One key to many of these works, particularly the figurative or representational ones, is that meaning is over-determined: the artist is trying to appear interesting or to be seen as saying something (in other words the desire for meaningful expression may be completely sincere, but maybe it isn’t quite as sincere as it wishes to portray) – deer heads in an upside down bathtub, dramatic staircases to nowhere. Self-portrait as clowns: clearly all the young (usually male) artists who continue to image themselves as clowns have never read Benjamin Buchloh’s critical analysis of this imago of the artist’s abject role of jester to the bourgeoisie, in his 1980 essay “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” where he writes:“The Harlequins, Pierrots, Bejazzos, and Pulcinelles invading the work of Picasso, Beckmann, Severini, Derain, and others in the early twenties […] can be identified as ciphers of an enforced regression. They serve as emblems for the melancholic infantilism of the avant-garde artist who has come to realize his historic failure. The clown functions as a social archetype of the artist as an essentially powerless, docile, and entertaining figure performing his acts of subversion and mockery from an undialectical fixation on utopian thought.”If they had, they would think twice … or would they? (think of Paul McCarthy’s imago of the artist as a disgusting clown and all the artists influenced by it).
Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the 80s at Pace Gallery arrives at an interesting moment in terms of the abrupt shift of stylistic currents and tropes that characterize art history and it offers an opportunity to revisit the situation of women painters in the 1980s.
Brief study prompt: Painting in the 1980s–you weren’t supposed to do it–that is, if you were a woman, and especially a woman interested in discourse on gender politics. Different story if you were an American, Italian, or German man.
Or you could do it, although particularly if you were a male artist, but certainly not sincerely, there had to be an ironic twist. An appropriational basis in photography and language helped.
The title of the show implies the aesthetic tensions of that moment, that is, the title is not Elizabeth Murray: Paintings of the 80s, which would place the focus on her work alone during a certain time period of her working life, but Painting in the 80s, that is, her activity of painting in the 80s and, beyond that, the activity and the discipline of painting at a particular moment in Western art history.
Starting in the early 1980s, the art market experienced a huge surge after a decade of relative recession which had been, not coincidentally, marked by creative and political experimentation and which was, notably, the decade of Murray’s first fully mature work. In the new market boom, large Neo-Expressionist and appropriational painting, largely by male artists, was the dominant medium and of course the favored market commodity, with women gravitating (and being pushed, by both external and internal forces) towards photography and photobased media (with correspondingly lesser market value). While the language of the heroic history of painting could still be applied to the former, along with newer modes of criticism influenced by postmodern theory, or, even, one might say, despite the dominance of the anti-essentialism of such theory, the other–work by women artists including those peripherally or explicitly interested in gender–was drawn to and delimited by the same theory with an emphasis on an anti-essentialism that particularly targeted painting.
A so-to-speak mantraic recap of that period might be, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault Derrida, and, when it came to women artists, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer…not forgetting Baudrillard and Mary Kelly, and more, but you get the idea.
Of course there were powerful women painters during that time period, including in addition to Murray, artists such as Susan Rothenberg and Ida Applebroog. But international exhibitions and biennials of contemporary art usually included very few women and of these the three mentioned above were ubiquitous.
And at that time, as I have observed elsewhere, it was useful for such painters to do work that could be parsed for their representational depiction of ideas about the female body, femininity, gender and feminism. Abstract artists–including women painters and sculptors whose work had been so influential and notable within feminist art discourse in the 70s–often felt left out of major exhibitions and texts devoted to women artists and feminism. In that moment Elizabeth Murray’s work was a beacon. To walk into Paula Cooper Gallery in the 80s or into Murray’s first major museum retrospective, at the Whitney, in April 1988, was a thrill and inspiration. To walk into Pace Gallery today is to experience that thrill anew.
The paintings from that period, now as when they were first created and exhibited, are bold, confident, powerful, intensely physical, courageous in their assertion of space on and off the wall, massive, inspiring in their use of color and paint texture and application.
But at some level the paintings operated and still operate beyond discursiveness. At a time when representation and enculturation of female identity was the issue at hand, feminist criticism couldn’t quite get a grip on a large twisted broken shield or heart like a shield working at a monumental scale, leaping out at you from the gallery wall, where you couldn’t directly address a feminist narrative by which I mean the narrow interpretation of what a feminist narrative might be where representation, figuration, and appropriation would allow you to speak of psychoanalysis, for example. Not that Murray wasn’t widely admired but the important feminist criticism of the day was focused on artists whose work could be discussed in relation to Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, and there were clear specifications of what work was part of that discourse and which wasn’t.
These theoretical references were also the lodestars of a dominant anti-essentialist discourse on how the female and the feminine were socially constructed and you couldn’t address Murray’s work without dealing with how engaged she was with the basic components of painting—figure and ground, oil on canvas and support, and this was in the dangerous territory of the essentialism of painting itself. And while in fact Murray’s work demolished Greenbergian tenets, at the same time her painterly ambition both embraced and reinvigorated the great tradition of New York School painting of which his philosophy were an important component.
And, finally, as I try to give a sense of what being an artist in the1980s was like, Murray did not use “the language,” as someone once used the term to me, “those of us who have the language.” Her references could be literary and philosophical, what she said about her work was deep but different than an academic discourse, as much rooted in daily visual experience as in popular culture and in direct transmutation into paint of such experience. In discussing her work she did not use what later became known at International Art English. Very much like Philip Guston, she was very eloquent about becoming an artist, the personal and cultural sources for her imagery and style, and about studio process.
