I can’t review an exhibition in which my work is included, yet I would like to encourage people to see the exhibition To Be a Lady which has been extended through March 22nd and is particularly conveniently located for people coming to New York for the College Art Association conference next week, as it is installed in a public space a block down Avenue of the Americas from the Hilton Hotel, at 1285 Avenue of the Americas.
Alma Thomas (1891-1978), Red Scarlet Sage, 1976. Acrylic on canvas 46 x 36 inches, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York
I figure that since the show is divided into two parts, installed along two separate sections of the space, with one side featuring the works of women artists who are deceased, and the other side featuring those of us still among the living, I feel that I can safely recommend the dead without incurring controversy among the other living artists in the show or referring to my own work in it or the ramifications of the word “lady, ” which I know has stirred some controversy. Curator Jason Andrew of Norte Maar has assembled some terrific work in this show, a diverse group of works by notable artists and artists that some may be less familiar with, and in each case has included a very good example of the artist’s work, and in some cases quite a surprising one. Again, I am just talking about the dead. The works are grouped in open bays or booths, creating in effect small mini-exhibitions with some interesting synergies.
Alice Neel (1900-1984), Sunset in Spanish Harlem, 1958.
The first work in the show is a vibrant abstraction by Alma Thomas, next to an equally vividly hued work by Charmion Von Wiegand, two hard edge abstractions, yet of a very different nature and sense of scale. On the opposite side is a small but intense vertical abstraction by Louise Nevelson, and a cityscape by Alice Neel: I am particularly fond of works by Alice Neel that are not portraits, but still lifes and cityscapes, because one can appreciate her drawing and paint application in a different manner when they are not applied to her strong sense of figuration which may overwhelm a viewer’s ability to fully appreciate her more abstract qualities.
In the next bay is a beautiful work by Irene Rice Pereira. It is interesting for me to see this in particular because I used to hear about her work when I was a child in the 1950s and there was always a dismissive edge of contempt when her name came up, but I didn’t know how much that may have been the result of sexism and cliquishness–the work in the show has a formal clarity and elegance that defies those condescending views. Next to this is a work by an artist who may not be well known, except to a select group of inside artworld people in New York, the painter and writer Edith Schloss. Schloss had lived in Rome from the early 1960s to her death in 2011 at age 92. Her work is a charming, fantastical abstracted still life in landscape. Recently restored to a wonderful condition, it could easily appear in the show of a up and coming young painter today. In the same bay there is a strong free-standing work by the sculptor May Wilson, and a luminous large painting by Janice Biala.
Edith Schloss (1919-2011), Untitled, 1973. Oil on canvas, 31 5⁄8 x 35 5⁄8 inches, Courtesy of the Estate of Edith Schloss
The third grouping is particularly interesting, with Barbara Morgan‘s contact proof photos of Martha Graham performing some of her first signature works, in 1935, next to more abstract works by Morgan, a work by Ruth Asawa. In that bay is also a very strong Louise Bourgeois sculpture, Flower Petal, a large white bronze that is one of the most important works in the show, and one of the most surprising. I thought I knew Bourgeois’s oeuvre really well but I had never seen this work, which is both slightly unusual in terms of imagery and form, and yet has Bourgeois’s characteristic boldness and sureness of form. The white coloration adds to the impact rather than diminishing it. And finally in that grouping there is a major Lenore Tawney piece, a black thread weaving, in remarkably good condition, a forbidding minimalist work in an ancient tradition of craft.
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Life Flower I, 1960. Bronze, painted white: 22 1/2 x 34 x 23 inches, Bronze base: 27 1/2 x 15 1/4 x 15 1/4 inches, Stamped: LB 5/6 MAF 2010
I wish I could tell you more about the works by living artists, those you must see for yourself, though I will say, as a preview, that one very gifted young artist, a former student of mine, told me at the opening that he nearly fainted when he saw the remarkable Nancy Grossman.
This is a rich various group of works, many rarely seen or never seen before and well worth seeing.
