The small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, lies at the intersection of state roads 136 and 77, surrounded on all sides by a quasi-uniform grid of farmland. Dorothy Antoinette “Toni” LaSelle was born in Beatrice in 1901, and though she lived and worked elsewhere, the flatness and rhythmic geometry of the American Midwest lives on in the ground of her paintings.
For LaSelle, who passed away in 2002, abstraction was always rooted in the physical world, in places like Beatrice and Provincetown, Massachusetts, about 1,600 miles to the east, where she spent many formative summers starting in 1944. There, at the far tip of Cape Cod, she found her visual idiom, fusing abstraction’s competing schools into something breezy and rectilinear, academic and picturesque, with a little help from the Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. This transformative period in LaSelle’s evolution is the focus of a solo presentation by Houston’s Inman Gallery at Independent 20th Century.
LaSelle’s story is one that is not told enough: a woman from the provinces, who by dint of talent and chance of circumstances, comes into contact with key figures of 20th-century art history. She left behind a body of work that is at once singular and in dialogue with multiple modernist movements—an alternative, and an expansion, to the narrative we thought we knew.
LaSelle picked up the thread in the early 1920s as an undergraduate at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, an hour north of Beatrice. Through a professor who had seen the watershed 1913 Armory Show in New York, she discovered the Moderns, taking her first steps on the path that would eventually lead to Provincetown.
In between, there were detours to Chicago, where she completed her master’s and later studied with László Moholy-Nagy. Six months in Europe after graduation: England, France, and Italy. In San Francisco in 1932, she was first exposed to Hofmann’s work. Most decisively, she arrived in 1928 in Denton, Texas, for what she thought was a temporary teaching position at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University). She retired in 1972.
While making her own abstract work against a backdrop of regional figuration, LaSelle taught art history and painting to class after class of aspiring artists. She oversaw the design of stained-glass windows for the campus’s new chapel, and embarked on another trip to Europe to study cathedrals. The tour was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War, and so, with Europe out of reach, she looked instead to a European.
Provincetown is 1,800 miles from Denton. In 1944, LaSelle traveled the distance to study at Hans Hofmann’s summer school for the first time. Propelled by the community she found there, and her love of the sea, she would make many such trips over the coming years, packing up her supplies as soon as classes in Texas ended, and staying on the Cape through the summer. In a life marked by turning points and fortuitous connections, LaSelle’s time with Hofmann was a pivotal juncture.
In the aerated, energized works she produced in the late 1940s, different abstract systems—on one hand, a coolly Bauhaus composition of flat forms; on the other, an organic, volumetric soufflé—collide and emulsify. They are a thrilling synthesis of the influences LaSelle had encountered, adjacent to the work of her metropolitan or coastal peers, and yet distinctive. An abstraction that was born in the Midwest and developed between Texas and Provincetown.
Over the course of two daily working sessions (one dedicated to the figure, the other to still-life), Hofmann taught his students to paint however they saw fit. He did not care if the results were abstract or representational. LaSelle’s work floats to the edges of non-objectivity, while still being grounded in the physical world. Whether by the composition, color palette, or artwork title, viewers receive flashes of what she was seeing in the Provincetown studio, and thus glimpse how she saw. Inman’s presentation will include a mix of lively works on paper and thickly painted canvases, revealing LaSelle’s admirable range and agility.
With rambunctious marks and bold colors, her nimble combinations of forms give these works their presence. There is a naturalism to their abstraction. Everything fits together, as it was always intended. The interplay between foreground and background, and the wholeness of all of the parts, could be attributed to LaSelle thinking about the Bauhaus via Moholy-Nagy. Or Hofmann’s famous theory of the dynamic “push and pull” of color. The grids could be traced back to Mondrian, or perhaps those cathedrals in Europe, the stained-glass chapel in Denton, or even the fenced-off fields surrounding Beatrice, Nebraska.
But LaSelle has given them a liberating sense of space all of her own. She called these works “Space-Time drawings”, stating in 1948 that: “The plane of the paper, the planes in the drawings, and the space in the drawings are all one thing. They cannot be separated. It takes all three together to create a plastic unit out of a flat piece of paper.” They are a fitting testament for someone who grew up on the Great Plains and then came into her element on the tip of a cresting spit of land, bounded by ocean.
LaSelle remained close to Hofmann until his death in 1966 and returned to Provincetown for years after that. While the summers on the Cape connected her to better-known painters, and she showed frequently at galleries and museums in Texas, LaSelle’s distance from New York—not to mention her gender—kept her out of the history books. The uncharted territory of these works makes viewing them today all the more powerful. As the figure of LaSelle develops in the foreground, we will see changes happening behind her as well, with the horizon of postwar abstraction enlarging to make space for her perspective.
Hunter Braithwaite is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York. He was the founding editor of Affidavit and the Miami Rail, and has written about art for numerous publications, including Artforum, BOMB, Modern Painters, The Paris Review Daily, and The White Review. He received his MFA in fiction from New York University.