Trailblazing artists who happened to be women were the subjects of an astonishing exhibit last winter at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach. My friend Carolyn wrote that she wanted to come see it, so I went for a preview. It fascinated me so much that I bought the catalog and kept returning with friends.
The only one of the artists familiar to me was Georgia O’Keeffe; the other three were revelations. Like O’Keeffe, Marguerite Zorach, Florine Stettheimer, and Helen Torr all worked in New York from 1910 – 1935. O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, exhibited their works in his gallery, even though he gave far more attention to works by Helen’s husband Arthur Dove and Marguerite’s husband William Zorach. Here are some of the paintings I found arresting.
What so intrigued me was to learn how much our views of women and the art they make have changed in the last hundred years. Then, gender, rather than esthetics, took precedence for most critics, as in “that’s really good for a woman.” An exhibit like this one challenges us to react to the art first before considering who did it or the circumstances in which it was created.
I still wrestle with my reactions to the works of women composers whom I studied and taught while in graduate school in the 90s. Is Clara Schumann appealing because I like her compositions or because I admire her for inspiring both her husband Robert AND her friend Johannes Brahms AND supporting her many children as a concert pianist? This exhibit made me ponder which lens I use when considering not only painters and composers, but also Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton.
In her catalog of the exhibit, Ellen E. Roberts, the Curator of American Art at the Norton, offers some conclusions.
Zorach chose to prioritize raising her children over her art, Stettheimer preferred to rarely show (or sell) her canvases, and Torr’s own self-doubt frequently prevented her from painting at all. O’Keeffe created work that fell easily within the common view of her art as expressing womanhood in general. These artists lived in a world in which discrimination against women was deeply embedded. The challenges they faced were not the result of a male conspiracy–indeed, all of these artists had male and female supporters–but of an entire culture’s attitudes.
O’Keefe’s intense paintings of flowers was viewed as an expression of her gender, rather than her own creative sensibility. When Zorach turned to embroidery and batik in order better to balance the demands of art and motherhood, her reputation suffered because these media were seen as merely feminine pursuits. Critics of Torr’s works described them as imitative of those of her husband, Arthur Dove. Stettheimer’s painting, Spring Sale at Bendel’s, was seen as a quintessentially feminine subject and therefore lacking in importance. My friends and I found it glorious!
The immense stylistic diversity among the four artists showcased in this exhibition and publication reveals that they did in fact succeed as modernists: each conveys her own characteristic aesthetic perspective…..Only by exposing the limitations of this initial interpretation of these women’s work–a misunderstanding that still affects how we look at it today–can we evaluate their important contributions to American modernism.
The exhibit will be at the Portland Museum of Art, June 24 – September 18, 2016.
Update from Philadelphia, June 18
Tall buildings in Philly reminded me of O’Keeffe’s “City Night”
Update from London, August 1
At the Tate Modern Museum I saw works by a collective of women artists known as the Guerrilla Girls, who began protesting discrimination against female artists in the late 1980s. They are still active in the US and Europe, as you can see on the Calendar on their website.
Update from Boston on August 26, Women’s Equality Day
Last night three generations of Smith women (Violet, Lilli, and I) got to see the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. I really appreciated seeing works by two of my favorite artists who happen to be women:
1. Mona Hatoum I saw an exhibit of 35 years of Hatoum’s works earlier this month at the Tate Modern in London. Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family in 1952, she settled in London in 1975 after civil war broke out in Lebanon while she was on a visit to Britain. Unlike the American artists profiled above, she is known for her large-scale installations and sculptures that challenges assumptions. One example was a handmade replica of a traditional man’s headscarf, like Yasser Arafat wore. Except that she used women’s hair to weave the checks. Made me think! Here is a photo I wasn’t supposed to take entitled “Hot Spots.” She depicts the entire globe as a danger zone.
At the ICA last night, I was particularly struck by her work, “Pin Rug.” The placard next to it expresses the tension between the look of a plush rug and the feel of 750,000 sharp pins.
2. Another artist in the ICA show was Eva Hesse, whose work I saw at the Whitney in New York in May 2015, after hearing about her at Mass MoCA. At the ICA I was drawn to her “Ennead,” which reminded me of my group of nine women who started first grade together (well, Louise started in second grade, just as one string is below the others). We have various interlocking connections and and differing political views, but still hang out together 66 years after we first met.
Update May 11, 2017: “The Roaring Stetties” by Peter Schjeldahl, 5-15-17 New Yorker
Schejeldahl reviews “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” a retrospective now showing at the Jewish Museum in New York City. The review featured the same nude self-portrait in the slideshow above.
In 1915, Stettheimer painted perhaps history’s first full-length nude self-portrait by a woman, revealing herself to be a true redhead. The pose is taken from “Olympia,” by Manet, who had borrowed it from Titian’s “Venus of Urgino,” but Stettheimer’s left hand, instead of resting on her pudendum, brandishes a bouquet of flowers. Appearing contentedly amused, she is short-haired, long-waisted, long-legged, and small-breasted: a period knockout, at the age of forty-four.
It’s not that Stettheimer, who died in 1944, at the age of seventy-three, needs rediscovering. She is securely esteemed–or adored, more like it–for her ebulliently faux-naïve paintings of party scenes and of her famous friends, and for her four satirical allegrories of Manhattan, which she called “Cathedrals”: symbol-packed phantasmagorias of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Wall Street, and Art, at the Metropolitan Museum.