Three generations of painters: grandfather (1857-1934), father (1891-1968) and sister (1929-1988).

My first exhibitions in New York City were in the mid-70s at AIR Gallery, the radical and still successful gallery started by a group of women artists in 1972. Located in the then newly founded Soho it was a unique experiment providing an exhibition space for women artists during a time in which the works shown at commercial galleries were almost exclusively by male artists. AIR Gallery received support for its wide variety of programs from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts which made it possible not only to bring the work of women members of the Gallery to the public but also to devote time and space to a wide range of women’s art in this country and abroad. I first met Louise Bourgeois at AIR. She and some members of AIR formed the Guerilla Girls who, through public actions, created a great deal of publicity, making the lack of women’s art shown in galleries and museums an important and urgent cause.

I was born in Switzerland of American parents and came to America as a child in a family fleeing the German invasion of France where we lived at the time. The plight of artists in Europe at this time spurred Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art to send Varian Fry to Marseilles with the task of getting as many artists as possible out of France and to America. It was a matter of visas and they had to be fabricated as the United States embassy was not cooperative. My father, Laurence Vail, had been married to Peggy Guggenheim and she and her future husband, Max Ernst (who was considered an enemy alien as he was German) were all part of this voyage. My father’s second wife, Kay Boyle, a writer and also a member of artists in Paris in the ‘20s, was my mother. With Peggy’s two children and my mother’s four children all with Laurence, I was the youngest with four older sisters and one older brother. After months in Marseilles we took the route so many others had taken, crossing into Spain and then Portugal for a flight from Lisbon to New York. We arrived in New York in 1941 and both my mother and father, though they were divorced by then, were part of a very close expatriate group of artists which included Marcel Duchamp. 

We remained in New York until the war was over and returned to France in 1947. I endured the French ècole communal in Paris and American Army schools in Germany for four years and finally returned to America in 1951 to live with relatives. I eventually attended Bennington College and studied with Paul Feeley and Tony Smith and received a Master’s Degree from Hunter College.