I have a history of constructing vivid but sometimes revealed to be false memories of favorite paintings by artists I love: a painting will be a lodestar in my mind, and I will remember not just it, but the wall of the museum or gallery that it hung on, and perhaps at the core of my memory is my memory of myself at the instant of seeing it. It is the moment of the coup de foudre, love at first sight, but, more than that, of when an imperative and a challenge is revealed to you in one glance. As time passes, I try to find the work again, but often can’t find any trace. Sometimes it is eventually proven to me that it never existed as I had remembered. For example, for the longest time there was a Guston painting of cherries that I had seen at McKee Gallery. There are many wonderful paintings of cherries by Philip Guston and though I love them all, somehow that one painting was in my mind the best one. I remembered where it was installed the gallery, on the back side of the back dividing wall. But no reproduction matched my memory. Finally I asked about it at David McKee Gallery, Guston’s dealer for four decades, and they figured out the year of the show I was talking about and were able to show me the layout of the show and the images, and evidently I had constructed the painting. Strangely, once my memory was proven to be false, the image began to fade in favor of verifiable works, though the ideal persisted.
Another such painting that stood out in my memory in my personal archive of works particularly significant to me–was a large multi-part question mark I had seen at Murray’s retrospective Elizabeth Murray, Paintings and Drawings, which opened at the Whitney in 1988. I never forgot the work, or more specifically, its subject, its materiality, its scale. And, again, more specifically, I remembered myself seeing it, being struck by it: it was there and I saw it, in that way you remember seeing across the street or across a large room a person who you will later meet and fall in love with, but you already did at the first instant of vision. Over the years I always wanted to see it again, and I looked for images of that painting, without success. After the Guston cherries episode I understood that I was capable of inventing archetypal paintings by other artists. Had I made up Elizabeth Murray’s monumental question mark?
Lurking in the back of my mind when I went to see the current show at Pace Gallery was the hope that it would be there. Without seeing it I walked purposefully towards finding it. And, in the back wall of the back room, there was the painting, Cracked Question. Apart from being more askew than I remembered, less vertical, more horizontal, it looked like the painting I fell in love with but doubt set in when examination of the Whitney exhibition catalogue did not include it. Detective work and pestering of friends ensued and mention of the painting was found in a review of the show written by Rob Storr,
Like an interrogative sentence in Spanish, Murray’s show both began and ended with the same punctuation mark, but one whose significance vastly exceeded its simple editorial or grammatical function. Looming just beyond the brightly hued paintings of the 1970s that created one at the entrance, Cracked Question (1987), a mammoth multi panel, multi-faceted picture that dominated the central room of the Whitney installation, was at once the first image on which one’s eye’s fell and a tense conclusion to the chronological sequence of intervening works. (Storr, “Shape Shifter,” Art in America (April 1989), p. 275)
Storr’s description of the pivotal position of the work in the show filled in my memory of seeing myself seeing it. [Because such stories interest me, I think the solution of the mystery is that the show originated in 1987 in Dallas at the Dallas Museum of Art, and was surely planned before that. Cracked Question dates from 1987 and the Whitney show opened in the spring of 1988 so it must have been a late, but, as Storr indicates, central addition.
The work is massive, sober, architectural, dramatic. In my notes I wrote that it is dispositive, it feel instinctively that it solves a problem, a conflict, although its subject stays at the moment of the question. It is sculptural and would be seen as such under any circumstances, but the dark grey and metallic silver paint emphasizes the segmented painting’s relation to steel and stone. Each part is as powerful as the whole, yet the whole embodies its existence as language–speaking of Murray’s relation to “the language,” Cracked Question is language. It doesn’t represent a punctuation mark, it is a punctuation mark. It does not only pose but it is a philosophical question and a philosophical text, that takes place in the languages of form and color and space and matter.
A friend spoke to me of the “ferocity” of Murray’s work. Cracked Question embodies and exemplifies that ferocity.
This show arrives at a moment when, after several years of the dominance of abstraction–much of it a variant of what has been termed “zombie formalism”—that is, constructions and deconstructions of established tropes of abstraction, usually very elegant, and often disconcerting, particularly for those viewers who lived through the “original” phases being sampled or replicated, because of the works’ lack of the historical content and the crucial trace of struggle for form and content that had characterized those earlier movements–there are suddenly dozens of exhibitions of figurative painting ranging in style from Alice Neel-like realism to a poetic fantastic that emerges from surrealism and can sometimes border on millennial pathos. So, right now, figuration is in, not in all cases with a overt political message, unless in terms of the racial or gender identity of the artist and the figures represented in the paintings.
So is this a case of bad timing or of good timing for this presentation of Murray’s great works from the 1980s? It is always fascinating to think about how sometimes museum retrospectives, though planned years in advance, open just at the moment when that artist’s work or that artist’s most controversial works look presciently fresh to a new generation. Often such works are revived precisely to give contemporary artists the historical buttress that will burnish their reputations: thus late figurative works by Picabia, previously seen as kitschy aberrations were first restored to critical favor in the 1980s at a time when it seemed to retrospectively offer an important patrilineage for and contribute to the historical buttressing of the work of a then emerging David Salle. Last year’s extensive Alice Neel exhibition at David Zwirner seemed perfectly keyed to the work of emerging art stars like Jordan Casteel. So what will young artists experiencing this moment’s stylistic Zeitgeist make of Elizabeth Murray’s greatest works, seen at this moment?
