Elevating an Artist's Legacy: Honoré Sharrer at SCMA

Honoré Sharrer, American 1920-2009, Nursery Rhyme, 1971 oil on canvas, collection of Adam Zagorin and the late Perez Zagorin.

Honoré Sharrer’s bold, idealistic paintings have been shown in major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yet, despite acclaim earned beginning in her early 20s, Sharrer (1920-2009) is today little known—even among art lovers.

An exhibition of Sharrer’s work, now on view at the Smith College Museum of Art, seeks to elevate her life and legacy. A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer features paintings that reveal Sharrer’s left-wing politics, her wit and her unique vision as a female artist.

A panel discussion, “Recovered Histories: Shaping the Legacy of Honoré Sharrer,” will explore how Sharrer’s commitment to progressive ideals left her increasingly marginalized in the years following World War II.

Speakers for the talk, to be held on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 5 p.m. in Weinstein Auditorium, include the artist’s son, Adam Zagorin, former senior correspondent for Time magazine; M. Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum and editor of the SCMA exhibition catalogue; and Anna Lee, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in Smith’s art department.

Jessica Nicoll, SCMA’s director and chief curator, notes that Smith has long been engaged with Sharrer’s work. One of the artist’s earliest paintings was included in a 1949 exhibition at SCMA, 10 Women Who Paint. (Sharrer was living in the Pioneer Valley at the time while her husband taught at Amherst College.)

Another Smith connection was Dorothy Canning Miller ’25, an influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who helped introduce Sharrer’s work to the public in a 1946 exhibition, Fourteen Americans, which also included artworks by Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi and Saul Steinberg.

One of Sharrer’s paintings shown in the MOMA exhibition, Workers and Paintings, is among the works now on display at the SCMA. The painting, which depicts ordinary working people holding masterpieces, illustrates the artist’s skill at precise rendering—as well as her rebellious wit, Nicoll says.

The daughter of a painter and a career military officer, Sharrer was influenced by the 1930s ethos of art as a public good. After studying at the Yale School of Art and the San Francisco Art Institute, she worked as a shipyard welder during World War II and became involved in union organizing. Her second husband, Perez Zagorin, lost a teaching job at Vassar during the anti-Communist McCarthy era.

Sharrer’s 1958 work, Reception—also on view at the SCMA—grew out of such experiences, Nicoll says. The painting depicts a gathering of important people—including leading anti-Communist figures U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—beneath a chandelier studded with birds.

In an essay for the SCMA exhibition catalogue, Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer, the artist’s son, Adam Zagorin, describes his response to the work and his mother’s increasing bent toward surrealism. “A child’s awareness gradually grew that the painting was saying something different, that it was more than the sum of its parts,” he writes.

Zagorin adds that he is grateful his mother never fully explained her artworks to him, noting, “I am happy to have been left to figure her out for myself.”

Nicoll hopes visitors to the SCMA exhibition will feel the same. “Sharrer’s inventive paintings, with their rich symbolic language and tart sense of humor, reward close looking,” she says.

A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer—on view at SCMA through January 2018—was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Presentation of this exhibition at SCMA is made possible by the support of the Judith Plesser Targan, class of 1953, Art Museum Fund and the Charlotte Frank Rabb, class of 1935, Fund.