By Bruce Adams
Anyone paying the slightest attention to Western New York art knows the watercolor paintings of Rita Auerbach. The artist is a ubiquitous presence in town as educator, art facilitator, mentor, advisor, gallery benefactor, and most notably, painter of architectural landmarks, picturesque landscapes, porch scenes, and floral compositions. Even those unacquainted with local art have certainly stumbled upon her work in hotels, office buildings, and doctor’s waiting rooms throughout the region. If somehow despite this, Auerbach is unfamiliar to you, this is a golden opportunity to acquaint yourself with the full breath of her creative output. In the coming weeks, three separate exhibitions will recount the story of the artist’s career and regional impact.
“This is huge!” exclaims an animated Auerbach during a recent conversation in her Kenmore studio and home. “It’s going to cover forty years of my painting as a committed artist.” The artist specializes in cheerfully brilliant watercolor interpretations of architecture, from the inspired creations of Frank Lloyd Wright and the looming Gothic presence of H. H. Richardson’s Buffalo State Hospital, to the Victorian splendor of the Chautauqua Institution and ominous majesty of Buffalo’s grain elevators—which Auerbach lovingly rendered long before they became the darlings of “urban porn” photo-documentarians.
Watercolor is an unforgiving medium. Auerbach’s approach is fluid and gestural, with hypersaturated colors that bleed with calculated precision. She knows when to lay down paint, and, more importantly, when not to; the white of the paper is a big player here. At times—as with her bustling New York cityscapes—her work approaches the margins of whimsy. Like the daring young woman on the flying trapeze, she makes it look effortless, belying the fact that it’s oh so easy to lose concentration and end in disaster. These are unapologetically pretty pictures, without pretense or lofty ambition. But in a drab office hallway, I’ll take well-painted architectural landmarks over lifeless corporate abstract wall-filler any day.
Clockwise from top left (all watercolor on paper): Bryant in Light (2008), Closed for the Season (2008), Old World Passageway (2004), St. Basil’s, Moscow (1989), Burnt and Blue(2013)
How Auerbach arrived in her position as the region’s preeminent watercolorist is a story as colorful as one of her floral landscapes, though not as straightforward. It’s a story of mid-twentieth-century gender roles, societal expectations, and conformance to cultural norms while doing an end run around them. “My sister and I were eight and ten years old when we started doodling on our bedroom walls,” remembers Auerbach. Rather than scold them, their mother told the girls the walls were theirs to do whatever they wanted. They eventually covered the entire room with their artistic musings. To Auerbach, this was her mother granting permission to be an artist, a rarity for girls in pre-WWII America. “My mother, who lived to 105, was a feminist way before anyone knew what that word meant.”
Two experiences in Kenmore High School would leave a lasting imprint on the budding artist. “When my seventh grade art teacher taught perspective, I took to it just like that. Making three dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface,” Auerbach sighs at the memory, “my love of architecture was born. To be able to draw these blocks and buildings in perspective, what a gift she gave me.” Upon graduation, the school counselor asked what Auerbach wanted to be. “I said an architect, and she laughed,” recalls Auerbach, who notes that “it was 1950, and for woman it was “nurse, secretary, teacher; you’ve got to choose one of those.” The budding artist went on to Albright Art School and Buffalo State College, got married, and did, in fact, become a teacher for a short time before leaving to raise three children. She would later go on to a distinguished teaching career at Clarence High School from 1974 to 1994, but now she longed to use her art background to make art—somehow.
Watercolor fit her needs. “I could do it while the baby was napping, and not smell up the house with oils. Watercolor was practical as a woman painting on the kitchen table and cleaning it up before the next meal. You think that’s rare?” asks Auerbach, “That’s what we did!”
By the eighties, she was pushing herself to learn more about the medium. She helped form the Niagara Frontier Watercolor Society. “There’s some sort of stigma that says watercolor is a women’s medium, but some of our strongest artists were men,” says Auerbach, who joined the Buffalo Society of Artists and became president. “I was balancing career, motherhood, marriage, which was first, art making, showing my art, and then suddenly winning a prize or two.” She gestures toward a bulletin board cluttered with dozens of award ribbons. “That’s not for horses,” she quips, “I think they’re gross, when you go to an art show and see them,” and then she says it again, “but that’s what we did.”
