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The Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, 9th Floor New York City, NY 10022 212.535.8810
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$ 75,000

Café Bilbao

Origin United States
Period 1980-1999
Materials OIl on linen
Dimensions
W. 12 in; H. 13 in;
W. 30.48 cm; H. 33.02 cm;
Condition Excellent.
Creation Date 1991
Description In 1949, Mademoiselle Magazine named Honoré Desmond Sharrer (1920–2009) “Woman Artist of the Year.” In 1951, she had a solo exhibition at New York’s prestigious Knoedler Gallery, where her five-panel work, Tribute to the American Working People (1946–51), attracted favorable critical praise and press notice. Indeed, the first baker’s dozen years of Sharrer’s career promised a successful, high profile future. And indeed, Sharrer worked as an artist for the rest of her life, producing a body of accomplished and impressive paintings. But the acclaim faded, done in by a combination of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s wave of repression, by Sharrer’s adherence to figural art in the face of the dominance of abstract expressionism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and, of course, by the fact that the artist was a woman. Her “rediscovery,” after her death, is similarly the result of social forces that are now encouraging the reexamination of a neglected body of work and of major talents unfairly ignored.

The circumstances of Sharrer’s early life were financially comfortable and emotionally supportive. Her father, Robert Allen Sharrer (1893–1950), was teaching mathematics at his alma mater, West Point, when his daughter was born on July 12, 1920. Col. Sharrer was a career officer whose postings took the family to Washington, D.C.; Montgomery, Alabama; the Phillipines; Wilmington, North Carolina; New Orleans; and Paris, France. Through those travels, Sharrer’s mother, Madeline Ellen Sachs Sharrer (1898–1988), continued to paint. Madeline Sharrer had been born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to a family involved in the mining business. As a young woman she studied in Paris at the Acadѐmie Colarossi and the Acadѐmie de la Grande Chaumiѐre and in New York with Charles Hawthorne and George Luks. Madeline Sharrer was her daughter’s first art teacher, and remained a lifelong professional confidante, advisor, and role model for perseverance in art despite a peripatetic life. (The most accessible and thorough source of information about Sharrer is the richly illustrated exhibition catalogue edited by M. Melissa Wolfe, Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer [Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Museum of Art, 2017]. The artist’s papers are held by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and partially available on line, including the transcript of an oral interview from 2007 with Sharrer’s husband, Perez Zagorin.) In 1934–35, the Sharrer family lived on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris while Honoré attended a society convent school. In the summer, she painted with her mother in Brittany. Col. Sharrer retired in 1936, and the family relocated to Coronado, California. Honoré enrolled as a student at the Bishop School in nearby La Jolla. 1938 was a banner year for eighteen-year-old Sharrer. She was elected “Queen of the May,” at the Bishop School and she won a national contest, the American Youth Forum Prize, for My Vision for America (location unknown, illus. in Wolfe, p.164), which resulted in a check for $1,000 and a chaperoned free trip to New York City together with winners in other categories. In in the fall, she began studies at the Yale School of the Fine Arts, Yale University (now the Yale School of Art). Perez Zagorin says that Sharrer was dyslexic. She read slowly and understood, even as a child, that she was a visual person and that her outstanding ability was in art. Thus, she determined from an early age to be an artist. (This and all further references and quotations to Perez Zagorin are from the transcript of the interview at the Archives of American Art, unless otherwise indicated.) Sharrer spent a year at Yale, dropping out two weeks into her second year. Robert Cozzolino (in Wolfe, “ʻCertainly not casting stones’: Honore Sharrer’s Religious Imagery,” pp. 75–91), explains that

although she prized Yale’s “extremely thorough approach to craft and composition,” . . . she sought a way to match it with commensurate content. Sharrer felt that this training was at the expense of ‘stimulating the quest for the content and form of contemporary art expression’ (pp. 77, fn. 89–90).

It is worth noting that the Yale training in craft remained a hallmark of Sharrer’s work throughout her subsequent career. Her technique emulated the Dutch masters in its faithfulness to accurate representation of objects and she conscientiously sought out the best materials. Her content and form, however, especially in her works after the mid-1950s, are distinctively her own. This highly individual style, resistant to any easy description or categorization, has proven yet another barrier to a wide reputation.

Sharrer’s trajectory for the next few years indicates a dramatic refocus of her interests in subject matter, though not in the making of art. She returned to California to pursue a career as an artist, participating as the youngest exhibitor at the Golden Gate International Exhibition in San Francisco. In 1940 and ’41 she studied at the California School of Fine Arts (renamed, in 1961, the San Francisco Art Institute). By 1941, she found a way to contribute to the war effort by working as a welder in the San Francisco shipyards. The daughter and granddaughter of strong supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, she took an active role in the welders union. In that same year, Sharrer married a merchant seaman who was considerably her senior, a man named, entirely coincidentally, Arthur Weld. She wrote and illustrated for People’s World, a San Francisco communist daily newspaper. In 1943, Sharrer moved to New York City, where she continued to work as a welder in the Hoboken, New Jersey, shipyards, as well as earning income as a window designer and sketch artist for an animated film company. Zagorin says that she came to New York to be near her family, as her father, during the War, had returned to teaching at West Point. Living in Greenwich Village and working as a welder in the Hoboken shipyards, she painted whenever she could. Workers and Paintings (1943, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Wolfe, p. 96 no. 3 illus. in color) was intended as her entry into a competition sponsored by the Springfield Museum for a mural to decorate its library. She also met Perez Zagorin, who had dropped out of Harvard Graduate School and was working for the Office of War Information. He would soon become a labor organizer. Around this time Sharrer’s parents offered to support her so that she could devote her full effort to painting. In 1944, Sharrer moved briefly to West Point, where she had been invited to paint a mural for the grill room of the Hotel Thayer. She traveled to Reno to divorce Arthur Weld and continued her relationship with Zagorin. They married after the War in 1947, when Zagorin had returned to Harvard to finish his degree in history.

In the decade of the 1940s Honoré Sharrer went from triumph to triumph. Although Workers and Painters did not win the Springfield Museum competition, it was purchased by Lincoln Kirstein, who had become friends with Sharrer’s parents when Kirstein, in the Army, was briefly stationed at West Point. Kirstein, a staunch defender of figural painting, donated Sharrer’s work to the Museum of Modern Art where it remains. She was twenty-four years old. The painting along with three others was included in an exhibition at the museum in 1946, “Fourteen Americans,” curated by Dorothy Canning Miller. Sharrer’s company in that important show included Arshile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, Theodore Roszak, Saul Steinberg, Mark Tobey, Robert Motherwell, and Sharrer’s friend, George Tooker. In 1946, Sharrer began working on Tribute to the American People (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; see Wolfe, pp. 98–103, nos. 5, 5a–5e illus. in color). The work, consisting of a large rectangular central unit flanked by four smaller rectangles, two on each side, was shown to great acclaim at the Knoedler Gallery in New York in 1951. In 1946, Sharrer won the second place prize at the First Spring Annual Exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco with Country Fair one of the canvasses of her polyptych. She also painted Workman by a Fountain (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; see Wolfe, p. 97 no. 4 illus. in color). This was also purchased by Lincoln Kirstein, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum. In 1947, the year of her marriage, she exhibited Public School Scene (Wolfe, p. 103 no. 5e illus. in color) at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. In 1948, she sent Farm Scene (Wolfe, p. 101 no. 5c illus. in color) to the Carnegie. In 1950, the central panel of Tribute (Wolfe, p. 99 no. 5a illus. in color) was reproduced in color in Life Magazine, illustrating an article about Sharrer. All of these paintings were components of the finished polyptych which made its full debut at the 1951 Knoedler show.

