Jeanne Reynal was born in White Plains, New York, in 1903. Her early training in mosaics came from Boris Anrep, a Russian mosaicist working in Paris. Reynal was one of twelve apprentices in his studio from 1930-38. Upon her return to the United States, Reynal made her way to California, working in the San Francisco Bay area. She relocated to New York City in 1946, and soon became an active member and collector of the Abstract Expressionists. In 1955, she married the painter Thomas Sills. Reynal died in 1989. The sculpture in the OSU Art Collection, entitled Nineveh, was a gift of emeritus faculty member Dr. Brewster Fitz and his family. Dr. Fitz’s father Dord Fitz was an artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Reynal’s mosaic work consisted of both free-standing sculptures and two-dimensional tiled pieces. She had several methods of applying tile, some more planned and others involving fixing tiles in place that had been thrown or dropped onto the surface. This latter technique was reminiscent of the gestural painting technique developed by fellow Abstract Expressionists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock.
Nineveh is an eight-foot-tall mosaic sculpture supported by steel and cement. This piece, like Reynal’s work more generally, is an expression of modernity even as it harkens back to more classical uses of tile, as in the Hagia Sophia. Historically, tile has been used to decorate buildings and other structure—whether in Byzantine Istanbul or Art Deco New York. In Nineveh, Reynal freed mosaic from the confines of a building, transforming it from a decorative element into a piece of art with its own space.
Reynal’s title, Nineveh, refers to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, which is described in the Bible as a city spared by God after Jonah convinced its residents to repent of wickedness. The wave-like forms of Reynal’s sculpture may allude to the etymology of the city’s name, which means “place of fish,” or to the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, still commemorated by some eastern churches during the annual Fast of Ninevah. Many of the Abstract Expressionists made references to classical, Biblical, or otherwise canonical literature in their titles, suggesting deeper meaning within apparently non-representational work.
Reynal wrote of her work, “I hope to show that the medium of mosaic is not painting with stones and not sculpture, but an art the essential quality of which is luminosity.”
This week’s post is partially based on an essay written by Tyler Prahl, a student in History of 20th Century Art. For further reading, see The Mosaics of Jeanne Reynal, by Dore Ashton (G. Wittenborn, 1964).