Making her mark: the kaleidoscopic works of Gloria Klein

A revelation from the 1970s New York art scene, Gloria Klein's vibrant body of work is as fresh and relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago


Gloria Klein, Picnic at Wards Island, 1979. ©️ Geoffrey Biddle.

Gloria Klein’s work does not neatly align with any one artistic practice, but instead shares affinities with many of the radical artistic movements that came out of New York during the 1970s. Her paintings are indebted to the legacy of ‘women’s work’, with its obsessive mark-making, and the Pattern & Decoration movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Their shimmering, tessellated surfaces have been compared to pointillism, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts.

Klein’s powerful body of work demonstrates her remarkable talent for inventing and sustaining her own unique artistic vision. Her paintings openly display the time-consuming process of their creation, making evident the weeks and months of obsessive activity with which they were made. Above all, Klein’s style also relates to her own sense of place in the world, thereby allowing her to create a sense of logical order in an otherwise irrational world.

Gloria Klein / Beautiful Structures at Christie’s New York celebrates the extraordinary body of work of this previously unknown New York-based artist. Curated by advisor and author, April Richon Jacobs this is the first major solo exhibition in New York to be exclusively dedicated to Klein’s artwork from the 1970s and 80s.

For a standard 60-square-inch painting, Klein would begin by drawing a one-square-inch grid on a blank canvas. Using factors of 60, she distributed colourful slash marks one at a time, each according to its corresponding factor. Each diagonal mark was hand-painted after she first cut out pieces of masking tape measuring a 1/4-inch in width and 1-inch in length. A single, 60-square-inch canvas contains a staggering 3,600 diagonal marks.

‘The patterns of the paintings came from a number series,’ Klein explained. ‘I used numbers based on the size of the canvas. The canvas is 60 inches. Then I used factors like 2, 3, 4, 5, everything multiplied to give me 60.’

Working within this predetermined system paradoxically freed the artist to experiment with colour. As her work progressed, she began to apply her colors intuitively, creating shimmering, allover patterns that resemble needlework, woven textiles, stained glass and the pointillist technique of Georges Seurat.

Klein’s work was included in many of the early, seminal Pattern & Decoration shows in New York in the 1970s, including Pattern Painting at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in November of 1977. She also participated in several groundbreaking initiatives for lesbian artists’ awareness, including A Lesbian Show in 1978 and the ‘Lesbian Art and Artists’ issue of Heresies, the early feminist art journal, in 1977.

Among her myriad influences, Klein recalls her father’s career as a wallpaper hanger as having a formative impact on her work. She also took classes with the Conceptual artist Robert Barry at Hunter College in the early 1970s. It was Barry who encouraged her to think about the invisible systems through which the larger world around us is organized.

Also at Hunter, Klein was introduced to the phenomenological possibilities of colour and its relationships by the artist Robert Swain. Swain was a long-time member of the ‘Hunter Color School’, which took a meticulous, scientific approach to colour by investigating how it is visually perceived.

‘I would go to a paint store, an artist’s paint store and choose colours based on intensity – the brightness,’ Klein added. ‘That’s one set of colours. Then the other set would be the opposite. Like red and green are opposites. Purple and orange.’

Like so many women artists whose work refused to neatly align with the prevailing artistic trends, Klein struggled to gain recognition in the era in which she lived. As a lesbian artist, it was all the more difficult for her paintings to receive the critical acclaim they so deserved.

‘Having felt myself to be an outsider,’ Klein wrote in the ‘70s, ‘I devised a system, the use of which grounded me and ordered my painting.’ She later explained, ‘With this system, I created an order in my paintings that satisfied my need to mark time [and] to place myself.’

Indeed, Klein had found a way to situate herself within a world that didn’t necessarily always welcome her. The curator Rebecca Lowery recently summarized this effect, writing: ‘[This] shift was tied to her search for an authentic artistic voice, and it had a freeing effect.’

In many ways, Gloria Klein’s legacy parallels that of other important women artists whose work has also been reappraised in recent years, including Yayoi Kusama, Ruth Asawa and Louise Bourgeois. Not unlike Kusama and Bourgeois, whose work was often sidelined by mainstream art insiders in New York, Klein often suffered from emotional problems as a result.

She ultimately sought refuge in an artform that was obsessive, meditative and even soothing, not unlike Kusama’s Infinity Nets and Bourgeois’s Insomnia Drawings. This allowed her to express herself whilst working within a unique, intuitive vernacular. Indeed, while Klein’s work is rigorous, mathematical and systems-based, it is also tender, intimate and deeply personal.

Recent interest in the Pattern & Decoration movement has brought Klein’s work to the forefront again. She was featured in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art catalogue in 2019 and the Blanton Museum of Art’s Expanding Abstraction exhibition in the fall of 2020.

Gloria Klein / Beautiful Structures showcases the extraordinary talent of this newly rediscovered artist.

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