Biography for Ethel Kremer Schwabacher: Ethel Kremer Schwabacher was a painter, author and intellectual whose life was deeply intertwined in the history and development of American modern art. She is best known for her vivid, painterly abstractions drawn from the unconscious which often involve themes of womanhood and childbirth. Later in her career she also made figurative works that connected personal traumas to Greek myths. The long list of artists she knew and interacted with includes Arshlle Gorky—who she wrote a biography of—Max Weber, William de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning and Richard Pousette Dart. Born Ethel Kremer in New York in 1903, she made her first paintings in the garden of her parent’s home in the town of Pelham at the age of five. Her Jewish parents, Eugene Kremer and Agnes Oppenheimer, were attorneys who provided their family with a cultured, affluent lifestyle that fostered creativity.
After attending the prestigious Horace Mann School Ethel enrolled in the Art Student’s League at the age of 15. There she studied sculpture briefly with George Bridgeman and then for nine years with Robert Laurent. After her father’s death in 1920 she devoted herself to making a three panel plaster relief to memorialize him. She also studied sculpture for a year at the National Academy of Design. Ethel turned to painting in the late 1920s after a series of traumas transformed the life of her family. When her brother became deeply mentally ill the entire family entered psychoanalysis. After her analyst, a follower of Freud named Bernard Gluck, returned to Vienna she was overcome with feelings of abandonment. Around this time she studied painting with the European modernist Max Weber and had her first encounter with the Armenian American modernist Arshile Gorky.
In 1928 Ethel departed for Europe where she felt free of her possessive mother and resumed her connection with Dr. Gluck. During the six years she spent there, Ethel had a love affair with the philosopher Mortimer Adler, more analysis with Helene Deutsch and time to paint in the south of France. She returned to the United States in 1934, convinced that psychotherapy had cured her of a difficult personal inclination: sadism towards men. Ethel soon met and married Wolf Schwabacher, an attorney whose clients included notable creative and literary figures. Together, they would have two children, Brenda and Christopher.
In 1936 Ethel renewed her friendship with the painter Gorky, who was still relatively unknown. Along with her friend Mina Metzgar, she took classes from him at his studio and began to call him “Maestro.” They visited museums together and Ethel found his recognition of her talent extremely gratifying. Influenced by Gorky’s art and supported by her husband—who provided domestic help to relieve Ethel of household duties—she painted in her New York living room.
She also painted outdoors at the family’s farm in Pennington, New Jersey where peacocks strolled on expansive lawns surrounded by orchards and wheat fields. In this setting she made landscapes that included flowers, peacocks and bulls. Her palette soon became wilder and more luminous as she painted natural forms and fragments. Biomorphic forms inspired by Gorky, drips and flows of paint and Surrealistic elements also appeared. A review of her 1947 New York exhibition called her a painter “who is clearly a poet.”
After Gorky’s death in 1948 Ethel began work on a biography of him that was published in 1957. It was the first comprehensive book about the artist and his work. Following the death of her husband Wolf in 1951 Ethel played classical music at ear- splitting volumes while painting odes to him in her New York apartment. Dominated by black, white and red, these became her first mature Abstract Expressionist works. They were shown at the prominent Betty Parsons Gallery where Ethel had four shows during the 1950s. Her abstract works increasingly referred to themes of fertility and mortality and by 1961 she was also including figurative elements borrowed from Classical mythology.
During the 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, she painted politically themed works that Betty Parsons refused to show. In a series of paintings—and in her personal notebooks—Ethel continued to develop ideas based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Often examining and re-inventing myths to contextualize the struggles of masculinity and femininity she painted epic canvases of Prometheus, Oedipus, Abraham and Isaac, Antigone, and Sisyphus. When arthritis began to cripple Ethel’s hands in 1971 she began working in smaller scale, often in pastel, until her death in November 1984.
Schwabacher's work is included in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Brooklyn