Viewers in New York got a taste of Amaranth Ehrenhalt’s zesty oeuvre in 2006 when five of her paintings from the late ’50s were featured in the exhibition “Encore: Five Abstract Expressionists,” which opened at Baruch College’s Sidney Mishkin Gallery and then appeared at Shapolsky. “Amaranth Ehrenhalt: A Hidden Treasure,” the multifaceted artist’s welcome and long overdue first solo in New York City, offered a wider range of her work, filling two floors with 18 paintings (from the 1950s to 2005), four painted sculptures (all 2000) and a tapestry (2008). The lush colors and dynamic rhythms radiate a joie de vivre that seems to be in short supply these days.
Born in Newark, N.J., in 1928 and raised in Philadelphia, Ehrenhalt lived in New York City during the heyday of the New York School. In the mid-’50s, she left for a three-week visit to Paris and stayed for over 30 years. Her storied life there included traveling in Morocco and Tunisia with Friedensreich Hundertwasser (who did three portraits of her), enjoying the patronage of Sonia Delaunay (who let the young artist purchase art supplies on her account) and exhibiting alongside expatriate contemporaries such as Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell and Shirley Jaffe. She moved back to New York in 2008.
Ehrenhalt paints improvisationally, without preliminary sketches. Color-forms interact with linear overlays, creating a tension that evokes the energy of life itself. In the oil-on-canvas Aderet (1990, 35 by 46 inches), centrifugal force seems to govern a tangled mass of thick, white wet-on-wet brushstrokes that bump up against or tear across small dabs in hot pink, orange and yellow. The tangle almost resolves into a sexy bouquet, with suggestions of irises and daffodils toward the bottom right; cooler tones moving in from the four corners barely contain the action. Jay Milder’s painterly interpretations of the visual energy of the Kabbalah come to mind, as does Soutine’s ecstatic brushwork.
Umatilla (1959), the largest picture on view at 59 by 87 inches, intimates the trajectory of the artist’s future work, although it has an unusually large amount of white canvas visible. In contrast to her tightly packed compositions, here she provides an airy backdrop for a washier configuration of forms and a ribbonlike network of thick and thin colored lines that swirls over all.
In an ingenious pairing of a painting and a tabletop sculpture on the gallery’s second floor, Zamora (1961) hung behind the 28-by-28-by-4-inch Black Bear 2. Flat angular shapes seem to jockey for space on the canvas. The sculpture, an equilateral diamond shape, balances on point. The top half, a brightly painted wood triangle, can be pivoted by hand; it rests atop two adjoined marble triangles, one white, one black. It’s as if the brightly painted forms in Zamora had jumped off their support onto the top half of Black Bear 2. The forms seem kept in perpetual motion by a loopy white cursive layer that echoes the striations in the marble—another inspired move by the artist.
Photo: Amaranth Ehrenhalt: Aderet, 1990, oil on canvas, 35 by 46 inches; at Anita Shapolsky.