The sweeping survey of artist Dusti Bongé’s work now on view at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson reveals a remarkably curious and creative spirit, constantly exploring the expressive possibilities of paint.
In 65 paintings, 29 works on paper and three sculptures, “Piercing the Inner Wall: The Art of Dusti Bongé,” available through May 23, covers the range of her work as Mississippi’s first consistently Modernist artist, progressing through periods of figurative and Cubist work, Surrealism and finally Abstract Expressionism, from the 1930s through the early 1990s.
The traveling exhibition, drawn from private loans and public institutions (including the museum’s own collection) was organized by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, and debuted there in 2019. The exhibition coincides with the new illustrated biography “Dusti Bongé, Art and Life: Biloxi, New Orleans, New York” by Ogden Director Emeritus Richard Gruber. The title pays homage to a poem by the artist about thoughts, ideas and emotions penetrating like an arrow, to the real person beyond a superficial covering.
The daughter of a prominent Biloxi banker, Bongé focused first on acting as a creative pursuit, moving to Chicago after college to study the art form, and landing roles in the 1920s on stage and in silent films there and in New York.
Newspaper clippings of the day share the irresistible story of her marriage to Nebraska-born Archie Bongé—a fairy tale of the “heiress”/actress and the 6’7” theater doorman/aspiring artist. The couple wed in Biloxi, with artist Walter Anderson (befriended during Archie’s studies at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) as the best man.
After a return to New York for several years (where she, too, started paintings under Archie’s direction), the couple settled back in her hometown in 1934 to raise their young son, Lyle, and free up their time, providing Archie more freedom to paint. He encouraged her natural abilities in painting, rather than going to art school. Paul Ninas, known as the “Dean of Modernism in the South” and located in New Orleans, was also a friend and influence.
After Archie’s illness and premature death in 1936, Dusti found solace in his studio and paints, and pursued a serious dedication to art that would sustain her over the next five decades.
At the museum, the exhibition starts with a teasing trail of smaller works and sketches in the cases along the public corridor, then richly unfolds across the galleries in a progressive, thematic journey of her artistic life.
Bright, bold early works—still lifes, self-portraits, scenes in Biloxi—come alive with color, shapes and her play with planes, the regionalist style giving way to experiments with Cubism. One self-portrait is a view of her pink legs and bare feet—“oddly disproportionate, but intentional,” says Mississippi Museum of Art Chief Curator Ryan Dennis, warming to a painting she finds “kind of quirky and cute.”
The painting “Where the Shrimp Pickers Live,” with its breezy Biloxi scene of clotheslines stretched between cabins, reminds Dennis of her own photos from travel to Venice, of clothes drying in a corridor between housing. “It’s really versatile. You can be placed anywhere where there’s the landscape of a beach, and this airiness. … Just a really special work,” she says.
Bongé’s 1943 self-portrait “The Balcony” is a telling reminder of the widowed artist’s introspection after the loss of her husband. “You really see that self-reflection, that self-analysis in this wonderful portrait from the Mississippi Museum of Art’s collection,” Bradley Sumrall, exhibition curator and the Ogden’s curator of the collection, says in a virtual tour of the show.
The artist planted sunflowers, her favorite flower, at her Biloxi home and was drawn to the subject throughout her life. Her vivid 1944 Cubist take on it—“a very, very successful painting” says Sumrall—offers an intriguing comparison with her 1958 abstract “Sunflower Dream,” where broad strokes and seemingly unfinished lines captivate with movement and memory.
Continuing to find her own voice, Bongé began moving toward Surrealism in the late 1930s, and her paintings became increasingly more abstract. “She was definitely aware of what was going on in New York. This is where it really shows,” says Sumrall. Regular visits to New York kept her on top of current movements, and theories shaping them in the writings of Sigmund Freud and particularly Carl Jung. Jung saw dreams as windows to the unconscious.
“Interpreting her dreams through paint would be something that would stay with her for the rest of her career,” Sumrall says. The circus, a sort of waking dream in her eyes with its exotic animals and ornate carts, factors in several paintings in this imaginative, distinctive and sometimes haunting section.
“What we see is just a lot of experimentation, but also taking from Surrealism principles, through a kind of painterly aesthetic that Dusti was excited by,” Dennis says.
Studies and smaller works on paper, dubbed “Keyhole People,” from the 1950s show increasingly abstracted and distorted figures, where scale, use of color, forms and mastery work a certain charm. “She’s utilizing watercolor, which is not an easy medium to use, and it seems like she has a really great handle on the markings and the colors she’s able to get, but she’s playing,” Dennis says, finding a joy in these works as well as a feeling, maybe, of not taking things too seriously.
Bongé’s Abstract Expressionism paintings are bracing in their large-scale and magnetic pull. She’d begun exhibiting in New York in 1939 at the Contemporary Art Gallery, and was included in two shows at Mortimer Brandt Gallery. Bongé’s personal and professional relationship with Betty Parsons was key. Parsons, “den mother of Abstract Expressionism” as she became known, opened her own gallery in 1946 and began showing Bongé’s work amid a roster that also included such giants of the movement as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (who became her son’s godfather).
Working abstractly, Bongé still conveys a sense of place in the hues and calm of “Silver Beach,” and the suggestions of sails, masts, and reflection in the tension and texture of “Sails.”
“Spend a little time with works like this,” Sumrall says of paintings such as “Windows,” a big abstract of Bongé’s that first captivated him. “Explore the surface, and you see how masterful she was.”
“I think she’s always exploring what the paint can do,” Dennis says. “Of course, there’s intention behind what she’s doing, but there’s also. … this curiosity on how much depth can you add into this flat surface that is a painting, and what symbols can be brought out through various gestures. I also love that, even within these abstract paintings, it still connects back to Biloxi.”
Bongé saw dreams forming a bridge as her style transformed from realistic to abstract, and once noted that she’d dreamed many of her favorite canvases. She even kept a small canvas on an easel close to her bed, so she could quickly paint a dream before it faded into the waking world.
Her interest in Zen philosophy in the 1950s—a regular discussion topic with her son, Lyle, and later, her grandson Paul—and its concepts of the void and human unconscious find expression in a series of mesmerizing paintings, pulling you in.
Bongé worked with a boatbuilder friend to learn about fiberglass, and created transparent paintings such as “The Mask of Dionysus” that could be lit from behind. “She was always pushing her craft, and seeing how she could make it new,” Sumrall says.
Among her later works, the intimate appeal of her joss paper paintings—using the “spirit money” rice or bamboo paper of Chinese ritual—is countered by a pair of large and powerful 1987 paintings, “Big Red” and especially “Passage,” that provide a satisfying climax and close to such a rich show.
Even with the gender inequality of her times and her Mississippi base, Bongé maintained a voice in the New York art world for decades. And yet, her work is not very well known outside the Gulf Coast area. “I’m hoping this exhibition and the book … will remedy that,” Sumrall says. “A lot of museums are now trying to remedy the mistakes of the past,” including a look at women artists’ significant contributions to post-World War II American art.
“I believe Dusti Bongé fits right into that canon.”
“Piercing the Inner Wall” is the fourth presentation in the museum’s Myra and Lynn Green Root Memorial Series, which supports the acquisition and exhibition of works by women artists. General admission to the Bongé exhibition is $15 per person, $13 for seniors and groups of 10+, $10 for students and free for museum members, children ages 5 and younger, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays for K-12 students.