NEW YORK — Mavis Pusey, a painter and printmaker who drew on inspirations as varied as sunsets and scenes of urban demolition to create striking abstract works full of geometric forms, died April 20 in Falmouth, Va. She was 90.
Hallie Ringle, curator of contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, who has been working on a traveling exhibition of Ms. Pusey’s work, confirmed her death and said she had dementia.
Ms. Pusey was a leading abstractionist who, while living in New York, made works that reflected the constantly changing city landscape, giving them titles such as “Broken Construction at Dusk” and “Demolishment.”
One of Ms. Pusey’s first major showings was part of “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” an important exhibition mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. Almost a half-century later, she was again part of a major exhibition, “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today,” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.
In between the two, her works were exhibited at museums, colleges, and galleries around the country, and found their way into the Cochran Collection in LaGrange, Ga.; the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and elsewhere. Yet Ms. Pusey was not a familiar name even to some within the art world.
Longstanding biases in that world were partly responsible. Melissa Messina, who curated the Kemper show with Erin Dziedzic, was candid as to why people familiar with the names of abstract artists from the same era, such as Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella, might not recognize hers.
“It is not because Pusey’s work is any less groundbreaking, pristinely executed, or formally and conceptually evocative,” Messina said by email. “Simply put: It is because she was black and a woman.”
Ringle, in a remembrance posted last week on the website of the Studio Museum of Harlem, where she worked previously, noted that Ms. Pusey had stuck to her style despite “the enormous pressure that black artists faced in the 1960s and 1970s to portray matters of identity and social unrest.”
Mavis Iona Pusey was born Sept. 17, 1928, in Jamaica. Her parents died when she was young. An aunt taught her to sew, and by age 9, she was making her own dresses. One of her first jobs was cutting fabric in a garment factory in Kingston.
At 18 she moved to New York to study fashion at the Traphagen School of Fashion, but, struggling financially, she switched to the Art Students League, which could give her a schedule that would enable her to work at a bridal gown boutique.
“Accidentally, I went into Will Barnet’s class of painting,” she told The New York Amsterdam News in 1978. “After a month I said, ‘I think I’m in the wrong class.’ But by this time I had become so involved in my painting, I just stayed.”
She had been studying at the league for four years, working on her painting and learning printmaking, when an immigration official told her that her student visa had run out. She moved to England, where two brothers lived, and over the next few years studied in London. She also spent time in Paris, where she had her first solo exhibition, at the Galerie Louis Soulanges, in 1968.
By the end of that decade, with a new visa, she was back in New York.
The 1971 Whitney show — which drew considerable attention and some controversy over whether black art specialists had had enough input in the selections — included Ms. Pusey’s 1970 painting “Dejygea,” which was part of the Kemper show in 2017 as well.
Ms. Pusey taught at several institutions, including Rutgers University, the New School, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.