While she is best remembered for modernist works that extol the New Mexico landscape and explore Native American culture, Gina Schnaufer Knee lived and painted in the South for a number of years, years during which she made important philosophical and technical advances in her art. She arrived in Savannah in the mid-1940s, newly married to her third husband, the artist Alexander Brook. They shared a converted cotton warehouse as their home and studio, and became engaged with the local art community, which included Hattie Saussy. It was in Savannah that Knee first began to work in oil, using this new medium to create tightly composed paintings that portrayed the architectural density of Savannah’s neighborhoods and stirring commentaries on African American life.
Born to wealth in Ohio, Virginia Schnaufer succumbed to—and then quickly defied—social conventions of the day. Wed at a young age to a prosperous suitor, she abandoned the marriage after ten years. Living briefly in New York in 1930, she took only a few classes at the Art Students League. Inspired by an exhibition of John Marin’s New Mexico watercolors, she went to that state in 1931; though she initially planned to stay only a few weeks, she remained for ten years. It was there that Gina met and married the aspiring artist-photographer Ernest Knee. The couple settled in Santa Fe, where they became immersed in the small city’s growing art circle. During this period, Knee spent her days painting the natural and spiritual scenery of the Southwest, translating her own abstract visual language in spontaneous watercolors that first reflected Marin’s influence and, later, Paul Klee’s. Throughout her artistic evolutions, the impact of the Southwest endured: “I never got over the New Mexico landscape, the mesas, mountains, the green and tan,” Knee recounted.
During World War II, Knee lived briefly in California and New York, where her work was regularly exhibited the Willard Gallery. Following her divorce from Knee and subsequent marriage to Brook, she traveled with her husband in the United States, returning regularly to New Mexico, and abroad. In the late 1940s, the couple took up more permanent residence in Sag Harbor, New York. There, she became associated and exhibited with the exciting circle of Abstract Expressionist artists—including Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell—and earned praise for works that achieved the “balance between the real and the imagined that is the keynote of all successful abstraction."
Over the course of her career, Knee was represented in important shows held at the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Museum of Modern Art, and the Newark Museum’s pivotal 1965 survey exhibition, Women Artists of America, 1707-1964. Her work is held at the Anschutz Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Phillips Collection.