Ida Kohlmeyer, a New Orleans painter, sculptor, printmaker, and teacher, is nationally recognized as one of the most influential contemporary artists in the South.
Nationally recognized as one of the most influential contemporary artists in Louisiana and the South, Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer was active as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, and art teacher in New Orleans. Although her art career did not begin until well after she was married and the mother of two daughters. Kohlmeyer’s art reflected a diverse range of styles and influences during the 1950s, including Realism, Regionalism, and Abstract Expressionism. However, from the 1960s through the 1980s, her work transcended those influences as she developed her unique vision and style, incorporating abstraction, a strong color sensibility, and the system of glyphs and pictographs that are most identified with her work.
She enrolled at Newcomb College in New Orleans in 1929 and obtained a BA in English Literature in 1933. In 1950, she returned to Newcomb intent on studying art. “I didn’t become interested in art until I was thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old,” she said. “I had always loved it, had the great good fortune to travel a lot and see it, and I was hooked the first week I went back to Newcomb to take a degree in art.”
This decision reflected the independent nature of her career, as well as her significant place in the cultural life of New Orleans. She was born in the city on November 3, 1912, one of four children, to Joseph and Rebecca Rittenberg, immigrants from Bialystok, Poland. When she was four, her family moved to Rosa Park Boulevard in Uptown New Orleans, near Tulane University. She attended Isidore Newman School, where she became active in athletics (as an adult she was also known as a golfer and tennis player). In 1934, after she and Hugh Bernard Kohlmeyer married, the couple traveled to Vera Cruz and Mexico City, Mexico, on their honeymoon, a journey that nurtured her lasting interest in the art of Central and South America. When Hugh joined the Army, they moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, then returned to New Orleans in 1944 after the birth of their first daughter, Jane.
Before returning to Newcomb, she studied art in the French Quarter at the John McCrady School of Art. McCrady had studied with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League in New York before he opened a studio and art school in the French Quarter. The influence of McCrady and other Regionalist painters is evident in Kohlmeyer’s less-known early paintings, but her studies at the McCrady School ended after she became pregnant with her second daughter, Jo Ellen. In 1950, she enrolled in art classes at Newcomb and worked with Pat Trivigno, a painter, muralist, and teacher who had an important influence on her career. During her time at Newcomb, from 1950 to 1956, painters associated with the New York School and Abstract Expressionist movement were gaining national prominence.
When the noted Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still came to Newcomb, Kohlmeyer asked him where she should study next, and he suggested that she enroll in the Hans Hofmann school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Accordingly, after completing her MFA in 1956, Kohlmeyer went to the Cape Cod resort community to study with Hofmann. (Another New Orleans artist, Fritz Bultman, who also was active in the New York School, lived in Provincetown and was a friend of Hofmann.) While her early paintings included figurative and narrative subjects, her move toward nonobjective art evolved during this year. “I became an abstract painter overnight at Hofmann Studio…after that summer of ’56, I was an abstract painter.” Later that same year, on a trip to Europe, she met Joan Miró in Paris. The abstract and nonobjective evolution in her painting was reinforced in 1957, during Mark Rothko’s tenure as a visiting artist at Tulane University. While in New Orleans, Rothko stayed in the house that Kohlmeyer’s parents built on Iona Street in suburban Metairie, and used its garage as his studio.
She became active in the national gallery scene following her first exhibition, in 1959, at the Ruth White Gallery in New York City, and exhibited at the Henri Gallery in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1963. Although she was encouraged to leave New Orleans to establish a career on the East Coast, she refused, choosing instead to live, work, and raise her family in her hometown.
In addition to her painting activities, Kohlmeyer taught art classes at Newcomb College from 1956 to 1964, then left after she built a new studio at her home in Metairie. She was given a ten-year retrospective exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1971. In 1973, she accepted a position as an associate professor of art at the University of New Orleans (UNO). UNO, founded in 1958, established a prominent art program under the direction of artist Tom Young, who maintained strong ties to the advanced New York art world, and welcomed an artist of Kohlmeyer’s stature to his department. She also began experimenting with printmaking that same year. By the late 1970s, Kohlmeyer’s art works were being exhibited at prominent galleries nationwide, including the Heath Gallery in Atlanta; the David Findlay Gallery in New York City; the Elaine Horwitch Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona; and Galerie Simonne Stern in New Orleans.
Kohlmeyer’s reputation as a painter often overshadowed her skills as a sculptor, yet during the last fifteen years of her career she produced an accomplished range of sculpture, including major public commissions. She first experimented with wooden and Plexiglas sculptural forms in 1969, yet her first major sculptural project did not appear until 1981, when she was commissioned to create works for the Equitable Life Assurance Society building (designed by the prominent Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) on Poydras Avenue in New Orleans’ Central Business District. That project, composed of five painted steel sculptures measuring 40 to 45 feet tall, was titled Krewe of Poydras and completed in 1983, the same year she became affiliated with Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. A year later, the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition opened, featuring her works in its Artworks 4 exhibition.
A major retrospective exhibition, Ida Kohlmeyer: Thirty Years, accompanied by a full catalogue, was organized in 1983 by Jane Kessler at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it traveled nationally through 1985. During this period, Kohlmeyer became associated with the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Charlotte. In 1987, she received a commission to design a major installation for the new Aquarium of the Americas and Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi riverfront in New Orleans. The completed project, Aquatic Colonnade, consisted of twenty painted metal sculptures, placed on 16-foot columns facing the aquarium. From 1994 to 1996, she completed sculptural projects for The Columbus Museum in Georgia, the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama, and the Springfield Museum of Art in Missouri.
During the 1990s, despite a range of personal challenges — including the death of her husband and severe damage to one of her eyes — Kohlmeyer entered one of the most creative periods of her career. Her work was featured at the opening of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, in 1992, and in 1996 the Morris organized her last major exhibition, Ida Kohlmeyer, Recent Works, focusing on the evolution of her later paintings and sculptures, a show that traveled to museums in Mississippi and Alabama.
Kohlmeyer died in New Orleans, on January 24, 1997. Her legacy continues to evolve on many levels. Her art was featured during the opening of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in 2003. With support from the Ida and Hugh Kohlmeyer Foundation and their daughters, Jane Lowentritt and Jo Ellen Bezou, the Ogden Museum established the Ida Kohlmeyer Study Center, composed of paintings, sculptures, and more than 24,000 other items from the Kohlmeyer estate, including sculptural models, project studies, slides, travel journals, and publications. In 2004, the Newcomb Art Gallery organized a major exhibition, Systems of Color, accompanied by a book of the same name, and the Ogden Museum presented an exhibition devoted to her early career, Becoming Ida Kohlmeyer. In 2005, her major public sculptural projects escaped severe damage from Hurricane Katrina, and stand today as symbols of her vision and influence in the city.