It should be noted that while the overall effect of Murray’s work is one of abstraction, and the artist described herself as an abstract painter in an interview included in the 1987 catalogue, there are many representational elements and references in her paintings, in a stylized style emerging from cartoons, comics, and graffiti as well as from pop artists like Claes Oldenburg: works are shaped like shoes or cups and contains stylized abstracted but identifiable figuration and still-life imagery. But her relation to representation is not in the realm of narrative or allegory, the thing itself is the important thing, the painting as an object that projects into our space carrying pigment on its surface. The importance of three-dimensionality is apparent when one compares her oil paintings from this period to related drawings: even when these are on several pieces of paper creating a shape or a broken field, they operate in a more conventional relation to form. The objectness of the shaped paintings from this period makes them always more than the working out of abstracted, biomorphic or geometric forms on a flat surface, since the form of the support itself is a biomorphic or geometric abstraction.
That places them in yet another situation of appearing to be beyond language: how she declares space is different than Barnett Newman’s declaration of the equivalence between figure and ground: what is painted as form and shapes on the large shaped works may be securely within the realm of figure, but on the other hand the whole object itself is figure on the ground of the wall in a way that conventional easel paintings, even Murray’s own earlier works, are not. Thus, again, if the works can’t be incorporated or tamed into discourse of gender representation, nor to the terms of the new critical language of gender, racial identity, national identity politics, they also can’t be reduced to the purely formal terms of the earlier discourse that had characterized painting from the late 1940s to the 1970s.
The sculptural nature of the works emphasizes the sculptural nature of oil paint itself. One of the things I have always found the most inspiring about these works is how the three dimensional support allows me to really experience the physicality of pigment. This is one of the things that painters live for, the moments when paint comes alive in a generative fashion, so for me, how Murray allowed oil paint to dry unevenly–an area of color will be matte and then shiny, which in itself becomes sculptural. And it is never enough to look them frontally, you have to experience the surface from the side to really see the color and the brushstrokes.
A year after Murray’s show at the Whitney, which included, in addition to Cracked Question, a number of the works in the current exhibition at Pace, I wrote the essay “Figure/Ground,” in which I confronted the critique of painting I have indicated as dominant in the 1980s with other discourses that were not usually brought to bear on it, including those of feminism and of feminist studies of the gendered, misogynist aspects and roots of fascism. In one of the last paragraphs of the essay, I wrote about some of what I love about painting:
For a painter there is certainly tremendous pleasure in working out a thought in paint. I tis a complete process in terms of brain function: an intellectual activity joining memory, verbal knowledge, and retinal information, is a given visible existence through a physical act. But the value of painting cannot rest of any individual artist’s private pleasure. Painting is a communicative process in which information flows through the eye from one brain, one consciousness, to another, as telemetric data speeds from satellite to computer, without slowing for verbal communication. Incident of paint linger in the working mind of the painter as continuous thrills, as possibilities, like words you may soon use in a sentence, and–in a manner that seems to exist outside of spoken language—as beacons of hope to any human being for whom visuality is the site of questions and answers about existence. The black outline of a rock in a Marsden Hartley landscape, the scumbled white shawl in a portrait by Goya, the glaze of a donor’s veil in the Portinari Altarpiece, the translucent eyelid of Leonardo’s Ginevra di Benci, the pulsing red underpainting of a slave’s toe in a Delacroix, the shift from shiny to matte in a passage of indigo blue by Elizabeth Murray, are only a few of a storehouse of details that are of more than professional interest to me.
Images used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
What we are learning from the series of exposures of sexual assault and harassment by figures from Weinstein and other Hollywood directors I have never even heard of and now Knight Landesman at Artforum constitutes a veritable textbook of psychopathological deviance and perverse behavior put to the specific use of abusing and harassing women in the workplace.
I used to wonder if New York landlords all took the same course where they learned such typical techniques as how to go from cajoling a tenant with too good to be true promises to two seconds later seconds threatening your life if you didn’t accept their offer. Recurring patterns of the MO of the sexual predators we have had to spend time with this past month makes you wonder if they all go to such a school to learn these techniques and behaviors. Well yes, they do, the school is one with the biggest student body on the planet, one we all attend, that is, patriarchy. Women attend too, since birth. Though born to and brought up by women, such men don’t seem to have attended matriarchy school or the we are all human beings school.
For those of us who don’t practice this kind of abusive behavior or who are fortunate to have never encountered it to such a blatant degree as revealed in these cases, this news has itself been a school in all kinds of violent and psychologically humiliating methods. Further as a recent article about the newest class of abusers, Leon Wieseltier and Mark Halperin, points out, one is asked to believe that there is no relation between the political views held by these male gatekeepers of public opinion and their personal derogation of women:
What does it mean that these men — and so many others liked them — held the power to literally shape America’s political narrative? What does it mean, as New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister noted on Twitter, that the story of, say, Hillary Clinton’s public career was told by these sorts of men?
One does not need to dig very deep into Halperin and Wieseltier’s work to find echoes of their private behavior in their public comments. “For Leon, women fell on a spectrum ranging from Humorless Prig to Game Girl, based on how much of his sexual banter, innuendo, and advances she would put up with,” writes Cottle. It’s an observation that sheds considerable light on Wieseltier’s oft-expressed contempt for Clinton. In 2007, Wieseltier told the New York Times that she was “like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won’t stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone.”
