Zoe Longfield (1924–2013) was an American abstract expressionist painter in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a participant in the first generation of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism, which occurred primarily in New York and San Francisco in the last half of the 1940s. Longfield was also one of the earliest women artists working in this movement and is featured, along with her fellow students, in a now well-published photo from the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) in 1948 1. During her brief active years, Longfield produced a significant body of paintings, prints, and drawings that showcase both a deft handling of media and a unique visual vocabulary that she employed, in her words, to “solve those inherent problems peculiar to painting.” 2
Zoe Longfield was born in San Francisco in 1924. She was the only child of Peter and Tatiana (Kasansava) Golovinsky, Russian immigrants who fled their homeland during the Revolution. Her father, an ex-aviator in the Czarist military, died in a work accident shortly after arriving in the U.S., leaving a newborn Zoe and her mother to find their way in a foreign land. Supporting herself as a seamstress, Zoe’s mother eventually remarried fellow emigre Maxim Dolgopoloff, who became Zoe’s stepfather. In high school Zoe changed her legal surname from Golovinsky to Longfield, a loose English translation of Dolgopoloff (dolgo = “long,” pole = “field”).
Zoe grew up an artistic child who drew and painted many subjects, both from her environment and her imagination. Humiliated by a teacher in elementary school, she developed a nervous stutter that would persist in her speech for many years. From an early age, she found calm in solitary creative, intellectual, and physical pursuits. She attended Edward Robeson Taylor Grammar School, Portola Junior High School, and Balboa High School, from which she graduated in 1941. Zoe was also an athletic youth who competed in numerous figure skating exhibitions throughout her adolescence and early twenties. 3
Longfield studied painting at University of California, Berkeley, from 1941–1944. Her teachers there included Margaret Peterson, John Haley, and Erle Loran, who helped found the “Berkeley School” of abstract expressionism 1. All were deeply influenced by the seminal German painter Hans Hofmann, who is widely seen as responsible for introducing European modernism to the American west through the summer sessions he taught at Berkeley. Longfield left the school inspired by Hofmann’s revolutionary principles of structure, shape, and placement in painting and the dynamic, “push/pull” possibilities of bold colors to create spatial illusions.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944, Zoe trained for several years in pursuit of a career as a professional ice skater. She changed course in 1946 and recommitted to her artistic studies, attending the California Labor School from 1946–1948 and then the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), the predecessor of today’s San Francisco Art Institute, from 1947–1949.
At CSFA, she had the good fortune to study under an extraordinarily innovative and influential faculty whose members included Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Edward Corbett, and Mark Rothko. One of only a few women in her class, she studied alongside classmates Ernest Briggs, Edward Dugmore, Frank Lobdell, Horst Trave, and others, forging several deep and lifelong friendships along the way. 5
Embracing Clyfford Still’s anti-commercial approach toward creativity, Longfield and eleven other students from his inner circle collaborated to open the landmark Metart Gallery in April 1949 6. Derived from the term “metamorphosis” or “metaphysical arts,” the Metart Gallery was established as a cooperative in which each member, for a small monthly fee, had use of the entire space for one month per year in order to exhibit his or her works. Occupying a former laundry on Bush Street in downtown San Francisco, the gallery was a the first of a series of such cooperative art galleries in San Francisco during the 1950s 7, 8. Each taking a month to individually show original works were artists Jeremy Anderson, Ernest Briggs, W. Cohantz, Hubert Crehan, Edward Dugmore, Jorge Goya, William Huberich, Jack Jefferson, Kiyo Koizumi, Zoe Longfield, Frann Spencer, and Horst Trave. 9
Although the gallery closed after only a year, it helped to launch the artistic careers of several of its members, including Briggs and Dugmore. Exhibits at the Metart earned acclamatory reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle by the well-known art critics Alfred Frankenstein and R. H. Hagan, who wrote of their monthly visits there. Of Longfield’s show in December 1949, they wrote, “Of all the numerous artists who have taken up the new credo of arbitrary (or spontaneous) expression in unrestrained colors and unrestrained shapes, Miss Longfield impresses me as one of the most successful.” 10 The gallery closed after a final exhibit by Still in the Spring of 1950. Still’s final Metart exhibit was highly anticipated and well received. Soon after, he departed the San Francisco Bay Area of New York City. 11
During her years as a painter, Longfield wished, above all, to find independent expression through her artwork. She once wrote: “My intention with respect to the coming year is simply to continue the activity of painting. And by reason of more immediate need there is the task to establish a stronger independent attitude in the direction of becoming a more mature painter—simultaneous with the shaking away of vestigial compulsive or obligatory feelings such as might yet remain from previous formal schooling. . . the desire is to paint, and by painting, to solve those inherent problems peculiar to painting.” 2
Longfield, like many women of her era, set aside her own artistic ambitions when she married Raphael Etigson on February 11, 1951. She followed him to New York City to support his budding career in graphic design, but the marriage was a rocky one. She divorced Raphael in 1957 and returned to San Francisco, never to marry again. She worked on and off over the years as a lithographer, a graphic artist, and in advertising for a textbook publisher. She continued to pursue creative expression throughout her life, practicing photography, classical piano, and the cultivation of rare orchids and exotic plants. She lived with her mother and stepfather in her childhood home in the Portola district of San Francisco and, after their passing, continued to live there until the end of her own life.
Despite living in near-poverty for most of her adult life, Longfield was a discerning connoisseur of art, music, and literature. Over the years, she gathered a remarkable library of rare music recordings and first edition books on world history, art, culture, and politics. Hobbled by a botched hip replacement and increasingly reclusive in her later years, she was nonetheless observed regularly feeding the neighborhood’s feral cats beneath a tree in her front yard. Zoe Longfield died in 2013 in San Francisco from congestive heart failure, leaving no relatives.
Longfield passed most of her life unrecognized as a painter. Interest in her work was rekindled following the appearance of her painting, Untitled (1949), in the San Francisco and the Second Wave: The Blair Collection of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum in 2004. Longfield was in her 80s when she learned that a painting by her, long forgotten, would be shown as part of this important collection. She made the trip to Sacramento to see the show, commenting that she dimly remembered painting the piece but had no knowledge of how it came to be in the Blair collection. After her death, a considerable collection of her remarkable paintings was discovered, unstretched, stacked, and neatly nailed to a dusty back wall of her cramped garage. Some of these paintings have now appeared in the catalog for the Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition 5.
1 Marter, Joan, Ed (2016). Women of Abstract Expressionism. Denver and New Haven: Denver Art Museum and Yale University Press.
2 Longfield, Zoe (1949). Application essay for James D. Phelan Award in Literature and Art. (n.p.)
3 “A Protegee at 16, She’ll Be a Sensation at 20.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 1941.
5 Landauer, Susan (2004). “The San Francisco School Revisited: The Painters of the 1950s” and “Zoe Longfield.” In San Francisco and the Second Wave: The Blair Collection of Bay Are Abstract Expressionism. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.
6 Press release for Metart Galleries, April 1949; Stable Gallery Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
7 “Metart Gallery Experiment in Non-Commercial Exhibitions,” San Francisco Art Association Bulletin 15 (September 1949): n.p.
8 “New Metart Is Opened in San Francisco,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, September 22, 1949.
9 Landauer, Susan (1996). The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
10 R.H. Hagan. “Around the Galleries,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 1949.
11 Albright, Thomas (1985). Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–1980: An Illustrated History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
The Estate of Zoe Longfield