But there were rumblings of the troubles that would determine the course of the next decade for Sharrer and Zagorin. After two years of teaching at Amherst College, the school declined to hold a place for Perez Zagorin as he left for England to take up his Fulbright Scholarship and Harvard Sheldon Traveling Fellowship. Zagorin had been active in Henry Wallace’s campaign for president, making Amherst uncomfortable about his outspoken politics. When the Sharrers returned from England, Zagorin expected that Harvard would offer him a position, the usual situation for holders of the Sheldon fellowship. That did not happen. Unlike other victims of the time, the Sharrers were not financially vulnerable. In 1951, the couple moved to Poughkeepsie where Zagorin taught at Vassar. But in 1953, Vassar terminated Zagorin, again because of his past political history. In 1955, Zagorin was offered a post at McGill University in Montreal, and the family, now including two-year-old Adam, moved there. Zagorin was a full professor at McGill by the time they were able to return to the United States in 1964. After a year at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Zagorin accepted an appointment at the University of Rochester. The family lived outside of Rochester until Zagorin retired in 1990. Sharrer painted all the while. She was accustomed from a young age to moving around. Wherever the family went, she always had her own studio space and the necessary help to give her time for her art. As Zagorin noted in his oral inteview, “As soon as we had a child, we had a housekeeper. . . . Honoré always closed the door in the morning when she went into her room and she worked. . . . She always worked.” Nonetheless, after the Knoedler show in 1951, Honoré Sharrer’s next one-person exhibition was not until 1969, at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York City.

In the interim, and indeed after the early 1950s, the tone and subject matter of Sharrer’s work changed markedly. Her early paintings came generally out of the social realism of the 1930s, a continuation of what Sharrer understood as a humanist art—the appreciation and celebration of the working people of America. But there was always a touch of her own. Inspired by the minute realism of the Netherlandish painters, the infinitesimal detail of Sharrer’s work often yielded surprising touches. As early as Workers and Paintings, the little boy at the far left of the picture has a large brown butterfly perched atop his head. Sharrer was fond of butterflies and often inserted them in her work. As noted by Michael Lobel (in Wolfe, “From May Queen to Workers and Paintings: Honoré Sharrer’s Early Trajectory,” p. 29), Sharrer’s explanation that “The butterfly on the boy’s head is one he has made at school out of paper,” seems evasive and unconvincing. Three years later, Sharrer prominently inserted a large blue butterfly into her 1946 painting, Workman by a Fountain.

Sharrer’s later painting always retained its identity as figural work, but with a disjunctive element, with distortion, with the insertion of a surprising object that definitively warns the viewer that this is not a work of realist art. Frequently, the major disjunctive element is a female nude or semi-nude, often with pubic hair, gainsaying any possibility that the picture is intended as a naturalistic scene. This was what Sharrer’s husband, Perez Zagorin characterized as Sharrer’s “slant view.” “She loved stories. . . . She had such a slant view of things, too: the run in the stocking, the slip showing, always, the imperfection.” Sharrer kept an extensive photo file of curiosities, of celebrities, of old Sears Roebuck catalogs, of Paris Match. Zagorin noted that “She loved those files of hers. . . She cherished them. She was always on the lookout for things. There never was a time when she wasn’t watching—she wasn’t tearing something. . . .” Sharrer also kept a camera in her studio, adding photos of her own to her prized files. All of this proved fodder for her imagination, for subject matter, and for models. Zagorin says that Sharrer “was never blocked . . . never devoid of an idea . . . never had to hunt for subjects.” Her files were a source of joy, delight, and wonder.

Honoré Sharrer was deliberately enigmatic. Her son, Adam Zagorin, relates an incident from his childhood in Montreal. He would come into his mother’s studio and asked questions about the birds improbably perched around the room in Reception (Wolfe, p. 106 no. 8), a work that represents a definitive turning point in Sharrer’s oeuvre. At some point Adam asked his mother, “Why are the birds in the painting?” And she answered “Well, they’re just there. They are enjoying themselves, keeping an eye on things. They’re just there” (Adam Desmond Zagorin, “Introduction,” in Wolfe, pp. 9–10). What Adam Zagorin says about Sharrer’s work is that it is characterized by “enigmatic and symbolic figurations” that she chose never to explain. He uses the phrase “subversive semiotics” to describe his mother’s visual language, and describes her later work, as “subversive indirection.” He writes that his mother was “nonconfrontational, at times indirect. . . . reticient, even reserved.” Eventually Adam Zagorin realized that the birds in Reception are “creatures from nature [as] witnesses to the human comedy.”

