Alice Mackler, who toiled in obscurity as a painter for more than 60 years before taking up sculpture and exploding onto the art scene in her 80s, died on Saturday at a hospice in Brooklyn. She was 92.
The cause was complications of Covid, according to the Kerry Schuss Gallery, which represented her.
After taking up art as a teenager at boarding school in the 1940s, Ms. Mackler spent a lifetime supporting herself with low-level office jobs while dedicating her nights and weekends to painting and drawing buxom figures much like her own, using a confident, imaginative, sometimes wiry line that evoked the work of Paul Klee.
In one typical untitled painting from 1968, a bulbous white form pauses in front of large blocks of yellow, reddish orange and lavender. Its outline is almost as loose as a doodle, and without the sketchy little face on top and the dark black dots she added for eyes and nipples, you might not recognize it as a person. But with those details, it becomes something extraordinary: an imaginary vision that’s also highly personal, a clear cousin of Modernism with an added feminist wink, both a caricature and revelation of the artist’s state of mind.
Like her other work, this painting, once finished, ended up in a pile in her East Village apartment. But in 1999, having finally retired from office work, Ms. Mackler began attending classes at Greenwich House Pottery in the West Village.
“I just knew I wanted to do something else, but I didn’t know what,” she explained to Apartamento magazine in 2022. “So I said to myself: ‘Go!’”
There, she developed a repertoire of strange and fascinating clay figures — stumpy but elegant women, mermaids and other creatures with knobbly textures and minimal but highly emotional features which she painted and glazed in bright colors. She had been at it for 10 or 11 years when the painter Joanne Greenbaum, also a regular at the pottery school, encountered one of her pieces.
A dark, phallic figure 14 inches high, it had three poked-in divots for eyes and a mouth and was surrounded by a pinched circle of clay that could have been a kind of ersatz sacred grotto or aureole or the figure’s own upraised arms. It was like nothing Ms. Greenbaum had ever seen, though it could have been the work of, as the critic Barry Schwabsky put it in Artforum in 2021, “an ancient artist, the survivor of some lost civilization who just happens to live among us today.”
Ms. Greenbaum had to have it.
Through the school office she arranged to buy the piece for $250, and she soon became friendly with Ms. Mackler, a brassy, self-possessed presence at the school. In early 2013, when Ms. Greenbaum and the painter Adrianne Rubenstein were curating “Forget About the Sweetbreads,” a group show at the James Fuentes Gallery, they included 11 of Ms. Mackler’s works. The pieces sold out in a day, mostly to other artists, and the show received glowing reviews from The New York Observer and The New York Times.
Writing in The Times, the critic Roberta Smith said, “Her work shares in the spirit, if not the appearance, of Daumier’s sculptures and the small wood figures of Feininger.”
Soon the gallerist Kerry Schuss was giving the 81-year-old Ms. Mackler her first-ever solo show, and in the decade that followed, her work appeared in galleries and museums all over the world, as well as in five more solo exhibitions at Mr. Schuss’s gallery. In 2020, a monograph of her work was published under the title “Alice Mackler.”
With all this encouragement, Ms. Mackler entered the most productive period of her life. She made dozens of funny, unnerving little figures that split the difference between idols and cartoons. There were pompous society dowagers with melting faces, young beauties with speckled dresses, unexpected sphinxes and nature spirits. Increasingly, as she plunged more deeply both into her own psychology and into the possibilities of figurative representation, she also made figures with two or three faces and, by 2019, strange little theaters with faces painted on the walls. And she never stopped drawing or painting.
It didn’t hurt Ms. Mackler’s ascent, of course, that interest in rediscovering neglected female artists had been rising, or that ceramic sculpture was enjoying a vogue of its own.
But the curator Matthew Higgs, in his introduction to the monograph, argued that it wouldn’t be quite right to count Ms. Mackler as part of that fad, since she had never been discovered in the first place.
“A productive — and paradoxical — way to approach Mackler,” he suggested, “might be to think of her as a ‘young’ artist who just happens to be in her 80s.”
She could also be mistaken for an outsider artist. She was willful and eccentric and spent most of her life working in isolation. But she did go to art school, albeit in her late 50s, and, as an avid gallery visitor and reader of reviews, she was well aware of the New York art world long before it noticed her.
“That’s why her recognition was so sweet,” Mr. Schuss said in an interview. “Because she really understood it.”
Alice Patrice Mackler was born on Nov. 16, 1931, in New York City. Her father, Harry S. Mackler, was a pediatrician, and her mother, Charlotte (Orens) Mackler, was a social worker.
No immediate family members survive her. A younger sister, Judith McWherter, died in 2001.
Though she spent part of her childhood in New Jersey and attended the Buxton School in Williamstown, Mass., Ms. Mackler was a die-hard Manhattanite. Once she returned to the city, she lived exclusively in that borough, finally settling for good in the East Village in the late 1960s.
In New York, she studied with Will Barnet at the Art Students League in the 1950s. She then earned a B.A. from Touro College in 1979 and got her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in 1988.
She attended the school because galleries would not show her work. “Not because the artwork wasn’t good,” she told Apartamento, “but because the first question was always, ‘What college did you graduate from?’”
Even after earning the degree, while working a full-time job, “I still couldn’t get into an art gallery,” she said.
Ms. Mackler seems never to have had a serious partner. She also suffered from a speech impediment that could make it challenging to understand her. Despite reports to the contrary, Mr. Schuss said, Ms. Mackler never had a stroke, and the cause of the impediment, which dated to childhood, was unclear.
She didn’t lack confidence, though. Asked in an interview whether she had ever suffered from doubt, she didn’t miss a beat: “No. I always knew I was good.”
But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
In a phone interview, Ms. Greenbaum recalled picking up a very quiet Ms. Mackler in a cab before the opening of “Forget About the Sweetbreads.”
“I kind of thought, this is a really big moment for her, a huge moment, to be showing in a cool gallery with contemporary artists. So I said, ‘Alice, are you OK?’ And she said, ‘I haven’t been in a cab for 30 years.’”