Artist to Know: Ida Kohlmeyer

Liz Catalano
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Ahlers & Ogletree to Offer Mixed Media Work by New Orleans Artist

Ida Kohlmeyer struggled to find her own style for years. She trained under some of the leading Modernists and Abstract Expressionists of the 20th century, including Hans Hofmann. Artists such as Mark Rothko and Joan Miró steadily rotated through Kohlmeyer’s social circle. However, she gradually developed an artistic language all her own. At the time of her death in 1997, Kohlmeyer was among the best-known artists of Louisiana and the American South. 

Ahlers & Ogletree will offer a mixed media work by Ida Kohlmeyer in the first session of the upcoming Spring Fine Estates & Collection sale. The auction will begin at 10:00 AM EDT on March 27th, 2021. Learn more about Kohlmeyer before the bidding begins.

Ida Kohlmeyer in her studio. Image from the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.
Ida Kohlmeyer in her studio. Image from the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.

The daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Ida Kohlmeyer was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Art was only a casual interest for most of her early life. Kohlmeyer earned an English degree from the women’s college at Tulane University in the 1930s before settling down to raise a family. After marriage, she especially found herself drawn to Latin American art and literature. Kohlmeyer started to imagine a career in art after World War II. She spent the next decade taking classes in the French Quarter, returning to Tulane for her master’s degree, and studying under Hans Hofmann in Massachusetts. 

Kohlmeyer caught the attention of many leading Abstract Expressionists. Mark Rothko taught at her school for a time and rented studio space from Kohlmeyer. She counted Pat Trivigno among her mentors. These connections helped Kohlmeyer establish herself in the art world, but they also caused a delay in her independent style. Her works from this early period seem to survey the Abstract Expressionist field. Some are nearly serial, exploring variations of the same themes. “These works may be derivative but they are gloriously so,” Roberta Smith wrote for The New York Times. “They’re so full of the work of disparate artists that they become overarching, laying waste to the term.” 

By the 1970s, Kohlmeyer had settled into a niche. She found comfort in abstraction, often exploring the interplay of shapes and colors in orderly boxes. These grids and color studies dominate many of her paintings and mixed media works. She named them “Cluster drawings” and produced them through the 1980s.

Ida Kohlmeyer, Cluster Drawing, 1975. Image from Ahlers & Ogletree.
Ida Kohlmeyer, Cluster Drawing, 1975. Image from Ahlers & Ogletree.

One of Kohlmeyer’s “Cluster” works will come to auction this month with Ahlers & Ogletree. Executed in 1975, the mixed media piece spent the last 44 years in a private Atlanta collection. It features the artist’s signature grid layout with 12 rows of sketched circles. Each contains a splash of color or a violent stroke, playing upon the others while remaining largely self-contained. This work has a presale estimate of USD 9,000 to $12,000. 

Because of Kohlmeyer’s late start, few of her works make it to auction. Nevertheless, recent sales still affirm her role in Abstract Expressionism and the Louisiana art scene. Collector interest has been on the rise since a 2004 retrospective at the Newcomb Art Gallery. In 2015, Kohlmeyer’s first-ever “Cluster” painting came under the Neal Auction Company hammer. The piece, which shows a grid of 15 colored squares, sold for $90,000 after 17 bids. Her other “Cluster” grid paintings regularly pass $50,000, while her mixed media works typically sell for $5,000 to $20,000. 

Ida Kohlmeyer, Cluster #1, 1973. Image from Neal Auction Company.
Ida Kohlmeyer, Cluster #1, 1973. Image from Neal Auction Company.

The late-blooming artist quickly became a powerhouse Abstract Expressionist of the American South. She also started pushing boundaries within the field. Kohlmeyer drew inspiration from her fellow women artists and the rising wave of feminism. She later explored Plexiglas sculptures characterized by their vibrant colors and stark angles.

At the end of her life, Kohlmeyer remained free of regret. She treasured the opportunity to explore her passion for art in middle age. Kohlmeyer spoke about her journey with The Times-Picayune in 1995: “I suppose I looked like a perfect dilettante. Still, I think it’s hideous to see people give up living the life they want, to blame middle age or children and settle for much less than they are capable of.”

Ida Kohlmeyer’s 1975 Cluster Drawing will come to auction with Ahlers & Ogletree on March 27th, 2021, at 10:00 AM EDT. Visit Bidsquare for the complete catalog or to place a bid.

Looking for more artist profiles this Women’s History Month? Check out Auction Daily’s Toko Shinoda feature to learn about one of Japan’s leading Modernists. 

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