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Manon Cleary depicted her life in stages. Through her realistic paintings, she captured herself in grim and vivid detail—-in love, in happiness, and in despair. Her body always served as the origin for her art, and while her body began failing her years ago, it never failed her work. She didn’t shy away from the truth—always her focus graphically and narratively—even toward the end, a time marked by pain but also perseverance.
Cleary, a longtime D.C. artist and educator acclaimed for her figurative paintings, died on Saturday. She had turned 69 earlier this month.
Cleary, who had struggled with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for more than a decade, died where she lived and made art for nearly 40 years—in the Beverly Court Cooperative apartments in Adams Morgan, an address that became a fixture of the D.C. art world in the 1970s.
For most of her career, Cleary employed a highly realistic painting and drawing style. Working from photographs—often of her nude body—she addressed the human figure, male and female sexuality, and her own sexual assault, among other topics both highly personal and comically banal. She leaves behind a prolific body of paintings and drawings in such collections as the Chicago Art Institute, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
“She was able to turn autobiography, always, from the most basic things to the anguish anyone would feel as a rape victim, into her work,” says Jean Lawlor Cohen, who in 2006 curated a retrospective at the Washington Arts Museum.
Cleary developed chronic lung disease as a result of years of exposure to toxic paint fumes and from smoking. Twelve years ago, she was misdiagnosed with an eating disorder after her weight plummeted to 86 pounds, according to her husband and physical therapist, Steven Kijek. At the same time, her lung capacity fell to 18 percent, where it wavered for more than a decade.
Cleary received her bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, the city where she was born, in 1964. She received her master’s degree from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 1968, and moved to D.C. two years later to teach art at the D.C. Teachers College, which later became part of the University of the District of Columbia.
She showed her work with art dealer Ramon Osuna, first at what was then Pyramid Gallery in Dupont Circle and later Osuna Art. She had her debut solo exhibition at Washington’s Franz Bader Gallery in 1972, and for the next four decades frequently showed work in D.C. Over the last two decades, Cleary exhibited art at Georgetown’s Addison/Ripley Gallery, where she had her last solo exhibit in 2009.
“Her drawings are absolutely spectacular,” Osuna says. “She grew slowly. She was not someone who painted very quickly. She took her time, and her paintings were absolutely perfect.”
Cleary touched on a number of subjects again and again in her figurative work. Rats, which she kept as pets, played prominently in her portraits of herself and others. She painted nude self-portraits all her life. Highly sexualized yet highly realistic flowers were another theme: Think Georgia O’Keeffe by way of Chuck Close. A series of penis paintings landed Cleary on HBO’s Real Sex 18 documentary in 1997. A little less on-the-nose were her portraits of nude men seemingly trapped in clear plastic bags.
“Cleary flips art history in later works by claiming the male nude as a sensual object of wonder and occasional target of humor,” Cohen wrote in a catalog essay for “Manon Cleary: A Retrospective.”
The death of a friend from complications of AIDS and her own menopause also played into her work—as did her relationship with her identical twin sister, Shirley Cleary-Cooper, from whom Manon was said by friends to be estranged.
The 2006 retrospective that Cohen curated for the Washington Arts Museum surveyed most of those themes—”but what was the surprise for Washington people were the early paintings,” Cohen says. “They were hot-palette, hallucinogenic, hippie-day paintings.”
For many in Washington, Cleary will be remembered best for her support for local artists. An avid collector, she owned works by highly visible figures like Anne Truitt as well as recent art-school graduates. Cleary was a devoted Facebook user, especially when she was confined to bed rest at home or during times in hospice care, and she reached out through the medium to other Washington artists.
Jessika Dené Tarr, a 23-year-old artist, introduced herself to Cleary at a burlesque birthday party for the photographer Victoria F. Gaitán in 2010. Cleary got in touch through Facebook two weeks later. “I don’t know how she saw images of my work, but she said she wanted to nominate me for a show at Hillyer Art Space,” Tarr says, referring to the gallery and nonprofit where Cleary served on a committee to select artists for shows. Tarr held her first solo exhibition at Hillyer in February 2011 as a result.
Tarr says she developed a mentorship and friendship with Cleary. They spoke once a week by phone, and Tarr visited her in Adams Morgan just a few weeks ago. “I would send over works in progress and she would give me honest critiques or praise,” Tarr says. “She would sometimes even ask me for advice or my critique of her work.”
“She was a link to a real cast of artists—artists from yesterday as well as artists from today,” says Molly Ruppert, owner of the Warehouse arts space. “I suppose you could say no one looked out for me like Manon did,” says artist Pat Goslee.
Though her strength waned in recent years, her vitality never diminished, friends and artists say. Even after a more than 30-year career teaching art at UDC, she continued to nurture and champion the work of students.
Anna U. Davis took painting and drawing classes as well as an independent study under Cleary as an undergraduate at UDC. Though Cleary left on sick leave before Davis’ graduation in 2002, she says, “Manon tried to come out to most of my shows—or Steven [Kijek] would come if she was too sick.”
Davis recounts an episode during a time when she was living in Adams Morgan and working at the bar Madams Organ, which concerned Cleary. “She was worried about me working there, in this rowdy club,” Davis says. “So she gave me a fake wedding ring to protect me working there. It was a cheap, fake diamond ring, and a wedding band.”
Davis would eventually use the band to marry her husband. And in turn, she attended Cleary’s wedding to Kijek in 2001. “She wore a black veil,” Davis says.
Cleary’s dark humor is as apparent in her portraits of rodents and sexual organs as in the many stories of the drug- and sex-fueled art scene headquartered at the Beverly Court apartments. But Cleary’s always-autobiographical paintings also examined scarring episodes from her life. In 1998, two years after she was raped by an artist in Kazakhstan, where she had traveled to lecture on art, she produced a frank body of fractured self-portraits called “The Rape Series.” She showed the works in New York, Baltimore, and Washington.
It was after her decline in health that she met Kijek. (Her first marriage, to an experimental artist named Tommy, ended after a year.) “We were like two teenagers. Her health was coming back and she had a great life force,” Kijek says. “We were hot on the social scene: this dinner party, that cocktail party, every opening, receptions, embassies. It was exhausting after a while, but she kept going.”
Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, says that “The Constant Artist”—a show of photography by Paul Feinberg that the museum is planning for next summer—will feature Cleary prominently. She is one of nine Washington artists who will be depicted in the exhibit, which also includes luminaries like Sam Gilliam and Joe White. “Paul shot hundreds of photos of her,” Rasmussen says, “even in later years, including nude photos of the artist in her wheelchair.”
Cleary’s work always flowed from her life, but those who knew her best say that her life also followed her art. “When you have an affair or you’re in a love relationship with an artist, if they are a true artist, unless you’re the muse, you will never be first,” Kijek says. “The art will always be first.”
Cleary is survived by her husband and sister. A church service is being planned for the near future, with a memorial to follow in January.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery