Sarah Canright, 1975. Courtesy of Mary Baber.
Sarah Canright was initially reluctant to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), instead wanting instead to marry her high school boyfriend. She and her mother struck a compromise: Canright would attend SAIC for one year, postponing an engagement. Their deal was soon forgotten as Canright quickly became absorbed by her work and the artistic community at SAIC. In an interview with the artist, Canright commented that in contrast to where she had grown up in Orlando, FL, “Chicago opened the world up.” By 1964, she completed her bachelor’s degree with a concentration in painting. Her work was exhibited in innovative exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, including Nonplussed Some (1968 and 1969), Marriage Chicago Style (1970), and Chicago Antigua (1971). Several of Canright’s early works feature smokestacks and trains, demonstrating that, like her fellow students, she was influenced by Chicago’s urban landscape. Canright’s transition to a soft-toned palette and non-objective forms differentiates her visual style from contemporaries like Ed Paschke, Richard Wetzel, and Ed Flood who utilized print media and images from popular culture as inspiration for their respective artistic processes.
With her unapologetic use of pale colors and delicate, ethereal shapes, Canright’s mature work may be read as a feminist treatment of modernist abstraction. She was inspired to paint from the viewpoint of a female artist after spending five months traveling around Europe in 1968; following this experience, she observed that “…everything I had seen [in Europe] had been a male projection onto the world, and…the way I was going to continue would be to continue as a woman.” From this point onward, Canright developed and became committed to a female-oriented vision. Although Canright painted with a female perspective in mind, she did not consider herself to be a feminist; rather, she viewed the feminist movement as residing in New York. In the 1970s, she hosted the curator Marcia Tucker while the curator was visiting SAIC. Through discussions with Tucker, Canright and her friend and fellow artist Christina Ramberg felt awakened to their unequal representation in Chicago’s art galleries. Thereafter, Canright’s feminist perspective was reinforced and remained central to her painted forms.
In 1973, Canright and Ed Flood relocated to New York City, where they lived in a building with their friend and Pop artist, Red Grooms. While in New York, Canright continued to teach painting as a visiting artist. In the mid-1990s, she accepted a faculty position teaching drawing and painting at the University of Texas in Austin, where she resides today.
Untitled (c. 1969)
Oil on canvas with artist's painted frame
In the early 1960s, Sarah Canright moved from sunny Florida to the blustery industrial city of Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She remained in the city after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in 1964. Her oil paintings from this period suggest the bleakest aspects of the city—smokestacks and fields of gray linger beneath a foreground of vibrant pattern.
After exhibiting in the Nonplussed Some exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in the winter of 1968, Canright began to critically reassess her artistic practice. A few months later, a visit to the Venice Biennale solidified a significant shift in her oeuvre. While exploring the art museums and historical sites of Italy, she began to scrutinize the male-centric lens through which the history of art was routinely viewed. To counter this narrative, she established an artistic approach that exaggerated the feminine.
With its pale pastels and soft lines lavishly highlighted with white, Untitled exemplifies this shift. Canright aggressively wielded her muted colors to subvert the bold geometric works by male artists of the 1960s, as with Frank Stella’s Protractor series. Unlike Stella’s use of vivid colors and concrete forms, Canright employed the force of color to disarm the viewer’s vision. Her light colors and strong highlights make it difficult to discern forms, and when viewed from different angles, tonalities actively shift. Her works are often difficult to photograph, subtly rejecting objectification.
Abstract yet figural, Untitled presents a long, towering spine-like column which dominates the center of the composition. The work could also be read as a Floridian landscape and a reversal of her works made in Chicago: a tall palm tree appears to rest on an island and the ocean’s waves denote the horizon line in the distance. Canright herself rejects a geographic reading of her work, saying that her goal is rather to communicate the concept of interiority. She views her works as “heads and sleeves” that encompass a more psychoanalytical reading through the surrounding “cut and woven” textile patterning and painterly hatching that emanate like thought waves from the bodily form.