The daughter of a Congregationalist minister and the oldest of four children, Janet Young was raised in Illinois. She received her bachelor’s degree in languages from Oberlin College in Ohio; her fluency in Italian, French, and German later led to work as a translator for the United States government during World War II. After graduating from Oberlin, Young traveled to Germany, where she helped her father organize European tours for school teachers. In Germany she discovered the Bauhaus, and while she never attended its classes, the fertile environment had a lasting effect on her work. During the early 1930s, she spent much of her time in Berlin. It was there that she met and married Beckford Young, a California art student who had gone to Germany to study with Hans Hofmann.(1) Shortly after their marriage, the Youngs traveled in Italy, and spent a summer at the art colony in Positano where Vaclav Vytlacil was teaching.
This period was a productive one for Janet Young. The artist was already committed to developing a personal language of abstraction based on Constructivist ideas. Young continued to experiment with Constructivism after she and her husband returned to California in 1937. Although the early complex wooden assemblages she exhibited in the 1938 annual of the American Abstract Artists are now lost, it is apparent from photographs that Young had thoroughly assimilated the Constructivist aesthetic. In them she combined rectangular wood cutouts, half-round and serrated wood moldings with spherical and hemispherical shapes, and possibly plastics within a shallow relief format. Tightly composed into architectural structures, they are concerned with the balance of static and dynamic form.
Unlike Beckford Young, from whom she was divorced, Janet Young pursued an abstract style throughout her career.(2) Until the 1960s, when she introduced color into her work, she concentrated primarily on stark, black-and-white compositions, and frequently worked with collage. Collage #17 and Collage #20, in which Young assembled clippings from magazines and newspapers into articulate, architectural compositions, are typical of her work during this period.(3)
1. The couple divorced in the 1940s.
2. Janet Young was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease in 1941 and currently lives in a convalescent home in California.
3. The information about Janet Young’s life is from an interview with Beckford Young, Jr., by Mary Drach, conducted on 31 March 1988. I am grateful to Mr. Young for his assistance.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)