New York

View of “Helène Aylon,” 2019. From left: Drifting Pink, 1970; Whirling White, 1971; Brazen White, 1972; Laden White, 1970. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges.

View of “Helène Aylon,” 2019. From left: Drifting Pink, 1970; Whirling White, 1971; Brazen White, 1972; Laden White, 1970. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges.

Helène Aylon

Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

In 1963, two years after Helène Fisch (née Greenfield) became widowed at age thirty, she was painting a mural for a community center when a newspaper reporter asked for her name. Spontaneously, she replied, “Helène Aylon,” offering a shortened Hebraic version of her first name for her last. This creation story is untold in the artist’s various exhibition reviews from the 1960s and ’70s, but I find it central to her often self-mythologizing work. Also essential: In those high and hard times, Aylon was raising her two children alone, struggling to be both an artist and a mother. But by 1970 she had been “rescued” by feminist philosophers and writers including Maya Angelou, Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and Adrienne Rich. Reading them lifted her up. “I realized,” she noted, “that these role models did not tremble in their lives the way I did in my splattered smock.”

Aylon’s “Elusive Silver” paintings of 1969–73, presented in all their mystical glory here—in her first solo gallery outing in New York since 1979, when she exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery and 112 Workshop—are a testament to her liberation and her increasing self-knowledge. In these occasionally burned- and bruised-looking pieces, she cut to the core of her artistic interests, fusing the painterliness of lyrical abstraction with the material concerns of process art in order to take on the personal, the political, and the possible. While many of her male contemporaries were producing coolly detached demonstrations of painting’s limits, Aylon, like Eva Hesse and Dorothea Rockburne, pursued the limitless, the infinite.

Executed with acrylic on layers of Plexiglas backed by aluminum sheets, these are weighty and dense paintings—yet they retain an inner light. Their imagery recalls various natural phenomena, such as the effects of glaciers gradually changing or tides shifting, the results of events that were once protracted but are now dangerously sped up and threatening our very existence. The approximately three-hundred-pound Soft Pearl, 1971, a deceptively airy work with its cloudy whites, features multiple layers of acrylic on Plexiglas, all held together by a silver frame. Other Suns, 1973, a burnt-umber square, seems to have gone through different processes—oxidation (perhaps with a blowtorch), painting, and etching—which resulted in cellular, wintery motifs. Think frost on windowpanes.

Throughout the ’70s, meteorological metaphors were commonly applied to abstract painting: Daniel Buren’s essay on the genre’s impersonal facticity, “It Rains, It Snows, It Paints,” first published in English in the April 1970 issue of Arts magazine, is just one example. Yet Buren’s nonrepresentational neutrality may not have been what Aylon had in mind. It’s no surprise that after this series, she began “Paintings That Change in Time,” 1973–76, some of which were on view here. These pieces countenance becoming and developing: Made with linseed oil on paper mounted on Masonite, they are noncompositions of ruin, of chemical reaction.

If the show was a précis of Aylon’s early concerns, it was also adumbrative of her later life. Some of the dehydrated-looking surfaces from “Elusive Silver” suggested this planet’s demise—disappeared horizons, cracked land, whiteout conditions, nuclear winter. The environment and what we now call climate change were also on Aylon’s mind. Increasingly influenced by eco-activism, in 1980 she ditched the studio to focus on antinuclear issues, initiating her best-known work, The Earth Ambulance, 1982, a truck she drove across the United States while retrieving soil in small pillowcases from areas near uranium mines, military nuclear bases, and atomic reactors. That important project, and the many more that followed in performance, installation, and video, should be spotlighted in an overdue museum retrospective on Aylon, which in turn could be a timely mini survey of various twentieth-century approaches to art from an anti-war feminist long concerned with rescue, repair, and recovery.