At Large  December 20, 2018  Cynthia Close

The Power of Aging Creatively: 8 Artists Over 80

Courtesy Beth B Productions

Dealers, curators and gallerists are in intense competition to find the next breakout star, usually the younger the better, with contests abounding for emerging artists. But what happens when an artist passes the prime of their youth, but not the prime of their creativity? Wikipedia lists an astounding 127 names of visual artists worldwide that produced work up to the age 100 or beyond. These eight inspirational artists have found the motivation to create, every day, year after year, into their eighth decade or further, and are still inventing new ways to see the world.

Suzanne Benton
Suzanne Benton with her bronze and steel Persephone mask, photo by Larry Miller

Suzanne Benton

“Art feeds my activism and my activism feeds my art.” Suzanne Benton

A force of nature, Suzanne Benton commands attention as soon as she enters a room. Her shoulder length, curly grey/white hair surrounds her head like an aura. A mythmaker, feminist and performance artist this 83-year-old enthralled a considerably younger audience at a recent Creative Mornings event in St. Petersburg, Florida. Benton’s sense of adventure has taken her to 34 countries where she exhibited in over 150 solo shows. In 1966 she was an original member of NOW (the National Organization of Women) a feminist organization founded by Betty Friedan. More than 50 years later Benton is still breaking barriers.

Carmen Herrera
Courtesy: "The 100 Years Show"

Carmen Herrera

“It is the beauty of the straight line that keeps me going.” Carmen Herrera

The Cuban abstract painter Carmen Herrera turned 103 on May 31st, 2018, and, as of this writing, is still making art. In the 1940s and ’50s, she was developing her hard-edge, minimalist, geometric style influenced by the Bauhaus and Russian Suprematism. Herrera is retroactively compared to Elsworth Kelly, Leon Polk Smith, and Barnett Newman. Before the year 2000, she had not sold a single painting. After the new millennium, her work started to receive the attention it deserved. In 2016 The Whitney Museum honored her with the exhibition Carmen Herrera: Lines of SightA documentary film about Herrera titledThe 100 Years Showdirected by Alison Klayman was made to celebrate the artists 100th birthday in 2015.

Betye Saar in her studio, 1970
Bob Nakamura, Portrait of Betye Saar in her Laurel Canyon studio, 1970. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California
Betye Saar in her studio, 1970
Photo: Ashley Walker

Betye Saar

“Materials give me my ideas.” Betye Saar

A pioneer of the Black Arts Movement in the 1970’s, California born and educated Betye Saar is best known for her work in assemblage. A collector of found objects for most of her life Saar found inspiration in the boxes of sculptor Joseph Cornell. In her collage and larger scale installations Saar addresses the highly charged politics of race in America by reinventing images of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Little Black Sambo and other African-American stereotypes gleaned from advertising and folklore. Paving the way for the next generation of powerful image-makers like Kara Walker, the 92-year-old Saar continues to live and work in Los Angeles.

Lois Tarlow painting
Lois Tarlow, One Night in the Everglades

Lois Tarlow

“Making art is a very natural thing, like brushing your teeth.” Lois Tarlow

Lois TarlowHer strong voice laced with ironic humor belies the age of well-known Boston-based artist Lois Tarlow. She celebrated her 90th birthday in 2018 while preparing for her retrospective in April 2019 at the newly reconstructed Danforth Museum, now part of Framingham State University. It is a busy time for this prolific artist who also recently received her 3rd Pollack Krasner Grant. This grant, offered for over 32 years internationally to worthy individual artists, recognizes that “The struggle of talented artists to stabilize their careers and have time and resources to do their work is a never-ending challenge.”

Edwin Owre, Fleurs du Mal Polychrome Wood and Paper, 2016
Courtesy the artist
Edwin Owre
Photo by Sam Simon

Edwin Owre

“I think of my work as contemporary American landscape.” Edwin Owre

Like Mondrian on steroids, the geometric abstractions of polychrome wood in New Constructions, Edwin Owre’s 2018 solo exhibition at the Burlington City Arts (BCA) Gallery in Burlington, Vermont display an inventiveness and vitality that are the products of a youthful mind. Born in Tillamook, Oregon in 1928, Owre is a pioneer builder, an investigator of new ways to construct our lived environment. Owre, with his fellow Yale graduate David Sellers, were among the founders of Design/Build, a radical, architectural movement characterized by an improvisational attitude using natural materials and hands-on methods. The qualities that exemplify a 1960’s-1970’s Design/Build approach are still evident in Owre’s current work. 

Jack Youngerman, Rochetaillee, 1953
Jack Youngerman, Rochetaillee, 1953. Collection Museum of Fine Art, Houston.

Jack Youngerman

Jack Youngerman
Jonathan Morse Photography

“I like the idea that in your work you can create how you want to be, or to live.” Jack Youngerman

American painter/sculptor Jack Youngerman, best known for the saturated color of his hard edge abstractions and smooth surfaced geometric forms, first reached a broad audience in his 1985 retrospective show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He started his career as a painter, studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts and in 1956 moved to SoHo in NYC not far from Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Widely collected, the 92-year-old Youngerman is currently the subject of a film following the trajectory of the artist’s life and career being produced by photographer Laurie Lambrecht and Checkerboard Films.
 

Ida Applebroog
Courtesy Beth B Productions

Ida Applebroog

“I hate being labeled.” Ida Applebroog

Her Bronx birthplace is still evident as is the staunch feminist perspective of 89-year-old artist Ida Applebroog as she navigates a conversation with her filmmaker daughter in the 2016 documentary Call Her Applebroog. This prolific and widely exhibited artist was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 1998 for her deeply personal explorations of human sexuality, power, and violence. Unafraid of the most challenging subject matter, Applebroog’s deceptively naïve drawing teeters between childlike and grotesque. Fluent in a wide range of media and scale, in 2012 she presented a large installation at dOCUMENTA(13), Kassel, Germany. Her work will be included in Artists as Innovators: Celebrating Three Decades of New York Council of the Arts in 2019 and 2020.

Jo Baer, Dusk (Bands and End-Points), 2012
Dusk (Bands and End-Points), 2012. Photo G.J. van Rooij

Jo Baer

“Artists can do anything they want. We are allowed. That works for me.” Jo Baer

Having studied biology and psychology, Jo Baer came to art through science. Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue (1964-65) is an iconic example of her minimalist works from the 1960’s to early 1970’s that are concerned with the effects of color on light. In 1975 she left minimalism and the U.S. and eventually settled in Amsterdam where she still lives and works in a more figurative vein. Dusk (Bands and End-Points) (2012),  from her series, In the Land of Giants was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. 
 

About the Author

Cynthia Close

With an MFA from Boston University, Cynthia Close was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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