Heyden and London’s point-counterpoint

Jan. 29, 2014 @ 11:36 AM

“Silvia Heyden and Edith London:  Together Again,”
Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St., through Feb. 28.

Silvia Heyden (born 1927) and Edith London (1904-1997) met in Durham in 1966; London was an established painter and Heyden was still experimenting with her tapestries.
The exhibition which has brought the two artists together again is absolutely gorgeous.  Never mind their technical expertise or their many awards -- seeing their work on the walls of the Durham Arts Council gallery is a gift and an honor.  
Although there was quite a difference in their ages they had much in common. Each had followed her husband to Durham and Duke; Fritz London had an appointment as professor of theoretical physics and Siegfried Heyden as professor of medicine at Duke Medical Center. Besides being artists, they spoke German and were neighbors.
In the 1970s the two women had shown together at the Durham Art Guild and when the idea of a Heyden show was considered, she suggested a combined exhibition with London. She also knew between the collectors and London’s children, Frank and Rose, there were many of her paintings in the area. 
The exhibition includes 32 tapestries and 41 paintings and is a full survey of their art. London worked in pen and ink, collage and oil; her paintings date from 1955 to her death.  Heyden’s earliest work is a 1970 tapestry, loaned by Duke’s Nasher Museum; her images include examples of the innovations and complexities she created with her threads through the years.
The curator of the show is Lee Hansley, director of Lee Hansley Gallery in Raleigh and a former curator at Winston-Salem’s Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, and it is beautiful. The paintings and tapestries share the walls but stand on their own even as their colors blend and their forms seem to echo one another. They act as point and counterpoint to each other; a musical analogy which will make Heyden happy since her other love is the violin, the instrument she plays every day.
Hansley has arranged the paintings and tapestries so they seem to be having a conversation which continues over the years. It is no wonder. Heyden told me the two spent hours discussing the nature and essence of art, especially abstract art. Their bible was William Worringer’s “Abstraction and Empathy,” 1908. Heyden said she believed Worringer meant art had to have both abstraction and empathy and that abstraction meant structure and empathy meant nature, which has its own laws and rhythms. The work must flow yet have an underlying structure. 
The two women were classically educated and so the constant search for answers to the philosophical questions about art was and is a given. For them it was all about discipline; working, working, working. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the catalog introduction for this exhibition.)
The gallery is loosely organized into four separate spaces; each with its own feel. For example, in one corner the dominant color is burnt orange with deep reds to warm wines touched by deep greens. Heyden’s tapestries “Sun in River” and “Emerald Leave” respond to London’s “Memories of Cape,” “Untitled” and “Permeation.”
In another part of the gallery two Heyden tapestries, done in vivid reds and oranges, hang on either side of an opening framing “Omega,” which hangs on a further wall and echoes those reds in woven hues of scarlet, magentas and violets. London’s work is majestic next to her woven counterparts.
Many of London’s paintings are in subdued hues with rectilinear forms which refuse to hold to a straight line as they curve and undulate across the surface. There are also some in dark grays, blacks and whites and there are also paintings which look like a bird’s eye view of a city. The shapes and forms are closer together, not freely floating; they are tighter compositions.
Heyden told me she begins a tapestry with an abstract design in mind and over the many hours that follow, she and the loom become one and the end result is very much like her original idea but she is not certain how it happens. She is not just laying one thread over another; she does all sorts of things. She leaves slits and interlocking parts which when brought together form a relief. She wrote about her discovery of feathered weave which became her signature and how using slits to release the tension in the feathers produced a relief or sculptured look. (S. Heyden, “The Making of Modern Tapestry,” 1998.) 
As I walked around the gallery and stopped to take in the diptychs that are very much a part of London’s oeuvre, I thought about a conversation we had at her home after she was chosen as one of the South’s outstanding artists. (“Painting in the South: 1564-1980,” curators Donald Kuspit, Jessie Poesch, Lind Simmon, Rick Stewart, Carolyn Weekly, 1983.) She told me about the challenge of painting big canvases, which was a hallmark of abstract painting.  She was tiny in stature and said she just could not paint wider than her arm span.  She finally found a solution by painting diptychs and what a solution it was. 
In the windows at the entrance to the gallery the work there demonstrates how their art still speaks to each other. On the right is a London diptych, “Light and Shadow of Life,” 1980, with its blues, grays and burnt oranges rising up the canvas and bursting into slate greys, jewel blues and browns coupled with Heyden’s “One For Two,” 2011, where reds, purples and persimmon strips are anchored by oranges at the bottom and purples and lavenders at the top. On the left is a London diptych of purples and blacks paired with Heyden’s blues and reds which angle up on the wall.
Durham nurtured and championed these two artists. This exhibition is a glorious celebration of their art and the community which helped make it all possible. 

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.