Veteran Feminists of America

Diana Kurz: ARTIST, Naturalist Painter, Holocaust Memorialist, Eastern-influenced Feminist ....

I was born in 1936 in Vienna, Austria. My parents and I came to the US via Italy, Switzerland, England (where I learned to speak English) and Ireland. We settled in Brooklyn NY, and eventually moved to Kew Gardens, Queens. Because of the large body of work I have done on the subject of the Holocaust, I think it is important to mention that we were forced to flee Vienna in 1938, and that although we came to the United States when I was four years old, the events of WW II directly affected my life and childhood. Family history and my parents' generosity in raising two of my orphaned cousins, survivors of concentration camps, as their own children instilled in me an awareness of the importance of social justice and caring for others.

My father, Benjamin Kurz, a businessman but in many ways unconventional and "bohemian," encouraged me to follow my own path, and

My mother and me in Europe (I don't know where) when I was about 2 1/2 or 3

instilled in me the idea that I was capable of accomplishing whatever I desired. My mother, Lillian Kurz, was an early example to me of a woman who, while raising four children--my younger sister, me, and our two cousins--could also have a full life outside the home. She was for many years an active leader in Hadassah, a women's organization that sponsored a hospital in Jerusalem. Through my mother and her friends, I grew up with the awareness of how a committed group of women working together can be a force for creation and change.

My mother appreciated the arts throughout her life. In her mid-sixties, she and a friend opened a successful art gallery in Queens that she ran until she was in her nineties while also being involved in philanthropic endeavors in the neighborhood. Consequently, from an early age we children had before us the image of a strong and independent woman, and a father who was proud of and supported her accomplishments. My sisters and I were encouraged by our parents to follow our own paths and dreams and were never made to feel limited in our aspirations because of our sex.

Making art has been the predominant focus of my life; from my earliest years I knew I would be an artist. I recently found a report card from nursery school in London, when I was 3 years old, in which a teacher noted "good sense of color and excellent brushwork."

I had violin and piano lessons from age 5 until I went to college, but never art lessons. I went to a conventional local public high school, Forest Hills High School in Queens, NY because we did not know there was a High School of Music and Art. In college (Brandeis University, BA, 1957) I took every studio and art history class possible. I remember being profoundly inspired by a talk to our senior class by Martha Graham, who emphasized that one can do anything if one sets her heart to it, a daring concept for a woman in the 1950's.

I then attended Columbia University's School of Painting and Sculpture (MFA in Painting, 1960), where I studied primarily with John Heliker, one of the rare professors who encouraged his female students. Along with art history classes, an influential course for me was in Chinese and Japanese philosophy. This led me to a greater interest in exploring Eastern religions and philosophy, which in turn influenced my approach to making art and to life in general. I was also privileged to take a class with Margaret Mead.

Although at Columbia I was awarded a General Scholarship and a Brevoort-Eickemeyer Fellowship, I also worked part-time teaching nursery school. While many of the male art students at Columbia went on to teach art on the college level, I was not told, and I did not realize, that I was as qualified as the men. It is important to note here that I had no experience of a woman art professor. For the next few years I supported myself teaching children. My first teaching job on the university level was in 1968 at Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts). I subsequently taught painting and drawing for many years at such as Pratt Institute, Queens College, University of Colorado in Boulder, Naropa Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University, SUNY StonyBrook, Cleveland Art Institute, Art Institute of Chicago. In all my teaching I was especially aware of my women students and tried to give them the encouragement and confidence to be themselves that I did not get from most of my male teachers.

In my Paris Studio 1965

Abstract Expressionism influenced my thinking and painting while in school, and for the next few years my work was gestural in style and large in scale. Note that this was a time when a great compliment to a woman artist was that "it could have been painted by a man," a phrase that sounds absurd today but that was how it was 50 years ago.

I received a Fulbright Grant in Painting to France in 1965-6 and lived in Paris. The French painter Jean Helion became a mentor and encouraged my painting representationally. Having felt the need for new forms and structures, I had already started to incorporate suggestions of figures and still-lifes into the abstract compositions, and now in France I was beginning to paint from direct observation—still-lifes, studio interiors and window views—subjects I continued to explore upon my return to New York. I also regularly drew and painted directly from the human figure.

I worked outdoors from landscapes during residencies at the artist colony Yaddo in 1968 and ’69, a practice I continued at other artist residencies including MacDowell, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hambidge Center, Millay Colony, etc, as well as whenever I was out of the city for any length of time.

My first personal experience of uniting in a cause with other women was participating in the Women's March for Peace (Jeanette Rankin Brigade) in 1968 in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. The energy of thousands of women in the march around the White House was extremely powerful and very moving and inspiring to me.

I was an early member (since 1972) of the Women's Caucus for Art, exhibited in many all-women and feminist shows, took part in feminist discussion groups and joined marches and demonstrations protesting inequality in museums and galleries.

