The Late Eleanor Merritt Gets Retrospective Exhibition at The Ringling

Todays News

Photo courtesy of artist's estate.

By the time The Ringling Museum’s Steven High began his tenure 10 years ago, Eleanor Merritt was an institution unto herself. A big education advocate, one-time board member (and one of the first of African American descent) and charming docent for 25 years, High remembers a lovely woman with a sharp intellect. “She was a wonderful person known mostly as an educator and for her community engagement,” says High. But in February, the museum unveils an exhibition of her paintings that showcase the full range of her artistic endeavors.

Titled “Remembrance,” the exhibition is unique amongst her previous retrospectives in that it includes what is believed to be the last painting she completed before passing in 2019. “The most important thing for me was to put together an exhibition that captured the full range of her work,” says High. That range began in the 1950s in Harlem and would cover stylistic forays into symbolism, abstract, figurative rendered in a multitude of paints, including acrylic, oil and water based. 

 The collection follows the winding path of her aesthetics but demonstrates a thematic through-line. “She was very much a feminist artist throughout her career and focused on those issues,” says High, “but she was also a colorist whose work is always stunning and bold.” Those elements are reflected in the frequent figurative pieces and explosive splashes of color that seem to continue beyond the edge of the canvas. But with so much color and style, the curatorial process was more an exercise in omission.

 “It’s been a process combing through a large body of work and winnowing down the collection,” says High. To comb through the vast catalog of pieces in her estate, High collaborated with Mike Solomon and someone who works closely with the estate, Merritt’s own daughter, Dr. Lisa Merritt. “Mike learned a lot about managing the estate of an artist when his father passed,” says High, “so he’s been instrumental from a curatorial standpoint.” The whole process has also culminated in three new pieces being added to The Ringling’s collection, including the exhibition’s title piece, “Remembrance” (pictured above), and two figurative pieces, one of which features a rare male figure.

 “I think her career as an artist was less well known locally than her work as an educator,” says High, “so I hope this opens up another aspect of her life to Sarasota.”

The Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, FL 34243. 941-359-5700. www.ringling.org

Photo courtesy of artist's estate.

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