Sonja Sekula. The Voyage. 1956. Ink and watercolor on paper, 12 1/2 × 9 1/2" (31.8 × 24.1 cm). Acquired through the generosity of the Contemporary Drawing and Print Associates

“Small size…suits my heart best.”

Sonja Sekula

“Who was Sonia Sekula?” This question appeared in Art in America in 1971 (using a variant spelling of the Swiss-born artist’s name), suggesting the extent to which Sekula remained lesser known than many of her peers.1 Part of the 1940s New York artistic community in which European expatriate Surrealists mixed with a rising generation of American Abstract Expressionists, she had shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century and the Betty Parsons Gallery, and was included in the landmark 1951 9th Street Show that cemented the reputations of many of her contemporaries.

Yet her refusal to adhere to a singular style (“It’s too bad she didn’t pin herself down, but that’s the way she was,” said the artist Morris Kantor)2; her transatlantic position (“Am I a Swiss, or an American painter?” she wrote in her journal in 1961)3; her identity as a gay woman (she lacked the prominent male artist or critic partner that aided the visibility of other female artists of her generation); and her struggle with mental illness (which led to her untimely death from suicide at the age of 45) all contributed to Sekula’s underrecognition.

Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, Sekula came to the United States in 1936, studying first at Sarah Lawrence College and then at New York’s Art Students League. While the New York Times dismissed the works in her first one-person show as “airy abstract trifles,”4 by 1951 she was lauded by the same publication for her “impulsive patterns…tiny explosions of color…furious calligraphic scribbles…[and] carpet of color medallions.”5 It was that year that she painted The Town of the Poor, in which linear scaffolding supports washes of airy blue and bright yellow.

While her large-scale paintings met with success, Sekula confided to Parsons that “small size…suits my heart best.”6 Working on paper allowed her to maintain her practice while traveling back and forth between her adopted home of New York and Switzerland, where she returned for access to affordable psychiatric treatment. The jewel-like watercolor The Voyage alludes to this passage, and her sketchbooks capture her drawing practice from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, displaying both the distinctive mark-making and the poetic musings that led the composer Morton Feldman to laud her “fantastic, unusual facility with words.”7

Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2022

  1. Nancy Foote, “Who Was Sonia Sekula?” Art in America, vol. 59 (September–October 1971), p. 73.

  2. Morris Kantor, quoted in “Who Was Sonia Sekula?” op. cit., p. 79.

  3. Sonja Sekula, diary excerpt cited in “Who Was Sonia Sekula?” op. cit., p. 77.

  4. “In Brief: Exhibitions,” The New York Times, May 16, 1948, p. X8.

  5. Stuart Preston, “Chiefly Abstract,” The New York Times, April 2, 1951, p. 106.

  6. Sonja Sekula to Betty Parsons, January 28, 1956. Quoted in Jenny Anger, “Sonja Sekula and ‘Art of the Mentally Ill,’ American Art, vol. 35, no. 1 (Spring 2021), pp. 109-110, n. 77.

  7. Morton Feldman, quoted in “Who Was Sonia Sekula?” op. cit., p. 79.


6 works online



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