Art historian Anna Chave, among others, has made a related point about the women gatekeepers of art history, for example in her essay “Minimalism and Biography,” collected in the excellent anthology edited by feminist art historians Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism. Chave critiques the rhetoric of objectivity of minimalism by examining the personal relationships between the male heroes of the movement and their critical proponents: “In the radicalized 1960s, neo-Marxists, including partisans of Louis Althusser, elevated the categories of the material and the social over those of the individual or the subjective. For Marxists generally—as indeed for capitalism also—personal and expressive values have historically been derogated as secondary and tacitly, or otherwise, feminine, sine women have ordinarily been acculturated to assume their arenas as their proper domains…But in actuality, the leading Minimalists have been hardly less heroicized than prior members of the elite of art-historical canons. …Most of the critics who built their own reputations by building the reputations of artist in Minimalism’s inner and outer circles were friends and, at times, lovers or spouses or the same artists, a fact that is a matter of record on a piecemeal basis at best and thus is widely unknown outside the circles in question.” Same point in reverse.
The evening of October 10, 1991, I watched Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary committee confirmation hearings. Chronology of events on Wikipedia places her testimony on the 11th but my diary from the period indicates that on the evening of the 10th as I ate dinner watching the hearings I shoveled food into my mouth without thinking and got a fish bone stuck in my throat–I was so transfixed by what I hearing I forgot to chew my food. The next day Friday October 11, the diary reads “watched Anita Hill but realized mid-day I had to go to hospital, went to Eye & Nose etc (sic) hospital 14th street got fish bone out.
A lot more pubic hairs have been added to that coke can since.
Of all the disgusting and arcanely perverse things I have read in the past few weeks these will stand out:
Once they left, Sivan says Weinstein leaned in and tried to kiss her. Sivan rejected that attempt and told him she had a long-term boyfriend. Weinstein then said to Sivan, “Well, can you just stand there and shut up.”
At this point, Weinstein and Sivan were in a vestibule between the kitchen and bathrooms. The only way for Sivan to get away from Weinstein required her to get past him and go through the kitchen. Sivan says she was trapped by Weinstein’s body and was intimidated.
Weinstein then proceeded to expose himself to Sivan and began to masturbate. Sivan said she was deeply shocked by Weinstein’s behavior and was frozen and didn’t know what to do or say. The incident in the vestibule didn’t last long. Sivan says Weinstein ejaculated quickly into a potted plant that was in the vestibule and then proceeded to zip up his pants and they walked back into the kitchen.(Huffington Post)
She went for the door. He told her he couldn’t let her go unless he had sexual release. All she needed to do was pinch his nipples and look into his eyes and he would press himself against her and come in his pants. She felt she had no choice. And while it was happening, she tried to look away, but he grabbed her head and made her stare into his eyes.(LA Times)
“In one alleged instance, Landesman learned that Elisabeth McAvoy, who was in her 20s and an Artforum employee, was living with her sister and was told, according to the complaint, “that she should move out so that her sister could ‘come herself to sleep.’ ” (ARTnews)
“Do you want a walnut? Let me feed you walnuts.” (Artnet)
In its editorial today, “Will Harvey Weinstein’s Fall Finally Reform Men?” the Editorial Board of The New York Times declares that, “This may turn out to be the year when the tide finally turns on sexual harassment.” They point to all the positive statistics of women in the labor force that might suggest that. They don’t point to the recent election of a pussy-grabber and to the regressive views about women held by the Christian fascist who may replace him if necessary.
Here are some of my experiences with recent moments of awakening and public attention to sexual harassment.
Just about one year ago, right after the release of grab em by the pussy tape, author Kelly Oxford started a Twitter wave “Women: tweet me your first assaults.” If you’re on Twitter take a look back. Thousands of tweets an hour at one point. Add these to the #METOO wave which started about ten days ago. #METOO though compared to so many women I’ve just dealt with fairly minor gross and inappropriate behavior + insidiously subtle & annoying forms of sexual harassment—the greater toll has come from all the professional situations where the anger at my feminist views and critical writings or representations in my work would suddenly be revealed and I’d realize how that anger affected my career in ways I was usually oblivious to believe it or not.
In the midst of the wave of #MeToo posts on Facebook and Twitter in the past few days, “#MeToo was all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — over 500,000 times on Twitter and 12 million times on Facebook in the first 24 hours alone according to an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, I realized that I had kept a screen shot taken during a previous similar hashtag wave, #YesAllWomen. Does anyone even remember that? I didn’t even remember what caused that episode of sharing (Rebecca Solnit had to remind me that it was in the reaction to the Isla Vista shooting, the kid who set out to kill the prettiest sorority girls because no one wanted to have sex with him).
Did that hashtag make a difference? Will #MeToo make a difference? Did the revelations of how pervasive sexual harassment and abuse are stay in public consciousness or change anything? Asked and answered.
I chose a particular screen shot of #YesAllWomen because of the tweet at the top, “#YesAllWomen because how often does a man text his friend to say that he got home safe?” Many women are sharing stories of outright rape, gross abuse, repeated dangerous and humiliating encounters, as well as pervasive experience with the kind of slights that seems minor, that one brushes off, diminishing many of those experiences in one’s own mind to the point of drawing a blank, I think as a defense mechanism so that one can continue.
