Tag Archives: women artists

Painting in the 1980s: Elizabeth Murray

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.

Elizabeth Murray, “Making It Up,” 1986. Oil on canvas, 10′ 4 1/8″x7′ 11 1/8″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

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.

Elizabeth Murray, “Like A Leaf,” 1983. Oil on canvas (6 parts) 98″x90″x9″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

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.

Elizabeth Murray, “Cracked Question,” 1987. Oil on canvas (6 parts), 13′ 5 1/2″x16′ 2″x23 1/2″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

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?

Elizabeth Murray, Interview with Sue Graze and Kathy Halbreich, “Elizabeth Murray, Paintings and Drawings,” exhibition catalogue, H. N. Abrams, 1987, p.131.

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.

Elizabeth Murray, “Table Turning,” 1982-82. oil on canvas (2 parts) 8′ 10 1/4″x8′ 2 1/4″x4 2/4″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

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

 

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Normalizing inequity

I just saw a repost of “The Problem of the Overlooked Female Artist: An Argument for Enlivening a Stale Model of Discussion,” an article by Ashton Cooper published on Hyperallergic over a year ago in January 2015 and am discussing it here because it is a subject that is all too close to my own experience and also to what some of my recent work was “about”–my drawings in which a half cadaverous but still living bleeding woman artist is confronted by the two polarities or scenarios of what one might call terminal inclusion, “still too young” and “not dead enough.” I also wrote about this whole finally giving very old women artists a bit of greater visibility and recognition–100 is the new 70–phenomenon recently in fashion in the art world, on A Year of Positive Thinking in posts such as “Just a short message from Venus” from June 24, 2015 and http://ayearofpositivethinking.com/2015/06/01/miss-piggy-and-madame-de-beauvoir-a-new-fable-of-la-fontaine-cochon-et-castor/ from June 1 2015.

In her text Cooper examines the phenomenon and particularly examines the language used to promote it, a method that is useful in the effort to denormalize an inequity that has become second nature,

As a onetime writer and editor for a company that owns two art magazines and an art-centric website, I can attest that art journalism is in no way immune from conventions that ostensibly champion women artists, but in fact perpetuate problematic narratives about them — tropes so prevalent, even I have operated within them. In particular, I’m thinking of the widespread myth of the “overlooked,” “forgotten,” and/or “rediscovered” female artist.

I also found very significant one of Cooper’s conclusions which is the importance of looking at the actual socio-economic and aesthetic conditions of the women artists’ lives and careers in those years they mysteriously were not “discovered” enough…in fact when they were doing really interesting work, were part of interesting communities, while young men of their circle were getting mid career retrospectives at major museums before they reached the age of 40.” Cooper continues,

So instead of focusing on the moment when these women were finally “found” — and by extension, on the institution that was gracious enough to do so — I propose we talk more about that period where she was toiling away in obscurity. What was she doing then? Where was she showing? Who was she in community with? How did her practice change? What forces of exclusion did she face? Instead of the tired story where a masculinist force deigns to discover, find, or recognize female artists, what if we tried to also understand the material realities of these women’s lives? Ultimately, we would not be so dependent on the recognition of the art world’s skewed mainstream if we used these histories as case studies to define different kinds of success.

Parenthetically, I have also in the past noted that the time period when artists produce the work that later has the greatest monetary value is the period when they are working in relative obscurity but in a lively artistic community. There is something to be said for privacy and even for the productive nature of being forced to clarify and intensify your work in the effort of making yourself seen, heard, understood. Success right out of graduate school, for example, means the ideology of the work is never tested against lack of response or changing fashions. This is a paradox, of how the market alters artistic production–without some recognition and market success an artist’s struggle to produce work can be too great, if you add to this general reality the inequities created by gender, which are well established and studied, you have a much greater difficulty factor enhanced by the fact that women who are in between, neither young and sexy or very old with their transgressiveness now innocuously “cute” are of no interest to the journalistic narrative Cooper discusses, and yet achieving market success young can put stresses on work that turn interesting challenges and private intensities to public–“merchandise” as I quoted my mother recently. Too early recognition can be a trap, but too late can be a tragedy of sorts, when the artist is no longer able to use the success and the financial security to grow new work and realize long held dreams for their work because they are simply too old and tired or ill..or dead. Louise Bourgeois is the one of the few if not the only example of a woman artist who began to get some real material and critical success in her 70s but then was able to have two more decades to use that success to finance ambitious new projects–that is so so rare.

In terms of language, I would think in terms of replacing “rediscovered” with “hidden in plain sight,” to mark the fact that many of the women artists who eventually may be lucky enough to be “rediscovered,” as Cooper points out, have in fact been visible all along, if you bothered to look, close to the center, exhibiting, lecturing, writing, respected even, but always with the sense of auditioning for a part they already have. And whenever an older woman artist is “rediscovered,” there a lot of, mostly women, artists and art historians, shrugging their shoulders because they have been teaching and writing about and been inspired by that artist’s work for years. The in plain sight part is obvious, the hidden is in the blindness that gender bias and ageism bring to the situation.

As I have tried to explain recently to someone, it is Not Normal that an artist like June Leaf has to wait until she is in her mid 80s to get a show at the Whitney, not a true retrospective mind you, but a drawing show with some sculpture in it, in the small gallery off the lobby. It’s not cute or great, though of course it is wonderful and much deserved and well past due, but there is nothing normal about it in the wider view of young male artists having museum retrospectives at barely the 10 year mark in their careers.

