Obituary: Phyllis Wiener, painter, feminist and 'object maker'

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2013 - 5:49 PM

Co-founder of the WARM collective, she was also a teacher and writer who wanted her work "to be an affirmation."

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Phyllis Wiener unfolded a Prismacolor book she made, symbolizing "the pulse of life," in 1993, when a retrospective of her work was shown at Macalester College.

Photo: John Croft, Star Tribune,

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A painter and pioneering feminist, Phyllis Wiener was an outspoken role model for a generation that came of age in the 1970s when women were still struggling for professional acceptance in a male-dominated art world. She exhibited her lyrical abstractions throughout Minnesota for more than 60 years and will be included in a show opening this month at the University of Minnesota's Katherine E. Nash gallery.

After breaking her hip in December, Wiener had surgery and then chose hospice care. She died New Year's Day. She was 91.

"What I loved about Phyllis was that she had her feminist ideals, but she was not a separatist," said Ilene Krug Mojsilov, an artist and longtime friend. "She really felt very connected with the human condition and took issues like people's rights very seriously."

Born in Iowa City, Iowa to an unwed mother, she was named Marjorie May Spaeth at birth. Within a few months she was adopted and renamed Phyllis Eileen Zager. Her interest in art blossomed early while growing up on a farm where, according to her daughter, Barbara Downs Hodne, she "lived a very protected life and spent a lot of time in her room teaching herself to draw," an activity her father encouraged.

After graduating from high school in Iowa City, she married artist Allen Downs and moved with him to various colleges at which he taught film and photography. In the 1950s, when he taught at the University of Minnesota, she studied with Cameron Booth, a leading painter, and became fast friends with sculptor Katherine E. Nash.

Bright, bold colors-- canary yellow, crimson, azure, violet -- dominate many of her canvases and reflect her passionate enthusiasm for life in all its variety, Hodne said. Even skin colors excited her. "As kids," Hodne said, "she told us that when white people were born, they must have been standing behind the door when God handed out the colors."

In the 1970s Wiener helped establish the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota, a feminist collective that managed a gallery and published an influential journal for which she wrote. In the 1980s she was a columnist for Artpaper and wrote book reviews for the Star Tribune. She taught in the University of Minnesota's extension division and at what is now the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. She also served on advisory panels for the State Arts Board and as a juror for regional art exhibitions.

Over the years her work changed from a loosely figurative style to more abstract and design-driven motifs. She also created sculpture from panels of gatorboard that she carved, painted and assembled into jagged, closet-sized enclosures. In later years, she produced accordion-fold books, paintings with water and aerial themes, and drawings inspired by news events and political debates.

"I'm an object maker" who takes pleasure in making things, Wiener said in a 1993 interview, adding, "I'd like my work to be an affirmation."

Besides exhibiting regularly at galleries in Chicago, New York and the Twin Cities, she has art in the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center, the Minnesota Museum of American Art and numerous hospital, college and corporate collections around the country.

Her marriage to Downs ended in divorce, after which she was briefly married to Richard Ames, who is now deceased. Her third husband, Daniel Wiener, died in 1998.

Besides Hodne, of Minneapolis, Wiener is survived by her son, Gareth Downs of Minneapolis, and daughters Allison Downs and Amy Downs of Centralia, Wash.

A memorial gathering will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 17 at 110 Grant St., Minneapolis.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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  • Phyllis Wiener in 1955, with a still-life painted with "Duc" auto enamel.

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