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Mary Henry

American
(1913–2009)

Feria
1965

Acrylic on canvas
72 x 50.75 x 2.25 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
2008.13

In Ancient Rome, the feria was a day when slaves were excused from their duties; later, Roman Catholics used the term for periods of rest between rites of worship. The notion of a free day, cordoned off from obligations, is apropos of Mary Henry’s exhilarating painting Feria, which conveys the metaphorical freedom that can flourish even within rigid confines. At first glance, the painting seems to be a fastidious, straightforward grid of 840 multicolored squares and thirty-five aubergine rectangles upon a white background. On closer examination, the black, red, and sun flower-yellow squares, far from being randomized, betray the undergirding that unites them: diamond shapes and curvilinear forms snaking through the picture plane like vivid stitches just beneath a quilt’s woven top. With masterful illusionism, Henry embeds a suggestion of gestural abandon within a superstructure of rectilinear abstraction.

Further, as if to underline the point, she breaks the regularity of the grid in a passage just left of and below center, allotting one chosen square an extra apportionment of space above and below. It is an act of generosity and reprieve, bestowed on an individual form in an otherwise lockstep row. It speaks not merely of composition, but of kindness.

Such a strategem was not out of character for Henry, whose highly textural brushwork displayed a nuance, intuitiveness, and humanity uncommon in hard-edge and op art métiers. Indeed, her work never strayed far afield of nature and the human hand. Apart from her years in Chicago, studying under László Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design, she spent most of her painting career in the bucolic landscapes of Mendocino County, California, and Whidbey Island, Washington, where, it is worth noting, she was an avid and accomplished gardener. Between soil, seeds, and seasons— just as between paints, brushes, and canvas—the skilled hand finds the meeting place of structure and organicism. In Feria, within an invigorating geometric plot, Mary Henry has sown a vision of pure lyricism.

Richard Speer


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