Women’s History Month: Prints by Sonia Delaunay, Bridget Riley and Kiki Smith

By: Dara Vandor

Historically, art by women in Western culture has long been seen as lesser than that created by their male counterparts. When their work has been celebrated, it was often written about as a novelty, or as craft rather than fine art. While total parity has not been reached even today, work by women artists has begun to crack the uppermost echelons of the market, and art historians and buyers alike are beginning to re-evaluate the legacy of previous generations. In recognition of Women’s History Month, we’re pleased to spotlight the work of three female artists from different generations in our upcoming Editions auction: Sonia Delaunay, Bridget Riley and Kiki Smith.

Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), POLYPHONIE – 1971, lithograph in colours; signed and numbered 149/150. 22 in x 30 in; 56 x 76 cm. Estimate $3,000 – 4,000

Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979)

Sonia Delaunay’s contribution to the progression of Abstract art in the early 20th century cannot be understated. Born in Ukraine and educated in St. Petersburg, Delaunay moved to Paris at the age of 21. Her second marriage, in 1910 to fellow artist Robert Delaunay, gave Sonia a reason to stay in Paris, where she and her husband would rise to the top of the avant-garde.

Contrary to Cyril Connolly’s oft-quoted aphorism that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” Delaunay’s great breakthrough came from a little blanket she made for her son Charles in 1911. The patterning inspired the artist to move from figuration to abstraction and “shows how Sonia melded Russian folk-craft with Parisian avant garde, and anticipated the experiments with colour and shape that would become the Delaunay hallmark style, simultané.”

The Delaunays, working closely together, “began to explore the visual properties of contrasting colours—colours opposite one another on the colour wheel. The pairing of two such colours, they realised, heightened the optical intensity, making both colours appear more vivid than they would on their own.” The 1910s were an explosive creative period for both artists, with Sonia writing that “we had rediscovered the moving principle of any work of art: the light, the movement of colour.” They would call their style “simultanéisme” (“Simultanism”), a focus on the simultaneous contrast of colours.

Delaunay designed clothing and textiles while also working in graphic design and painting. Her work blurred boundaries between genres – a very modernist way of working – which may have accounted for later critics ignoring her mighty contributions to the visual realm. Delaunay prefigured our present moment of artists and clothing houses working in tandem, viewing wearable art as equal to works on canvas, conceptualised by Delaunay as “walking poems.” She designed costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, and in the 1930s, opened a Paris atelier to make textiles and clothing. Her radical exploration of colour had become a signature brand.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Delaunays left Paris for the South of France. Robert died in 1941, and Sonia dedicated herself to securing his lasting reputation. She began painting more frequently, in oil and gouache. While her palette became more muted, her geometric explorations of colour deviated little from her earlier work. Over her long career, Delaunay would draw inspiration from craft traditions from her Eastern European childhood, while also imagining the future.

By the end of her career, Delaunay’s contributions to modern art were being recognized by a new women’s movement. Delaunay was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre, and her work has been exhibited in major museums including the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern, the Smithsonian Design Museum, the Musée d’art moderne de Paris, and the Musée des arts decoratifs.

Bridget Riley (b. 1931), TWO BLUES, 2003, screenprint in colours, on wove paper; signed, titled, dated, and numbered 136/250; published by Artisan Editions, Hove, UK. Sheet 21.5 x 21 in; 54.6 x 53.4 cm. Estimate $6,000-$8,000

Bridget Riley (b. 1931)

One of the most important artists to explore the behaviours of colour and form, Riley’s work expands the boundaries of perception in art. Reviewing a show of the artist’s work in 2019, Adrian Searle writes that “Riley’s art is as sneaky as it is spectacular. Some of her paintings make you want to fall over and some make you feel like you’re fainting, your eyes ping-ponging all over the place. Others are more stately in their visual rhythms, but the experience of a Riley is never static. The eye roams and the brain roams with it.”

Born in London, Riley spent much of her childhood in Cornwall, a seaside landscape which would influence her observations of light and terrain. She studied at Goldsmiths’ College and the Royal College of Art. An artist in search of a style, Riley experimented with several movements which had experimented with colour, including Impressionism and pointillism. She painted figures and landscapes while working as a teacher of art and at an advertising agency. After years of exploration, she began to explore geometry, abstraction and disorienting optical phenomena, through a genre known as Op Art.

