Is the art world, always hungry for something new, suddenly developing a renewed appreciation for gravitas? Joan Semmel, Robert Irwin, and Anthony Caro — octogenarians, all — have earned solo exhibitions and careful reappraisal from scholars in recent months. But while these artists received accolades throughout their careers, others have had to wait a bit longer for their first taste of professional success.
Below, we recount the stories of six artists whose profiles began to rise only after they turned 70. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all are women, and many raised families or held other jobs before beginning their careers in art. Most reached peak productivity between the ages of 80 and 90.
While it’s easy to breathlessly report the accomplishments of twentysomethings, the art world does, on rare occasions, reward those who wait. Who says hot new things always have to be young?
Mary Delany, 1700-1788
Between the ages of 71 and 88, Wiltshire-born, 18th-century artist Mary Delany created nearly 1,700 intricate, botanically accurate depictions of plants and flowers with hundreds of pieces of cutout paper. What began as a way to deal with her grief following the death of her amateur botanist husband eventually earned her fame: Even King George III was a fan. The King reportedly asked the palace to send Delany rare flowers from the royal garden as subjects for her paper models. Today, volumes of her plant cutouts can be seen in the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum. A book on Delany’s work, “Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers,” was reissued by the British Museum Press in 2000.
Grandma Moses, 1860-1961
If there were ever a poster child for late-blooming art careers, Grandma Moses is it. The renowned American folk artist, whose real name is Anna Mary Robertson Moses, began painting rural scenes after raising five children in upstate New York. (She started out doing embroidery, but her arthritis became so severe it was too uncomfortable to hold a needle.) Moses’s big break came in 1938, when engineer and collector Louis J. Caldor spotted her paintings in a drug store window and purchased the entire lot on the spot. The following year, when she was 79 years old, the Museum of Modern Art displayed three of her paintings in an exhibition entitled “Contemporary Unknown American Painters.” Her bright, sprawling landscapes and paintings of farm life, which she had routinely sold to acquaintances for $3 to $5 dollars each, quickly began commanding thousands of dollars. (In 2006, a winter scene reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder titled “Sugaring Off” sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million.) On her 100th birthday in 1960, LIFE magazine featured Grandma Moses on its cover.
Carmen Herrera, b. 1915
Carmen Herrera sold her first painting in 2004, at the ripe age of 89. Then, the floodgates opened. The Museum of Modern Art acquired a handful of her paintings the same year. In 2009, she earned a profile in the New York Times with the headline, “At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting.” Now, the Cuban-born geometric abstract painter is comfortably represented by international heavyweight Lisson Gallery, where an exhibition of her works on paper closed on March 15. (The show featured 42 vibrant pieces created between 2010 to 2012 — that’s right, she made them between the ages of 95 and 97.) Asked in an interview last year what she wants to do next, Herrera responded, “What a question to ask a 97 year old!” But then, of course, she had an ambitious answer: “I want to make larger works.”
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, b. 1924
Unlike many other artists on this list, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s career doesn’t have a cinematic breakthrough moment. The sculptor and draughtsman, whose work incorporates the history of Iranian reverse glass and mirror mosaics and is represented in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions, has been steadily working and exhibiting since the late 1960s. But she’s only become more prolific and adventurous with age. Born in Iran, Farmanfarmaian worked as a fashion illustrator in New York in the 1950s, where she became friends with Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock, and other Abstract Expressionist painters. (As a fashion illustrator, she once collaborated with Andy Warhol.) It wasn’t until she returned to Iraq to marry, however, that Farmanfarmaian settled into her mature style. A visit to the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz sparked her interest in mirrored mosaics, which she continues to produce today. A survey exhibition showcasing her work from 2004 to 2013 opened last week at The Third Line in Dubai.
Etel Adnan, b. 1925
Best known for most of her life as an essayist and poet, Beriut-born Etel Adnan gained notice as a painter at last year’s Documenta 13. The sprawling quinquennial exhibition devoted an entire gallery to her tablet-sized, geometric compositions, which she began creating in the 1950s. (By that time, curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist had already called Adnan one of his personal heroes.) Last fall, the artist earned a solo show at New York’s Callicoon Fine Arts — her first in New York. The Easter-egg hued paintings are all based on San Francisco’s Mount Tamalpais, where she has lived for over 60 years. “More often than not I have noticed that people who have Adnan’s paintings will keep them in the their innermost chambers, and not in their living rooms as objects d’art,” critic Simone Fattal wrote at the time. “The quickness of their making, the fact that they are finished in one sitting, their compactness — with nothing diluted or lost joins to the happiness experienced while painting, the joy of using color.”
Alice Mackler, b. 1932
It’s not easy for a small gallery to secure a good review in New York, let alone receive two of them. But Alice Mackler’s oddball ceramic figures charmed critics Andrew Russeth and Roberta Smith alike at the group exhibition “Forget About the Sweetbreads,” which closed last month at James Fuentes Gallery in New York. Mackler “has a gift for color and texture and for conveying human pomposity,” Smith wrote. “Her work shares in the spirit, if not the appearance, of Daumier’s sculptures and the small wood figures of Feininger.” The artist, who earned her BA from the School of Visual Arts when she was in her 40s, is a fixture at Greenwich House, one of New York’s oldest ceramic studios. Though she has been painting and sculpting for over 50 years, she has rarely exhibited publicly — until now. Since the Fuentes exhibition opened, Mackler has been in her studio daily preparing for a solo exhibition at New York’s KS Art this fall.
To see the work of these late-blooming artists, click on the slideshow.