Jane Haskell was an artist, philanthropist and patron of the arts who worked in a variety of media to create paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures. Haskell (1923- 2013) is best known for her neon pieces, particularly “Rivers of Light,” the light sculpture she created in 1984 for the Steel Plaza Subway Station, which was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
A representative body of Haskell’s oeuvre, about 35 pieces, is on exhibit through Feb. 19, 2016, at the American Jewish Museum (AJM), which is housed in the Jewish Community Center. Curated by Melissa Hiller, director of the AJM, with co-curator Vicky Clark, the Drawing in Light exhibit examines Haskell’s life and work.
Hiller describes Haskell’s work as “having the characteristics of being pared down and to the point: she worked with essentials. Jane was extremely economical with her compositions. The simplicity of a line meant a great deal to her. The idea of luminosity and color were defining characteristics of her work.”
Hiller further explains that “Jane found potency in the subtleties of uncomplicated imagery, repetitive forms and the play between light and color. “
The curators selected only two to three pieces from each of the genres in which Haskell worked (not including the Photoshop-manipulated pieces) in order to keep the exhibit minimal in keeping with Haskell’s– preference for the essential. Supplementary panels place the artist’s life and work in a historic and creative context.
According to Hiller, the audience at the opening expressed how “the selection of works really accentuated the modes in which Jane worked. People felt that they had a solid understanding of the modes that Jane found most essential to her own art-making.”
Haskell moved to Pittsburgh from New York in 1949. An early student of Samuel Rosenberg (who was also Andy Warhol’s professor), Haskell began working with florescent lighting in the late 1970s. She subscribed to the minimalist school of art, which was an attempt to reduce art to its basic components such as line, shape and color and avoid realistic representation and complex meaning.
Haskell used commercial lighting to create her neon pieces. In an artist’s statement, Haskell had said, “Walls have become my canvas, colored lamps my paint.” She viewed light itself as a creative tool like pencil or paint.
Hiller pointed out that Haskell “came of age artistically during the mid-20th century, an era when notions like professional drive still carried taboos for women despite the approaching sweeping social changes.”
In her role as a patron of the arts, Haskell promoted the work of up-and-coming artists, was on the board of the Carnegie Museum of Art and was involved in Associated Artists of Pittsburgh as well as multiple social service organizations. But Hiller, who knew Haskell as a friend, emphasized Haskell’s “salt-of-the-earth” quality. “Jane relished the camaraderie of talking shop with peers and belonging to a community of like-minded thinkers; she cast a social network that was wide and inclusive.”
Hiller strongly believes that Haskell’s work will stand the test of time. “She was one of a kind in terms of how involved she was as an artist and yet also how involved she was as a patron as well as a philanthropist. I believe she not only had her fingers on the pulse of Pittsburgh’s creative community, but her own involvement and tenacity helped shape the city’s particular cultural narrative.”
In conjunction with the Drawing in Light exhibit at the JCC, the Carnegie Museum of Art will be presenting Haskell’s personal collection of abstract art. “Jane Haskell’s Modernism: A Legacy” will be at the museum from Nov. 21 through May 16, 2016.
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.