Remembering the Artist Selina Trieff

I’m saddened to learn about the recent passing of Selina Trieff. Selina was an amazing painter and wonderful person. She was included in the show I curated at The Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM) in 2013 called Pioneers From Provincetown: The Roots of Figurative Expressionism.

Selina Trieff was born in 1934 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. From an early age she was devoted to the life of an artist. This passion led her first to the Art Students League in New York, where she studied with Morris Kantor. She went on to Brooklyn College where she was a student of Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko and later was taught by Hans Hofmann at his schools in New York and Provincetown. Trieff studied contemporary art history and color with Rothko at Brooklyn College. While simultaneously taking an art class with Reinhardt she fell in love with fellow classmate Robert Henry. Henry and Trieff married and divided their time between Brooklyn, New York during the winter and Provincetown, Massachusetts during the summer, eventually settling down in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. They also lived rather reclusively for a period in the woods of Martha’s Vineyard.

Hofman’s school was the catalyst for Robert Henry and Selina Trieff to come to Provincetown together in 1954. Henry had previously been a Hofmann student, in both New York and Provincetown, and Selina went on to study with Hofmann in 1954 and 1955. Both Trieff and Henry were involved with Provincetown’s legendary Sun Gallery, showing alongside Tony Vevers, Lester Johnson, Red Grooms, and Jan Müller among others. Trieff and Henry have remained a major force in the Provincetown art colony long after many of their contemporaries left the Cape Cod scene.

Trieff, S., Standing Figure with Gold Trim; 1962

“Standing Figure with Gold Trim,” 1962, Oil on canvas, 58×48″

Trieff’s painterly interests encompassed both personal self-exploration and an empirical exploration of the transcendentalism of Renaissance art. In much of her early work, somber, predominantly monochromatic figures blend almost completely into a green or black background, with an occasional glimmer of light from her use of gold. There is a deep emotional feeling in her early paintings, Standing Figure with Gold Trim and Female Head. These titles, though descriptively apt, are deliberately understated, and the spiritual impact of these works is left for the beholder to experience first hand.

While figures are evident in her paintings, Trieff considered herself to be an “abstract painter.” Her compositions conflate formalist compositional elements of abstraction with the classical rendering of the human figure. The influence of her teachers Rothko, Reinhardt, and Hofmann is reflected in the way she blended the figure and the ground with dramatic tension. It is no surprise that Trieff herself became an influential teacher.

Artist and writer Maureen Mullarkey wrote: “Selina Trieff uses color for the exhilaration of it, creating opulent friezes that whisper of mortality. A student of Hans Hofmann’s school in the 1950s, Ms. Trieff has gone her own way, ignoring the realist path of most other figurative painters. Her life’s work is a metaphorical, painterly cosmos that unsettles and delights at the same time.”

John Russell, art critic of the New York Times, called Trieff an “American original” in June 12, 1987.

“Two Figures in Blue ” Collection of the Town of Provincetown

“Two Figures in Blue” Collection of the Town of Provincetown

Her breakthrough paintings were gold-leaf and oil portraits of androgynous human figures as well as animals. These works were autobiographical with subject matter that assumed the role of both Trieff (whose face was the basis for the masks in her paintings) and the human condition. Commedia dell’arte iconography and emotion is evident in the masked and costumed figures in her paintings. Trieff’s subjects engage us in a dramatic manner like players in theater, expressing or representing both humor and seriousness through extravagant and exaggerated mime. It is a sublime event when standing before a Selina Trieff and being actively drawn in by the powerful aura these works emit. The critic and art historian Eileen Kennedy was spot on when she wrote: “If Shakespeare had had a sister, she would probably have been Selina Trieff.”

Selina Trieff is represented by Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown where she has been showing for over 20 years. Walker presented Trieff in her first one-person exhibition at Graham Modern Gallery in New York in 1985. She has had solo exhibitions at the Riverside Art Museum in Riverside, CA; The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY; the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts; and The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. Trieff is in several major public collections including the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Below is a video of her retrospective Master of the Look at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 2007.

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