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Art is long

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In 1914 Kathleen McEnery was a rising figure on the New York art scene when suddenly, at the age of 26, she disappeared. What happened? She got married and came to live in Rochester.

            A year earlier, in 1913, she had exhibited two paintings at the legendary Armory Show in New York. This was the event that introduced many Americans to the European avant-garde for the first time. The attention it drew marked a dramatic turning point for art in this country. Prior to the show, opposition to the stuffy conservatism of the Academy, which favored older Impressionist and French Barbizon styles, had spawned a number of rebellious offshoots and independent salons. Of these the so-called Ashcan school, presided over by Robert Henri and characterized by gritty urban scenes painted in a muddy but realistic style, had already started to challenge the art establishment. But the success of the Armory Show, with its weird and wonderful French contingent, blew the field of possibilities wide open.

            McEnery had studied under Henri, and her early work was recognizably "Ashcan." But by the time of the Armory, she had begun to develop a more Post-Impressionist aesthetic with simplified forms and flat planes of color. The two paintings she showed, Dream and Going to the Bath, probably represent the most "advanced" stage of her career. She never progressed to an investigation of the Cubist style that had scandalized the Armory --- the room of masterpieces by Duchamp, Picasso, and Picabia had been described in the press as a "chamber of horrors."

            Some of McEnery's later works, such as the Modigliani-esque portrait of Katya Leventon, with its angular forms and sharpened contours, evince a distinctly modernist temperament. But on the whole she seems to have retreated to a more traditional style. Many of her New York contemporaries, including Stuart Davis, George Bellows, and Edward Hopper, with whom she was exhibiting in small group shows before the Armory, went on to carve their own deep niches in the 20th-century canon. But once McEnery left New York, her production and her stylistic explorations slowed.

            It's unfortunate that a painter who showed so much promise never blazed the trail that seemed to lie before her. But there is no evidence that McEnery had any regrets herself. Her priorities just seem to have shifted. A husband, three children, and an active participation in the Rochester social scene inevitably absorbed much of her time and energy, and painting became more a labor of love than a "career." Perhaps her circumstances, happily married to Frank Cunningham whose family ran a lucrative coach manufacturing business, were just too comfortable. She never experienced the "hunger" that has driven many an artist to creative heights.

            Nevertheless, the spark remained, and the paintings from her Rochester years brim with talent. The 16 paintings on show at the University of Rochester's Hartnett Gallery concentrate on McEnery's portraits and still-lifes. The flowers, fruits, and assorted crockery are skillfully rendered, boldly colored, and elegantly proportioned.

            But it's the portraits that show her at her most sophisticated. Woman in a Turban and Woman in a Red Shawl are striking studies of two quite different women. The former stares confidently at us, like some exotic feline monitoring her prey, whilst the latter gazes wistfully beyond us, her neck and body curved in swan-like grace. No doubt their natural good looks and fashionable '20s attire contribute significantly to the captivating presence of these two portraits. But it is interesting to note that her most successful pictures of men are inspired by the least attractive sitters.

            The fine features, blue eyes, and neatly trimmed mustache of her husband make for an emblematic picture of an amiable man. But the crimson lips, pallid countenance, and haughty posture of Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, conjure up a veritable prince of darkness. The po-faced Eddie Murphy, a horn player in the RPO, is almost hypnotically ugly.

            Since her death in 1971 there have been only two public exhibitions of McEnery's work --- at the Memorial Art Gallery in 1972 and at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, in 1987. And it is only recently that she has attracted serious scholarly attention. The respected art historian Janet Wolff first came across McEnery's work in 1995, and since then has gathered together the few pieces of information that remain.

            The culmination of this long overdue research is the small but intimate display at the Hartnett Gallery, accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue with erudite essays by Wolff and local historian Douglas Howard. It's too late for McEnery to enjoy the recognition she deserves, but luckily for us it's not too late to enjoy her remarkable talent. More grist to the mill for the old saying: Life is short, but art is long.

The Art of Kathleen McEnery continues through April 26 at the Hartnett Gallery, Wilson Commons, University of Rochester River Campus. Hours: Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. 275- 4188.

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