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Film and Video

Tracing Outlines: Fascinating Documentary Rewrites 20th Century Art History

By Donna Letterese

In the 1940s, Elizabeth Rockwell founded the "Outlines" modern art gallery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The all but forgotten gallery showcased the works of now iconic artists such as Alexander Calder, John Cage, Maya Deren, Merce Cunningham, designers Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and Jens Risom, and many other pioneers of the avant garde movement. Now, Elizabeth's Granddaughter, filmmaker Cayce Mell, is telling the story of "Outlines" in a documentary and book that serve as a missing link to this crucial piece of art history.

Tracing Outlines: Documentary Rewrites 20th Century Art History

How did you learn about "Outlines?"

I discovered it by chance. I knew she'd run a craft store in Verona, Pennsylvania. However, I only found out about "Outlines" in 2009. I was looking through a book, and then out fell a hand-typed artist's catalogue my Grandmother had made. It was dated 1941, and listed such artists as Joseph Cornell, John Cage - and "Elizabeth Rockwell." I took the paper to my Aunt, we did some research, and we finally unearthed this historical treasure.

What kinds of things did you discover?

The main struggle that the gallery faced was its opening during World War II. She showed many artists who were in exile from their own countries because of the war. The gallery was an incredible common ground, but it was wartime, and it didn't have the financial support she hoped for. When she couldn't sell Alexander Calder or Paul Klee's work, she'd buy at least one piece of theirs from each show.

How did Elizabeth Rockwell decide to found the gallery? What artists did she show, and when was it open?

It opened in 1941 and closed in 1947. My Grandmother graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she'd gone to school with some amazing modern artists. She returned to Pittsburgh believing that modern art would change the world. So right after she graduated, she used her graduation gift to set up a little gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh. She rented a one room storefront on the Boulevard of the Allies, which became "Outlines" gallery. While it was open, she brought the first Paul Klee show to Pittsburgh. She even gave Joseph Cornell the first one man show in the entire country. Every name she showed went on to become an iconic artist.

Was "Outlines" well received in Pittsburgh when it opened?

Unfortunately, no. It was a whimsical, wonderful little museum that was ahead of its time. Pittsburgh was a conservative city, on the brink of war. Modern Art had only arrived in a very limited way to New York City in 1941. Everywhere else, it was almost unknown. For the first show, my Grandmother sent out invitations to every media person in a hundred mile radius. No one showed up. That didn't deter her; she still held exhibitions of sculpture, textiles, performance art, and films, for the gallery's duration.

What kind of work was your Grandmother personally doing?

She did paint while at Sarah Lawrence, but focused on promoting the works of other artists at "Outlines." I think she was also inspired by her personal life. She and my Grandfather were an avant-garde tour de force. He had gone to design school in Pittsburgh and Chicago, and throughout his life was an incredible designer of handcrafted, wooden furniture. He even showed in "Outlines" in industrial design themed exhibitions.

It sounds like there were many reasons to make this documentary.

Yes; my Grandmother was a woman running her own gallery during wartime, who dared to bring in exiled artists. Before I began the project, I discovered that some of the artists were still alive. I knew then I had to tell their stories. Making a film and a book were the only ways to give their history the attention it deserved. I believe that people should read the book and see the movie.

Can you talk some more about the book?

It's titled, "Outlines Gallery Library Theatre of Modern Art." It has full color reproductions from my Grandmother's scrapbook, showing the entire chronology of what happened. The film was fantastic for clips, interviews, and placing "Outlines" within a historical context. It wouldn't have been possible to fit in all the great side stories we had as well - which is where the book came in. We've also reproduced some of my Grandmother's hand-drawn exhibition invitations, and sketches of the gallery, as fine art prints. Those will be available online and wherever we screen the film. People will be able to take a piece of history home with them.

What were the most surprising things you learned on this journey?

It was a shock to see what a huge part "Outlines" really played in the art world. Several of Fallingwater's most recognizable sculptures were purchased from the gallery. Andy Warhol even went there as a teenager. Even more importantly, I learned a humbling history lesson. Right at the time these artists were coming into their own, they were suddenly expected to be soldiers. They were suddenly expected to carry guns instead of paintbrushes. Their lives were put on hold for the war.

My Grandmother gave them a platform during that time, and that was a gift. Years later, the artists I interviewed told me, " 'Outlines' was our special, secret society. We had nowhere else to go, but there was nowhere else we wanted to be."

What would you like the film to accomplish?

I am overwhelmed with the obligation to do justice to this story. Richard Armstrong at the Guggenheim has told me, "Inside American art-history, "Outlines" gallery has been a little recognized phenomenon." I want this film to change that. I hope when we share this story, people will give this little museum, its artists, and the late Elizabeth Rockwell, the nod they deserve.

For more information on Elizabeth Rockwell, and the documentary that her Granddaughter Cayce Mell is producing about her, please go to: www.TracingOutlines.com.

To see the trailer for the film, please go to: http://www.tracingoutlines.com/#!trailer/c65q.

To contact the documentarian, please submit your information through: http://www.tracingoutlines.com/#!inquiries/cjfi.


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