A New Book, “Sara Kathryn Arledge: Serene for the Moment,” Shines Light on an Underrecognized, Pioneering Artist

April 24th, 2021  |  Published in April 2021

Chimerical figures and nebulous forms sprout, mutate, and dance through the delirious dreamlike realms of Sara Kathryn Arledge’s films and paintings, which, once seen, are impossible to forget.  Although she earned a degree in art from UCLA, taught at several colleges, and acknowledged her indebtedness to art history, Arledge (1911-1998) retained a nonconformist ethos; her uncanny scenes convey the impression of having originated from a world known only to her.  Despite significant personal setbacks, including repeated institutionalizations for mental afflictions, she produced a substantial body of avant-garde work marked by visual idiosyncrasy, technical innovation, and subtle commentary on conventions and alienation.

Sara Kathryn Arledge, still from “Introspection,” 1941/46.  Film, sound, color; 6 min. 38 sec.

For Introspection (1941/46), an eerie 6-minute phantasmagoric film portraying disembodied limbs and torsos, Arledge was credited with pioneering a choreographic genre called “cine-dance.”  In the late 1940s, she developed her own technique of creating abstract moving pictures from painted glass slides.  However, her achievements were never fully recognized; and posthumously, her name has remained relatively unnoted.  To remedy that, the Armory Center for the Arts in her hometown of Pasadena, CA, mounted “Sara Kathryn Arledge: Serene for the Moment,” a 2019 retrospective that made a compelling case for her pioneering role as a painter and experimental filmmaker.  In the wake of that success, last month the Armory released an exhibition catalogue that serves as an enduring record of Arledge’s importance while delving deeper into her life and career.

Sara Kathryn Arledge, “Untitled (4 Dancing Figures),” 1958.  Watercolor on paper, 15 ¾” x 29 ¾”. Courtesy of the Sara Kathryn Arledge Memorial Trust and Armory Center for the Arts.

Beyond merely reproducing her art, the monograph cleverly captures Arledge’s aesthetic, with its cover, endpapers, and several sequential spreads channeling the haunting, abstract spirit of her films and slide paintings.  Including five essays, an interview, her brief memoir, and a timeline, the text progresses from presenting a broad picture to analyzing more specific aspects of Arledge’s art and biography, gradually fleshing out the vicissitudes that may have contributed to her obscurity.

Arledge’s path was one of twists and turns punctuated by tragedy, illness, and misunderstanding.  Throughout the 1940s she rarely stayed long in one place, partly because of her husband Clyde Smith’s military duties.  After the war, he decided to attend Berkeley, so she reluctantly left her permanent teaching job at the University of Arizona where she had been highly regarded as an expert on experimental film. Nevertheless, she completed Introspection, which was critically acclaimed and screened around the country.  Possibly targeted by the FBI for her involvement in the Communist Party, she inexplicably lost her job at California College of Arts and Crafts in 1949 and never taught again.  In 1956, a month after she was awarded the inaugural prize of the Creative Film Foundation, for which she received a grant to produce a new video, Smith had her forcibly committed to Napa State Hospital where she intermittently spent seven years, during which he divorced her.  In 1967, her only child, Tony, died after jumping out of a building at the age of 21.  Years shuttling in and out of psychiatric institutions led to the atrophy of her professional network; and her triumphs were interspersed by significant gaps on her resume. Yet she remained steadfast in her determination to continue creating art.  “Arledge never loved anything more than she loved her art,” Sasha Archibald observes in her essay, “Against Stillness.”

Sara Kathryn Arledge, “Untitled (Woman floating),” c. 1956. Watercolor on illustration board with collage, 22” x 30”.  Courtesy of the Sara Kathryn Arledge Memorial Trust and Armory Center for the Arts.

Even institutionalized, Arledge kept painting.  Upon arriving at the hospital, she was chained to a bed; later, she was allowed more freedom, but doctors subjected her to aggressive bouts of electroconvulsive therapy against her will.  “The will to paint was all I had left of my way of life,” the artist said of her time in Napa, where she stored her painting supplies under her bed in the ward.  By the end of the book, readers are liable to feel a sense of indignation at the dismissiveness and mistreatment Arledge faced from those she should have been able to trust.

Sadly, many of her ideas never came to fruition; projects were delayed or abandoned; scripts went unproduced; and much of her work has been lost.  As such, the monograph is permeated by a sense of uncertainty as to the exact nature of Arledge’s motivations and experiences.  The authors of the book made a remarkable effort to piece together her life and oeuvre, based on statements, writings, poems, and other extant materials the artist left behind.  Their enthusiasm for her work is clear; desiring to know all about Arledge, they probed her archive to excavate every salient biographical scrap, but a sense of wistfulness pervades their inability to draw definite conclusions.  Because of incomplete records, much is left to conjecture.  Did she have really have schizophrenia?  Archibald wonders if she may have partially fabricated her mental illness to escape from postpartum depression and political exigencies.  Such mysteries of her private life do make for interesting speculation, but are unessential to knowing her work.

More important is the fact that many of her significant pieces are missing.  Her painting, The Zebras was among the most popular in a 1943 group exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; but in 1981, it was stolen from the psychiatric unit of The Los Angeles County Hospital, to which she had donated it in her son’s memory.  It was never recovered.  Johanna Hedva’s essay, “There is a There Here,” takes another lost painting, Untitled (Pregnant Woman, Man, Fetus) (1936), of which only a slide reproduction remains, as a point of departure for considering how Arledge’s archive “contains as many absences as presences.”  Entire bodies of work were never documented, the full scope of which remains unknown.

Sara Kathryn Arledge, “Portrait of a Shaman,” 1970. Watercolor on paper, 31” x 22 ¼”.  Courtesy of the Sara Kathryn Arledge Memorial Trust and Armory Center for the Arts.

Ultimately, the book is valuable for underscoring the voids in Arledge’s archive as it is for elucidating her significance as an artist.  One is led to wonder how many other worthy artists’ work has been completely forgotten or irretrievably lost as a result of neglect, discrimination, lack of support, or for other reasons.  Arledge’s artwork and papers survive because a small but devoted group of friends and supporters saw fit to preserve them.  Owing to that preservation and the Armory’s publication, her art lives on.  Its continued relevance is underlined by the final essay, Sarah McColl’s “Quick Questions,” which playfully responds to Arledge’s 1958 video, What is a Man?  When an artist leaves behind as many questions as she answers, her successors must invent rejoinders of their own.

–Annabel Osberg

For further information about “Sara Kathryn Arledge: Serene for the Moment,” see the Armory Center’s website: https://armory-center-for-the-arts.square.site/

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