Auerbach learned new things from more experienced painters, and sometimes the lessons were of the practical sort: “I was signing my paintings Rita Auerbach, or Rita Argen, and this instructor said, ‘I’m going to suggest that you don’t use your feminine name on your paintings, because when you put your work out there to be judged in a larger arena you could be interpreted as a Sunday painter.’” To this day, her works are signed R. Argen Auerbach. Her husband was supportive of her burgeoning career, “especially after he decided this was no longer a hobby; ‘my god, you’ve got a business here,’” she remembers him saying. “So little by little, I realized I had to be an independent person as an artist—and with everything I do.”
Auerbach’s work caught the eye of Barbara Schuler, who acted as her agent. “In the seventies and eighties, when the corporate world had money to spend, she put my art in every law firm, bank, and corporate collection,” says the artist, who became active in the historic Chautauqua Institution on Chautauqua Lake where her paintings of the community’s architecture and landscapes routinely sold out to buyers from around the world. “I became a self-marketing artist.”
Her connection to Chautauqua led to one of Auerbach’s most celebrated successes (and an adventure of international intrigue; see following article) made possible through her own determination. It was 1986, near the end of the Cold War, and the Chautauqua Institution was invited by the US State Department to bring a delegation to a cultural conference on open diplomacy in the Soviet Union. They had lined up musicians, dancers, and writers, and Auerbach asked, “Where are the visual artists?” She was added to the delegation at her own expense, but not slated to appear on stage like the others. “I drew everything,” says the artist, who carried a sketchbook with her and made ink sketches of the proceedings. “They’re talking and I’m drawing.” She drew diplomats, lecturers, architectural interiors, and the head of the KGB, who signed the drawing.
“On the last night before the gathering of two-thousand Soviets and our two hundred delegates, I get a phone call,” she recalls, “The president of Chautauqua says there’s going to be a gift exchange tomorrow, and we have nothing to give.” They wanted to present Auerbach’s sketchbook; when she refused, they hatched a plan. The next day she was invited onto the stage. “Our journey is not over,” the Chautauqua representative told the Soviets. “We haven’t gone to Moscow yet. There will be more drawings from ‘our artist.’”
Auerbach’s sketches would eventually be made into a book, and presented in Washington as America’s official gift to the Soviet Union. “And guess what?” she says, “They didn’t invite me.” So Auerbach decided to tell the story her own way with a self-published book of the drawings, which sold out at fifty-dollars each. Recently, when a local art collector bought one on eBay, the price was $195 dollars.
Auerbach’s Soviet celebrity status led to an invitation to be the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Academy in Latvia. “I did paintings of Buffalo, especially in our cemetery, because the first thing they do when you go to the Soviet Union is take you to Leningrad to see the mass graves where the millions were buried from wars. They think we have no wars,” she says. It was a subtle political gesture wrapped in pastoral prettiness. Over six hundred people visited the exhibition and got a little glimpse of America, through paintings—and their painter.
Rita Argen Auerbach: Western New York in Watercolor continues through May 24 at Meibohm Fine Arts in East Aurora. Included are contemporary takes on street scenes originally painted by Charles Burchfield, and experimental watercolor collages reflecting the current state of Auerbach’s work. May 4 marks the start of Rita Argen Auerbach: Career Chronicle at the Kenan Center in Lockport, a comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s four-decade oeuvre. Auerbach avoided the word retrospective, because she feels “that’s for dead artists.” The exhibit continues through June 15, and will be accompanied by a lavish color catalogue with essays by nationally noted writer Richard Rayner, architectural historian Barry A. Muskat, and Thomas M. Becker, president of the Chautauqua Institution. From June 6 to 28, Studio Hart in Allentown will exhibit Inspired by Rita Argen Auerbach, a look at artists who have been influenced by Auerbach through her many watercolor workshops and courses.