This month, a show of mostly never-before-seen works by Paul Ninas at LeMieux Galleries on Julia Street is a reminder of his stature in some circles as the “dean of New Orleans artists” — even if he might be better known in others for rather different reasons.
Born in Missouri in 1903, Ninas studied in several European art capitals and had already exhibited to acclaim in New York and Paris by the time he moved to the Crescent City in 1932, taking up residence in the French Quarter where he would spend the rest of his life. He died in 1964.
A prolific painter, Ninas combined elements of European modernism, social realism and Southern regionalism in works that brought him a good deal of critical and commercial success during his lifetime, and he is credited with being a leading figure in the development of modern art in New Orleans.
Yet, despite the fact that his work is included in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art and (closer to home) the Ogden and NOMA, he remains somewhat of a footnote in the history of 20th century American art.
That footnote got a little longer last year, when a nationally reported lawsuit involved Ninas’ best-known works on public display in New Orleans: a series of wall murals in the lobby and the Sazerac Bar of the Roosevelt Hotel.
An employee of the hotel charged that some historical, racist imagery in one of the paintings was demeaning to the hotel’s staff and visitors: specifically, a scene depicting slaves picking cotton with an African-American man riding backward on a donkey in their midst.
The lawsuit fizzled, and a few online petitions for the hotel to cover or remove the work garnered only a handful of signatures. It remains on display today with an accompanying wall text stating that Ninas’ social realist vision “can be considered out of touch with current mores and standards,” a case of delicately phrased understatement if there ever was one.
Ninas’ artistic renown might have survived the incident, but his online reputation may have suffered because of it: the first page of Google results for his name is full of references to the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, LeMieux Galleries has been doing its part to focus attention on other aspects of Ninas’ career over the years with a series of exhibitions drawn from Ninas’ extensive estate.
Its current show includes nearly 20 paintings which have not been shown previously and spans almost the entirety of his career, from the competent if staid portraits of his early years to the more experimental abstracted canvases of his later ones.
As a sort of mini-retrospective, the current show at LeMieux shows Ninas as a peripatetic artist experimenting with and combining different styles from Realism to Cubism to Surrealism, occasionally combining elements of a few styles in a single painting.
Several works demonstrate Ninas’ debt to other artists such as Miro, Dubuffet and (especially) Picasso, whose influence is evident in Ninas’ aggressively abstract female nudes and in works like “A Secret Alliance”: It looks like an outtake from the Spanish master’s “Guernica” mixed in with a little Salvador Dali for good measure. (Maybe that’s the “secret alliance” of the title?)
For all his modernist tendencies, however, Ninas was no vanguard when it came to other mid-century art movements like Abstract Expressionism, which he is said to have rejected outright. And his relatively early death precluded the opportunity to see how his style would have been affected by the tumultuous art currents of the later 1960s and beyond.
Also on view at LeMieux this month is a show of works by Ninas’ Biloxi-based (and longer-lived) exact contemporary Dusti Bongé. Her status as a Southern female non-figurative painter made her somewhat of a curiosity in the New York art world of the 1950s through the 1970s, where she received enthusiastic reviews. But she isn’t much of a household name today, even in the Gulf South.
Her abstract canvases, on view in New Orleans for the first time since her death in 1993, are characterized by muted colors and a vigorous sense of line, a style that invites emotion over strictly intellectual contemplation.
Like Ninas, her influences aren’t difficult to identify. And also like Ninas, her work is worthy of a second look.
John d’Addario writes about art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.