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ART IN REVIEW; ‘Tres Complementaires’

The New York Times:

In a short prose poem written around 1910, Gertrude Stein ambiguously celebrated the ''gay'' lives of Miss Furr and Miss Skeene. In reality they were Ethel Mars (1876-1959) and Maud Hunt Squire (1873-1954), American artists who lived together in France as part of the expatriate wave of the early 1900's. In their day they were successful at printmaking, book illustrating and painting, exhibiting regularly in Paris and throughout the United States.

After their deaths their names and reputations faded, but now it's revival time. This retrospective, mounted in conjunction with the Susan Sheehan Gallery after extensive research revealed new information about them, ranges over their work from shortly after they met at the Cinncinnati Art Academy until they died, five years apart, in the south of France.

Although they shared a life in which they loved to behave outrageously, the two worked separately. From around 1903 (they moved to Paris in 1906) until the beginning of World War I in 1914, Squire did book illustrations and color etchings while Mars concentrated on painting, color woodblock prints and drawing. In landscapes, portraits, domestic vignettes, street and cafe scenes, Mars's work is distinguished by its flat forms, bold simplicity of design and lively color.

Among her best prints of this period are those cued by the work of the era's greats, Bonnard, Matisse and Vuillard, among others. There is charm and humor in the pared-down forms of ''Nice'' (1913 or earlier), a vividly colored vignette of two women strolling along a promenade. One is old, portly and beady-eyed, wearing a purple printed shawl and voluminous skirt; the other, young, comely and slim, holds an umbrella and walks a spidery little dog. The backdrop is palm trees and the sea.

Squire's early work relies more on drawing. Instead of building her compositions from forms and masses, she limns people and scenes with an anecdotal line, as in the color etching ''Terrasse de Cafe'' (1912). The scene is dominated by a burly man in a bowler who sits pensively chomping a cigar while surrounded by animated figures.

When World War I forced their return to the United States, the pair gravitated to the art colony at Provincetown. They made color woodblock prints that depicted local life, and Mars, whose own work foreshadowed the much-admired white line woodcut developed by artists like the Provincetown printmaker Blanche Lazzell, taught the technique of woodblock printing.

Shown here are Squires's simplified, heavily outlined drawings of Provincetown landscapes, figures and harbor scenes much influenced by the turn-of-the century Pont Aven painters in France who took their colors and flat patterning from Gauguin. ''Clamdiggers'' (1917) is among the best of them; a beautifully designed composition that shows the simplified figures of two men, carefully balancing buckets and pails as they step from rock to rock.

After the war the two moved to the south of France, where they apparently stopped making prints to concentrate on drawing and painting, producing slight but charming scenes of beach and village life. But the prints remain the best of their works. While Squire more or less retired from artmaking by the early 1930's, Mars continued, as revealed in her portraits, with scenes of the French countryside in World War II and big notebooks full of sketches. Her last work, presumably a self-portrait, done around 1958, is a poignant drawing of an old woman in a black dress and hat facing the viewer but looking inward.