Mary Dill Henry's Life-long Search for the "Vital Forces" of Art and Technology
February 5, 2023 - Zach Mortice for Metropolis Magazine
As an art student from California studying at László Moholy-Nagy‘s Institute of Design in the mid-1940s, Mary Dill Henry described the world as such in her MFA thesis: “The world we live in is a vast and beautiful place, full of vital forces that work upon us and within us. Nothing is static or stationary, everything is in constant motion—there is no single second in space when time stands still."
Henry kept this ideal at the center of her art for all of her 90-plus years until her death in 2009, surfing the various waves of 20th-century artistic expression as they came along: New Deal realism, Modernist constructivism, corporate Modernism, minimalism, and mild strains of psychedelia. Her Op-Art work especially pulsates with depth and color; “vital forces” skillfully conjured and curated.
Given her proximity to pivotal figures like Moholy-Nagy and, more importantly, her freewheeling embrace of the Institute of Design’s influential pedagogy, Henry hasn’t always been given the attention due. But her development of all these design traditions will soon be on display, as the Hauser & Wirth Institute (HWI) has catalogued and digitized her archive (sketchbooks, photos, letters, artist statements, press clippings, drawings) and donated it to Paul V. Galvin Library University Archives at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which absorbed the Institute of Design in 1949, and is integrating the Henry archive into their digital catalogue. HWI (a charitable foundation) emphasizes diversity and equity in archival research, aiming to raise the profile of unheralded voices in art like Henry, and helping to surface “archives that maybe wouldn’t come to the attention of a research institution,” says Lisa Darms, executive director of HWI.
Today, Henry is associated with the Pacific Northwest, where she practiced later in life, but her most formative creative period was the time she spent at Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design in Chicago. “With one exception, Mary did not identify herself with any style or school,” says Suzanne Rahn, Henry’s daughter. “Eventually, however, she would refer to herself as a constructivist, referencing her lifelong identification with the Bauhaus movement. Except for her early experiments with Op-Art, she pursued an entirely independent path, whether or not it happened to coincide with what was fashionable at the time—which it frequently was not.”
Born 1913 in Sonoma, California, Henry graduated from the California Academy of the Arts in 1938. Some of her earliest works were murals and mosaics for federal art programs during the Great Depression, like a stained-glass window for a San Jose junior high school, and a stone lithograph for a historic 19th-century governor’s home in Monterey. During the second world war, she studied lithography at the San Francisco School of Fine Art, and worked for the Hewlett-Packard corporation drafting engineering drawings. Her time as a cog in the vast machine of American industry dovetailed with her Institute of Design training and cast a long, influential shadow.
Inspired by a speech Moholy-Nagy gave in California in 1940, she moved herself, her mother, and her young daughter (but not her husband Wilbur Henry), to Chicago in 1945 to study with Moholy-Nagy, who would become her most powerful influence. At the Institute of Design, Henry found populism merged with the technological production of art, and a promise that every being was imbued with a right to express themselves through design and craft in complete freedom; to explore new frontiers of material and medium granted by new technology, like the stolen moments of the photograph or the infinite possibilities of plastics. She recapitulated this ethos, first established at the Bauhaus decades before, in her 1946 master’s thesis: “Using new materials in design necessarily means new thinking, for there is little technological progress when new elements are used in ways better suited for older materials. There is little advantage in using plastics as if they are treated in the same manner as wood or metals. Long years of associating art with a gifted few has frightened away that great mass of people who would otherwise paint and draw as easily as they butter a piece of bread and with as little inhibition.”
After Henry graduated in in 1946, Moholy-Nagy offered her a teaching job there, the first woman to receive this honor. But she turned it down to support her husband’s career, and instead moved to Arkansas so he could research malaria. By the mid-60s she would be divorced.
Henry and her family moved back to Northern California before the end the 1940s, and she began taking on commercial work, especially murals and mosaics. She returned to Hewlett-Packard headquarters in Palo Alto in the late 1950s and early 60s not as a draftswoman but as an artist. Her exterior mosaic mural there is one of her most celebrated works, offering swoops and curves of classical Modernism in strong primary colors, interspersed with patterns of definite but undefined mathematical replication. It has the freehand, intuitive optimism of Corbusier’s Golden Ratio diagrams combined with the geometric precision of the scientific instruments Hewlett-Packard produced. Inside, another mural presents abstracted parabolic curves, sine waves, and electrical circuit schematics. In an HP newsletter from 1957 (called “Watt’s Current”), Henry is said to be “especially enthusiastic concerning all the sine waves and tube systems she involved in her work.”
Around the time of her divorce in 1966 at age 53, Henry began showing her work more at museums and galleries. As the horizon of creative freedom opened up to her later in life, she began to focus more and more on Op-Art; artworks that manipulate the eye into seeing illusions of movement, depth, and the “vital forces” she’d been tracking since her time at the Institute of Design. These oscillating shapes and kinetic patterns Henry developed are some of her most powerful works, and they seem intensely influenced by the technologies she was drawing during her first stint at Hewlett-Packard. As Hewlett-Packard’s machines twitched, spun, and flashed on their way toward a better, more enlightened future, so did her art. One painting from 1985, Passiflora Red, coaxes volume and dimensionality from a series of nested red triangles lustily tipped up on edge. In another piece from 1985 called Chateau de Courances, outlines of a fractal web pattern in one corner of the painting squirm and creep next to the orthogonal lines that are their animating counterpoint.
In the 1980s, Henry settled in Whidbey Island in Washington State, and there she became a pillar of the Pacific Northwest art scene. One particularly noteworthy work from her late-period career was a mural for the Bellevue Museum of Art. It’s a corridor where Piet Mondrian meets Haight-Asbury; collision of neon geometry that disguises and disorients walls, doors, and the ground plane itself.
Henry’s archive reveals that she could draw exactingly detailed architectural sections and could tip landscape drawings into evocative abstraction with grace. Darms says she was attracted to this eclectic oeuvre because Henry was an artist that “comes to devoting herself fully to her practice later in life.” The delay in development of Henry’s own idiosyncratic artistic voice by the material necessities of commercial work and the gendered domestic responsibilities of mid-20th-century America is perhaps the most defining characteristic of her trajectory as an artist, but it also poses a very large “What If?”
“How did these mural and mosaic [projects] then inform her later practice?” says Darms. “[These] might not have happened if she’d gone straight into the less commercial [work], where she could really explore her own desires more than her clients’. If she would have been born later, she would have had more time to devote herself as a young person to her practice.”
Henry’s wide eclecticism was at least in part driven by the fact that her most productive years were spent hewing to the whims of the corporate commercial art world and limited in exploration by domestic responsibility. It’s testament to her Institute of Design training and its medium-agnostic approach that she generated works dynamic and vigorous enough to make commercial utility and long-sought freeform creative pursuit shine equally as brightly.
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