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Art & Museums

Exhibits celebrate Pittsburgh artist Haskell's works

| Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, 8:13 p.m.
Jane Haskell with detail from 'Windborne' at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2006.
Timothy Burak
Jane Haskell with detail from 'Windborne' at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2006.
Jane Haskell's 'Untitled (Window Series drawing),' 1983
Jane Haskell's 'Untitled (Window Series drawing),' 1983
Jane Haskell's 'Black Alphabet,' 1979
Jane Haskell's 'Black Alphabet,' 1979
Jane Haskell's 'Light Construction I,' 1984
Jane Haskell's 'Light Construction I,' 1984
Jane Haskell's 'Window Series: Violet,' 1991
Jane Haskell's 'Window Series: Violet,' 1991

Jane Haskell (1923-2013) was an artist and philanthropist who was a key figure in the Pittsburgh art scene for the better half of the 20th century and a major donor to the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Two current exhibits flesh out her life and legacy.

To the uninitiated, one only need see her “Rivers of Light,” a cavalcade of colored neon lights that flow through 5,000 square feet of the Steel Plaza T station, Downtown.

Haskell's long list of awards and exhibits includes the 2006 Artist of the Year award and exhibit at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, along with 16 solo shows and around 70 group exhibits.

The first and most comprehensive exhibit of Haskell's work is “Jane Haskell: Drawing in Light,” at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. The exhibit fills the American Jewish Museum's two galleries there.

Organized by American Jewish Museum curator Melissa Hiller and independent curator Vicky Clark, the exhibit features 31 pieces that span 40 years of the artist's career. Together, they show how Haskell was interested in many aspects of light.

For example, early works — like “Black Alphabet,” an oil painting from 1979 — show the alphabet cascading into darkness.

Haskell's minimalist-inspired “Window Series” of paintings and drawings from the 1980s and '90s, organized in grid-like patterns, show how the quality of color alters depending on the saturation or absence of light.

Pieces like “Untitled (Window Series drawing)” from 1983, an oil-crayon on paper drawing, and “Window Series: Violet,” an oil painting from 1991, display Haskell's fascination with borders, as defined abstractly as light at the edges of windows.

Subtle though they are, these details show how Haskell was particularly curious about how minute variations influence viewers' perception.

Working on such pieces led to explorations in light itself, via neon constructions like “Light Construction I” (1984), which features a single strip of neon between two shaped canvasses, one painted blue and the other magenta. Many more light works would follow, well into the past decade.

Born Jane Zirinsky in 1923, in Cedarhurst, Long Island, N.Y., Haskell received a bachelor of fine arts from Skidmore College in 1944 and earned a masters in art history from the University of Pittsburgh in 1961.

Aside from one note-worthy watercolor class, Haskell's studies at Skidmore College focused on mechanical drawing and design. It was not until she moved to Pittsburgh in 1949 with her husband, Edward N. Haskell, whom she had known since she was 14, that she became interested in painting.

Haskell began attending influential Pittsburgh artist and instructor Samuel Rosenberg's (1896-1972) “artist's workshops” in 1953, which she recalled being filled with “extremely intense artists searching for a means of expression.” The classes helped Haskell hone her skills as a painter and, eventually, inspired her to return to graduate school.

She taught art history for 10 years at Duquesne University, and, in the late 1970s, Haskell began to work in fluorescent light and neon, developing a relationship between neon light and the painted surface.

Haskell was known as a prolific artist, but she also was a generous philanthropist.

During the 64 years that she lived in Pittsburgh, she maintained long-standing involvement in numerous arts and social service organizations, most notably, the Carnegie Museum of Art.

The second exhibit, “Jane Haskell's Modernism” on display at the Carnegie was organized by Katie Clausen, curatorial assistant, and Costas Karakatsanis, provenance researcher. This exhibit surveys her life in Pittsburgh through the lens of her relationship with the museum.

As a board member and donor, Haskell helped the museum collect more than 50 works that reflect important international developments in abstract art over the course of the 20th century.

Four of Haskell's works are presented alongside works by notable artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Vassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and Frank Stella that she and her husband collected and then donated to the museum. Other works in the exhibit were purchased by the museum through the Haskell Family Acquisition Fund.

Also on display are some of the drawings of and objects from Haskell's residence, which was designed by Pittsburgh-based architect Herbert Seigle.

The four pieces by Haskell herself reveal the artist's particular take on modernism: her love of the restrained palette and geometric precision of the Russian avant-garde and her fascination with artists who explored pure light and color.

Among them, “Yaddo,” an oil painting from 1964, is a real standout.

Rosenberg's influences are visible in this particular piece, which won the Carnegie Museum of Art Purchase Award at the 55th annual Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Exhibition. The hues of yellow, orange and brown are similar to those captured in Rosenberg's “Untitled” of around 1960, also on display here. It's worth noting that the title “Yaddo” is the name of an artist community near Skidmore College.

Although much of Haskell's career focused on sculpture, she continually returned to painting; she contended, “As long as anyone wields a paintbrush, easel painting is not dead.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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