2020’s grim atmosphere of loss: Shari Urquhart and others

Shari Urquhart, Wedding Portrait (J. Van Eyck), 1998, Persian wool, mohair, metallic acrylic & silk fibers, 79.5 x 67.75 inches

Lamentable deaths occur every year, but in 2020 Covid-19 has made for an especially grim atmosphere of loss. In the art world, painter Jackie Saccoccio and art historian Barbara Rose are the most recent to be mourned across social media and in thoughtful obituaries in the New York Times. Artnet has compiled a list of other notable art figures who have passed away, including Beverly Pepper, Emily Mason, William Bailey, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Susan Rothenberg, Ron Gorchov, and Luchita Hurtado. ArtForum‘s list includes Ulay, John Baldessari, Christo, Suh Se-ok, and May Stevens. At artcritical Sussanna Coffey has contributed a warm rememberance of Margaret Grimes.

Others we have lost this year are Amy Lipton, co-founder of ecoartspace, and Shari Urquhart, a feminist artist who exchanged brushes and canvas for fibers and textiles. Two Coats readers John Fritsch and Jen Pepper generously reached out with following remembrances of Urquhart’s art and life. –Sharon Butler

Contributed by John Fritsch / Shari Urquhart, artist and educator, died on November 21, 2020. She was born in Racine, Wisconsin and grew up in Kenosha, just a few miles south. Although her first media were painting and printmaking, she ultimately found her true medium in fiber to express her take on popular culture and art history.

Shari and I met at the University of Wisconsin at Madison when we were sophomores, in 1959. (She would also get two master’s degrees there, including her MFA.) We shared some classes together and became close friends socially. When we were juniors, the two of us had our first exhibition in the UW Memorial Student Union, filling the lounge and galleries with our youthful, colorful abstract and figurative paintings. As a senior, I did my practice teaching in Racine while Shari was teaching full time at Racine Wm Horlick High School. We met for coffee every morning at the downtown bus station and enjoyed sharing our plans for the day.

We kept in touch over the years, and both lived in New York City in 1967 and 1968. She stayed and I returned to Madison. But I often visited New York, and we would get together to go to galleries and museums and share meals. It was always a treat to get her take on the art world, and she had a great eye for compelling art. More recently, after Shari returned to Kenosha in 2007, I was able to visit her often, and we again enjoyed our time together, sharing good food, art talk, and garden chat. I will miss my dear friend, and treasure the memories.

Shari Urquhart, Medusa (Caravaggio), 1997, Persian wool, mohair, metallic acrylic & silk fibers, 56 x 56 inches

Contributed by Jen Pepper / I met Shari on a Williamsburg rooftop, eating strawberries with cream, in the late eighties. She was a creative force in every sense of the word. She enjoyed reading, old movies, and root beer floats, and was keen on opera. She happily introduced me to some of the best versions of Puccini, Wagner, Verdi, and others. On many a Saturday we wandered through galleries, fine kitchens, and exquisite yarn shops, where the store owners knew her on a first name basis. She and I attended the Met’s “From Van Eyck to Bruegel,” a masterful exhibition, in the late nineties. Shari would swoon in the beguiling aura of the magnificent panel paintings. She had a way of seamlessly segueing from recent contemporary exhibitions back to those early 15th-century works, which she spoke about for years, often referring to a hefty, dog-eared exhibition catalogue. In her own hooked-fiber pieces, she reworked many of those artists’ subjects: Madonna portraits, Medici princesses and princes, northern Renaissance goddesses and altarpieces.

Two hallmark exhibitions that included Urquhart’s work were “‘Bad’ Painting” (1978) and “Bad Girls, Part II” (1994), both at The New Museum in New York and both curated by Marcia Tucker, which art critic Allan Schwartzman characterized as “recklessly and unapologetically aggressive.” Shari’s keen eye for color, encyclopedic knowledge of history and art history, and feminist sensibility yielded constructed narratives that continue to resonate, protesting, as she put it, “the powerlessness of a woman’s voice in matters of love and war.” Her control and awareness of composition and color was meticulous – Shari effortlessly recalled opulent nuances – and her rendering of traditionally painted content into tactile fiber fields was invariably smart and witty as well as supremely skillful and poignantly urgent. As noted in a 2012 Two Coats of Paint article, “‘Bad’ Painting Revisited,” Urquhart’s lush, life-size tapestries were not reckless but rather “powerful and unapologetic,” and constituted thick, new fodder for contemporary ideas in current art making practices.

While Urquhart continued her studio practice throughout her life, she also had a distinguished and novel 30-year teaching career, directing and teaching in the Fine Art Workshop on Rikers Island from 1978 to 1982 and designing and implementing the art program of the non-profit St. Francis Residence in New York City from 1982 to 2007. When she retired, she returned to Kenosha and continued to work in fiber until her death. Although we didn’t see each other weekly as we had in New York, Shari remained a dear friend who made my life better and my own studio practice more passionate and pure. That chance meeting on that Brooklyn rooftop one sweltering summer evening turned into a durable and enriching friendship. Her fiber works, both comforting and physically prepossessing, keep Shari with all of us.

Shari Urquhart exhibited at the Pelavin Gallery, the Monique Knowlton Gallery, A.I.R., the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, the Allan Frumkin Gallery (NYC), the Nancy Lurie Gallery (Chicago), the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Nasher Gallery at Duke University, and the Kansas City Art Institute, among others. Urquhart was a grant recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts and a Mid-Atlantic Fellow. She also served as a visual arts panelist for New York State Council on the Arts. Many of her works are held in private and public collections, including those of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Mass MoCA, and the Lannan Foundation

About the authors:
John Fritsch is a media designer and retired teacher of Visual Communications, Madison College, Madison, WI.
Jen Pepper is a Canadian-born artist who has exhibited in solo and group shows in international and national venues since 1990. 

Related posts:
Susan Rothenberg: Hope and discontent
Interview: Leslie Smith III in Madison, Wisconsin
Textility: Idiosyncratic materiality at the Visual Art Center of New Jersey
What is “bad” painting?

Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply