Sylvia Fein Displays Persistence of Vision

Sylvia Fein Displays Persistence of Vision


The Berkeley Art Museum hosts an exhibition by East Bay painter Sylvia Fein, who just celebrated her 100th birthday and is the Last Surviving Surrealist.

The Matrix program at Berkeley Art Museum, normally a showcase for emerging artists, is kicking off the traces with a small retrospective exhibition of East Bay painter Sylvia Fein, who just celebrated her 100th birthday, and has inherited bragging rights to the title of Last Surviving Surrealist. Although Fein studied painting at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and achieved success as a member of the Midwest Surrealists, she moved to the Bay Area after WWII, where she earned her MFA from Berkeley in 1951. The striking painting of an eye in BAM’s large Strange show, in the large galleries, is Fein’s 2011 work, Crucial Eye, last shown locally in 2014 at Oakland’s Krowswork Gallery.

While the 68-year gap between grad school and the Matrix show must set some kind of record, Fein’s career has been marked by perseverance — hence my article title, “Persistence of Vision” — and, despite early success in the New York art world (including exhibition in the 1946-7 Whitney Annual alongside the likes of the “lordly and pontifical” Surrealists Max Ernst and Roberto Matta) a certain independence. Fein took a three-decade hiatus from painting, to pursue writing and gardening, that ended only 20 years ago. Since her return to her beloved egg tempera at age 80, and her inclusion in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition, In Wonderland, showcasing women surrealists from the 1940s and ’50s, Fein says she “burst into a new life. … In my old age I have become illuminated.”

That illumination is a culmination of her earlier work, and true to Surrealist faith in surrender to chance and the unconscious. Fein recounts making her large 2012 work, The Painting Told Me What To Do, with its mystical burning bushes: “Something got my hand. It painted itself.” Viewers can trace the artist’s visionary impulse in Old Masterish landscapes in Island for Cats (1946) and View of the Valley (1956); nearly abstract marines in Breakers (1965) and Silent Moonlight Swim (2016); and various disembodied, omniscient eye paintings (some feline) in Kite Eye (2006), Musical Sky Eyes (2010), and Beginning Over (2012).

Sylvia Fein runs through March 1; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808;


This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.