Treasures from the Vault: Beatrice Riese

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Born in 1917 in The Hague, Netherlands, Beatrice Riese spent her childhood in Germany until 1933 with the rise of the German Reich. She studied art in Paris in the 1930s; and, to evade the German occupation in France, her family left for Casablanca and traveled on to the African Gold Coast, today’s Ghana. They then settled in Richmond, Virginia in 1940.   

On first impression, Riese’s drawings and paintings have a mechanical quality with their strict geometry and repetition. In her formative years, she studied with Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) during his brief stint teaching there from 1943 to 1945. Her husband, whom she met during her trans-Atlantic voyage, discouraged her from pursuing art, as Riese recalled, “The idea was to study to spend your time, until you found a suitable husband, and then you raised your family. You were not working on a career or a future.”i They were divorced in 1949 and Riese worked as a textile designer in New York City to support herself and her young son. She studied privately with legendary painter and teacher Will Barnet from 1956 to 1966. 

Riese spent 14 years as the president of American Abstract Artists, a group formed when there was little recognition of non-representational art. Back in 1936, among the founding thirty-nine members, only nine were women, including Perle Fine and I. Rice Pereira. Of the 15 presidents of the organization, six were women.   

During much of the 20th century women artists continued to experience bias and were offered limited exhibition opportunities and representation in galleries and collections. There were expectations that female artists use certain subject matter and, in some ways, abstraction and its lack of recognizable subject was less likely to encounter gendered readings. Several mid-century female artists altered their names to make their gender more ambiguous, for example, Irene Rice Pereira used her initial I. and Lenore Krasner went by Lee.   

Riese began showing her work when she was in her late thirties during the mid-1950s. Riese likely encountered ageism in the art world as well, pointing out that galleries were looking for artists under 40. Riese exhibited with A.I.R. Gallery, opened in 1972 as the first not-for-profit artist-run gallery in Manhattan devoted to women, on numerous occasions through the years.  

In 1996, Riese created a body of drawings whose titles were type face names, such as Gil Sans, Lucida, Optima, Palatino, and the museum’s drawing–Linotext. Today, these are familiar names that we find in the drop-down choices of fonts on computers. Although available on our high-tech computers, some of these type faces were designed many decades ago.   

A pencil drawing with an underlying grid structure that is concealed by a lacy tangle of short lines and angles, except around the borders.
Beatrice Riese, American, 1917-2004. Linotext. Graphite pencil on paper, 1996. Gift of Dr. Roger E. Mosesson, 2001.07. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In Linotext, the underlying grid structure is concealed by a lacy tangle of short lines and angles except around the borders. Riese explored the possibilities of variation while imposing constraints on pattern. You can identify repeated forms within the framework but, upon zooming out, you can see larger shapes and patterns appear. In subsequent works, four years later, these eccentric shapes evolved into cryptic symbols and letters. 

Linotext is reminiscent of needlework or a weaving with its warp and weft lines. Riese used a hard pencil to yield delicate, clear marks; however, if precision was her only desired effect, the artist would have chosen a smooth paper. Instead, she drew on a thick watercolor paper that has a highly textured surface. The lines are straight but have some movement. The paper has a physicality as an object due to its weight.  

Riese’s works can be found in many major art collections, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, among others. She was also a collector of African and Native American art and a museum benefactor. Her interest in African art dated back to her time in Paris when she visited the newly opened Musée de l’Homme. The artist donated works from her collection to the Brooklyn Museum, Snite Museum of Art, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. 

Interested in viewing more of FWMoA’s works on paper? Come by the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment.

i Timothy Cahill, “Art & the Woman,” Times Union 

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