That one sentence about women calling their friends and their mothers and sisters to say that they got home safe is the closest to the experience shared by all women, and it is enough to indicate a societal and global issue. From the minute a girl is allowed to go from one place to another by herself, she is instilled with fear by caring fearful adults. That alone is sexual abuse. That alone is something that must be dealt with and negotiated with within oneself. That alone is a limitation on women’s ability to fully inhabit a public and even a private life. Not all women live with the same degree of fear, most women continue to trust, and that trust has been made clear as a mechanism in several of the stories about Landesman’s abusive behavior as a publisher of Artforum, but still, I think the fear is very deeply instilled at an early age. I think back to one aspect of my childhood in New York City: my mother would insist that I take a taxi home from my best friend’s house across the park, but then I would sit in the back seat with my hand practically on the door handle thinking about how to jump out of the car if the driver looked like he was going to veer from his course. Now that cars have locks controlled by the driver I have my phone at the ready. So not only was it ingrained in me from an early age that there were dangers, all children do have to learn that but girls in a special way, but even that what was supposed to keep me safe could also be a source of danger. That is the basic plot line of many horror movies with young women protagonists: the killer is in the house, call the police, the police is the killer.
The point is that all women since childhood have to deal with at the very least, that fear and the necessity for heightened awareness, limitations on one’s movements, and shame as the weight of the abuse falls on the women. I think back to a conference held at Hunter College in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill public hearings, one of the speakers, I think Amber Hollibaugh, said, every time she — Anita Hill, any woman—speaks her story of abuse, she IS sexuality, she IS the crime that was perpetrated on her…those weren’t the exact words, it’s a long time ago, but it rings true through to today, that when women do speak up, they get revictimized, even just by the act of speech, they embody the crime rather than the crime being embodied in the abuser—and yet if they don’t speak up no one thinks about it and the perpetrators go on and on without punishment.
And that is what is most disturbing and significant: for each woman who has had an encounter that ranges from violent crime to daily annoyment, there was a man who did it. Since I think that basically #YesAllWomen, that makes for a lot of men. So now we have #NOTALLMEN. But if it is 100% #Yes AllWomen then #whatpercentageofmen? So the problem seems to be in how masculinity is defined or more to the point, how over centuries patriarchy has defined woman as lesser.
I used as an epigraph to my first published writing, “Appropriated Sexuality,“ a few lines from a poem by Muriel Ruckeyser,
Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.
Because she is the source of life, she embodies the knowledge of death, and thus must be punished.
I first became radicalized and empowered by feminism when I was about nineteen. And here we are, with the hundreds of thousands of revelations of #YesAllWomen forgotten and not having brought about any change and #MeToo with us today. After all these revelations, and all these waves of feminism, and all these backlashes, a young woman still feels she has to say, oh OK feed me the damn walnut so I can get on with my work and keep my job.
There is no happy ending or solution to this rambling post just more hashtags because there are more abominations by the day.
For example last week (or was it last year, the current regime has made time a torment), General John Kelly waxed nostalgic about a past when “Women were sacred.” #Whenwerewomensacred? #Womenarenotsacredtheyarehuman #Ifwomenare“sacred”theyhavethegodlyrighttomakedecisionsabouttheirownbodies.Otherwisetheyareonly “sacred”as#broodmares #apologizeorresign
If the belief that women are not equal human beings is so deeply engrained in human civilization since the development of property rights, agriculture, and urban settlement, the battle to maintain and gain rights, parity and humanity is #endlessbattleforrights.
3. The women targets
The Consciousness raising sessions that were an intrinsic part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s took place within living memory (mine at least), a movie like 9 to 5 came out in 1980, representing both a flowering of Women’s Lib and marking the end of that social movement and the beginning of the backlash against it. But in the intervening years there was still a lot of popular culture and popular rhetoric about the empowerment of young women. The Anita Hill episode was seen as a turning point in terms of reawakening feminist activism particularly at the legal level. Institutions have guidelines, don’t they? And the understanding I’ve been given—by several mini-generations of “post-feminists” and feminists, as a “70s feminist with all the stereotypical negative associations of that historical era, is that several new generations of young women since the 70s didn’t take shit from anyone.
But alas, they do, and I am not sensing that they feel the presence of a sisterhood that would back them up publicly as opposed to privately. As all women do, they at the very least told women friends but the story most often stayed there. Instead of feeling empowered to say, fuck off you perv, their first reaction has been the time-honored one: they tried to be polite, politic, and manage the situation if manageable—the situation of Weinstein and Toback also involve physical intimidation and violence. In the case of dealing with someone like Landesman or Leon Weiseltier, some eventually spoke up to the powerful man, which took enormous courage. But those conversations remained private as well so the behavior would continue.
By the way I am not writing here about the situation of women working for minimum wage who feel powerless and terrorized. The news in recent weeks is about abuse taking place at the top of professions with many of the participants well-educated women.
Can we crowd source a guidebook of techniques to deal with these creeps, from physical self-defense training—which is not relevant to every one of the millions of situations women encounter daily around the world–I think of a friend’s inspired response once when working for an abusive editor at a major (non art publication)–it wasn’t exactly sexual abuse as I recall though it clearly had a gendered substructure, he would yell at her and put her down viciously. Versed in feminist performance art, one day leaving his office where she had been yet again been verbally berated, she spontaneously got down on her hands and knees to crawl back to her desk through the open office space occupied by co-workers. By overtly enacting the position he was putting her in, she apparently shocked him into at least a moderate change in his behavior.
Most women have endured a lot of abuse without bringing complaints or legal action, although I would think that most companies and institutions would have strict rules about sexual harassment, if only to prevent lawsuits. My institution regularly insists that everyone take an online training course on discrimination and sexual violence. But the women who got huge settlements from FOX seem to be the glaring exceptions from what must be a huge pool of women who have been similarly degraded and controlled, among whom some waited and went along with their tormentors for years before taking action.
This becomes particularly problematic when there are women in the power structure.
