Artist and writer Helène Aylon—whose pathbreaking work reckoned with and entangled feminism, Judaism, pacifism, and environmental justice—died yesterday at age eighty-nine from COVID-19. Led by intuition and a feminist consciousness that often took experimentation, instability, and physical vulnerability as its guiding principle, Aylon is considered a pioneer of process art whose work also encompassed Jewish feminist scholarship and antinuclear activism. Her art has recently enjoyed new attention, with her first solo show in Los Angeles held earlier this year at Marc Selwyn Fine Art and her first New York solo exhibition since 1979 staged last year at Leslie Tonkonow gallery, which represents the artist. “While many of her male contemporaries were producing coolly detached demonstrations of painting’s limits, Aylon, like Eva Hesse and Dorothea Rockburne, pursued the limitless, the infinite,” wrote Lauren O’Neil-Butler in Artforum’s April 2019 issue.
Helène Greenfield was born in 1931 and raised in Borough Park’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. At eighteen, she married to a rabbi, with whom she had two children. It was not until 1963, two years after her husband died from cancer, that she took the name Helène Aylon—an abridged Herbraic version of her first name, offered originally to a newspaper reporter. She began her artmaking and demurral of her conservative upbringing some five years prior, having secretly enrolled at Brooklyn College in 1958. There, she studied with Ad Reinhardt, who became a mentor and friend, and who introduced her to Mark Rothko. By the end of the ’60s, she commenced her abstract process-driven “Elusive Silver” paintings (1969–73), which fused industrial materials including sheet metal, acrylic plastic, and spray paint. “I wanted the paintings to actually change like the earth changes, like we change, like everything does change,” she said of the series in a 2019 interview with the Brooklyn Rail. “I didn’t want to be a master producing a masterpiece but I sought the work to be created outside of my doing.”
When Aylon left New York for the San Francisco Bay Area in 1973, she was represented by Betty Parsons. That same year, she began using linseed oil on paper for her series “Paintings That Change in Time” (1973–76), about which critic Lawrence Alloway argued that the “slowness of the paintings’ change rather than the fact of their change, is the crucial factor. They engage us in contemplation not analysis, expectation not description.” Suzanne Hudson, reviewing Aylon’s recent show in Los Angeles for Artforum’s April 2020 issue, wrote that the artist “relished the provisional nature of assessment and addressed herself to the unfolding futures in which her efforts would—recursively and ever differently—be received.”
In her 2012 book, Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, Aylon recalled that many feminist artists such as Louise Nevelson, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Martin “had no children and were just fine about it,” but said that she “loved being a mother.” “Feminism did not embrace motherhood, it rather ran away from it,” she once said. “My series The Breakings [1977–79] was all about bursting,” she said, referencing a work for which she poured several quarts of linseed oil onto paper affixed to Masonite panels, letting them sit on the floor for weeks while the oil developed a skin. Weeks later, with collaborators she referred to as “midwives”—Parsons, Nancy Spero, and Hannah Wilke among them—she would lift the panels and cause a breakage in which the oil escaped and evoked the process of childbirth.
By the 1980s, Aylon had given up her studio practice to focus on the antinuclear movement, returning to New York with The Earth Ambulance, 1982, for which she drove a truck across the US while piling earth from uranium mines and nuclear reactors into pillowcases, arriving back to her home state in time for a nuclear disarmament rally at the UN. The 1990s saw her revisiting her spiritual and cultural roots and examining the Torah and Jewish traditions through a feminist lens.
Aylon’s art resides in the collections of the Jewish Museum, New York; the Morgan Library and Museum, New York; the Oakland Art Museum; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.