From New York to Santa Fe, Mala Breuer Channels her Environment in Abstract Paintings

Coming of age in San Francisco in the 1940s, Mala Breuer studied under Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn and Mark Rothko, beginning a long and prolific career during which she would cross paths with many prominent artists, as well as develop work that garnered her widespread success in her own right.

Mala Breuer: New York to Santa Fe,” at Bentley Gallery in Phoenix charts the Abstract Expressionist artist’s midlife development with a selection 15 paintings dated from 1979 to 1998, which reflect both the times and places in which they were made, and the unique characteristics of their creator. 

At the San Francisco Art Institute, where she had been both a student and a teacher, Breuer developed a voice and conceptual framework she described as “the non-objective, which filled a spiritual expression released through my artwork.” Her paintings from that time are in line with those of her contemporary color field painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, but upon a move cross country, she shed this methodology for a different manner of experimental technique.

Breuer’s resettling in New York in 1976, where she rented a space in Julian Schnabel’s loft, marked the beginning of a period during which she produced her best-known works; a group whose defining characteristic is its experimental approach to texture and mark-making. By applying paint directly with a palette knife, Breuer filled the canvas with gestural, repetitive scrapes that build up into dense fields of vibrant color. Using an intuitive sense of rhythm and flow, Breuer’s works contain a natural patterning, and actively engage the negative space of the canvas as a positive force. These New York paintings, such as Untitled (70x40) (1979) and 7.16.83 (As Good As Gold) (1983) have a heavy force to them, generally defined by a single dominating color and occasionally allowing another tone to peek through layers as a stabilizing element. 

In 1984, Breuer moved to Santa Fe, where she “painted quietly,” which led her paintings to develop a much airier feel, reflecting the openness of the New Mexico landscape that has inspired so many artists. In 6-30-95 (1995) and 9-22-98 (1998), she introduces wax into her painting process and spreads her marks across the canvas. Gone is the dense, overlapping congestion of New York; the move offers a seeming appreciation of subtlety, possibility in the breadth of pictorial space, and a symbolic nod to the strength of individual solitude. Ever since, Breuer has remained a resident of Santa Fe, where she is still going strong at 88 years old.


—K. Sundberg


Mala Breuer: New York to Santa Fe,” is on at Bentley Gallery, Phoenix, Apr. 23–May 30, 2015.


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