4. The Women of the Institution #politesse
This past week, I was interested first by the case of Artforum Michelle Kuo, who resigned after the public statement by the publishers of Artforum. I do not know her and know very little about her influence in changing the publication or of her as a boss—indeed whether being editor in chief was considered a directorial position. But I was struck by the fact that some women in the art world commended/defended her while I had been wondering how she could not have known what was going on, since the kind of behavior Landesman “allegedly” engaged in included a lot of stuff that cannot be hidden. Saying intrusive uncomfortable , sexually inappropriate things is not the kind of thing that such men hide, though they may hide some of the creepier more pervy and intimidating stuff from their colleagues, guys who say stuff are the sine qua non of a woman’s life. In fact I think a round of applause is due for all work situations where this kind of stuff just doesn’t happen because the people are just decent. So how in a company with a relatively small staff and office footprint from what I know, could she not know? Did she not have some responsibility for the hostile work environment? Was she herself a victim? Or was she too a victim of the larger situation, like so many highly educated professional women in the art world, who have a deeply engrained sense of politesse and perfection of which one premise is that you do not question the hierarchy?
5.The other women of the Institution #ValiantWomen
Yesterday after reading the statement from Artforum employees “Artforum staff Condemns Magazine’s Management of Allegations,” I scrutinized the masthead of both Artforum and Bookforum, highlighting the names of those who had signed this declaration, so that I could also distinguish who had not signed. I thought about what the role might be or what one might reasonably expect from some for the most prestigious writers who are published in Artforum, such as the Contributors Editors: among these are such noted art historians and critics Jan Avgikos, Daniel Birnbaum, Yve-Alain Bois, Germano Celant, Thomas Crow, Hans Ulrich Obrist, James Meyer, and Katie Siegel.*
These masthead notables do not work at the offices of Artforum and they are not to my knowledge actual employees of Artforum. I could be wrong about that, but I doubt if they have contracts or receive a regular salary for occasionally contributing a text and being listed as a contributing editor. Thus they could legitimately say that they didn’t have anything to do with that aspect of the institution. But, still, I wondered, do they have anything to say, do they play a role, might not their views or support be of interest.
I have published writing in Artforum. Nowhere near the masthead but still, fewer than six degrees of separation. My first encounters with Artforum in the role of an art writer go back to a moment of significance in feminism, at the end of the highly contentious and polemic 1980s, the era of the backlash, of Jesse Helms, of ACT-UP, The Guerrilla Girls. In 1989 I was approached by Jan Heller Levi, then an Associate Editor, to publish a review of Janet Kaplan’s wonderful book on a wonderful artist, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys. I knew Heller Levi through my work and circle of friends as the co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G. After that, over a short span of two years, I published a number of significant features including a feature about the Guerrilla Girls and a cover article on Ida Applebroog. When Levi left, I worked with Deborah Drier on a more general essay “You Can’t Leave Home Without It” about the concept of home. Heller Levi and Drier were both knowledgeable and sympathetic editors and for all these pieces I had memorable editorial sessions with Ida Panicelli, then the editor who commissioned the Applebroog and Guerrilla Girls pieces. I call that feminism from the top. Incidentally Landesman was already an Executive Publisher, but I had no contact with him whatsoever, and was oblivious to any hostile work environment issues during my few but intense editorial conferences where I learned about arguing for “if” and “they” and other fine points of writing.
Twenty-two years passed before a few interesting new writing assignments came my way, not about directly feminist themes, but with a sense that I was asked in part because of my reputation as a feminist artist and writer. In this second phase, by the way, no office visits, everything is done by email, everyone very professional. In many of my interactions with this particularly institution, I feel that I have benefited from the support of women–editors, artforum.com editors and writers, reviewers, whose support I appreciated and who are among the employees who did sign the letter yesterday.
Women can and do mediate the careers of other women, writers, artists, only inasmuch as they have an allegiance, a solidarity, an intellectual and emotional identification with a feminist politics but also only inasmuch as they themselves have power within the institution and they only have power in the institution to the degree that they are able to negotiate the power structure or buy into the patriarchal hierarchy without forgetting their “feminist ideals,” the curious term used in Artforum’s first public statement about the charges against Landesman (cf.Hyperallergic wrap up “A Week of Chaos at Artforum Magazine Following Sexual Harassment Allegations” for the update on this rapidly developing story). Thus they have to manage their own support of women. This is particularly true of institutions where the top positions are held by men, so that constant politesse and negotiation must be engaged in at all times, in order to focus on the work by women as much as the situation will allow, with the top billing going to men by patriarchal default.
Micol Hebron’s analysis of Artforum’s covers is useful, with only 18% percent of covers since the inception of the magazine representing work by women artists. Hebron updated her survey this week but the percentage had not changed since she first assembled the research in 2015.
Many women artists owe a tremendous amount to the dedication of these valiant women in the institution. I think research would prove that they are responsible for a majority of lines on many a woman artist’s CV, all the smaller shows in university museums, the essays in feminist and small publications, and the always carefully strategized opportunities in more significant institutions. These valiant women of the institution do as much as they can to be inclusive of women. As Jennifer Higgie always says in her Instagram project on women artists history, “#bowdown.” Institutions might change if these women in the arts were raised to a bigger level of responsibility, so that what they think is important, what they are aware of, what they bother to respect, might be given room at the top of the institution. I think this might help change the culture of these work places.
I highly recommend an anthology that was published a year after the Anita Hill testimony, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited and with an introduction by Toni Morrison.
