The story has all the makings of an urban legend.
A small Pittsburgh gallery attracts artists who go on to become some of the most important contributors to the avant-garde movement, all thanks to the vision of one woman unafraid of challenging societal conventions.
For decades, art-industry insiders considered the tale of Outlines art gallery almost too good to be true. Now, a descendant of the woman who made it all happen is bringing the story to the masses.
“Tracing Outlines,” a film by Cayce Mell, granddaughter of the late Elizabeth “Betty” Rockwell Raphael, and produced by Scott Sullivan, will screen May 21 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland, as part of its Culture Club series. It also will be shown during the Three Rivers Arts Festival at the Harris Theater, Downtown.
The documentary explores how the former Boulevard of the Allies space was responsible for bringing artists such as Alexander Calder, John Cage, Maya Deren, Merce Cunningham and designers Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and Jens Risom to Pittsburgh at a time when most people considered their art to be controversial and even communistic.
“It’s too often forgotten what a turbulent time that was for artists,” says Squirrel Hill resident Mell. “This special little place was somewhat of a catalyst for all these young, emerging artists.”
Outlines, open from 1941 to ’47, featured many exhibits, performances, lectures, music and film events in its short six-year lifespan. Young artists, including Andy Warhol, converged there to view work that would inspire them throughout their careers.
Yet, despite its wide-reaching impact on the art world and beyond, Raphael rarely spoke about Outlines, her family members say.
“Knowing my grandmother, she was just so vivacious and productive; she was just on to the next,” Mell says. “She was always in the present, always talking about what she was doing as a social-justice advocate or community advocate and really in the moment. I think it hurt her to look back on Outlines because she felt like it was just a failure and was a little hurt by it.”
Mell began delving into the story after, completely by chance, coming across some paperwork detailing exhibitions at Outlines. The yellowed papers fell out of an old library book an acquaintance was showing Mell. She recognized her grandmother’s name as well as many of the now iconic artists listed.
Elizabeth Rockwell opened Outlines at age 21 at a time when war had left the American population skeptical, at best, of anything deviating from the norm. She was the youngest of five children of Willard Rockwell, whose companies eventually grew into the defense contractor Rockwell International. While running the gallery, she would meet and marry furniture designer Orin Raphael.
“People were so fear-based, and change in general was just terrifying to people,” Mell says. “Everything was changing. This new abstract art — maybe it was something of a threat, and we should watch out for these people because if they like that kind of painting then maybe they like the philosophy of someone else who represents too much change.
“There were so many layers of criticism and skepticism and fear surrounding this place. It really was just this safe home for so many artists who had nowhere else to just be themselves. I would have given anything to have been alive at that time and been able to go there and experience that energy and how exciting it must have been to find people who were like-minded and a little less fear-based than the rest of the community at that time.”
Newspaper headlines at the time, such as “Art Gallery Opened by Girl,” reflect the city’s struggle to understand Elizabeth Rockwell’s vision.
“It’s so foreign to our generation that that would make headlines,” Mell says. “To see that they couldn’t write about a woman without talking about her hair color, I think that was really surprising to me. I felt for her. New York was probably a better, safer place to do something like this but she stayed for six years and kept trying and kept hoping that people would grasp the concept and realize that it was like a gift to this city.
“She knew this was going to change everything — not just the art we see in museums but music and performances, interior design, architecture. She really believed in Pittsburgh that we could be on the forefront of that movement.”
Sullivan says Raphael’s courageousness “cannot be undersold.”
“The stuff she was showing was design, but it was also lectures on race, and she was having people of different sexualities come here,” he says. “Back then, it would have been almost dangerous for some people to be outside that gallery whenever they were talking inside of it. She was taking a real risk. This was not a time that weird art was something you could go see normally. Weird art was considered communist. It was dangerous. It was considered foreign and seen as some form of invasion. On top of that, you have the 1940s. Race was not some topic you could bring up at a dinner table. What she was doing was incredible.”
After Outlines, Raphael, who died in 1998, went on to establish the Society for Contemporary Craft in 1971, which started in Verona and is now based in the Strip District, and she continued to be an ardent supporter of the arts in Pittsburgh.
Mell and Sullivan expect the upcoming screening to be the first of many for the film, which features interviews with artists Philip Pearlstein, Saul Leiter and Jens Risom; Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum and former director of the Carnegie Museum of Art; Carnegie International curator Dan Byers; Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum; and Robert Manley of Christie’s NYC.
Sullivan and Mell also have created a book from Raphael’s scrapbooks featuring a complete chronology of exhibits, performances, lectures and films at Outlines.
The story of the tiny gallery’s enormous impact will continue to grow as the film reaches audiences far and wide, Sullivan says.
“I’m very excited to see the reaction in and out of Pittsburgh,” Sullivan says. I know people are going to latch onto this s tory.”