It is something of a cliché to describe an artist as uncategorisable. But in Ellen Graubart’s case it is extremely difficult to think of any other way to describe her work. This is not because, as is often the case, she has found a small, individual and easily recognisable niche. On the contrary, it is precisely because she has refused this role, despite the evidence from her past work that she has an originality of vision and an ability to give visual pleasure that would have made this an easy option for her. No, Ellen Graubart is uncategorisable because she never stops looking and questioning and is never content to put up with old answers. In this process, as this remarkable exhibition shows, she grapples continuously with the really big challenges that preoccupied the major figures in Western art in the early 20th century. As a result, her work bears a passing resemblance to many artists usually placed in very different schools, but somehow manages to retain a coherence which is unmistakably her own.
Running Man, 2000,
oil on canvas, 30 x 22 ins
Graubart explores the way light strikes a solid form as seriously as Cézanne, the relationship between intersecting lines and the shapes they enclose as carefully as Klee, the interplay of two dimensions and three as intently as a Cubist and the dissolution of light as meticulously as a Pointillist. Yet she also experiments with colour as exuberantly and sensuously as Sonia Delaunay and follows the curve of a body in movement in a way that recalls the dancing nudes of Matisse or Picasso’s cavorting nymphs and satyrs of the early 1920s. The work does not, however, have the detached, clinical quality of pure experiment; it also engages the viewer at an emotional level. The epistemological challenges of depicting the complex, rounded, always-shifting world she sees on a flat rectangle of canvas exist in tension with the ontological challenges of expressing pain, joy and other strong feelings in visual form without lapsing into triteness.
It is perhaps this unusual triple combination of great intellectual seriousness, emotional honesty and a playful, sensual lightness of touch that gives her work its distinctive personality.
Pears, oil on canvass on board, 2000 1999,
14 x 13.75 ins.
Ellen Graubart’s life has been diverse, both geographically and artistically. She was born in India of American parents who travelled widely, living for a while in Colombia before settling in Virginia, USA where she went to school. She came to England in 1957 where she studied painting and theatre design at the Regent Street Polytechnic, which then became Chelsea School of Art and, in 1962, the year in which she obtained her National Diploma in Design, embarked on what was to be a 28-year marriage to the composer Michael Graubart.
During the 1960s, as well as teaching art in various London schools and colleges and a day centre for physically disabled adults, she began working as a designer and maker of sets, costumes, props, projections and transparencies for Focus Opera. It was for this company that, in 1976, she designed all the visual elements for the world premier of Elizabeth Lutyens’ Isis and Osiris.