In Pursuit of Sensual Form: Vita Petersen (1915-2011)
Vita Petersen – In Black and White: Her Last Works at the New York Studio School, 8 West 8 Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212 673 6466, January 27 – March 10 (reception, Thursday, January 26). See below for David Cohen’s 2007 interview with the artist.
Vita Petersen, one of the last survivors on the New York School, died this last October in her ninety-sixth year. She was indefatigable in her pursuit of sensual form; when an eye condition made it impossible for her to continue to work in color she switched to black and white. It is not fanciful to see in her last works, which opens tomorrow evening (January 26) at the New York Studio School, a nostalgia for the vibrancy and surprises of color evoked despite its absence.
It is fitting that the Studio School should host her tribute as Petersen gave countless years service to that institution as a teacher, governor, trustee and doting, and in turn doted upon, confidant of students and deans alike. Mercedes Matter, the founder of the school, was one of the first people who befriended Petersen when she arrived as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1938.
She came from an aristocratic, assimilated Berlin Jewish family: a descendant of Moses Mendelssohn, she was younger sister of the future renowned medieval art historian, Otto von Simpson. Through Matter Petersen befriended legendary figures of the New York School, among them Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and fellow emigre Hans Hoffman.
When, in 2007, as gallery director at the Studio School, I worked with Vita on an exhibition of her recent pastel paintings, I had the immense honor of interviewing the artist for a short film about her work, click here to view video (Courtesy of the New York Studio School). In it she speaks of the founding of the school, her own training and how it contrasted with that offered at the school, and her love of specific forms in art and nature. As comes across vividly in this film, shot and edited by Graeme White, Vita was a fearless though gracious lady who balanced generosity towards others with voracious painterly hunger for sensual delight.