Nevada abstraction

Post-war Bohemians in Northern Nevada

UNR’s Donnelyn Curtis discusses a collage by Joanne de Longchamps.

UNR’s Donnelyn Curtis discusses a collage by Joanne de Longchamps.

Photo By Devin hansrote

Post-war Bohemians in Northern Nevada is on display through Sept. 16 at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. For more information, visit

In Virginia City, in the late 1940s and 1950s, a diverse group of artists—men and women, young and old—would gather at the home studio of painter Zoray Andrus. She and her husband and son lived in an old brewery on the outskirts of town. When the artists would show up, the doors would be closed and the curtains drawn. There were rumors around town that the artists were communists or who knows what else. But really they were there to draw.

The University of Nevada, as it was known in those days, had a relatively strong art department. Many of the artists who would gather at Andrus’ studio were faculty or students, but at that time the school wouldn’t allow nude modeling for life drawing, so some local artists took it upon themselves to meet for private life drawing sessions.

The artists were also exploring abstract expressionism and other modernistic art styles that were all the rage in the world’s art metropolises, like New York and Paris, but hadn’t really caught on in rural Northern Nevada. These artists were, as the title of the current ongoing exhibition at the University of Nevada, Reno Knowledge Center describes them, Post-war Bohemians in Northern Nevada. The show features 60 artworks from 1945-1965 by 16 Nevada artists, eight men and eight women.

At the time, abstract artwork wasn’t commercially viable in Nevada. Art buyers wanted Western landscapes and cowboy scenes. In fact, the artists in the exhibition who might be most familiar to local art fans, like Robert Cole Caples and Craig Sheppard, are better known for their Western-themed work. Their experiments in abstraction were driven by passion and curiosity, and fostered by a community of likeminded artists.

“For me, what was so interesting was the sense of community,” says Donnelyn Curtis, head of Special Collections at the UNR Libraries. “They supported each other.”

Curtis helped organize the exhibition alongside co-curators Jim McCormick, a longtime UNR art department faculty member and local art historian, and Christopher Schwartz, a UNR student. McCormick and Schwartz collaborated on a lively, conversational essay for the booklet accompanying the exhibition. The booklet is available at the Special Collections entrance gallery, along with other materials and an exhibit featuring letters among the artists and affiliated writers, like Nevada author Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

Artists featured in the exhibition include Joanne de Longchamps, whose collages straddle the line between pure abstraction and the depiction of animals like peacocks and eels, and Adine Stix, a painter whose work is reminiscent of Willem de Kooning. “Gathering,” by Robert Hartman, an artist who taught briefly at the University of Nevada, is an accomplished example of mid-century abstraction. Gus Bundy might be the MVP of the exhibition. He worked in sculpture, painting and photography, and explored a number of different styles.

The exhibition ranges across four floors of the Knowledge Center, and the building’s open atrium offers some unique vantages of the artwork. Curtis recommends the mid-to-late afternoon, say, 4 p.m., when the sun pours through the western windows, as the best time to view the work.

On the south wall of the fifth floor of the Knowledge Center is a series of photograph portraits of the artists, mostly shot by Bundy. It’s a good place to end any roving, self-guided exploration of the artworks, to put some faces to the names of this unique community of artists.