Usually at some point greatness disappoints. Even very great artists sometimes falter, lose their way, run out of steam. Not so Louise Bourgeois, who transmuted a family story of paternal infidelity into a narrative of mythological dimension that she always insisted was the primary driving force of her work, and for whom that self-mythologized personal narrative served as an undying battery to produce great art works until the end of her very long life, her late stuffed cloth figural sculptures as raw, uncompromising, and young as her early objects and drawings.
Louise Bourgeois, 1946
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1950, ink on paper, 11"x7 1/2"
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2001, Fabric and aluminum, 14 1/2"x11 3/4"x11 3/4"
“My name is Louise Josephine Bourgeois. I was born 24 December 1911, in Paris. All my work in the past fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood.
I first learned of her work from “Louise Bourgeois: From the Inside Out,” an essay by Lucy Lippard in her 1976 collection of essays on women artists, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art. At the time, Lippard’s essay was first published in Artforum in 1975, Bourgeois was 64 years old. She died this morning, May 31, 2010 at age 98 (b. December 24, 1911-d. May 31, 2010) having created another lifetime’s worth of great art since Lippard’s critical appreciation.
Lippard began by situating Bourgeois work within the personal framework of the artist’s “psyche,” as did Bourgeois herself in all her writings about her work.
“It is difficult to find a framework vivid enough to incorporate Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture. Attempts to bring a coolly evolutionary or art-historical order to her work, or to see it in the context of one art group of another, have proved more or less irrelevant. Any approach–non-objective, figurative, sexually explicit, awkward, or chaotic; and material — perishable latex and plaster, traditional marble and bronze, wood, cement, paint, wax, resin — can serve to define her own needs and emotions. Rarely has an abstract art been so directly and honestly informed by its maker’s psyche.” […]
“It would, however, be a mistake to see Bourgeois as the classically “feminine” artist, adrift in memory and intuition, for her first formal “revelation,” and the origin of her love for sculpture, was solid geometry. Although, from the age of fifteen she worked with her parents as a draftswoman restoring ancient tapestries, she majored in mathematics at school, took her baccalaureate in philosophy, and studied calculus and solid geometry at the Sorbonne. Only in 1936, at the age of twenty-five, did she begin to study art history and art, with Léger, among others.”
[May I interrupt myself here to say that thinking about the mathematical and philosophical knowledge and the practical artisanal experience that Bourgeois brought to her art studies at age twenty-five helps to put the works exhibited in “Greater New York” at P.S.1 — by artists mostly under the age of 40, many much younger than that — into some perspective]
Louise Bourgeois, Femme Couteau, 1969/70, from Lucy Lippard, From the Center
Lippard’s discussion of Bourgeois’ sculpture Femme Couteau (1969/70) was particularly determinative and prescient, anticipating by a few years the more comprehensive focus on Lacanian terminology of woman as “lack” which dominated feminist discourse on representation in the 1980s and early 90s. Lippard quotes Bourgeois on this sculpture:
[Femme Couteau] embodies the polarity of woman, the destructive and the seductive. … The woman turns into a blade. … A girl can be terrified of the world. She feels vulnerable because she can be wounded by the penis. So she tries to take on the weapon of the aggressor. But when woman becomes aggressive, she becomes terribly afraid. If you are inhibited by needles, stakes, and knives, you are very handicapped to be a self-perceptive creature. These women are eternally reaching for a way of becoming women. Their anxiety comes from their doubt of being ever able to become receptive. The battle is fought at the terror level which precedes anything sexual.”
“Bourgeois exists in the dangerous near-chaotic climate of Surrealism’s “reconciliations of two distant realities.” … Within the art (as, one suspects, within the artist) form and the formless are locked in constant combat. The outcome is an unusually exposed demonstration of the intimate bond between art and its maker. Despite her apparent fragility, Bourgeois is an artist, and a woman artist, who has survived almost forty years of discrimination, struggle, intermittent success and neglect in New York’s gladiatorial art arenas. The tensions which make her work unique are forged between just those poles of tenacity and vulnerability.”
