Martha Szabo, Model, Art Students League, circa (1990) (top left); Martha Szabo, Model, Art Students League, (1991) (top right); Martha Szabo, Model, Art Students League, circa (1990) (bottom left); Martha Szabo, Model, Art Students League, (1991) (bottom right)
By Scotti Hill
While many consider the greatest art to be those works which thoroughly transport us into a world of the artist’s creation, a less common and often more profound experience arises from art that forces us to reconsider that which we think we already know. The abstract, spirited paintings of artist Martha Szabo achieve just that—a ticket into the vision of an artist whose experimental practices lay claim to her modernist inspirations, yet whose artistic identity remains uniquely her own, and whose views of one of the world’s most iconic cities manifests a novel approach to a much beloved subject.
In 1957, having survived the Holocaust as a teenager, Szabo arrived in New York City from her native Hungary, and quickly assimilated into the artistic vibe of the Big Apple, by actively contributing to the spirit of abstraction and experimentation that was percolating through the modernist movements around the globe. As a result, her work embodies a lively dynamism that enchants both the curious novice and the trained eye alike. Indeed, it’s the latter who possesses the keen awareness of the skill required to manage a composition of such varied painterly brushwork and impasto.
After all, there is much artistic power in the act of suggesting rather than merely illustrating.
Born in 1928, Szabo endured tremendous hardship during World War II and under the Communism that set in with the fall of the Iron Curtain. At the age of sixteen, she was forced from her home and imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp in Austria. After the war, she lived in Budapest where she earned a master’s degree from the Hungarian University of Fine Arts and experienced the Hungarian avant-garde’s second wave. While she and her husband George Szabo, who later became the curator of the Robert Lehman collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arrived in the United States as refugees, each went on to contribute prolifically to their adoptive country in their respective fields.
Just as her native Hungary was a pivotal site for Szabo’s personal and creative growth, New York City would become part of her very identity, the place where she found great purpose and peace; where prior to the Second World War, the impact of European Modernism had already taken place. As evidenced by events such as the 1913 Armory Show and the American Abstract Artists (1936) a collective focused on promoting the role of abstract art through community engagement and scholarship, Szabo arrived to witness first hand the first truly American modern art movement—Abstract Expressionism.
The rich skyline of New York City became Szabo’s muse, a subject which she explored through countless iterations during an incredibly fertile period of activity from 1957-1987. Her 21st floor artist studio in New York—replete with magnificent views of the city and optimal sunlight—became a site of reflection and inspiration. Some of Szabo’s most important works would be stunning paintings of the New York skyline from this site, solidifying and keeping alive in striking two-dimension, a remarkable moment in time—New York in the 1970s—scenes of what Szabo refers to as “the souls of transformed buildings celebrating.”
Martha Szabo, Neon City (1974)
One such work is a painting entitled Neon City. A sensuous scene which features mysterious silhouettes in front of a large building, set aglow with bright yellow lights offset by the majestic blue of the night sky. Other works in the series similarly depict the New York skyline—in thick, painterly brushstrokes feverishly laden as though placed with a palette knife—atop magnetic sunsets. Elsewhere in the collection, a neatly painted building slices horizontally through the composition to create long dark shadows on the street below. The cityscapes in this and other series of hers reveal an underlying fascination with the act of painting itself, as well as the geometric abstraction evident in the industrial metropolis.
In her mastery of the formal elements of color, texture, and composition, Szabo captures the ephemeral moments our psychology links to contentment, the sensations of which we often try, but fail to memorialize.
Szabo was—and still is—a member of the Art Students League, where she took a master class with Hananiah Harari, a groundbreaking founder of the American Abstract Artists, known for a wide stylistic range, and who studied with modernist icon Fernand Leger from 1932-1934.
Martha Szabo, Harari Class, (1991)
Szabo’s painting, Harari Class, a portrait and self-portrait study, which features a group of standing and sitting figures, captures the moment in the two artists’ lives where they worked simultaneously in the same studio at the League. The precision of her strokes, applied thickly and with bold color, demonstrate an artist deeply committed to the visual possibilities of abstraction. Just as Harari’s work took inspiration from the iconic stylistic characteristics of Cubism, Surrealism, and Fauvism, so too does Szabo’s experimentation reference earlier trends of expressionism while retaining signature traces of the artist’s own style. In 1990, Harari would curate a group show of work made in his class, including Szabo’s.
Szabo created a series of portraits while a member of the League, many of which contain the same penchant for loose Expressionistic brushwork. Her portraits from this period reveal the intensity of an artist who moves quickly to capture her subjects, someone whose underlying mastery over her medium bestows upon her subjects a certain energy and life.
Martha Szabo, Self Portrait with Model at Art Students League (circa 1990) (selected for exhibition by H. Harari)
“In her paintings of the League, made at the League, Martha reveals a tremendous ahead-of-its-time spirit of inclusivity and equity, depicting women, men, and the gender-ambiguous, people of color, Asians, Caucasians, older people, younger people… in these paintings, everyone plays a part, and everyone is equally compelling,” explains her daughter Julia Szabo.
Now, Szabo’s work resonates as much as it did when it was first created. It gives us an important glimpse into simultaneously intimate and grandiose moments, inviting us to pause for moments of reflection in a city of infinite sensations. There’s a definite meditative quality to her works, allowing for multiple gazes and rendered tantalizing by the anthropomorphic nature of the city’s structures. Indeed, to see the city and the world through Szabo’s eyes is a gift.
Scene at Art Students League, Martha Szabo, circa 1991 (left); Scene at Art Students League, Martha Szabo, circa 1991 (right)
Now in her early nineties, Martha is forgetting a lot about her vibrant life in New York and her upbringing in the old world. Whereas Martha’s husband passed away, having finished a number of important catalogs and studies of other artists, it is Martha’s daughter Julia who is undertaking the project of archiving her mother’s work and preserving her legacy through critical narrative and contextualization of her mother’s work among contemporary art trends. While some may view such a gesture sentimental, it indeed parallels a larger push within the humanities and the discipline of art history to recognize women, immigrants, and non-white artists whose work has contributed so much to our understanding of American art. Doing so creates, not an alternate history of American modernism, but in fact a more accurate chronology of our shared artistic tradition. For an artist now losing her sight, it is fortunate to be able to study her works and see what she has seen, witness perpetual intrigue and curiosity amid scenes of remarkable intimacy and the sprawling urban expanse.
Pictured above, Martha Szabo at Art Students League circa 1990, next to a painting of Martha by another artist and Martha’s painting below (left); Model at Art Students League, Martha Szabo, circa 1990 (selected for exhibition by H. Harari) (the painting as featured in the accompanying image) (right)
Learn more about Martha Szabo and view her paintings here: https://marthaszabo.com/
Center for Art Law would like to thank Julia Szabo for taking the time to speak with Scotti Hill and the Center, and share Martha’s story for the feature.
This article is being produced in connection with the Estates Planning Clinic that explores artistic legacy questions and has been worked on by Atreya Mathur.
About the Author
Scotti Hill (she/her) is a Utah-based art critic, curator, and lawyer. In addition to teaching art history at Westminster College, she’s a staff writer for 15 Bytes: Utah’s Art Magazine and a contributor to Southwest Contemporary. She has written for the Deseret News, New Art Examiner, and served as a legal intern at the Center for Art Law in 2016.