5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 4. Mary Henry

Mary Henry; Linear Series #5, 1966; Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 72 in. Gift of Suzanne and John Rahn, Whatcom Museum 2010.57.1.

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Artist #4: Mary Henry

Barbara Matilsky, our Curator of Art said, “I sometimes wonder about the kind of recognition the artist Mary Henry (1913-2009) might have received had she chosen a different path at a critical junction in her career.” After studying with the pioneering Bauhaus modernist Lazlo Maholy-Nagy (1895-1946) at Chicago’s Institute of Design in 1945, she was invited to join the faculty, the first women to be so recognized. Instead, she chose to follow her husband and relocate to Arkansas.

Mary Henry, after receiving the Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, 2006. Photo by Alice Wheeler.

Divorced in 1964, Henry returned to her native Northern California, where she painted bold, hard-edge, geometrically constructed compositions inspired by her mentor. She was among a small group of women, including British artist Bridget Riley, who contributed to the movement that came to be known as Op (Optical) Art. For Henry, geometry was not purely aesthetic, but was pursued to invoke the spiritual in art. She excelled in graphically conjuring distinctive patterns in black and white, as in Linear Series #5, as well as brightly colored shapes that often evoke landscape elements.

In 1968,  Henry’s paintings displayed at San Francisco’s Arleigh Gallery were nationally noted in Artforum magazine. She moved to Washington State in 1976 to be near her daughter, and lived on Whidbey Island from 1981 until 2009. The Whatcom Museum organized the first solo museum exhibition of Mary Henry’s artworks, curated by John Olbrantz, in 1988. By the time of the artist’s death at the age of 95, other Pacific Northwest museums had introduced her work to an appreciative public. Her outstanding contribution to abstraction has yet to be nationally acknowledged.

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