It includes powerful essays in a range of modes from the legal to the poetic by authors including Homi K. Bhabha, Nell Irvin Painter, Andrew Ross, Manning Marable, Cornell West, and Patricia J. Williams. I’ll end this piece about a system of basic social inequity that, according to historian Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy goes back to the earliest development of human civilization, with the end of Patricia Williams’s text, “A Rare Case Study of Muleheadness and Men or How to Try an Unruly Black Witch, with Excerpts from the Heretical Testimony of Four Women, Known to be Hysterics, Speaking in Their Own Voices, as Translated for this Publication by Brothers Hatch, Simpson, DeConcini, and Specter.”
So perhaps it is truth that any woman who is not a witch shall simply refuse to burn when tied to the stake. And perhaps it is truth, after all is said and done, that masturbation really does make men go blind.
- This text was published Sunday, October 29. On November 1, Artnet.news reporter Rachel Corbett followed her initial coverage of the Artforum scandal with an update, “Hans Ulrich Obrist, Molly Nesbit, and Other Artforum Contributors Condemn Publishers’ Handling of Harassment Scandal”‘ in which many but not all Contributing Editors composed their own letter of support of the Artforum staff.
I have been teaching art since I was 22 and still a graduate student myself. Teaching is part of the way my mind is structured and I think that teaching includes learning, or continuing to learn. At this point I feel that learning might best be pursued without the pressures of teaching, but that is another story. The rest of the story is something I am considering putting into a book that would use my teaching archive as a starting point for short reflections that would situate the teaching ideas of past moments in relation to current ideas.
I recently went through my large file cabinet because I needed to find a document with some important log-in information, which naturally was not in the file cabinet though I did eventually find it in a pile on the cabinet, which by the way normally I can’t open because of several overstuffed rolling file cabinets parked in front of it with piles of papers on top of them. Instead I went through folders of teaching materials, syllabi, but mainly all the essays that I have taught on feminism, painting, early modernism, minimalism, Fluxus, Debord, Space (exhibition space), and more, each grouping including the original xerox if a PDF version has not been found online or scanned yet, and my heavily annotated teaching copies.
In a folder of random material, I found a statement that I seem to have written for a class I taught at SUNY Purchase in the fall of 1986. I have no recollection of what the circumstances were, or whether I read this or handed it out. The statement is dated October 26, 1986, which I think is the day I wrote it, which was a Sunday, for a class at Purchase the next day.
Texts I wrote shortly after this one, such as “On Failure and Anonymity,” [Heresies 25, 1990] explore similar territory particularly in relation to art market pressures. Teaching is situational and interventional so I assume that this statement was written to address some issues that had come up in a specific class and, if written today, such comments would be less uniquely focused on material and formal production of art objects and less specific to painting. In fact ten years later I wrote and produced a videoscript to express my disgust at MFA students who were rebelling against reading the fairly moderate composite of classic modernist and postmodernist texts I was assigning to them. One point of my book would be to point to the extreme reversals that can take place in art and therefore in art education, necessitating for the teacher historical self-awareness and the ability to adapt while maintaining one’s core values. So on the one hand in the past years I have taught in a situation where political, theoretical, identity-based content is the primary line of instruction and where issues of form and style including the development of form in Western art history have been to a great extent reduced for the students to free-floating appropriatable photo images unrelated to any materiality, context, or struggle to achieve form. On the other hand issues of history, style, form and materiality still do matter in individual works and even in terms of achieving market success and my emphasis on these concerns made sense not only to my own work in the early 80s but also in the context of Purchase at that time more than to my own more conceptual and political graduate education at CalArts.
Thus despite completely different artworld conditions, educational philosophies, and theoretical discourses, a lot still resonates for me in this statement, and I can read through it my continued concern about how hard it is to continue to make art at all much less grow as an artist once one leaves school.
My few weeks here have led me to certain reflections about art making, and learning about art making.
My path into these reflections began by my trying to put into order what I learned about being an artist, about art and the making of it, and when I learned it.
Each person’s history is different, but there are beginnings of art life in each of your histories or you wouldn’t be here. In my case, my parents were artists and worked at home. I probably learned more than half of all I know about every aspect of art and the profession* of being an artist by the time I was 11 years old (when my father died) [*art and profession two different things]: about the role of art in daily life, about colors, brushes, work habits, art history–through art in the home, through books, weekly visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan, also about the frustrations of trying to further a career, the financial problems, the difficulties and the humiliations of dealing with clients. I know that being nurtured in a home where art was the vehicle of all values is unusual. But I still had to come to my own understanding of this life and make my own decision to make it mine.
I learned and still learn and get inspiration,ideas, hope and encouragement from art that I see, mostly old, some new. A subcategory of influence not to be underestimated is art that I hate or am threatened by. Sometimes it is easier to steal from art you hate. And of course self-definition via contrast is sometimes more dynamic than self-definition via sympathy.
I also learned from hanging out with older artists, seeing how they lived, how art permeated their lives. I learned as much about their viewpoint in art from what they thought about movies, T.V., politics, how they dealt with daily problems in their studios, their small pleasures and pet peeves, how they liked their eggs fried, than from any direct influence or instruction.
In graduate school I learned how to gossip about art, art history and the art world as an insider. I learned about cynicism and politics. The most effective teaching, again, took place in incidental, anecdotal encounters with faculty and other students, after hours, in the cafeteria, in hallways. Talk of art was everywhere but at its least vital in group crits and organized seminars.
