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Sekula, Sonja (1918-1963)  
 
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Sekula developed an intimate friendship with Breton and lived in his apartment during 1945. Through Breton, she became acquainted with the French painter, Alice Rahon, with whom she had a passionate affair for several months during 1945. After Rahon, who was married to artist Wolfgang Paalen, ended their relationship, Sekula wrote to her about her efforts to transform her frustrated desire into paintings.

Discouraged by her experience with Rahon, Sekula became cynical about the possibility of developing a partnership with another woman. Nevertheless, in 1949, she fell in love with Manina Thoeren, whom she met while vacationing in Saint Tropez.

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During the 1940s, Sekula developed close friendships with artists associated with the emerging Abstract Expressionist movement, including the painters Robert Motherwell and Roberto Matta and the sculptor David Hare. Although allied with the Surrealists in the early 1940s, the Abstract Expressionists sought to achieve even greater expressive freedom by eliminating all vestiges of representation from their work. Encouraged by David Hare, Sekula published the poem Womb and a related drawing in the March 1943 issue of VVV, a journal of poetry and art, which Hare founded and edited between 1942 and 1944. Although Sekula produced an extensive body of creative writing, Womb was the only piece to be published during her lifetime.

In 1947, Sekula moved into a building at 346 Monroe Street, where composer John Cage and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham lived. She quickly became close friends with these gay men. Although Cunningham generally preferred to design his own costumes, he commissioned her to create the costume for his performance of Dromenon in December 1947. To insure that her design would complement the shape of Cunningham's body, Sekula painted brightly colored abstract forms onto his tights and leotard while Cunningham was wearing them. A little of the design has come off each time that the costume has been used.

In 1943, paintings by Sekula were included in 31 Women Artists, a group show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery. In 1946, Guggenheim gave Sekula her first solo exhibition. Reviewers warmly praised this appearance of a new talent. The reviewer for the New York Times, for example, noted the appeal of her color and "richly diversified surface patterns."

In 1948, Sekula switched to Betty Parsons Gallery, which had replaced Art of This Century as the leading avant-garde venue in New York. By the late 1940s, Parsons exhibited most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. Notably tolerant of erratic behavior, Parsons was an ideal representative for Sekula, who suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after the successful opening of a major solo exhibition in April 1951. Despite Sekula's diminishing level of production during her stays in clinics in the early and mid-1950s, Parsons continued to serve as her agent until 1957.

Sekula never achieved the degree of professional recognition and success that seemed to be presaged by the reviews of her first exhibition. Classifying Sekula as an Abstract Expressionist, reviewers increasingly compared her work unfavorably to paintings by the leading male exponents of that style.

Sekula never created works with the gigantic proportions favored by Motherwell and other prominent Abstract Expressionist painters. Preferring to work on a small scale, she seldom created paintings that measured more than fourteen by ten inches. Furthermore, she generally applied paint delicately and avoided the bold, thick strokes and splashes utilized by other Abstract Expressionists.

The most prominent Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, devised signature styles, which they employed in countless works. In the context of the American art world of the late 1940s and 1950s, Sekula's perceived inability to devise an immediately recognizable autograph style led to increasingly harsh criticism of her paintings.

In a 1957 entry in her journals, Sekula expressed puzzlement at this response to her work: "The reproach I often received at not following one definite line I cannot understand. For I am many and I reflect the left and the right and attempt to stand up and lie down wall-lessly in the shadow and in the light of my hands, soul, and heart."

Sources and Styles from the Early 1940s to the Mid-1950s

Although it diminished her reputation during her lifetime, Sekula's adventurous investigation of many possible means of expression now seems one of the strengths of her art. Several of her early paintings of the 1940s are innovative variations of pieces by Constructivist artists active in the early twentieth century. For example, in Awakening (1943, Galerie Wiebenga, Lausanne), the dynamic arrangement of geometric shapes, which seem to hover above the surface of the canvas, recalls Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism (1915, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam).

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