Marilyn Perry Art

Read what the press is saying

The Wall Street Journal's Urban Gardner column
By Ralph Gardner
April 7, 2011

I spent the first 20-something years of my life as an Upper West Sider and the remainder, thus far, on the Upper East Side. I realize as I write this that I probably ought to save whatever pithy observations I might discover concerning the difference between the two experiences for a morning when I find the column cupboard bare."

But Marilyn Perry has made the opposite journey in the last several years — going from the East Side, where she lived for a quarter century, to the storied Ansonia on West 74th Street. "The Ansonia symbolized the wonderful opportunity of being part of a different kind of Manhattan life and the great fun of interconnecting to this quite spectacular history," she said.

However, that has hardly been the most dramatic change in her circumstances, the move serving more to buttress her choice than, as with some moves, being used as an escape route from whatever dead-end those who are moving have maneuvered themselves into. Ms. Perry retired in 2007 at the top of her game, as president of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to the study and preservation of European Art. At the same time, she was chairman of the World Monuments Fund.

"Do you go back to scholarship?" she mused, referring to her first incarnation as an art historian. "Do you go into consulting? I had the knowledge how to make things happen. Or do you take up something, in my case, totally new?"

Ms. Perry decided to become a painter — having never painted in her life except for a single watercolor course she took with a local artist near her weekend home in Gardiner, N.Y., in 2002, when she was recovering from a debilitating bout with Lyme disease that had caused facial paralysis and vision problems.

However, she didn't become an artist immediately. "The first month of my retirement I went back to Venice," she recalled of a charming apartment she owns on the waterfront overlooking Giudecca. "It had been from Venice that I went to the Kress Foundation. By picking up that life, I put a conclusion to the life I'd been living as president of the Kress Foundation. I didn't fall into the painting immediately. It crept up on me."

If the paintings covering the walls of her apartment at the Ansonia and her first public show at the Rogue Space Gallery on April 19-21 are any indication, the enterprise has since devoured her whole. And much of the work — which seems to owe more to the Giverny landscapes of Monet, where nature and imagination converge, or to Winslow Homer's wild evocations of the sea than to Abstract Expressionism — is very good. And selling.

But perhaps the main thing the 70-year-old has going for her at this point in her career is the freedom — both financial and intellectual — to paint for an audience of one. "It's a form of liberation unlike anything I've ever done in my life," she said. "There is no board, no teacher, telling me what to do. My family is not prodding me to make a living. I'm doing it for my own very great pleasure and for the joy of discovery.

"My methods reflect that," she went on. "I'm a very rapid painter. I pour [the paint], see it as an image that's arriving on the canvas, and I work with that image that calls to me."

Indeed, it takes someone possessed of substantial intellectual self-confidence to admit that one of the reasons she doesn't paint quaint little landscapes outdoors is that she wasn't very good at it. "I got too frustrated that I couldn't do it," she confessed, describing her work as "rather an evocation of the natural world."

She has also apparently been successful in resisting what would seem the occupational hazard of a professional art historian — to compare herself to the Old Masters she's spent much of her life studying (she said it helps that she works in acrylic, a medium unavailable to Michelangelo or Caravaggio). At the same time, she seems to have uncovered the single-minded focus that unleashed their genius.

"I remember a conversation with Ernst Gombrich," she said, referring to the great Austrian-born art historian. "We were talking about art historians who take courses in painting in order to feel like an artist. He was very disdainful of that approach; the real artist wants to do nothing but make art.

"An art historian who takes a course or class to understand the creative act isn't understanding the creative act," she added. "That's what I've found. I prefer painting to anything else."

However, it hasn't hurt that her work has been well received. One of her paintings was exhibited at the National Academy Museum on Fifth Avenue; the Century Association named her its amateur artist of the year in 2009; and her works hang in homes better known for brand-name Impressionists and Old Masters.

She spends alternate weeks painting in her studio upstate and in the city visiting galleries and museums and seeing friends. One might assume a first gallery show at 70 would produce a little angst. But Ms. Perry seems to be approaching it with some semblance of serenity, while obviously hoping to sell a few pictures. "The young artist is ipso facto eager to please a dealer," she observed. "I've had a long career that gave me a great deal of satisfaction. This is another form of satisfaction. I just have too much inventory."

She also enjoys another advantage over the younger generation: "One of the things I have that most young artists don't have is a very large mailing list," she said.

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