Picture of the Week: Maxine in Rome by Irma Cavat

April 21, 2023

Irma Cavat, Maxine in Rome, oil on canvas, 1962, 40 x 30 in.

Irma Cavat was an American artist and Professor Emeritus. She was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928. Cavat became a professional artist in her early twenties. While studying at the New School for Social Research in New York, she drew inspiration from several artists, including Ukrainian avant garde sculptor Alexander Archipenko and German American Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann; She also modeled for the surrealist painter Renee Magritte. Cavat engaged with a plethora of media within her artistic practice, including paint, clay, metal, marble, and collage. To add, she composed a variety of unique commissions throughout her career; she “designed the windows of FAO Schwartz toy store on Fifth Avenue, illustrated science fiction books, and designed her own jewelry.” 

Cavat’s friendships with notable artists and performers had a significant impact on her career and artwork. Artists Willem and Elaine De Kooning were some of her close friends and collaborators in the early 1950s, which led her to join the Abstract Expressionist group alongside artists such as Jackson Pollack and Franz Kline. In addition to the Abstract Expressionists, Cavat was also friends with jazz musician Charlie Parker, jazz singer Billie Holiday, and writers James Baldwin and Frank O’Hara. 

Cavat frequently traveled internationally and domestically as her careers as an artist and educator progressed. In her early artistic career, Cavat lived in Haiti for a year, “exchanging room and board for portraits of the people with whom she resided.” Following her divorce from artist Zubel Kachadoorian in 1952, Cavat and her daughters moved to Santa Barbara, CA, where she taught at USCB from 1963 to 1995. She also had residencies at Yaddo in New York, the McDowell Colony in Maine, the Djerassi Foundation in Northern California, and a Fulbright Grant to Rome Italy, where she resided from 1955 to 1964. Cavat has also traveled to Paris, Provence, Athens, London, “the open markets of Morocco, Tiananmen Square in China, the Taj Mahal in India, and throughout parts of Turkey, Japan, Hungary, the Baltic States, and Russia.” Her frequent travels played an influential role in her art. 

Cavat’s work has been exhibited in Michigan, New York, California, Rome, Paris, London, and Athens. Some of the institutions that have displayed her artwork include “Sheinbaum Gallery; NYC, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; the Feingarten Gallery, Los Angeles; Academia Americana, Rome, Italy, and Kennedy Galleries, NY, NY, amongst many venues.” She returned to the United States in the early 1960s, where she was inspired by the social movements of the decade, including the Civil Rights Movement. Cavat passed away in 2020, but she will be remembered as a female pioneer in the typically male-dominated fields of art and academia. Moreover, as an artist and educator she inspired many young artists, who went on to have successful careers of their own. 

Cavat’s return to the United States from Rome in the early 1960s marked her transition from abstract to figurative painting. This is evident in her 1962 oil painting Maxine in Rome. Nevertheless, she does not completely abandon abstraction in her figural works. Maxine,who is perhaps a friend of Cavat’s, sits in the center of the composition with a neutral expression. Cavat employs naturalism to construct Maxine’s face and body, but her use of color is very much in the vein of Abstract Expressionism. She scatters patches of cool and warm tone colors throughout the composition, dressing Maxine in bright shades of red and pink to highlight her as the subject of the painting. Cavat primarily constructs the background with earth tones that she juxtaposed with patches of periwinkle in the upper left and lower bottom portions of the composition. Her abstract use of color in turn abstracts our perception of time and space within this work. Maxine’s dress, hat, and seated pose is reminiscent of a nineteenth century photographic portrait, yet Cavat’s time in Rome in the 1950s and 1960s leads the viewer to believe that Maxine was an actual person whom she met within those decades. Cavat shapes her earth toned brushstrokes into layers of tiny geometric shapes, paired with tall, triangular green forms. While difficult to decipher at first glance, these forms culminate in the trees and houses of an Italian countryside that one might see in Italian Renaissance portraits by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael. Cavat alludes to Italian Renaissance tradition, however she also obscures our understanding of what Rome would have looked like when she visited. In doing so, she marries two of her artistic influences: Rome and the Abstract Expressionists. Cavat complicates our understanding of art styles by transcending the boundaries between them to create a compelling, visually rich portrait. 

Written by Angela Athnasios




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