Lippard’s essay marks the informed admiration which began to accrue to Bourgeois in the late 70s and early 80s. After decades of a kind of semi-neglect despite living within the elite of the center of the New York art world, Bourgeois was embraced by women artists for her immense contribution to the lexicon of representation of gender and gendered representation while at the same time receiving broad international recognition as a great artist in such a way that her success went well beyond a succès d’estime among women. What she did with the attention and the financial rewards it brought is truly astounding and inspiring, particularly given her age when she achieved material success. Bourgeois grabbed the opportunity to do larger pieces, taking on master media of sculpture — marble and bronze — as well as creating room-sized installations she called “cells.” Thus she was able to get beyond financial limitations on her production that she noted in one answer to a 1970 questionnaire: Q: “To what extent have financial considerations affected your work?” A: “Limited returns from my work have constricted my willingness to make the investment necessary for full production.” (from Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father).
In recent years Bourgeois returned to the medium of textile where her art formation had begun as the daughter of tapestry restorers, making increasingly crude (that is direct) stuffed cloth sculptures that continued to transmit sexual power transmuted into sculptural form. Her figuration in these pieces was both raw and stylized yet did not seem mannered. Sometimes an artwork hedges its bets, or, by some minute concession to accessibility, in some tiny betrayal of form, apologizes for itself. I never detected that in Bourgeois’s work.
Louise Bourgeois, Couple IV, 1997, mixed media in vitrine,
Her work sprang out among the fray at Biennials and art fairs in recent years and, even if she had help in doing her work for many years, all her work showed the mark of her hand. I never felt the distance of factory production. One of my favorite moments in a film about an artist is one that was shown at her Brooklyn Museum retrospective, in which Bourgeois says something like, “you know we sculptors, we have to do this,” demonstrating what she means by “this” by, with a quick strong twist of her hands, bending a piece of rebar as she speaks, in her late 70s or early 80s!
I wish I could find that film clip but in this later video you get a little idea as you see her talking about using power tools:
In “From Liberation to Lack,” an essay I first published in Heresies 24: 12 Years 6, 1989, I wrote a little about some of Bourgeois’s work, influenced by Lippard’s earlier analysis:
“Louise Bourgeois also claims no distance from physical experience and autobiography. Her insistence that the source of her work resides in the psychological wounds inflicted on her by her father contravenes any formal theories of art and yet embodies the Oedipal crisis that psycholinguistic theory interprets as the entrance of human beings into the symbolic order of the Father. Bourgeois obsessively returns the critical audience of her work to its motivating source — the murderous rage of a betrayed daughter. Her admission to the symbolic order has been warped by her father’s open affair with her governess, yet her link back to the imaginary (completeness of relation to the Mother) is damaged by her mother’s presumed complicity.
The forms that Bourgeois’s anger takes are directly related to those of surrealism. The influence of “primitive” sculptures and totems is pervasive. “Primitive” art was a locus of the (female) unconscious of “civilized” (nonprimitive) Western man; its influence on a woman artist is bound to differ. Bourgeois’s Femme/Couteau and Giacometti’s Spoon Woman arekin but they are not sisters. Spoon woman has a tiny head and a large receptive body. Femme/Couteau, in its degree of abstraction, is ambivalent and bisexual. It is a vulva and a knife — what woman is and is feared to be. Bourgeois’s forms are blatantly vaginal, mammary, and womblike, yet exuberantly, mischievously phallic. It would betray her intent to deny the role of her own body experience. The rawness of her surfaces and the openly sexual nature of her forms vitalize the organic/biomorphic surrealist vision of lack and dissolve the distance the male viewer seeks to place between himself and the art object and between consciousness and his own suppressed physicality and mortality.” (from Schor, “From Liberation to Lack,” Wet)
In “Representation of the Penis” I wrote briefly of Bourgeois’s sculpture, Fillette, which she cradles in the noted and notorious 1982 photographic portrait of her by Robert Mapplethorpe: “This penis is everything: as Fillette/little girl it is the baby as penis substitute, as rugged depiction of a stiff penis and big balls it is a sexual instrument of pleasure … and as creator of this polysexual object, which she cradles in her arms, Bourgeois is indeed the all-powerful phallic mother.” (Wet, 34)
Portrait of Louise Bourgeois with Fillette, 1968, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982
In her MacDowell Medal Acceptance Speech in 1990 Bourgeois described how she came to have her photo taken with this sculpture in hand:
“The story of this photograph is actually quite complicated. When Mapplethorpe approached us to make this portrait, I was a little apprehensive….Instead of being photographed candidly in my own studio, I had to go to Mapplethorpe’s studio. That is how it is with highly-professional photographers …they work on their own terms and operate from their own studio. It was up to us to go there. That gives me stress.
