Zoe Longfield

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Zoe Longfield
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San Francisco
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materUniversity of California
OccupationAbstract expressionism

Zoe Longfield (1924–2013) was an American Abstract expressionism in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a participant in the first generation of Abstract Expressionism, which occurred primarily in New York and San Francisco in the last half of the 1940s. Longfield was one of the earliest women artists working in this movement and is featured, along with fellow student Frank Lobdell and others, 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]

Early life

Zoe Longfield was born in 1924. She was the only child of Peter and Tatiana (Kasansava) Golovinsky, Russian immigrants who fled their homeland during the Russian Revolution. Her father, an ex-aviator in the Czarist military, died shortly after their arrival in the U.S. in a fall from scaffolding at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco, where he had found work as a window-washer. This left newborn Zoe and her mother to fend for themselves in a foreign land. Supporting herself as a seamstress, Zoe’s mother eventually remarried fellow Russian emigre Maxim Dolgopolov, who became Zoe’s stepfather. In high school Zoe changed her legal surname from Golovinsky to Longfield, a loose English translation of Dolgopoloff.

Zoe grew up an artistic child who drew and painted many subjects, both from her environment and her imagination. After being humiliated by a teacher in elementary school, she developed a nervous stutter that would persist for many years. From an early age, she found calm in solitary creative and intellectual 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 ice skating exhibitions throughout her adolescence and early twenties.[3]


Longfield first studied painting at University of California, Berkeley, from 1941–1944. Her teachers there included Margaret Peterson (artist), John Haley, and Erle Loran, who helped found the "Berkeley School" of abstract expressionism.[1] After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944, she trained for several years in pursuit of a career as a professional figure 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 (artist), and Mark Rothko.[4] One of only a few women in her class, she studied alongside classmates Ernest Briggs, Edward Dugmore, Frank Lobdell, Horst Trave, and others.[4] She established lasting friendships with a number of her classmates, trading works of art and corresponding over many years.[5]

Art and influence

Zoe Longfield, Untitled, 1948. Oil paint on canvas. 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 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]

Handbill for the Metart Galleries, 1949 Although the gallery closed after only a year, it helped to launch the artistic careers of several of its members, including Ernest Briggs and Edward 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. Of Longfield’s show in December 1949, Hagan 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 Clyfford 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 for New York City.[11]

Zoe Longfield, Untitled (Gray and Yellow Painting), 1949. Oil paint on canvas. Within the abstract idiom, Longfield experimented with both thicker and thinner paint applications, at times employing techniques borrowed from watercolor painting. For example, by applying thin washes of oil over the visible white primer of her canvases, she was able to achieve a luminescent effect that evoked being lit from within. Other pieces feature swirling brushstrokes in luxuriously-applied paint, giving her surfaces a sculptural quality. Her paintings often include gestural lines that provide structure and movement to her compositions. She employed a vocabulary of forms, primarily organic but occasionally including more architectural elements. Hagan writes: "One of [Longfield’s paintings], titled No. 9, is a finely arranged creation of blues, blacks, and chalky white in which I, at least, detect something of a skull motif. I also enjoyed her symphonic treatment of bone-like shapes in powder blue and mustard yellow, labeled No. 4. But don’t press me for an explanation—it would be purely ectoplasmic."[10]

Longfield painted a number of noteworthy paintings, including Untitled (1949), a large piece currently held in the Blair Collection of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism[4] and promised as a gift to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Her work also appears in the catalog for the Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit,[1] organized by the Denver Art Museum, as well as in several other significant collections. 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]

Zoe Longfield, Untitled (Red and Blue Painting), 1949. Oil paint on canvas.


  • Metart Galleries, San Francisco, 1949
  • San Francisco and the Second Wave, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, 2004; Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, 2004-2005; Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, 2005; Fresno Art Museum, Fresno, 2005

Personal life

Zoe Longfield, c. 1950 Longfield, like many women of her era, set aside her own artistic ambitions when she married Raphael Etigson on February 11, 1951.[5] 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 never returned to painting, although she pursued 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 List of neighborhoods in San Francisco Portola district of San Francisco and, after their passing, continued to live there for the rest of her life.[12]

Despite living in near-poverty for most of her adult life, Longfield was a discerning appreciator of art, music, and literature.[12] Over the years, she gathered a significant collection of rare music recordings and books, many in first edition, about world history, art, culture, and politics. Hobbled by a botched hip replacement and increasingly reclusive in her later years, she would nonetheless be observed by her neighbors on her daily rounds, feeding homeless cats under a tree in her front yard. In the final years of her life, with no living relatives and just a few close friends, Zoe struggled with health issues and financial insecurity, as well as a hoarding syndrome that increasingly isolated her in her cluttered and disordered home. Longfield died in 2013 in San Francisco from congestive heart failure.[5]

Rediscovery in later life

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.[4] Longfield was in her 80s when she learned that her painting, long forgotten, would be shown as part of this important collection. She made the trip to Sacramento to see the show, telling friends later that she only dimly remembered painting the piece and had no idea how it came to be in this collection.[12] After her death, her remarkable paintings were discovered, unstretched, stacked, and nailed to a dusty back wall of her cluttered garage. Some of these paintings now appear in Women of Abstract Expressionism[1] and are held in private collections.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Marter, Joan (2016). Women of Abstract Expressionism. Denver and New Haven: Denver Art Museum and Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0914738-62-6.
  2. 2.0 2.1 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.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Landauer, Susan (2004). San Francisco and the Second Wave: The Blair Collection of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum. ISBN 1-884038-10-7.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Archives of the Estate of Zoe Longfield Etigson, Davis, CA
  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.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  9. Landauer, Susan (1996). The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08611-2.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Hagan, R.H. (December 11, 1949). "Around the Galleries". San Francisco Chronicle.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. Albright, Thomas (1985). Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–1980: An Illustrated History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05193-9.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Interview with Susie Alldredge, trustee of the estate of Zoe Longfield Etigson, December 2020.

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