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Friday, February 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mary Henry: 93 years of life and art

Seattle Times art critic

The exhibitions

"Mary Henry: Selected Paintings," 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays or by appointment, through March 30, Wright Exhibition Space, 407 Dexter Ave. N., Seattle (206-264-8200).

"Mary Henry: Paintings," 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays- Saturdays, through March 10 at Howard House Contemporary Art, 604 Second Ave., Seattle (206-256-6399 or www.howardhouse.net).

The course of Mary Henry's life changed suddenly during World War II. Her husband was overseas in the military, she was living in Palo Alto, Calif., with her mother and infant daughter, and she heard about a lecture at Mills College by famed artist and former Bauhaus instructor László Moholy-Nagy. Henry went to see him.

"I was so excited about what he was saying, I decided to study with him," she recalled.

Now 93, Henry is one of the Northwest's most proficient and admired painters. Her bold geometric abstractions delight audiences with their formal gymnastics, breathtaking scale and audacious color.

Henry is currently being honored in Seattle with two strong exhibitions. At the Wright Exhibition Space, "Mary Henry: Selected Paintings" curated by Matthew Kangas, is the equivalent of a museum retrospective, offering major paintings dating from 1965-1992 that show the range of Henry's explorations. A selection of more recent work at Howard House appeals to the resurgent interest in early Modernism and centers on a knockout wall mural designed by Henry. It all traces back to that lecture at Mills College.

What she heard there prompted Henry to save money from her job at Hewlett-Packard and move to Chicago, where Moholy-Nagy (pronounced Nahj) had founded the Institute of Design. Henry left behind the sedate style of landscape painting she'd learned in the 1930s at the California College of Arts and Crafts, and set off on a daring and difficult path. In those days, it was tough for a woman to become an artist — or even to have a career outside the home.

Art-school years

"I knew Moholy-Nagy had that school in Chicago, so I followed him," Henry recalled recently at her Whidbey Island home. "I left my mother and [daughter] Suzanne — she was just a baby — I left them in Palo Alto. After about three months, they came and I was a mother again. My mother took care of Suzanne when I was at school."

At the Institute of Design, Henry applied herself to the revolutionary theories of art and architecture that Moholy-Nagy had developed at the Bauhaus. When asked how the Hungarian émigré and Constructivist painter taught, Henry paused for a long time, searching for words.

"He was amazing," she said, finally. "He talked about art that wasn't what you saw, but what you believed. It was like a whole new world opened up for me."

Moholy-Nagy offered Henry a teaching job when she finished her studies. She was also offered a position in the architecture department at M.I.T., said Henry's daughter Suzanne Rahn, an English professor at Pacific Lutheran University. But it wasn't to be. Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia, and Mary's husband, Wilbur, returned from overseas. She had no choice but to join him when he went to Harvard to work on his doctorate in entomology and then to Arkansas, where he took a job in malaria control.

For Mary, it was a dark time. Her great mentor Moholy-Nagy was gone, and she had given up her art career to live in a cultural backwater. "In those days Arkansas was the back of beyond," Rahn said. The Henrys soon had a second child, Bill, and in 1950 the family returned to Palo Alto.

"It's hard to imagine now," Rahn said. "Now if there was a couple who both had possible careers they would really talk about it and work out something that would be the best for both of them. I get the feeling that wasn't possible then. My mother has a very strong will, but I don't think she ever put it to my father as an ultimatum or anything. My father was a very difficult person ... What I remember is you couldn't have a normal conversation with him because he couldn't stand to be contradicted."

A different era

The post-war years were trying for Henry as she struggled to find a balance between her life as a wife and mother and her aspirations as an artist. For five years she worked for a commercial art studio in San Francisco painting murals, including one in the former bar of the swank Sir Francis Drake Hotel. But Henry was not allowed to sign or take credit for her work.

Nevertheless, there were bright spots along the way. In 1952, Henry learned of a national contest for kitchen design sponsored by McCalls magazine and went for it.

"You see, I was out of art school in Chicago and didn't have anything else to do," she said. "I tried for this design prize and won. There were about 20,000 who tried for it. [McCalls] built me a new kitchen to my design and gave me $1,000 — a lot of money in the mid-'50s." The magazine also published a big color spread on Henry's design.

"My mother entered in the amateur part of the contest, but the judges told her that whichever category she'd been in she would have won," Rahn recalls. "Her design was much more interesting than the professional one. Everybody had to use the floor space that was already there, so you were stuck with that. She used it in a very ingenious way."

Painter that she is, the thing Henry remembers most about her prizewinning design is the color. "The kitchen had white walls and the ceiling was painted chartreuse," she said with a giggle.

Henry was thrilled with the design award and went on to get her license for interior design. She worked from home doing projects for developers and private clients for several years. But it wasn't enough. After Suzanne started college, Henry moved alone to Mendocino, where she bought a big old house. Eventually she filed for divorce. Her motivation was simple:

"I wanted to paint.

"I was just by myself, working. I was doing abstract art. At first I didn't know what to do with a big canvas, so what I did was make smaller paintings, about 4 by 5 feet. ... Then I had a friend who had a machine that would blow up images, that could project them onto a wall. I tried that, and I liked what I saw. I thought 'Wow: That's for me!' "

Constant growth

Some artists measure their evolution in stylistic change. But Henry didn't need to change styles: She found plenty of room to grow within the constraints of geometric abstraction, which suits her and what she wants to do. As you can see in her retrospective at the Wright Space, Henry stuck with her characteristic way of painting even while resonating with the times. She adapted to the prevalence of New York art trends with a playful awareness. In the mid-1960s, with Op Art all the rage, Henry narrowed her palette to black and white for "3 C 2 7 3 (Linear Series #5)," a tight convergence of stripes that sets your optic nerves abuzz. Her pale, spare, tonal diptychs of the 1970s pay homage to Minimalism while staying true to her own explorations. "It's just that I was so enamored I suppose of these shapes," Henry said. "And there are so many different varieties and things you could do with them that there's no end to it."

In the late 1970s, Henry moved to the Seattle area, where Suzanne was living with her husband, John Rahn, a professor in the music department at the University of Washington. "When they moved here I came to see them, and I decided I would move here to be near Suzanne," Henry said. "She's the only one I had left." Henry's son, Bill, was killed in a car accident at 32. "That's a painful subject," Suzanne said. "She has never recovered from it."

Looking back on the many losses in her life — forestalling her career; the death of her mentor; divorce; the death of her son — Henry acknowledges them simply. "I've had a weird life I think for someone. Many ups and downs."

In 2002, Henry gave up painting when she was no longer able to stretch her canvases. The last large painting she did still hangs in her dining room studio, luminous in shades of yellow. Color is essential to Henry's work, as she will promptly attest. "I have favorites," she says: "Yellow. I love yellow!" And although Henry was always systematic in her work, making small color studies in preparation for her large canvases, she doesn't characterize her process as an intellectual one: "I guess you would say they're more emotional, because one thing leads to another in these paintings."

Art has always been the constant in Henry's life, her calling, and it has served her well.

"It's strange that people don't seem to understand modern art or abstract art," she says. "To me it's the ultimate."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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