Sharrer herself confirmed these observations. In 2000, in an interview for a catalogue essay for the 2002 solo exhibition at the Spanierman Gallery in New York City, she told Erika Doss:

I want to keep the viewer guessing, so my paintings are full of non-sequiturs. I see things and I remember other things, and my work comes from the combination and and juxtaposition of the real and the forgotten. I can paint very realistically but I’m countering the extreme realism. It seems very simple, but that’s the interesting challenge of supposedly ‘realist’ art’

In the end, Sharrer’s work is, as her son understood, about the human comedy, seen and experienced by a keen observer, a working artist. The pictures obviously invite, indeed, even require, close inspection. They are temptingly open to interpretation on the part of art historians, but just as legitimately, on the part of viewers. We can understand Sharrer’s nudes as the empress, unashamedly aware of her own state and inserting herself into the passing scene. The nude figure’s nakedness makes clear that the conventionally dressed and posed figures who people the rest of her canvas are engaged in a variety of deceptions to impress themselves and others. Sharing space with an improbable but clearly important nude figure, they are equally exposed, despite their conventional efforts at subterfuge, dressed in a variety of costumes and surrounded by a host of attributes.

Bilbao, an ancient city in Northern Spain and the present capital of the province of Viscaya is located on the river Nervión, ten miles south of the Bay of Biscay. It attained dubious fame in 1936, when Hitler’s Luftwaffe, allied with General Francisco Franco, bombed it into submission to Franco’s insurgency. It is ten miles away from Guernica, the site of the civilian massacre turned into indelible art by Pablo Picasso. Zagorin and Sharrer came of age politically when the attention of the world was focused on Spain. Many years later, when the couple visited Spain, it was no wonder that they would have stopped in Bilbao. The Café Bilbao, founded in 1911 (and renovated in 1992) was a favorite gathering place for literary and political people in the days before the city fell to Franco. Sharrer might well have been interested in a visit there. But there is a more compelling connection that leads, once again for Sharrer, to music. Perez Zagorin relates the companionable and inspirational presence of presence of music in Sharrer’s studio:

She listened always to the radio. Working here, she’d have her boom box. She loved flamenco music. . . . there are a number of flamenco records that she would play over and over. Yeah, she played the “Threepenny Opera,” Brecht and Weill; she has the German version up there.

Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill were, arguably, the iconic musicians of the American Left. “The Threepenny Opera” is their most famous collaboration, but by no means the only one. They also wrote a play called “Happy End.” This contained a notable song which, improbably, became a Billboard Magazine “hit” in 1961 for the singer Andy Williams. It was “The Bilbao Song,” lyrics by Brecht, music by Weill and English translation by Johnny Mercer. It remains well-known today.

That old Bilbao moon, I won’t forget it soon,
That old Bilboa moon, just like a big balloon . . .
We’d sing a song the whole night long and I can still recall
Those were the greatest
Those were the greatest
Those were the greatest nights of them all.
.

Here is Sharrer’s picture, an artist’s re-imagining of the old Café Bilbao, conflated with Berthold Brecht’s lyrics. Two gentlemen in the background sit earnestly talking, seeming unbothered by the fact that it’s closing time. Chairs rest upside down on the table to the right, a sure indication of clean-up. The men are equally oblivious to the nude woman, certainly the center of the viewer’s attention, who perches precariously on a stool atop a platform apparently intended for a performer. She raises her arms above her head, clasping her hands together. There is no narrative here, but there is a large and busy sky overhead, filled with the wonder of comets and shooting stars. The lightbulbs in the café have been turned off, leaving, as the primary source of illumination, the moon overhead, “just like a big balloon.”
Styles / Movements Realism, Surrealism
Dealer Reference Number M 10294D.002
Incollect Reference Number 257824
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