Shirley Gorelick (1924–2000) was an American artist who evolved a distinctive realist technique that allowed her to create penetrating psychological portraiture, often on a large scale. She described her early work as a contemporary reinterpretation of the figure “within the framework of a personal humanism” and her later work as “psychological portraiture.” She earned her B.A. at Brooklyn College (1944), where she studied under Serge Chermayeff, and her M.A. at Teachers College, Columbia University (1947). She briefly studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown and Betty Holliday in Port Washington. Her early work was influenced by Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism, but she became uncomfortable with the distortion of the human figure in modern art.
Gorelick emerged as a strong figurative artist with her first solo show, held at the Angeleski Gallery in 1961, where she exhibited an array of truncated nudes in the prevailing abstract expressionist idiom. Several years later, using the visual language of twentieth-century realism, Gorelick reinterpreted Giorgione’s Concert Champêtre, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and the Three Graces. Most notably, Three Graces IV and Three Graces V feature the repeated forms of a nude, middle-aged African-American model.
As Gorelick’s work evolved in the 1970s, the direct associations with her artistic forebears lessened, although she continued to be inspired by them. Blending the theme of the Three Graces and the Tahitian nudes of Paul Gauguin, Gorelick created Westchester Gauguin (Three Sisters), a series of paintings that portray suburban adolescents amid an overgrowth of pachysandra. She further recast the Three Graces in Willy, Billy Joe, and Leroy (1973), a compelling portrait of three African-American men in the artist’s studio. Inspired by Paul Cézanne’s Card Players, Gorelick also painted Chess Game (1972), in which she depicted a group of men playing chess outdoors. Despite the ongoing influence of her artistic predecessors, Gorelick was a realist who painted from direct observation, photographs, and other material, in an effort to reach the essence of her subjects. Nevertheless, she always embraced the materiality of the paint.
In the late 1970s, Gorelick began to paint middle-aged couples, either together or individually, which further revealed her interest in psychological states. Tess in a Blue Dress (Dr. Tess Forrest) (1980) and Dr. Joseph Barnett I (1981) are portraits of a wife and husband, both psychoanalysts, that depict the sitters in their respective offices. Tess in a Blue Dress situates the alert and imperious Dr. Forrest in front of a crowded bookshelf, while the relaxed and amiable Dr. Barnett sits in his paneled office. Both engage the viewer directly. In a group of silverpoint drawings, which coincided with Gorelick’s “psychological portraiture,” the artist focused only on heads, facing forward or turned slightly, which feature a range of expressions that imply diverse emotional states.
For her final series, completed between 1982 and 1991, Gorelick painted eleven views of the Gorges du Verdon, a scenic area and popular tourist site near the French Riviera. Such an interest in multiplicity is characteristic of Gorelick’s work as early as the 1960s. As she explained in 1978, “I have so many ways to say something that I feel one painting generally doesn’t say enough.” In spite of the unusual exclusion of figures, the Gorge paintings are otherwise consistent with her working method and manner of execution.
Shirley Gorelick’s acrylic paintings, silverpoint drawings, and intaglio prints were exhibited widely in the 1970s and early 1980s. Her work was praised by reviewers in the New York Times, Newsday, Soho Weekly News, Long Island Press, Arts Magazine, Feminist Art Journal, and Womanart. Gorelick was actively involved in SOHO 20 Gallery (est. 1973), the second artist-run, all-women exhibition space in New York City, and was among the founders of Central Hall Artists Gallery (est. 1973) in Port Washington, New York, the first cooperative of its kind on Long Island.
Andrew D. Hottle, Associate Professor of Art History, Rowan University
Author of Shirley Gorelick (1924–2000): Painter of Humanist Realism