who instead painted the Ouled Nail and their surroundings in a straightforward, honest manner, generally devoid of avant-garde gestures. Her oil and watercolor paintings and drawings from this period are intimate and speak of friendship and familiarity. When a selection was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1935–36, the press coverage for the most part indulged in the most purple of prose and Romanticized and sensationalized both her work and her life in Algeria. After the exhibition, most of the paintings went into storage and were not seen again for decades. In 2004, the Algerian government acquired 165 of Guccione’s paintings from the early 1930s, which are now in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Algiers.

Late in her sojourn there, Guccione had a relationship with an Ouled Nail man, Chehaba Ben Aissa Ben Mabrouk, and bore a son, Djelloul. When the relationship ended, in 1934, she brought her infant son to the United States and raised him there. She took the boy’s father’s last name as her own, Anglicizing it slightly to “Marbrook.” Djelloul Marbrook, now in his early 80s, is a poet, a guardian of his mother’s legacy, and a commentator on her life and work.

Back in New York, then in the depths of the Depression, Guccione found work designing murals for the WPA; on one of these projects, at the 23rd Street Post Office, she collaborated with no less a muralist than David Alfaro Siqueiros. During the later 1930s, Guccione absorbed influences from the Cubists, Surrealists, and Social Realist painters alike. De Chirico, Tanguy, Miró, and Léger were her favorites, along with Hans Hofmann, with whom she studied for seven years, from 1937 to 1944, in New York and in Provincetown, Mass. Hofmann often subsidized her when she didn’t have enough money to afford his classes. Despite Guccione’s interest in Surrealism, Dalí was not a particularly great influence, although her son recalled, “I once tried to impress her by saying that Salvador Dalí’s work was too literary. We were standing in front of his great Last Supper. She grabbed my collar and shoved me towards the painting, alarming a guard. ‘Look at that brush stroke, idiot!’ she said. Then she let go and said, ‘And shut up!’”

In 1943, she married a Manhattan taxidermist and real estate entrepreneur named Dominick J. Guccione, thus acquiring the name by which she would be known to posterity. Her earliest works were signed Nita Rice; then she changed her signature to Juanita Marbrook, and then finally to Juanita Guccione. She and her husband bought a summer cottage in Woodstock, N.Y., on town on the Hudson River with a significant artistic community. Dominick Guccione died in 1959, but Juanita Guccione, while she lived in Manhattan, remained connected to Woodstock for the rest of her life; in fact, she is buried in Artists Cemetery there.

Guccione’s work from the postwar period became more explicitly feminist, although the artist was always reluctant to identify herself with any movement or school of thought. Of feminists, she said, “I’m not at all interested in what they say, only in what they do.” What she did was to fill her canvases with images of women of power, women standing up to objectification and commodification. One of the most memorable is She Had Many Faces (circa 1953). A seated nude woman seated on a rainbow cloth under a black sun places one foot behind her calf while raising a hand to a head that has no facial features at all—descending from her hair are ribbons, from each of which dangles a mask with a woman’s face. Djelloul Marbrook recalled that “the faces in it belong to women who keep my mother company in Woodstock’s Artists Cemetery. I remember them posing for my mother. Some of them were artists themselves. I had many conversations with my mother about this painting, both as a boy and as a man. It was never easy, because my mother was extraordinarily taciturn. She didn’t like talking about art, but when she did the air shook. Persistence paid. She said one day, ‘We wear each other’s face, don’t you know that?’”

The French writer Anaïs Nin, whose portrait Guccione painted several times, said of her: “Our dreams are often diffuse and fragmented. Juanita makes them cohesive and clear, as clear as the daily world. Few people can paint the world of our dreams with as much magic, precision, and clarity. It makes the myths by which we live as vivid and dramatic as our diurnal life.”

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2017

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