Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives
Mae Alice Engron (1933-2007) was born, lived, and died in Indianapolis, Indiana. In celebration of Women’s History Month and, just a little over a week ago, Black History Month, let’s take a closer look at Engron’s painting, Untitled, recently acquired by the FWMoA!
After poverty, divorce, raising children, and seven years working for the Postal Service, Engron obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A) from Herron School of Art at Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis in 1984. Following this, she went on to have exhibits at regional art galleries, the Indiana State Museum, Indiana Black EXPO, and at the Los Angeles gallery, Quotidian, posthumously in 2016. Similar to Alma Thomas, who had success as an artist later in life after retiring as a teacher, Engron was a late blooming artist, starting her career in 1984 at the age of 42. In fact, many institutions list her birth date as 1942 (including ours!), suggesting she may have had lied about her age to appear younger!
Engron was an abstractionist and colorist, or an artist who focuses on the use of color as the method or subject of their work. Famous examples of colorists include Mark Rothko, who stacked blocks of color, and Picasso, who went through color phases (blue being the longest at three years). Colors evoke certain emotions, and colorist artists use this psychology as a tool to summon emotions in their viewer. To Engron, color was the most important aspect of her work. In Untitled (above), we see Engron use both light and dark colors to conjure strong emotions. Untitled has a dark background with a circular shape in the middle, containing a burst of color spilling into the dark background. The shapes and imagery Engron used in her work reflect African quilting techniques and organic forms found in nature. If you look past the “dripping”, the area within the circle is broken up into several sections that fit together like a puzzle, similarly to how quilts are made (see examples from the FWMoA collection below). Engron, along with Alma Thomas, was one of the few Black abstractionist women artists during her career and had success creating her own, unique version of abstract work.
In a statement written by the curator of the artist’s estate, Jill Moniz, Engron said, “I paint the way I feel. When my life is in order and everything is running smoothly, I paint geometric. When I’m down, I paint lines. When I feel love, I paint flowers. When I’m feeling easy, I paint flowing paintings.” What does Untitled suggest her emotional state was when she painted it? Even in what seems like a simplistic background, there is a sophisticated layering of colors and brushstrokes created that emphasize her colorist ideals. The dark composition, minimal color, and shapes seem to say it was painted during a difficult time; there is a sense of sadness and darkness evoked with the composition choices. Along with the dynamic colors, Engron also played with multiple textures. There are thick, looser brushstrokes filling the background; soft, flat colors within the circle; and then an interesting drips technique below the circle. My eye immediately goes to the drips in the dark area along the bottom, then I work my way up through the circle, and finish with searching through the dark areas. The drips are what help blend the bright orb with the dark background- they bring light to the dark and depth to the bright areas. If the drips had not been added, it would be very static, with little to no movement. Engron was also known to embed foil in her paintings to catch and reflect light on the canvas, though we don’t see that here.
Looking at Untitled, we do not know when it was painted in relation to her other works, as it’s undated. Even though an artist is considered modern or contemporary, there isn’t always a lot of information about their work. Engron did several shows, and is included in museum collections, but similar statements are used for each and not a lot of research has been done about her as an artist (it took an obituary to find out what her real birthdate was!). We know it is her painting because of her unique signature; but, if the artist does not indicate the make date on the work, it is a link missing from the history, or provenance, of the piece.
When I look at Untitled, I see a glowing moon on a dark night haloing a house in the trees, including a butterfly on a branch and maybe some spiderwebs in the forefront catching the moonlight. Maybe you see frozen ice on a window that refracts colors in different directions, a jellyfish swimming through the depths of the ocean, or even a dreamcatcher hanging from a window on a dark night. As the work is abstract, with not title, the artist has left us no clues to her intended meaning. Therefore, you can determine what you, yourself observe in the work. This is what I love about abstract art- you get to tell the story you see!
Like Engron’s work? Be sure to check out Personal to Political: Celebrating the African American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press, exhibiting at FWMoA May 8th – July 18th, 2021.