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Sekula, Sonja (1918-1963)  
 
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Throughout the 1940s, Sekula also sought inspiration in cultures outside the Western mainstream. For instance, she evoked the colors and patterns of African textiles in the aptly titled African Moonsun (1945, Künstmuseum, Lucerne). However, she avoided simplistic imitation of African sources through her notably witty and playful use of line, which recalls the prominent early twentieth-century Swiss artist, Paul Klee.

In many of her small abstract paintings of the early and mid-1940s, Sekula incorporated totemic elements, appropriated from Northwest Coast Native American art. In Untitled (before 1945, Mr. and Mrs. Sekula de Renard Collection), these devices are elegantly displayed within a shape that recalls butterfly wings. In Presence of Illumination (1945, private collection, New York), the totemic devices are interwoven in a dynamic, elongated composition. Bright colors alleviate the sense of tension, evoked by the dense compacting of elements.

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Although her interest in Native American culture was shared by many Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, she seems to have investigated native sources more systematically and intensely than most of her colleagues. In 1946, she and Natica Waterbury (with whom she previously had shared a house at Asharoken Beach Northport, Long Island) moved to New Mexico in order to study Native American art and culture. The following year, she spent several months traveling in Mexico with her mother in order to study Pre-Columbian art.

Sekula's paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s continued to reveal her fascination with Native American art, but at this period she interpreted totemic devices in a considerably more stylized fashion. For example, in Private Totem (1948, Collection Kukri Imre, Spreitenbach, Switzerland), the original Native American sources are only vaguely recollected in the pictographic elements, which are spread over the canvas in an even-textured composition, characteristic of Abstract Expressionism in general.

In numerous paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sekula utilized what Cassandra Langer aptly characterized as "closeted symbolism," evocative of her situation as a lesbian in an intensely homophobic era. Arranged in horizontal rows in The Rains (1949, private collection, New York), the densely layered biomorphic shapes and vaguely calligraphic markings seem to constitute a pictographic language, intended to produce some sort of indecipherable text. Misty grays and blues enhance the sense of mystery conveyed by this piece.

However, not of all Sekula's paintings can be related to her personal life. For example, she often sought to express the dynamism and boldness of New York, which she regarded as the archetypal American city. With her stylized pictorial language, she managed to celebrate the impressive architecture of New York without recording its actual appearance. The semicircular arcs that dominate the canvas Williamsburg Bridge (1948, Urs & Barbara Brunner Collection, Switzerland) evoke the splendor of the span that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Similarly, the towering, wiry constructions in City of the Poor (1951, private collection, New York) reflect New York's high-rise buildings. Occasional splotches of bright color and shimmering light serves to endow this painting with an uplifting mood. Further, vaguely human, biomorphic shapes scattered throughout the painting evoke the vitality of the ordinary individuals referenced in the title. In a letter of 1960 to Parsons, Sekula recalled the painting with amazement: "'The City of the Poor' is really rich isn't it? I didn't even know that when I painted it."

Later Years

By the late 1950s, Sekula had fallen into obscurity, and she realized that her art was unlikely to be received favorably in her lifetime. Determined to continue working without regard for the art establishment, she declared in a journal entry of 1961: "No more reading of art magazines . . . I am as good as bad as all of them, even though I am ignored . . . I go on."

The scope and diversity of her artistic achievements in the later years of her life seem especially remarkable, when one considers that she was unable to produce art during most of the time that she was confined in sanitariums. Further, because of her family's diminished economic resources, she had to work at a variety of jobs (for instance, as a bookkeeper in a food processing plant) in order to support herself.

In sketchbooks from the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sekula innovatively blended haiku poems with various abstract forms. Freed from the need to conform to mainstream expectations, she sometimes alluded directly to her love for other women in the texts in the sketch books. Interspersed throughout the pages of these books are biomorphic shapes that strongly evoke women's breasts and genitalia.

Sekula also continued to produce a significant body of independent paintings during her later years. The combination of words and brightly colored, biomorphic shapes in Read Look (1956, private collection, New York) foreshadows the development of Pop Art. In two paintings of 1963, Les Amies and Les Lesbiennes (1963, both in private collections), she explicitly celebrated her sexuality. Both these paintings show stylized images of women, whose bodies seem almost to be fused together.

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