Helene Fesenmaier, a leading abstract artist whose paintings and sculptures are found in public and private collections throughout the world died on June 21, 2013 in London. The cause was complications from lymphoma.
Ms. Fesenmaier was born in New Ulm, Minnesota on August 31, 1937, the daughter of the late O.B. Fesenmaier, a doctor and Helene Fesenmaier, herself an artist. Ms. Fesenmaier attended local schools, graduating from New Ulm High School in 1955. While both Ms. Fesenmaier’s parents believed that to be an artist was something special, Ms. Fesenmaier did not embrace art at an early age; instead, she rebelled against the pressure to take up art. Her interest in art, though, blossomed at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts from which she graduated in 1959. From there she went to Yale University School of Art and Architecture where she earned a B.F.A. in 1961.
Leaving Yale, Ms. Fesenmaier went to New York to live and to paint for the next ten years. She was a founding member with other painters, and then trustee, of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture which was founded in 1964 on the principle that drawing from life should form the basis of artistic development. Her New York stay was interrupted with seven months painting in Holland and visits to archaeological sites in Greece, Peru and Yucatan.
In 1969 she left New York, moving to Caracas, Venezuela. To that point in time Ms. Fesenmaier’s almost singular focus had been painting. In Venezuela she has said that she did not have access to models and began creating wooden constructions to draw from. She once remarked that the “wood gave off light in the way that flesh did.” From making drawings of the sculptures she later began to incorporate the paint into the sculpture itself and many times the sculptures became part of the canvases.
In 1970, she settled in London where she continued to combine painting and sculpture – at the beginning using wood from the packing crates left over from her move. She remained in London until her death. Over the next forty years Ms. Fesenmaier continued painting and sculpting on a large scale using paint, as the art critic Mel Gooding said, “with confidence that allows it to speak for itself.” Critics have remarked that her paintings and sculpture, oftentimes unorthodox, are fresh, forceful, original and emotive. Noted English museum director Bryan Robertson said that during the past forty years Fesenmaier was “one of the most gifted and authoritative artists working in Europe.”
Over the years she exhibited in New York, Dusseldorf, Los Angeles, Madrid, Washington, Caracas, and Northampton, Massachusetts, Waseca, Minnesota and Marshall, Minnesota. Her most recent exhibition of sculpture and paintings – Transfiguration – was held at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University in the fall of 2012.
Her works have also been included in many public collections to include the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Morgan Library and Museum, New York, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. In 1979, she was commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to construct a sculpture to stand in the forecourt of the museum during its exhibition The Open and Closed Book.
New Ulm always remained important to Ms. Fesenmaier and played a formative part in her approach to art. In 1999, the Brown County Historical Society sponsored an exhibition of her paintings. In an interview with The Journal, on the occasion of the exhibition, she said that “A show in New York is just a show but when you do a show in New Ulm, it’s so much more than that.” During that visit she also remarked that while visiting art museums during her youth had piqued her interest in art, “walks in the woods around New Ulm and hunting mushrooms also had an important impact on her art.”
In 1976, the New Ulm Public Library invited submissions for a sculpture to be placed in the Library. Fesenamier was awarded the commission and she created the kinetic sculpture titled Playback which was in the Library lobby for many years. She said that she “never wanted to win a competition so much as [she] wanted to make the library sculpture.”
Ms. Fesenmaier is survived by her husband David Hodgson, also an artist, with whom she collaborated on occasion, as well as her son William Hodgson, both of Eltham, England. She is also survived by her sister, Gloria Knopke, Sacramento, California.
A service of remembrance will be held for Ms. Fesenmaier at Christ Church, Eltham, England on July 15, 2013. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Lymphoma Research, Guys Hospital, Great Maze Pond, London, SE1 9RT, United Kingdom.