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New York City, New York
Elsie Driggs (1898 – July 12, 1992, New York City) was an American painter known for her contributions to Precisionism, America's one indigenous modern-art movement before Abstract Expressionism, and for her later floral and figurative watercolors, pastels, and oils. She was the only female participant in the Precisionist movement, which in the 1920s and 1930s took a Cubist-inspired approach to painting the skyscrapers and factories that had come to define the new American landscape. Her works are in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Houston Museum of the Fine Arts, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the James A. Michener Art Museum in Pennsylvania, and the Columbus Museum of Art, among others. She was married to the American abstract artist Lee Gatch.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Driggs grew up in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, in a family that was supportive of her artistic interests. After a summer spent painting with her sister in New Mexico in her late teens, she felt she had found her life's calling. At twenty, she enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York, where she studied under George Luks and Maurice Sterne, both of whom were charismatic, inspirational figures in her early life. She also attended the evening criticism classes held at the home of painter John Sloan. Driggs spent fourteen months in Europe from late 1922 to early 1924, drawing and studying Italian art. There she met Leo Stein, first in Paris and later in Florence, who became an important intellectual influence, and who urged her to study Cézanne. He also introduced her to the works of Piero della Francesca, the Renaissance artist for whom she felt throughout her life the greatest admiration.
Driggs eventually settled in New York City, where she found representation with the progressive Charles Daniel Gallery. (Advised that the old-fashioned and misogynistic Daniel would be unlikely to take on a woman artist, she signed the works she left for his consideration simply "Driggs" and waited to meet him in person until he had expressed his eagerness to include her in his gallery.) In sympathy with those artists Daniel represented who were part of the burgeoning Precisionist movement, such as Charles Demuth, Niles Spencer, and Preston Dickinson, she too painted "the modern landscape of factories, bridges, and skyscrapers with geometric precision and almost abstract spareness." Impressionism and academic or Ashcan realism represented the past, in Driggs' view, and she intended to be resolutely modern. She was a slight, shy, and soft-spoken woman, but her demeanor belied a strong ambition and a clear sense of what it would take to make her mark in the New York art world.
In 1926 she painted her most famous work, Pittsburgh, a dark and brooding picture now in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which depicts the gargantuan smokestacks of the Jones & Laughlin steel mills in Pittsburgh. Its focus is an overpowering mass of black and gray smokestacks, thick piping, and crisscrossing wires with only clouds of smoke to relieve the severity of the image, yet it was an image in which she found an ironic beauty. She called the picture "my El Greco" and expressed surprise that viewers in later years interpreted the painting as a work of social criticism. Like the other Precisionists (e.g., Demuth, Charles Sheeler, George Ault, Louis Lozowick, Stefan Hirsch), she was concerned with applying modernist techniques to renderings of the new industrial and urban landscape, not in commenting on potential dangers the overly mechanized modern world of 1920s America might present. If anything, Precisionism, like Futurism, was a celebration of man-made energy and technology. One year later, she painted Blast Furnaces, in a similar vein.
After Pittsburgh, Driggs' most acclaimed work was probably Queensborough Bridge (1927), now in the collection of the Montclair Art Museum, depicting shafts of light as rigid Futurist-style "lines of force" sweeping through the massive verticals of the East River bridge, a structure she had studied from her apartment window on Second Avenue. With this painting, art critic Forbes Watson wrote, 'Miss Driggs waves goodbye to her old master Maurice Sterne and embraces for the moment the age of machinery." In 1929 Charles Daniel gave Driggs a one-woman show, which included one of her strongest, sparest paintings, Aeroplane, now in the collection of the Houston Museum of the Fine Arts. The inspiration for the painting came from Driggs' first experience flying in 1928, when she traveled from Cleveland to Detroit by air. ("Elsie Driggs, following the spirit of the age, has gone up in the air," commented an Art News reviewer. She also exhibited in group exhibitions at the Whitney Club, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Chicago Art Institute and in the Whitney Museum's first Biennial. Important newspaper critics such as Henry McBride and Margaret Breuning wrote favorably about her work. In 1929 McBride commented, "Elsie Driggs is capable of interesting us in anything in which she herself is interested." When the Daniel gallery closed during the Depression, she was represented by the dealer J.B. Neumann and later by Frank Rehn.
In the 1930s, Driggs abandoned Precisionist oils for more "whimsical watercolors and figurative paintings as well as murals for the PWPA." In 1935, Driggs married painter Lee Gatch and moved to rural Lambertville, New Jersey, dedicating her efforts to Gatch's erratic career and to raising their daughter Merriman. It was a loving but tumultuous marriage and, for many years, spelled the end of Driggs' own career as a major painter. Her work in watercolor was always highly regarded, however, and she was included in numerous group shows across the country in the 1930s and 1940s.
After Gatch's death in 1968, Driggs returned to New York City. Over the next two decades, she experimented with mixed media constructions and figurative paintings in pastels and oils. The rise of feminist art history brought her renewed attention, and she was the subject of a one-woman show at the Martin Diamond Gallery in 1980 and a retrospective at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton in 1990 and was included in many historical surveys of Precisionism. She continued to follow the contemporary art scene, admiring in particular the work of Helen Frankenthaler and Francis Bacon. At the time of her death in 1992 at the age of ninety-four, Driggs was considered the most underrated as well as the most long-lived of the Precisionist painters. A memorial service was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
- Biographical information for this entry is taken from Constance Kimmerle, Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), pp. 13-55 and John Loughery, "Blending the Classical and the Modern: The Art of Elsie Driggs," Women's Art Journal (Winter 1987), pp. 22-26.
- Loughery, p. 22.
- On the circumstances surrounding the painting of this work: Loughery, p. 24.
- Forbes Watson New York World, April 23, 1927.
- Gail Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, 1915-1941: Reordering Reality (New York: Abrams, 1994), p. 111.
- Art News," Vol. 28, no. 9, November 30, 1929.
- Henry McBride, New York Sun, November 30, 1929.
- Elsie Driggs, James A. Michener Art Museum
- Kimmerle's book provides a complete list of all the exhibitions that included Driggs' work: Appendix, 2, pp. 134-142.
- Loughery, pp. 25-26.
- Kimmerle, Constance. Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
- Loughery, John. "Blending the Classical and the Modern: The Art of Elsie Driggs," Women's Art Journal (Winter 1987), pp. 22–25.
- Stavitsky, Gail. "Reordering Reality: Precisionist Directions in American Art, 1915-1941". In: Precisionism in America, 1915-1941: Reordering Reality (Diana Murphy, editor). New York: Abrams, 1994.