Mary Obering, a painter whose geometric abstractions brought her a small but loyal following, has died at 85. New York’s Bortolami gallery, which added her to its roster in 2019, said that Obering died in New York of natural causes on July 29.
Obering’s paintings merged the pared-down aesthetics of newer movements like Minimalism with techniques and styles that date back multiple centuries.
Though she had been working for decades and sometimes even shown with top dealers, Obering’s fanbase has remained small but passionate. It included figures such as artist Susan Cianciolo, who once called Obering’s work “perfection” and even designed a fashion line based on it, as well as the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who encouraged Obering to take up residence in SoHo during the 1970s.
Born in 1937 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Obering did not set out to become an artist. She studied experimental psychology as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where she studied under the behaviorist B. F. Skinner. In a 2017 interview with Cultured, Obering noted that she did not recall that period as being entirely divorced from her artistic development, saying, “The scientific approach to life, and its impossibilities, led me to become an artist.”
After Harvard, Obering attended the University of Denver, where she received an M.F.A. In 1971, she came to New York at Andre’s urging and remained there for the rest of her career.
Andre curated Obering’s first-ever New York solo show, which was held at Artists Space in 1973. That show exhibited some of her earliest geometric abstractions, which were done using acrylic on canvas and enacted spare, delicate contrasts between hues.
She went on to figure in the Whitney Biennial two years later and to have shows with Julian Pretto, a dealer with a passion for the Minimalists. She also exhibited with Annina Nosei, a New York dealer known for boosting talents like Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Salle.
For a while, Obering was considered to be a somewhat obscure figure within New York art history, but in the past few years, she gained new gallery representation, and it helped to widen her audience. The now-defunct Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery in Los Angeles added her to its roster in 2018, and Bortolami followed the year afterward.
Many of Obering’s abstractions would come to rely on materials more closely associated with art of the Renaissance than contemporary movements. She used gold leaf in her abstractions, worked in encaustic and tempera, and relied upon colors that, for some critics, seemed to recall centuries-old Italian paintings.
“All of this takes a while to register, and its handling is far too deliberate to be transcendent, but it produces an unexpected emotional pull,” critic Holland Cotter wrote of Obering’s work in 1995.