Alice Mackler, an artist whose piquantly fashioned ceramics caught the attention of prominent New York critics in the final stages of her career, died on Sunday at 92 in a Brooklyn hospice. Her New York gallery, Kerry Schuss, said she had died of Covid-related complications.
“She was an extraordinary and courageous person and artist, with an unwavering belief in her own talent,” Kerry Schuss Gallery wrote in its announcement of her death.
Mackler is best-known in New York for sculptures of lumpy female figures, many of them done in ceramic that she then adorned with dabs of paint. With their gaping mouths, the figures felt individualized, as though they each contained their own specific psychological state.
In addition to these works, Mackler made collages of magazine spreads and paintings of women whose bodies appear to contort.
Yet few in New York knew of these works until around 2013, when Mackler’s ceramics appeared in a show at James Fuentes Gallery that was curated by associate director Adrienne Rubenstein and painter Joanne Greenbaum. Greenbaum had met Mackler at Greenwich House Pottery, where they both took classes, and determined that she had to include her in the exhibition. By that point, Mackler was 81.
Critics took note. “An especially strong impression is made by Alice Mackler, an 81-year-old painter who, after a stroke, turned to making small figures, faces and vessels in roughly formed, brightly glazed clay,” wrote Roberta Smith in her New York Times review of the show. “Ms. Mackler has a gift for color and texture and for conveying human pomposity. Her work shares in the spirit, if not the appearance, of Daumier’s sculptures and the small wood figures of Feininger.”
Dealer Kerry Schuss took on Mackler that year, and began showing her work to acclaim. When Schuss mounted a Mackler exhibition in 2013, it was the first time in her career that she had ever had a solo exhibition in New York.
Born in 1931 in New York, Mackler attended the Art Students League, the hallowed art school in the city, where she studied with the painter Will Barnet during the ’50s. But she did not amass a significant CV until much later on in life because, she said, she did not have a college degree from an art school. So, at the same time that she she worked her day job as an advertising manager, she attended the School of Visual Arts during the ’80s.
“I went to school at night, and worked full time during the day,” she once said. “It took 4 years I think, and I had to take one day off from my job to go to school, but they let me get my BFA. I loved SVA.”
Because of her unusual trajectory, some critics had labeled her an “outsider artist,” a fraught term intended to denote a creator with an approach or life that differs from what is expected by the art world. Like many recipients of the term, Mackler bristled against it, saying, “I’ve worked too hard for this.” She also tended to say she was not a sculptor but “a painter who does sculpture.”
After Kerry Schuss began showing her, Mackler’s art began to appear in institutional settings, including a 2015 group show at the Jewish Museum. In 2022, the Whitney Museum acquired its first Mackler, an untitled ceramic sculpture from 2020 that has two black eyes, a red nose, two bright red nipples, and a mess of red and yellow strokes for a mouth.
As the 2010s wore on, it became apparent that a wide range of influential figures were looking at Mackler’s art. White Columns director Matthew Higgs and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija included her work in several group shows, and painter Emily Mae Smith included a Mackler painting from the ’60s in a Frieze portfolio of images of women that she admired.
Many critics noted that Mackler’s figures were almost always female. “Mackler’s work foretells or remembers a utopia where sexual difference subsides in an eternal feminine,” Barry Schwabsky wrote in an Artforum review of her 2021 show at Kerry Schuss. “Or maybe it just revels in that infinite malleability of form, and of meaning, for which clay is a byword, a material persistence that underlies all its metamorphoses.”