So I prepared with Jerry Gorovoy and appeared as scheduled at Mapplethorpe’s studio. This is my attitude towards men, you have to be prepared and work at it…. You have to prepare everything. You have to feed them, tell them they are great, you literally have to take care of them. …I mean, it’s really a job.
So the day of this appointment at Robert’s studio, I thought, ‘What can we bring? What prop can we bring?’…So I got Fillette (1968), which is a sculpture of mine, which was hanging among others. I knew I would get comfort from holding and rocking the piece. Actually my work is more me than my physical presence. So the sculpture is in the background of the photograph.
You see the triple image of the man you have to take care of, of the child you have to take care of, and of the photographer you have to take care of.”
Even if Bourgeois, like many women artists, did not necessarily like to be pinned down to being (only) a woman artist, her critical view of patriarchal power and its warping effect on relations among women, is one of the foundations of her work.
Louise Bourgeois, Nature Study, Velvet Eyes, 1984, marble and steel, 26"x33'x27"
One of my favorite works by Bourgeois from the 1980s was Nature, Velvet Eyes (1984) made at a time when, along with “lack,” the gaze was such an important term of feminist theoretical discourse — lack and the gaze, a psychoanalytic landscape of gendered representation, in which, according to Luce Irigaray’s analysis of Freud and Lacan’s theories, “Now the little girl, the woman, supposedly has nothing you can see. She exposes, exhibits the possibility of a nothing to see.” (Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, 47). “Here the object of the gaze, a tub of stone, has eyes which stare back up at the viewer. The specularized “nothing to see” ogles back unblinkingly, recuperating the agency of vision.” (from my 1994 essay, “Backlash and Appropriation,” in The Power of Feminist Art).
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled (with Foot), 1989, marble, 30"x26"x21"
In what conceptually seemed like companion pieces to Nature Study,Velvet Eyes, Bourgeois inscribed text into the bases of exquisitely carved pink marble sculptures of truncated body parts: “Do you love me? Do you love me” insistently asks one such sculpture, of a baby’s foot emerging from a large and perfect spherical egg or zygote. “Yes, I love you” answers another.
From what I gather from people who knew her, Louise Bourgeois was not necessarily always an easy person — why should she be? how could she be? I only mention that because it is essential not to sugarcoat an image of a cute little old lady artist, she’d have bent you like that piece of rebar for suggesting such a thing. But she was uncannily and informatively direct in her writings and statements, vivid, sharp and unyielding as a speaker, and brilliant as an artist, in her treatment of her subject matter, in her lines, her forms, her surfaces, her approaches to materiality and space. I love her work.
Next Friday May 21, there will be a symposium at MoMA on Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now (where “an international group of artists, writers, curators, historians and activists discuss the impact of recent debates about art and feminism on exhibitions, collections, pedagogy, and cultural politics.”). This continues a series of major feminism-related events held at the museum including The Feminist Future: Theory in Practice in the Visual Arts, a highly charged two-day symposium held at MoMA in January 2007. To hear some of the panels and presentations from the 2007 symposium: in addition to the material archived on MoMa’s website of that event, there is a comprehensive audio archive on ARTonAIR.org (you have to scroll down but will find the entire conference). Next month will see MoMA’s launch of its publication Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art. In addition to these events at MoMA, what sounds like an interesting, interactive program will take place at the Brooklyn Museum on May 22, Making Ourselves Visible, with participants including Hilton Als, Emily Apter, Johanna Burton, and others.