Double Francesca (Francesca Woodman) oil on linen 56" x 72" an example of my large figure paintings I did in the 70's and 80's.

In 1970, I bought and renovated the Soho loft in which I still live and work. Throughout the 70’s I painted directly from life, mostly large paintings of over life-size nudes, female and male, posed singly or in pairs. I often included windows and/or mirrors to create a complex spatial structure. Color and painterly gestures were important elements of the imagery. In my art, my approach to giving equal dignity to women and men, and to women's bodies as painted by women, were expressions of my thinking on the subject.

I had begun to exhibit in 1963, and in the 1970's had solo shows in several venues and was also fortunate to have four solo shows at Green Mountain Gallery in Soho, a gallery that showed many women artists. I was also in group shows in Colorado; The Rose Art Museum; Brooklyn Museum; Artist Choice Museum; Indiana University Art Museum, among other places.

During a MacDowell Colony fellowship in 1977, I completed a nine-foot-tall self-portrait as the Hindu Mother Goddess Durga, the image of power and vigor. It was my contribution to "The Sister Chapel," a collaborative feminist project of 13 artists shown at PS 1 in NYC, and other sites. There are plans for it to be re-assembled and exhibited again.

In the 1980's I painted clothed figures in interiors, exploring more complex compositions, color relationships, and narrative relationships between the people. I also worked extensively with still-life subjects, primarily using as models the American Art pottery and decorative fabrics from the 1930's to 50's I had collected for years, juxtaposing cultures, patterns and objects to imply narratives that are up to the viewer to interpret. As Sandra Langer wrote in an article about my work in Arts Magazine, February 1984: "As a repository of thoughts and feelings her paintings symbolize a human ethics and consciousness all too rarely encountered in modern life."

Freedom Fighters from REMEMBRANCE
(Holocaust) Series oil on linen and wood and paper 76" x 57"

I exhibited with Alex Rosenberg Gallery in NYC from 1980 until it closed in 1989, and also had solo shows in those years at Snug Harbor Cultural Center; Brooklyn Botanic Garden; Bienville Gallery, New Orleans; Thomas Center Gallery, Gainesville, Florida; Rider College, New Jersey. During the 1980's I was also in many important group shows in New York City and throughout the US and in Moscow (Russia).

Awarded an American Center Residency in Paris in 1985, I again lived and painted in France for a year. The paintings I did there were exhibited in a solo show in Aix-en-Provence in May l986, where I had the honor to meet Grace Paley. Among my memories of that year is the large silent funeral procession for Simone de Beauvoir.

I was very active from 1992-94 with WAC (Women's Action Coalition), a direct action group started in NYC in 1992 by a group of artists in response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. It was a heady time; the energy and protests and actions reminded me of the feeling of early 1970's feminism. I was part of the Diversity Committee of WAC, working to foster diversity of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, etc. Some of the issues we were involved with included rape trials, exclusion of women artists from major art galleries, and the Republican and Democratic conventions.

When I started a small watercolor in 1989 to memorialize family members who had perished in the Holocaust, I never imagined that painting overtly personal works inspired by my family’s experiences and commemorating specific people, were to preoccupy me for the next fourteen years.

In writing this essay, I realize that my experience on the Diversity Committee of WAC may have prompted me to do this work. These paintings are large with over life-size figures as in my previous paintings, but done from imagination and photographs, and often incorporating text and other media. They are narrative and often multipaneled installations or in the altarpiece formats inspired by early Renaissance paintings. While I hadn't set out consciously to paint about women, I realized most of the images were of women and children. As the late feminist writer and critic Arlene Raven wrote about looking at these works, "The artist insists on the intimate and individual responsibility of each pair of eyes and each heart."

Works from this series have been exhibited in eleven solo shows and many group shows throughout the U.S., as well as in a solo show in Vienna at Bezirksmuseum Josefstatdt in 1998. It is most meaningful to me that two of the largest installations were purchased by Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien (the History Museum of the City of Vienna). Evelyn Torton Beck, whom I met at a VFA event, wrote a very perceptive article about my work in the spring 2009 issue of Feminist Studies:
In 1997, with a VCCA-Austrian Federal Ministry of the Arts Residence award, I lived in Vienna for several months and did work inspired by architectural elements and cityscape views from my windows. In 2003 I began a series of pastels and larger paintings based on volcanoes and the landscapes, which impressed me during a visit to Hawaii. They were exhibited in a solo show at Showalls in NYC in 2007.

I am at present continuing an ongoing project of a series of portraits begun at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida in 2005. After the many years of working almost exclusively on the solemn subject of the Holocaust, I had wanted to paint again directly from life and to celebrate people who are alive now, and to affirm in some way that each life is precious.

I am now also working with imagery of landscapes and animals (I am involved with animal rights), and continue to draw regularly from the live model. Encouraged by Jacqui Ceballos and Gloria Orenstein, I am also thinking of doing portraits of women important in the Feminist Movement. I welcome your visit at

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