New Orleans — WITH her poodle, Becky, beside her, Ida Kohlmeyer, Louisiana's ``first lady of modern art,'' sits in her spacious, brilliantly lighted New Orleans studio. Scattered about in various stages of completion are several of her colorful, delightfully free-spirited sculptures. On her left, an entire section of a wall is covered from floor to ceiling with gallery announcements, faded newspaper clippings, posters, and sketches testifying to her active, roughly 35-year career in art. Meeting her for the first time, one is surprised to find that she is not the happy-go-lucky kind of person one might expect from her work. For all her great warmth and charm, and the wonderfully ebullient, childlike nature of her art, Ida Kohlmeyer is a very serious, totally dedicated artist.
``Actually, I'd say I'm obsessed,'' she insists, ``at least about my art. I arrive at my studio by 9 at the latest, seven days a week, and I'm there -- except for lunch with my staff -- until around 4:30, when I quit for the day. I never work at night; that's my only free time. But outside of that, if I'm not busy in my studio, I feel a little guilty.''
She may already have had several successful New York shows, been honored recently with a major museum retrospective, and received numerous awards for her paintings and her contributions to art, and she may know that her work is represented in the collections of some of the most prestigious museums -- including that of the Metropolitan. But as far as she's concerned, that's all ancient history. What matters is what comes next, and that always demands maximum effort and all her creative resources.
In addition to Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery in New York, there are eight others scattered throughout the United States and one in London that must be kept regularly supplied. And then there are the group shows to which she's invited, the commissions she receives, and the occasional architectural projects for which she submits ideas for sculpture.
``I love it,'' she replies when asked if it isn't all too much. ``I spent too many years struggling not to appreciate what I have now.''
Unlike most artists, who make their career commitments in their late teens or early 20s, Ida Kohlmeyer wasn't clear about what she wanted to do until she was well into her 30s, married, and the mother of two very young children. Once she'd decided, however, she could not be stopped.
In 1950, at the age of 38, she enrolled as a special student of painting and drawing at the Sophie B. Newcomb Art School at Tulane University. In 1956, a few weeks after receiving her MFA degree from that institution, she was in Provincetown, Mass., studying with Hans Hofmann, the distinguished and influential painter/teacher who had had a considerable impact upon the New York School of the late 1940s. The experience was to prove one of the turning points of her life. Inspired by Hofmann's example, she switched from figurative painting to a modified form of Abstract Expressionism, laying, in the process, the foundation for her future career as an abstract painter.
One other major artist was to have a profound influence upon her. Mark Rothko, whom she met in 1957 when he came to Newcomb College as a visiting artist, affected her so deeply, in fact, that seven years were to pass before she could shake off her creative and stylistic dependency upon him. She was finally able to do that only by painting in a style she felt was totally opposed to his.
It wasn't until the early 1970s, however, that things really began to click into place. Her ``Cluster'' series -- large canvases divided by a grid system into irregularly shaped squarish areas, each of which was filled with a simple sign, symbol, or pattern painted the brightest or richest colors possible -- began to attract serious national attention. And no wonder, for they were extraordinarily dazzling and effervescent, and they celebrated life as a series of spontaneous leaps of pure joy.
But more was to come. In 1981, she smashed her way clear of the grid system entirely to fashion pictures just as frisky -- but always with subtle undertones of warmth and mystery -- as any painted in recent years. And, by early this year, she was producing works that fused the varied and complex elements of her art more seamlessly and successfully than any she had done before.
The real miracle of her career, however, is to be found in her wildly imaginative, brilliantly colored sculpture. There is simply nothing else like it anywhere -- very possibly because Kohlmeyer, having had no extensive training in three-dimensional work, had no preconceptions about the nature of sculpture to overcome. She could, as a result, be as audacious as she wished. And she was.
These creations, which range in size from a few inches to roughly 20 feet in height, come in all free-form shapes and combinations of colors, and can be found in homes, galleries, museums, and, increasingly, in important outdoor urban settings. Some look like happy plants, others like bemused organic forms vaguely resembling insects, but all are beautifully designed and passionately colored. To a strict traditionalist, they probably appear frivolous. To most of the rest of the population that has seen them, however, they are great fun.
Amazingly, none of them existed as recently as five years ago. ``It all began with `The Krewe of Poydras,' '' she explains. ``I had never done serious sculpture before, let alone a five-piece, 20-foot-high sculpture made out of steel for an important corporate location. But it worked, and I was hooked -- to the extent where I now spend roughly half my time on three-dimensional work.
``I'm so pleased people like them. I've just finished a very large piece that is going to the Heath Gallery in Atlanta, and only the other day the New Orleans museum put my `Mythic Throne' on display.''
It is difficult, in fact, to resist them. Carved out of wood and painted in sumptuous colors, these generally smallish works (most are less than three feet high) seem so friendly, so unconcerned about the outlandishness of their painted finery, that our initial shock at encountering something so unlikely in our world is quickly overcome, and our resistance to accepting anything so ``non-serious'' as art is almost as swiftly worn down.
``I learned many important lessons from Pre-Columbian, African, recent native Mexican, and primitive art,'' she says. And, indeed, she and Hugh, her husband of 52 years, have an excellent collection of such art that almost fills their home.
Outside, however, it's Ida's garden that demands attention. ``I'm out here first thing in the morning. Working in the garden with my roses is therapy. It gives me energy rather than taking it from me. And besides, I believe my roses have awakened and sharpened my color sense.''
She speaks of color as though it were an old friend -- which in many ways it is. She has certainly thought about it long and hard. ``I'm after the beautiful, not the pretty side of things. Art is too spiritual a matter for me to take lightly. Every new work is a new adventure. Starting may be difficult, even painful, but then something will happen that excites me, something I've never done before. It may be so intense that I almost want to stop. I try to empty my mind and eyes of all experiences, try to be totally present in the paint and color. After that, things may go `downhill' for a while, but then something else bubbles up, and the painting builds, little by little, until you get to the point where, if you add one more element, stroke, or color, it will be too much.''
Proof that she knows exactly when to stop surrounds her in her studio, as she talks about her life. ``I've been very fortunate -- hard as it's been at times. I have a wonderfully supportive family. Hugh is behind me all the way. Jane, my older daughter, is my full-time assistant, and Jo Ellen [younger daughter] helps in any way she can. And no one could ask for better assistants than Andrew Bascel or Jade Jewett. I've even been lucky with dealers.''
Anyone who knows her, however, is aware that a great deal more than good fortune was involved. Ida Kohlmeyer is, and has always been, a fighter. A very ladylike one, to be sure, but a fighter nevertheless, and one who wouldn't give up until what she wanted or believed in was achieved. But even more important, her creative attitude, as projected through her art, is rich, expansive, and life-enhancing. Confronted by her work, people tend to smile, to feel warm toward one another, and to suspect that life may be worth living after all. Which, everything considered, is not a bad reaction to get from dashes and swoops of colored paint and exotically hued, friendly-looking sculptural creations.