Riley’s great breakthrough came in 1965 with a 1965 group exhibition, “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The show introduced the public to Op Art, and was to spawn imitators in fashion and design. So popular was the exhibition and Riley’s style that its vocabulary was quickly co-opted into the psychedelic 60s aesthetic. Upset, Riley felt the need to explain her work in an editorial in ARTnews magazine: “‘The Responsive Eye’ was a serious exhibition, but its qualities were obscured by an explosion of commercialism, bandwagoning and hysterical sensationalism. Most people were so busy taking sides, and arguing about what had or had not happened, that they could no longer see what was actually on the wall.” Regardless, what had been made clear was that Riley was an artist on the rise. Three years later she would represent Britain at the 1968 Venice Biennale, where she received the international prize for painting – the first woman to ever receive the award.

Though rising to fame with her black and white paintings, Riley’s career can be characterised by its deep and art historical exploration of chromatics, and the often disorienting relationships between colours and the spaces between them. Stripes, curves, lines, waves, circles, triangular and rhomboid forms were all used by the artist to create immersive visual experiences which produce emotional and physical responses. Of her work, Riley explained: “I am sometimes asked – “What is your objective” – and this I cannot truthfully answer… I work “from” something rather than “towards” something. It is a process of discovery.”

Kiki Smith (b. 1954), THE SYBIL, 2004, offset lithograph on Zerkall Book Vellum; signed, dated, and numbered 122/250; published by Printed Matter Inc., New York. 12.2 x 18.5 in — 31 x 47 cm. Estimate $700-$900

Kiki Smith (b. 1954)

Kiki Smith is known for the incredible breadth of her output, working in sculpture, drawing, painting, weaving, printmaking and installation. Smith was born in Nuremberg, Germany to opera singer and actress Jane Lawrence, who was performing in Germany at the time, and American sculptor Tony Smith. The family relocated to South Orange, New Jersey in 1955. Though Smith recalls helping her father make cardboard maquettes for his sculptures, her future work would not resemble her father’s abstract and non-figurative style, but would instead focus on the natural world.

Smith studied at Hartford Art School in Connecticut in 1974, but dropped out before graduating. She moved to New York City in 1976, where she began making monotypes of everyday objects, before moving on to make expressionistic work about the human body and its constituent parts. Smith considers herself to be self-taught, and describes herself as “a thing maker.”

Smith took on odd jobs to make ends meet, including a spell in which she trained to be an emergency medical technician, and stints as an electrician’s assistant and a short-order cook. Of her early career, Smith explained that “I had my first solo exhibition when I was thirty-four. By that point, I’d been showing in New York for maybe ten years already. Many of my contemporaries were already showing, so in some ways, I am a late bloomer. But I needed that time. It’s not like I was sitting on a gold mine at home that the world needed to see! I needed every one of those days of struggling and hating everything I made. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere […] When I was a young woman, showing my work gave me a tremendous amount of energy because there were so few models or opportunities for women artists, in terms of recognition in the power structures of museums. That meant you could just do anything you wanted, because nobody cared.”

Smith began exploring animal imagery, alongside more mythological and fantastical themes in her figurative work, examining the conflation between women and the natural world. Per Nancy Hass, writing for the New York Times, Smith’s post-feminist art “challenges the notion of decorative figuration as somehow less powerful than muscular, largely male abstraction and minimalism…Hers is a liminal, defiantly female place of both shadow and light, where transformation is effortless, if ultimately unsettling.” Smith’s work began to attract attention in the 1990s, elevating the artist to become one of the most widely shown artists worldwide, with her work included in the permanent collection of almost all major international museums. Smith is notoriously prolific, exhibiting widely in addition to her career as a teacher. In her own words: “I just have a hard time not doing something with my hands all the time.”

about the auction

Held online from April 20-25, 2024, our Editions auction will feature work by Keith Haring, Helen Frankenthaler, Christopher Wool, Friedel Dzubas, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean Paul Riopelle, Kiki Smith, Sonia Delaunay, Bridget Riley, Alfred Pellan, Sol Lewitt, Terry Frost, Yoshimoto Nara, and Brice Marden, alongside classic prints by Francisco de Goya, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró.

On view at our Toronto location:
 Monday, April 22 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
 Tuesday, April 23 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm


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