After graduation I learned about my own psychological stake in remaining an artist. I also learned slowly about my basic themes. In a battle for my survival as an artist I learned about how to get through work blocks, about what my work was in relation to myself and to other work. In my mid-thirties a lot has been learned but it is a process which I see, with happiness, as a lifetime of work.
What I feel is crucial to an art student is to begin to examine the source and the nature or his or her interest in making art. Every thing that follows in this statement must be understood as preceded by the question of why are you doing it at all? are you doing your work because you are an art student? are you doing something central to your existence? You cannot put these questions off until you are an artist. The path begins with such questions of identity and motivation.
I sense at Purchase and at other places I’ve taught in recent years a tremendous fear of content–especially emotional, psychological, but even political or theoretical. Part of the problem stems from the overwhelming domination in most art teaching of a formalist approach, in a degraded form.
Students are led to struggle with the mechanics of making art, and they expect that if they learn the mechanics, they’ll succeed in conquering the other, the who-you-are, what-you-want, the content. Whereas I think that it should be made clear than even the mechanics return to the who-you-are. the emphasis can only be on the mechanics that have resonance for you individually.
It is important to learn about materials and techniques, composition, traditions of pictorial representation, about space etc… but you can only learn from the elements you are compelled by. The others are a drag, and drag you and your work down to apathy, inertia, boredom and depression.
It must be understood that the mechanics of art making are in themselves content. They are vital only if they are seen as concrete things that are of real interest to you. They cannot function as impersonal tools. AS such they lead to deadened art. The issues of death, sex, love, hate, happiness, need, loss, attraction, repulsion, despair and exaltation exist in a 6B pencil, a stick of charcoal, in blue oil paint, in fluorescent orange, in the textures of canvas and burlap, in the square, the triangle, the cube, the sphere, the vector. There is no escape.
Don’t try to solve other people’s problems. Try to listen to yourselves and find which are your own problems. They are the only ones you will be interested enough in to spend time trying to solve. When facing a landscape, a still-life, a figure, a canvas, it is necessary to know of the conventions of representation and manufacture, but much more crucial is what it is in what you are looking at or thinking about that involves you. Studies have shown that when people see something sexually exciting in an image, their irises widen instantly and momentarily. Tune in to whatever it is in the landscape, the figure, int eh color, in the materials that make your irises widen. There are the potent details and clues of life and of art making. They are also the direction, the horizon, what my driving instructor years ago called High Aim Steer. Because if even briefly and incompletely you sense your own interest, your particularity, and trust it, you will teach yourself what you need to know to make what you have sensed.
This is what I meant when I said that I have no sympathy for boredom. I do not think that any visual experience, any experience at all, is indifferent. Meaning is masked by fear, but everything has meaning, everything has content, and only if yo make the effort to tune in to that content, can you begin to establish a discipline of self-criticism that will sustain you outside of school.
Mira Schor, Oct.26, ’86
Just out of curiosity I wondered what I was working on at the time I wrote this statement. Here is Walking Tuning Fork, dated November 10, 1986
Passover is the Jewish Holiday with the most ceremonial and spiritual meaning for me, most likely because from my childhood into my thirties I was fortunate enough that my family was included in the Seders of David and Norma Levitt, dear friends and patrons of my father, Ilya Schor. In a way these were archetypal post-war American Jewish affairs, complete with Manischewitz wine and an uncle or cousin disappearing at some point to return in a white sheet as Elijah, handing out gold paper-wrapped chocolates to the children. I have no idea what my father thought of the style of these celebrations compared to the Seders of his childhood in the Hasidic community of Zlozcow, Galicia but I loved them and they were also, and grew more so in later years, scholarly and spiritual events. Even though at these events, without religious training and unable to read Hebrew, my sister and I were largely mute as others read, prayed and debated around us, nevertheless the Seder is the most meaningful holiday to me.My mother Resia and I began for the first time to do our own Seders when she was in her 80s and I was in my forties. We used a beautiful yellow and green service that my parents had bought when they traveled to Los Angeles in 1947 to visit my father’s family. His half brother Abraham had helped bring my parents to America in 1941, they met for the first time in their lives a few months a few months later. Abraham had settled in LA where his children were all in the film industry. By 1947 he had died but my parents with my sister Naomi then four years old took a long train ride across the States dipping into Mexico and back up to LA to stay with the family for a couple of months.
Over the years one of the dinner plates, pressed under the weight of the other plates stacked above it, quietly shattered while remaining whole. This glowing yellow circle with its cobweb of fissures brought about by the pressure of history and time is for me a self-portrait, a portrait of the Jewish people, and this year a portrait of the best of civilization itself.
At the beginning of the Seder because I know so little and have always forgotten the little I know, I read a Hasidic story from a book I found to help me lead as best I can a Seder:
When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire, and meditate in prayer. And then he was able to perform the task.
A generation later, the Maggid of Mazrich was faced with the same task. So he went to the same place in the woods, but he had forgotten exactly how to light the fire as the Baal Shem Tov had done. He said, “I can no longer light the fire, but I can still speak the prayers.” And so he prayed as the Baal Shem Tov had prayed and he was able to complete the task.
A generation later, Rabbi Moshe Lev had to perform this same task. He too went into the woods, but not only had he forgotten how to light the fire, he had forgotten the prayers as well. He said, “I can no longer light the fire, not do I know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers. But I do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs, and that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
But when another generation had passed, Rabi Israel Salanter was called upon to perform the task. He sat down on his golden chair in is castle and said, “I cannot light the fire. I have forgotten the prayers. I do not know the place in the forest. But we can tell the story of how it was once done, and that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.