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Racine Art Museum Honors Grotenrath, Lichtner

Art Review

Feb. 22, 2011
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Ruth Grotenrath (1912-1988) and Schomer Lichtner (1905-2006) are two of Wisconsin’s great artistic treasures. The couple, who married in 1934, persevered and produced art during the Great Depression in the 1930s and continued their output throughout the century. To document their long, nationally admired careers, the Racine Art Museum (RAM) presents more than 75 recently acquired artworks in the exhibition “Ruth Grotenrath and Schomer Lichtner at RAM.”

The RAM’s Wustum Museum of Fine Arts exhibited Grotenrath and Lichtner in 1941, during the museum’s first formal exhibition. Now the RAM furthers this legacy through an exceptional donation by the Schomer Lichtner Trust and the Kohler Foundation Inc. The couple exhibited at major American museums throughout the 20th century, including the Art Institute of Chicago, where Grotenrath won an award in 1937. The RAM’s exhibition focuses on the symbiotic relationship of their artwork and the way in which Japanese aesthetics influenced some of their images.

Grotenrath excelled at assimilating the concepts of modernists like Cézanne or Matisse and their explorations into flat surfaces and complex compositions into her own works. A 1940 casein painting by Grotenrath titled Decoration features two ebony cats and an overflowing fruit bowl ornamenting a richly textured rug in the background. Further on in her career, the crayon drawing Still Life (1964)presents a warmer paletteincorporating metallic silver—a brilliant jeweled image.

After the pair traveled to Japan in the 1960s, Grotenrath reveled in interior portrayals with overt Japanese design. Gems include the casein painting Green Window, a kitchen interior with a black checkerboard floor, red table and intertwined foliage peeking through the emerald-colored frame. Several untitled small works on rice paper from the 1970s reflect elegant American interiors with Oriental objects and demonstrate Grotenrath’s refined interpretations in which she transitioned to even flatter shapes and compositions using tiny, exquisite patterns combining gold and silver leaf.

Lichtner displays the Japanese tradition for simplicity in line, showing a lighthearted, playful quality in sophisticated calligraphic renderings of ballerinas, rural landscapes and well-loved Wisconsin Holsteins. His unique, Americanized brush paintings enliven objects such as a fan, either shaped or cut out in paper. The fan motif becomes more prominent in Lichtner’s later works; fans appear on a smaller scale in Grotenrath’s.

Both artists made compelling use of blazing orange and vibrant cobalt blue, as well as black and white, whether in a cat’s fur or a cow’s hide—elements that dominated their paintings and provided another link between the two.

A 1979 triptych by Lichtner displays his affinity for line, with cherry blossoms overhanging a cornfield in one corner and Holsteins portrayed in varying sizes and viewpoints. All of this is handled in flat renderings with distorted perspective through swift strokes in black acrylic on white paper. Another painting, Tall Grass and Clover (1960),places Lichtner’s Holsteins into an abstract farm field with navy blue, muted green and burnt sienna.

The couple’s exuberance for life, whether outside with Lichtner’s Holsteins or inside with Grotenrath’s cherished cats or other objects, is obvious to anyone walking through the gallery. One wonders if Grotenrath, barely recognized in a time when male artists overshadowed women, would have received more acclaim in later decades? Fortunately, Grotenrath receives her due in this exhibition that returns her work to museum walls.

Grotenrath passed away in 1988, well before her husband, who continued to produce work well into his 90s before passing away in 2006. The RAM’s expansive exhibition illustrates their individual and coupled passion for expressive art.

The RAM exhibition continues through May 8. An opening reception is planned for Friday, March 18, 5:30-7:30 p.m. and includes a gallery walk by Executive Director Bruce Pepich.

Art Happenings

“A Thawing-Out Party”

John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC)

608 New York Ave., Sheboygan

Enjoy the JMKAC in a multi-arts experience with art workshops, gallery talks, student performances and storytelling during a fun-filled family day on Sunday, Feb. 27, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Most of the events are free, but some fees may be required for the art workshops.

“One From Wisconsin: Teresa Faris”

Museum of Wisconsin Art

300 S. Sixth Ave., West Bend

Madison artist Teresa Faris explores anxiety and human fragility in works that combine the organic with fabricated metal using age-old metalsmith techniques. The exhibit opens Feb. 23. An artist’s reception takes place Sunday, March 20.


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