May 14, 2021 - July 2, 2021
Ninth Street Women and Their LegacyView the Exhibition →
Ms. Hall specialized in lyrical, evocative landscapes whose flat color planes and geometric forms alluded to the natural world rather than describing it. “They are about nuances of weather and nuances of feeling, with just the right small shift of color and form to make her intentions quite clear,” the critic John Russell wrote in The New York Times in 1979.
She showed at the Betty Parsons Gallery, which played a pivotal role in advancing the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and other artists of the New York School. After Ms. Parsons died in 1982, Ms. Hall wrote her biography, published in 1991 as Betty Parsons: Artist, Dealer, Collector.
From her New York Times obituary May 16, 2017
“Painting, that difficult art, requires your whole attention, your whole life,” vowed Lee Hall, a maxim she expanded just a few years before her death to include this advice: “only do art if you can’t live without it.” Whether executing her signature large-scale abstracted landscapes, teaching college students, serving as an executive leader, or writing about both classical and contemporary aesthetic topics, Hall devoted her days to that purpose—art—and employed the full spectrum of her creative and intellectual talents in so doing.
Born in Lexington, North Carolina, Lee Hall’s childhood was largely spent in Florida, where she moved with her mother following her parents’ divorce. Summers, however, found her in the forests and fields that surrounded her maternal grandparents’ home in the verdant center of the Tarheel state. Her affinity for nature and a close relationship with her grandmother inspired Hall’s matriculation at the Woman’s College of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1955. As a student, Hall became fascinated with the exhilarating New York gallery scene then being fueled by pioneering Abstract Expressionists. She determined that she, too, would try her hand in the city and enrolled at New York University for graduate study. She maintained a studio as she pursued an MA (1958) and then PhD (1965), all the while faithfully attending exhibitions and befriending leading figures of the movement. Betty Parsons’s eponymous gallery on 57th Street was the epicenter of activity for first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionist artists, a place Hall later described as “the flagship of modernism,” never imagining that she would one day be the subject of two solo exhibitions there (1975 and 1977) and ultimately become Parsons’s chosen biographer.
Like Nell Blaine, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Susan Weil, and others, Hall was one of a small minority of women who worked and exhibited alongside the lionized male artists of the post-war period. Over time, she grew increasingly disenchanted with the commercial pace and celebrity culture of the marketplace. Art had become a “commodity,” she lamented, and so turned her focus to academia. That shift, however, did not come at the expense of her own artistic practice, and she began to create the evocative, modern—yet unapologetically representational—landscapes for which she is best remembered. Working with large swaths of canvas, either stretched or loose, Hall sought to extol the dynamic beauty of the natural world, especially the New England countryside—or, in the case of Sea Mist and Ocracoke Dune: A Recollection, the unspoiled coastline of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Praised as nuanced fusions of the pastoral landscape tradition and Abstract Expressionism, Hall’s paintings are often characterized by a tactile surface as well as a pictorial flatness that transcends planar boundaries to reveal a “spiritual vitality.” In the 1980s, Hall began exploring collage, a medium she believed required “definition, decision, thinking.”
After holding a series of short-term teaching posts while she completed her terminal degree, the freshly accredited Dr. Hall joined the faculty of New Jersey’s Drew University in 1965 and rose to the rank of art department chair before leaving in 1974. In 1975, Hall was appointed president of the venerable—but financially imperiled— Rhode Island School of Design. Over the course of her fractious eight-year tenure, Hall managed to stabilize the college’s budget, but was less successful in implementing personnel reforms. Those measures, including her recommendation to extend the faculty’s lenient three-day work schedule, led to teacher unionization and her subsequent resignation. From 1983 to 1992, Hall was vice-president of a New York-based non-profit organization that advocated for the health and education of underprivileged students around the globe.
Scholarship was integral to Hall’s intellectual and creative activity. Her appetite for learning—and writing—was acute and diverse. She authored books on classical topics—including a study of the Greek goddess Athena and an examination of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s legacy—as well as on popular culture, as evidenced by a fashion commentary titled Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing. During her time at Drew University, Hall compiled an extensive study of the impact of President John Kennedy’s death on the arts; this large collection of varied materials is housed at Kennedy’s presidential library in Boston. Yet none of these efforts attracted the attention—or criticism—that her controversial biographies of Betty Parsons and, more particularly, of Elaine and Willem de Kooning did. While Parsons had reportedly sanctioned her close friend’s role of memoirist, many of their mutual acquaintances objected to the degree of detail relayed about the gallerist’s unconventional life. Two years after the Parsons profile was issued in 1991, HarperCollins released Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage, an intimate exposé about the famous—and famously troubled—couple. New York art circles railed at Hall’s unvarnished recounting of the pair’s alcoholism and infidelity, and labeled the book a betrayal. Hall defended her narrative, citing her long association with Elaine and the general public awareness of the de Kooning’s tumultuous open relationship. One of her goals had been to elevate Elaine’s stature, which she believed had been sacrificed to burnish Willem’s enigmatic image and advance sales. In response to the censure, Hall cautioned: “Don’t ever underestimate the political fervor of the art world. It’s a very tight group, and they’re trying to maintain a myth.”
Lee Hall stopped exhibiting in the final decades of her life, resuming only in 2014, three years before her death from gastric cancer. She was an advisor and generous benefactor to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, donating over three hundred paintings to be sold to support the fledgling museum’s educational programs. “Construct your own metaphor,” Hall once exhorted her students. “You will never be able to claim painting, but rejoice that it has claimed you.” Paintings by Lee Hall are included in the collections of the Montclair Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the Hudson River Museum, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Mint Museum, among others.
The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Exhibitions with Somerville Manning Gallery
2021 Ninth Street Women and Their Legacy