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The Life and Lithographs of Laurie Ourlicht

Laurie Ourlicht in 2010
Laurie Ourlicht in 2010

Artist and lithographer Laurie Ourlicht lived a fascinating yet mostly undiscovered life. Although her pieces live on in museum collections and private galleries, very little is known about the artist’s personal life. Born August 9th, 1953, in Upstate New York, she attended SUNY at Fredonia for undergrad and pursued an M.F.A. in Fine Arts from Philidelphia’s Temple University. She also achieved a certification in nursing, and worked at Kings Hospital in Brooklyn as a Midwife to support herself financially. She became artistically active from the late 1970s through the 1990s, and she moved into the Westbeth Artist Housing after it opened in 1970 in the former Bell Laboratories at 55 Bethune Street. While that’s pretty much the full extent of her personal biography, her artistic career speaks volumes of her influence in New York’s alternative art scene during the 1980s and ‘90s. 

Westbeth Artist Housing
Westbeth Artist Housing

But first, we have to provide some context. During the 1970s, a new artistic wave took New York City: the Alternative Spaces Movement, which was driven largely by curator Alana Heiss and her organization The Institute for Art and Urban Resources. A kindred spirit with the broader Historic Preservation Movement, Alana and her organization sought to use NYC’s derelict and underutilized buildings as flexible spaces to produce and display contemporary arts. Within our neighborhoods, the Ideas Warehouse in the Meatpacking District, Westbeth in the Far West Village, and 10 Bleecker Street in NoHo are excellent examples of how Heiss and her artists adaptively reused historic spaces to incubate avant-garde creativity. In 1972, Heiss founded The Clocktower Gallery in the former New York Life Insurance Building in Tribeca at 346 Broadway, which was designed by McKim, Mead, and White (the architects for the Washington Square Arch and the historic Pennsylvania Station). 

Laurie Ourlicht's "Great Cousin Emma" (1983), Color lithograph, image sourced from the Spellman College Museum of Fine Art, shown here for educational purposes only.
Laurie Ourlicht’s “Great Cousin Emma” (1983), Color lithograph, image sourced from the Spellman College Museum of Fine Art, shown here for educational purposes only.
"A Chance to Find if Art of Women is a Special Art" by Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times on the 1986 Progressions exhibit

Ourlicht joined the Alternative Spaces Movement during Clocktower’s 1986 Progressions: A Cultural Legacy exhibit, which spotlighted emerging women artists and talent. The exhibit introduced her to the likes of Faith Ringold and gave her a platform to explore her identity and family through arts. The exhibit featured many of Ourlicht’s early lithographs. Lithographs, for those unfamiliar with the medium, is a printmaking process in which a design is drawn in wax onto flat stone (or a prepared zinc or aluminum metal plate), affixed via chemical reaction, covered with ink, and transferred repeatedly to wet paper. Of those still extant today, her works, Great Cousin Emma (1983), Roman Holiday (1987) and Gifts of Love (1987) are most indicative of this period.

In the 1990s, Ourlicht became the artist-in-residence to Dieu Donne, a contemporary art gallery and independent paper mill, then located in SoHo (now located in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard), where she further honed her craft. While there, she transitioned away from lithographs and started creating artworks out of cast plaster and painted paper. The resulting 3D relief sculptures explore her identity as a bi-racial woman and her relationship to body dysmorphia and diversity. Her relief, Thelma and Rose (1991), depicts the dynamic between her white and black grandmothers, joined together by her parent’s interracial marriage. Ourlicht painted buttons on Grandma Rose’s character to suggest her work in the garment industry, while Grandma Thelma is dressed in a domestic uniform to depict her profession. Meanwhile, several other reliefs depicted bodybuilders, dancers, and snake charmers to explore how the human body could present and perform a myriad of different cultures.

Ourlicht continued to be artistically active at Westbeth until her death at age 57 in 2010 from Multiple Myeloma. Though her life was cut short, her legacy lives on within the many independent and avant-garde artists that call our neighborhoods home. If you’d like to learn more about the creative legacy of the Greenwich Village, East Village, and NoHo, then we encourage you to take a look at our artist tours on our Greenwich Village Then-&-Now maps and our East Village Building Blocks site.

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