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Art: Mother, daughter, and more modernists

Two welcome shows at Woodmere delve into the work of Philadelphians, many of them women.

After being closed for repairs during the summer, Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill has reopened with an impressive burst of energy, in the form of two colorfully affirmative exhibitions about Philadelphia modernist painting.

One show examines the career of Mary G.L. Hood and, to a lesser extent, that of her daughter, Agnes Hood Miller. You might not have heard of either, but you'll be pleased to meet them through this display.

The other offering, "Flirting With Abstraction," locates the art of Hood and Miller within the broader context of a local cohort of abstract painters, including some working today.

The two exhibitions, which occupy all but one of the museum's galleries, dovetail seamlessly. A viewer can proceed from one into the other almost without realizing that a boundary has been crossed.

The Hood-Miller show consists mainly of loans from Hood's granddaughter, Sarah Hood Bodine.

It's not all about mother and daughter, however; the approximately 75 paintings also represent their mentors, colleagues, and friends, liberally mixed in.

Some of the latter works are lent; others come from the museum's collection.

"Flirting" is essentially a collection show, and as such it should strike viewers as more familiar. One prominent element gives it distinction, however: a group of about a dozen works lent by Karen Segal, herself a painter and collector of Philadelphia artists.

Segal's contribution announces her promised gift to Woodmere of 82 paintings by local artists such as Jane Piper, Jan Baltzell, Bill Scott, Rose Naftulin, Jacqueline Cotter, Stuart Shils, Doris Staffel, and Eileen Goodman.

It's a major benefaction to a museum that specializes in Philadelphia art.

With these two exhibitions, museum director William R. Valerio has woven a complex tapestry, from which three major and closely related themes readily emerge.

The first is the career of Hood, initially a wife and mother who became a serious painter in middle age. Under the tutelage of Arthur B. Carles and Henry McCarter, she achieved impressive results as a colorist.

As his own paintings indicate, Carles was a strong advocate of color used structurally, and he influenced a number of local artists to follow his lead.

This leads us into the second major theme, the prominence of assertive color in a sizable body of local modernist painting.

As Scott, who was mentored by Piper (a student of Carles), observes in a catalog essay, "Philadelphia, probably more than any other American city, has been home to a large percentage of artists who were (and are), above all else, brilliant colorists."

Scott can count himself as one of them.

The third major current in this doubleheader is the large number of women who contributed to the development of modernism here.

Many, like Hood, weren't as visible as such male contemporaries as Carles, Sam Maitin, Morris Blackburn, and Hugh Mesibov. In these two shows, especially that for Hood, the impact of female modernists can be readily grasped and appreciated.

The narrative begins with Hood. Born in 1886, Mary Gibbons Lawson enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts directly from high school, in 1903.

But in a scenario that will be familiar to many women, she left after two semesters to marry Albert L. Hood, a Philadelphia grain merchant. Subsequently she reared two sons and two daughters, of whom Agnes, her future painting partner, was the eldest.

In 1929, when her two youngest were teenagers, she returned to PAFA, but again attended classes for only a year.

Perhaps she found the traditional curriculum too confining - modernism was by then well-established in America. In any case, she began to study privately with McCarter; later in the 1930s, she and Agnes also studied with Carles.

His influence, particularly his belief in robust color, is manifest in her paintings from the late 1930s and '40s. She was almost Fauve-ish in the way her color supplied not only structure and light but generated startling emotional intensity.

One could argue, in fact, that Hood often took Carles' passion a bit too far, because some paintings - she made mostly still lifes and landscapes - feel excessively intense and out of balance.

Yet when she was spot-on, she could be very good, as we can see in pictures such as Still Life With Niche, Green Tablecloth, Dahlias, and the noticeably Matisse-like Still Life With Carrots.

The juxtaposition of Green Tablecloth and Carles' Abstract Bouquet, hung next to it, both declares his influence and demonstrates how Hood often "out-colored" her mentor.

Throughout the Hood-Miller show (Miller tended to be both more expressionist and more radically abstract than her mother), the presence of other talented colorists such as Quita Brodhead (whose Vase of Tulips is one of the most beguiling canvases of all), Betty Hubbard, Fern Coppedge, Dorcas Doolittle, Jean Knox Chambers, Vera White, Moy Glidden, and especially Piper, affirms Scott's observation about the high concentration of colorists here.

These artists also confirm the significant involvement of women not only in modernism generally but in abstraction. Hood was typical of her cohort in abstracting from nature; if her color derived ultimately from Matisse, her manipulations of form and space trace to Cezanne.

Even in "Flirting," in which male artists are more evident, invented or pure gestural abstraction shares the walls with a lot of "abstracted" reality of the kind that Hood and Miller created.

One additional quality of the shows deserves mention; Valerio has used his permanent collection as a multiplier to make larger points.

Hood-Miller by itself succeeds as an engaging show, but by extending that group of paintings, and the small clutch of Segal loans, with museum pictures, he gives both core clusters a significant synergistic boost.

In the process, he draws deserved and enhanced attention to the achievements of local artists, something that Woodmere is well-equipped to do.

Using the collection this way is, furthermore, a judicious deployment of a small museum's resources in a time of economic constraint.

Art: Colorist Cohort

"Mary G.L. Hood and Philadelphia Modernism" and "Flirting With Abstraction" continue at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, through Jan. 8. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 10 to 8:45 Fridays, 10 to 6 Saturdays and 10 to 5 Sundays. Admission is $10 general and $7 for visitors 55 and older. Free to students with ID. Information: 215-247-0476 or