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The Marsh Gallery's centennial celebration of Theresa Pollak paints a portrait of an artist's evolving style. 

Finding Her Way

"Theresa Pollak and Her Influence: A Centennial Celebration"

Marsh Art GalleryUniversity of Richmond Modlin Center
Through Dec. 11, 1999
Tuesday-Saturday 1-5 p.m.
289-8276

In 1939 Theresa Pollak painted "Chrysanthemums For Tea," a soft undulating still life of brown, ochre and green that has the Great Depression's economy of color still lingering in it. Too genteel and comfortable to align itself with a WPA aesthetic, it is more inclined to set the stage for the likes of a Tennessee Williams play. In this particular play the heroine, not previously seen, enters, collects her brightly striped scarf and sensible hat from the back of the still life's wooden chair and heads for New York, along with other young aspiring artists, to study at the Art Students League.

Following that timely departure, Pollak's work begins to change in a way that will never fully return to the prim, self-contained interiors of domestic life. Judging from the selection of works on display in the University of Richmond's Marsh Gallery on the occasion of the artist's centennial celebration, Pollak retains certain tendencies toward the organization and layout of her paintings. One tendency, it seems, is to look down from above at her subject, another to place a geometric focal point slightly above and to the left of center, which is often balanced with an incline — a path or plane — in the lower opposite half of the painting. In her landscapes, there appears a predisposition to place a single cypresslike tree to define and defend the left edge of the scene. This familiarizing element made me wonder if there was such a tree to be found in every landscape, a guardian presence that could be relied upon no matter where Pollak took her viewer.

Her 1944 painting "Piney Grove" has the rustic influence of American Regionalism about it. A superficially primitive rural landscape of a farm scene, it actually demonstrates a deeper sophistication for color planes that Pollak will evolve into abstract cityscapes during her apprenticeship with Hans Hoffman in the late '50s. While her painting "Abstraction with Rectangles" reportedly secured her Hoffman's hard-won stamp of approval, this piece doesn't come across as whole-toned as the rest of her abstraction efforts. It also feels stylistically dated by its color. Predating avocado-hued refrigerators, autumn-gold dinnerware and rust shag carpeting by more than 10 years, the painting demonstrates how commercial taste followed avant-garde art trends. I digress into this partly because I found it interesting to see how the exterior palette of "Abstraction with Rectangles" related to the early interior "Chrysanthemums For Tea," but in harsher, more staccato measure as modernity borrowed from an era of scarcity and gave it a pigment-saturated affluence. It causes one to wonder if it would feel so dated if its colors had not been overfed to the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Pollak's personal fascination with the the mood-altering quality of the color blue surfaces repeatedly in her still lifes, landscapes, portraits and abstracts. Cobalt, cerulean and aquamarine blues run along edges, fragment surfaces, emphasize unlit shapes and intensify the atmosphere. "Studio Table" is awash in blue, littered with the standard equipment of the artist, described within as chips and shavings of the colors of nearby abstract paintings.

"Theresa Pollak and Her Influence" is a thoughtfully installed show, as is the usual custom at the Marsh Gallery, but it concludes rather abruptly on its secondary premise. Offering a quick glimpse of the work by some other notable artists who have taught at UR since Pollak's departure, this feature of the exhibit proposes perhaps an evolution rather more than an influence.

The included artists are Jeanne Campbell, Ephraim Rubenstein and Erling Sjoveld. It is indeed interesting to consider this aspect of the show, as UR's art faculty has become decidedly more academic in approach, offering an emphasis on the study of classical, literary (and most recently, Eastern) ideals with stricter convention than the more adventurous and contemporary VCU. Interestingly, Pollak was essential in founding both school's art departments. While the exhibition really does not offer much opportunity to understand how Pollak's considerable influence is demonstrated in the works of her predecessors, nonetheless, enfolding the exhibition is a large and powerful building devoted completely to the arts, a miracle that was somehow knit into the brightly striped scarf that might have warmed its determined and gifted owner on her long trip.

Also being offered in conjunction with the Marsh Gallery's exhibit of Theresa Pollak, is a show of her drawings at the Reynolds Gallery.
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