There are currently several small one-person and group exhibitions of women artists and installations of discrete works by women artists scattered around MoMA although perhaps secreted might more accurately reflect the stealth approach to the serious engagement with curation, presentation, and acquisition of works by women artists that the museum is currently engaged in. There is a lot of very good work by women artists on view at MoMA right now, although aside from Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, you would hardly know about many of these shows from the signage in the lobby, and certainly would not know to look for or understand the import of some individual installations.
The way I became aware of these exhibitions had an Alice in Wonderland Secret Garden feel to it that reflects the stealth approach.
First, during one recent visit, I noticed a large painting previously unknown to me, hanging in one of those out of context, no-man’s land spaces near the escalator bank, on the 3rd or 4th floor.
Lee Lozano, Untitled, 1963. Oil on canvas, two panels, 7' 10" x 8' 4," Collection The Museum of Modern Art
There is some ironic justice to the isolated presentation of the Lozano work: her decision to “boycott” women, taken in the late 1960s and maintained for the rest of her life, is legendary so being placed in the context of women artists would be anathema to her. In fact the painting presents an object lesson of why you can’t assume the gender of the artist from an individual work, since it has every sign of what generally would be consider the epitome of masculinity: the subject, the size of the work, the scale of the image, even something boldly un-ingratiating about the dry paint application. But anyway, there was the Lozano painting, and why had I never seen or at least noticed it before, and what was it doing there?
Then, another day at MoMA, as I was making my way to the Cafe on the 2nd floor, I noticed a curator I know slip into an exhibition hall. Curious, I followed her, sort of like following Alice down the rabbit hole, and I found myself in a large room (where Monet’s Waterlilies were earlier this winter).
Yayoi Kusama, Violet Obsession, 1994. Sewn & stuffed fabric over a rowboat and oars, 43 1/4" x 12' 6 3/8" x 70 7/8", collection MoMA, in Mind and Matter
In the center was a full size row boat made of purple silk phalluses, unmistakably a Yayoi Kusama, there were elegant minimalist works by Gogo, an embroidered patchwork cloth book by Louise Bourgeois.
Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, (2002). Fabric book with hand-embroidery and lithographed cover, page (ea. approx.): 11 3/4 x 13"
Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, (2002) detail
Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, cover, (2002). Fabric book with hand-embroidery and lithographed cover, page
The artists were all — women? Where was I? I went outside again to check the title, “Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now,” but nowhere in the introductory wall text is there any indication of the fact that all the artists in the show are women although of course it is evident from the list of artists.
Mind and Matter, Alternative Abstraction, 1940s to Now, MoMA wall text, May 2010
I was particularly struck by a strong artwork in the show by a Polish artist I was unfamiliar with, Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973). The work, Belly Cushions (1965), made of 5 polyurethane foam pillows molds grouped on a low pedestal, has a strong presence: the dark rich color and leathery patina drew me across the room and then there is something compelling and yet strange about the shapes: the scale is indexical, yet the torso truncated so that sexual indicators are lacking — the work has the intensity of one of Nancy Grossman‘s torso sculptures from the same period without as overt tropes of sexuality — and the flat back of each form repels a unitary reading of these as molds from real bodies.
Alina Szapocznikow, Belly Cushions, 1968
Why are these particular abstractions alternative? Because the artists are all women? OK — positive thinking — I won’t go there. For more alternative abstraction, look to Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense on the fourth floor, in an open space between an entrance to Painting and Sculpture II and a view of the museum garden.
