Rita Argen Auerbach refuses to call the trio of exhibitions featuring her work and influence this spring by the label the art world prefers to slap onto such late-career affairs: the “retrospective.”
“It’s my hurrah,” Auerbach said in East Aurora’s Meibohm Fine Arts, where an exhibition featuring her recent watercolors is on view through May 24. “I hit 80 a year ago. I thought, if there’s going to be a whole – I don’t want to call it a retrospective, I call it a chronicle – of my career, then it’s now. While I’m still sane enough to control enough of the information and what’s going to be out there.”
For Auerbach, who seems not to have aged since her early 40s, dresses better than most 20-year-olds and maintains a 10-year-old’s giddy curiosity about the world, “retrospective” sounds too finite. And far from losing a grip on her faculties, the prolific and staunchly traditional painter seems more in control of her brush and her reputation than ever before.
Hence the mini-festival of Auerbach-approved exhibitions now playing in an art gallery near you: “Rita Argen Auerbach: Western New York in Watercolor,” in Meibohm Fine Arts; “Rita Argen Auerbach: Chroncile of a 40-Year Career in Watercolor” in Lockport’s Kenan Center through June 15; and, finally, in June, a show featuring artists inspired by Auerbach’s work in Allentown’s Studio Hart.
Taken together, the exhibits tell the story of an artist in love with the world around her and completely uninterested in the preoccupations of the international art world. While she admits having some abstract works and nude portraits stashed away in her studio – “They’re nuts,” she said of those few pieces. “No one will ever see those” – she has practiced a resolutely traditional form of painting since she was in high school.
Her long and productive art career, now spanning some five decades, began at age 10, when she started to draw on the bedroom walls of her Kenmore home with her older sister.
“We started to doodle in little corners on the bedroom wall with pencils. This went on and on and then one day after school, our mother said, ‘Girls, I’ve been in your room and I see what you’ve been doing on your walls,’ ” Auerbach recalled. “She said, ‘You don’t have to sneak around. They’re your walls. It’s your bedroom. You can do whatever you want.’ She gave us permission to make art, and that was as simply, as quickly, the inspiration to just push it. And we did.”
After high school, Auerbach enrolled in SUNY Buffalo State and the Albright Art School, where she learned the basics of charcoal drawing and oil painting. She married a fellow student at Buff State, Richard Auerbach, who died in 2011 at 81, and the pair spent two years living in Morocco while Richard was in the Navy. When she returned to Western New York in 1959, Auerbach spent most of her time raising her three young children. But she stole what brief moments she could to paint.
“I found that I needed to make art, and the easiest, simplest thing was to pull out a watercolor set on the kitchen table while the youngest was napping and the older ones were in kindergarten. And as soon as a child would wake up or come home, I had to put it away,” she said. “I found that watercolor could be the medium that I could explore.”
And explore she did, especially through the 1980s, when, as a founding member of the Niagara Frontier Watercolor Society, she picked up tricks from the endless procession of watercolor experts the organization brought to town for workshops. She soon became known for her light- and color-filled scenes of Buffalo architecture and later expanded her painting practice to include impressions of foreign cities, landscapes and still lifes. Auerbach and her work also have long been fixtures at the Chautauqua Institution, where she spends time every summer and sells paintings of the area’s architecture and natural beauty.
“Rita was our citizen artist,” Thomas M. Becker, the president of the Chautauqua Institution, wrote in the catalog that accompanies the shows. “She brought her talent for capturing the scene, architecture, human exchange, landscape, pathos and whimsy.”
Auerbach’s style, though it hews to traditional notions of perspective and composition, tends to favor bright and sometimes even fluorescent colors as well as exaggerated shadows. Her obsession with simple shapes like triangles, trapezoids and cylinders is evident in her affinity for Buffalo’s grain elevators or Chautauqua’s sailboats, which use those shapes both as tools to attract the viewers’ gaze and as objects on which to hang stark or soft-edged shadows – echoes of Giorgio de Chirico’s sunset cityscapes or Giorgio Morandi’s muted still lifes.
“Auerbach responds acutely to nature, to landscapes within which she lives and those through which she travels,” novelist and journalist Richard Rayner wrote in an essay for the catalog accompanying the shows. “The shapes she manipulates, the textures she creates, the whites left on the paper by her skimming brush, speak to inner qualities of resolve, resilience and the quest for inner delight and radiance.”
Asked whether she was ever upset that her work has not been roundly embraced by the contemporary art world, Auerbach, who volunteers for and supports organizations such as Big Orbit Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center and Hallwalls, said she let go long ago of any frustration she might once have had.
“Somehow, I love to paint what people love to see. And I don’t know when that happened, and I don’t know which came first,” Auerbach said, referring to her popular paintings of the Chautauqua Institution. “I’m challenged every year to bring in new work, because I’m just so fortunate. People love it. And I love it, so I guess the answer is: Why not?”
“Rita Argen Auerbach: Western New York in Watercolor”
Meibohm Fine Arts, 478 Main St., East Aurora
Through May 24
“Rita Argen Auerbach: Chronicle of a 40-Year Career in Watercolor” Kenan Center, 433 Locust St., Lockport
Through June 15
“Rita’s Choice: Inspiring Friends”
Studio Hart, 65 Allen St.
June 6 to July 26