Sonia Gechtoff with a painting by her husband, James Kelley, at her Polk Street Studio in San Francisco in 1954.

Sonia Gechtoff (1926–2018)

American artist Sonia Gechtoff, whose work was featured in the landmark exhibition “Women in Abstract Expressionism,” organized by the Denver Art Museum in 2016, died on February 1, at the age of ninety-one. An important yet overlooked figure of the Bay Area Abstract Expressionist movement, Gechtoff was known for producing vibrant large-scale works featuring expressive gestural brushstrokes and thickly-applied layers of oil paint.

Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Gechtoff began painting at an early age. Her father artist Leonid Gechtoff, a portraitist who painted former president Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover, encouraged her artmaking since she was the age of five. Gechtoff went on to study at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (formerly the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art) on a scholarship. Shortly after graduating in 1950, she moved to San Francisco and joined the faculty at the California School of Fine Arts, where she met her future husband, Abstract Expressionist painter James Kelly, who passed away in 2003. While in San Francisco she also met and was influenced by artists Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, and Elmer Bischoff.

The artist had her first solo show at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957. She had gained national recognition in 1954, when her work was exhibited in the “Younger American Painters” show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, alongside paintings by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. Her work was also featured in the US pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair; “Annual” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1958; the 1958 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh; and the 1961 São Paulo Bienal.

While Gechtoff and her husband permanently moved to New York in 1958, she attributed her success as an artist to the time she spent among the Bay Area arts community. “I felt that they treated me equally, that they weren’t thinking of me as a woman painter, but as another painter,” Gechtoff said. The artist found that the New York art scene was less accepting of women. For Gechtoff, San Francisco was “a very special place.” “I wish it would get more credit,” she said. “You know, people here in New York are so reluctant to admit that anything major went on there.”

More recently Gechtoff was acknowledged for her participation in the groundbreaking “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” curated by Gwen Chanzit. “Sonia always believed in herself and knew her work was extraordinary, even during the many years it was underrecognized,” Chanzit said. “Thankfully, in the last few years, she was able to see interest in her work rekindled, as women Abstract Expressionists are now being reexamined.”

Gechtoff’s work can be found in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Oakland Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.