The centerpiece of the show is an untitled hanging sculpture that Bontecou worked on for nearly twenty years. It has an eerily uncategorizable quality, in addition to being extremely difficult to photograph: it is an ethereal, jewel-like, surrealism-inspired curio — the connection to surrealism links it to many of the works in Mind and Matter: the utility of surrealism as a matrix for work by women artists is an important subject of modernist and feminist art history (though on the other hand the resonance to works by Calder or Tanguy puts into some question the subtitle of Mind and Matter — Alternative Abstractions — in relation to a women artists only grouping).
The most interesting work for me was the least branded. These are beautiful soot drawings. My snapshots could not capture the soft surface, I really recommend spending some time with them: Untitled, 1958, Soot on Paper is a very minimalist exercise in darkness, a black field divided by two central barely lit horizontal lines, one straight across and hard edged, the second curved and soft. Bontecou’s use of soot came from her quick awareness of the aesthetic usefulness of an accident in the mechanics of sculptural process: “While on a Fullbright Fellowship on Rome in the late 50s, Bontecou accidentally made what became one of the most crucial discoveries of her career: she adjusted the oxygen levels in the blowtorch she used to weld sculptures, and soot poured out. She began to draw with the torch, moving it across paper and canvas. ‘I finally got the black I wanted and a kind of landscape or “worldscape,” she said.”
Untitled ,1963, soot and aniline dye on muslin, is another beauty, much less overdetermined than some of her other more illustrative and instrumental drawings for sculptures. It would be very interesting to see this work next to one of Myron Stout’s works in the collection, such as Number 3, 1954: on a black ground, a series of ochre and white ovals frame a black center, with one very thin black line cutting through the concentric rings but not penetrating the last white band closest to the center. The ochre and white dye appear on the muslin in such a delicate fashion because of the muslin’s fine weave, and the use of dye rather than pigmented matter is such that the surface approaches the uncanny. The black created by the soot is absolute.
Mind and Matter and these other exhibition and incidental installations of individual works are part of an ongoing initiative among women curators at MoMA to delve deeply into the permanent collection in order to find out what works by women artists they already own and then see how gaps in the collection can be filled through acquisitions, with assistance from the Modern Women’s Fund. Mind and Matter is organized by Alexandra Schwartz, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings, and Sarah Suzuki, The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr. Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books; Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense is organized by Veronica Roberts, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture. Performance 7: Mirage by Joan Jonas is organized by Barbara London, Associate Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art; Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography is organized by Roxana Marcoci, Curator; Sarah Meister, Curator; and Eva Respini, Associate Curator, Department of Photography.
The women involved in this ongoing initiative decided not to follow the example of the Centre Pompidou which in the exhibition elles@centrepompidou filled the entire museum with a one-off, blow-out installation of work by all the women artists in their collection. Instead, the group at MoMA is attempting a more gradual, incremental, and infiltrative approach which, in the long-term, may well be potentially more effective at redressing the balance of representation of women artists in the entire museum.
There is a kind of self-effacing anonymity to the whole enterprise that aligns it with Virginia Woolf’s proposition in A Room of One’s Own that “Anonymous was a woman.” But I think it is important to draw attention to the work of the women artists on exhibition due to this initiative and to the women curators whose efforts should be recognized and supported, since I think one can take as a given that their efforts occur in a context of resistance, based on previous histories from all major museums.
In my essay, “Generation 2.5,” in A Decade of Negative Thinking, I go into some detail about the gender distribution of major retrospectives at MoMA since the mid-1980s (the men’s room is very crowded) and I note that in general it has been my experience or at least my supposition based on observation, that most women curators who want to curate a major exhibition of women artists, never mind of feminist artists, are likely to get just one such opportunity in their careers, if their institutions and funders are amenable. If the ongoing MoMA Women’s Project’s incremental, small scale and stealth approach results in their having the opportunity to organize many more, though perhaps often modestly scaled exhibitions, then their strategy is a good one!
I look forward to the conference on Friday, when these issues will be discussed from many practical, professional, and theoretical points of view.