While we should celebrate these late moments of more public recognition for some older women artists and be grateful to have the opportunity to see some of their work, we should not normalize the inequity and abnormality of the phenomenon that Cooper discusses.

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Just a short message from Venus

This morning Ben Davis published a piece on Artnet entitled “Why Are There Still So Few Successful Women Artists?” Thanks to Ben Davis for addressing this issue and for his constant focus on important political issues in the art world.

As I wrote to him this morning, so much to say and so little time to say it if I want to get a few paintings done before I have to go back to my day job as an underpaid adjunct (Davis mentions the role of practical bread and butter issues and economic inequities for women as in some sense replacing Linda Nochlin’s historical focus on women artists’ earlier lack of access to academic training.)

Davis begins with the important primary question: “What will it take to finally put an end to sexism in art?” He questions the value of strategies of “counting,”, most recently used by Maura Reilly in her ARTnews text “Taking the Measures of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes”,  and he takes care to try to bracket what we mean by “success” for an artist today.

I’ve written so much about feminism–most recently this previous post spurred by conflicting messages coming from the art world, between the sudden interest in the work of older women artists and the insulting absurdity of the Sackler Center giving one of its First Feminist awards to Miss Piggy, and earlier this year, Amnesiac Return Amnesiac Return, published in Kara Rooney’s Critic’s Page “A Feminist Response: Gender Games and the Art Machine” in the September 2014 issue of the Brooklyn Rail. I am very grateful to Davis for linking to my piece which he titled “Amnesiac Returns,” but as I wrote to him this morning, the political point of the title and its humor is in the repetition without punctuation, no plural. At the end of that text I explained the title’s genesis and significance: “The repetition in my title reflects the fact that in 1992, for a special issue of the art journal Tema Celeste dedicated to “The Question of Gender in Art,” I wrote a short essay entitled “Amnesiac Return.” I thought of the same title for this piece before realizing that it sounded familiar—because, in fact, I had used it before.” If and when I write another piece and am tempted to title it Amnesiac Return, I may indeed have amnesia by that point, or will title it to the power of three.

My point is that one writes and one writes and one asks why the situation of women artists (and beyond that of women generally) is fundamentally resistant to change despite the paradox of some visible change, and one asks the question again and again. And yet even that discussion, and the vast and important area of scholarship and theorization applied to the work of women artists and to gender representation, does not ultimately penetrate the art market and nor even the upper strata of academia which may have moved on to newer concerns.

My point is I could go on and on.

So today in response to Ben’s piece, I just want to contrast his article to Peter Schjeldahl’s review in the New Yorker of Albert Oehlen’s paintings. The beginning of one paragraph in that review seems paradigmatic: “Not for nothing is Oehlen a mighty influence on younger artists, showing them the rewards in freedom that may follow upon a willing sacrifice of propriety. (Witness, apart from outright imitators, the devilish impetuosities of Josh Smith, Joe Bradley, Oscar Murillo, and others in a recent survey at the Museum of Modern Art, “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.”) Testosterone testosterone testosterone bad boys bad boys bad boys patrilineage patrilineage patrilineage (for that you have to read the paragraph before, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, bla bla–for some reason this reminds me of one of my favorite book reviews in the Times several years ago, about a book a woman wrote about her dog, a German Shepherd as I recall, who spent the day out and about in her neighborhood in Cambridge, Ma., about how she decided to follow him in his unleashed peregrinations. She observed that his main occupation in life was to go to nearly impossible physical lengths to piss as high up as possible on telephone poles and trees so, she deduced, other dogs would know he was a really big dog.

When I read about the auction value of women artists, when I read Kenny Schacter’s devastating reports on the art market, the most recent being “Kenny Schacter on Why Art Basel left him Mentally and Physically Damaged,” when people suddenly “discover” some woman artist that women artists have known about for decades, and when so many young women still are drawn to using their naked bodies in their work because as the Guerrilla Girls ask, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” I see how little has changed in some respects.

Of course, and it is a kind of a triumph of feminism and feminist art there are tons of women artists active now around the world, and they are successful to a much greater extent than the moment before I entered the art world at the beginning of the feminist art movement, but the world I live in, where Louise Bourgeois was a great artist the minute I learned about her work from Lucy Lippard’s writings in From the Center and from seeing a drawing show at Max Hutchinson Gallery, when she was not yet world famous and a fetish, where the work of countless women artists including some of the artists who have recently been the subject of a wave of articles about older women artists (does 100 count as old enough I wonder?) was a central part of my image world, I mean these works are fundamental building blocks of how I see the world, not to mention of course what art is about for me (deep engagement with form, materiality, art history, politics, politics of representation and abstraction, discursivity–art, you know, not product), that work, that image world of women artists is of absolutely no interest to the men who make, promote and buy the work of the guys drooled over in Schjeldhal’s review. No interest? No, I mean it is invisible. It does not exist except for these little windows of fashion for old ladies who won’t be around much longer to inconveniently have something to say.

When I posted these thoughts on Facebook earlier today, artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy wrote in a comment: “My first day of grad school at The Ohio State University I walked into the sculpture building and saw a list pinned to the wall for the undergrads of “sculptors they should know.” All of them male, and most of them over 50. I started writing names on it and the other female grads joined in – by the end of the term the entire page was covered with women sculptors. This was in 2010, btw. 2010.”

And meanwhile, and I think this is important to note, I’m putting up the postcard wall that marks a space as my studio, and all the works are by male artists, mostly pre-1600, because I live in a world in which art history was first presented to me as male, the women artists’ works that are so important to me reside in my slide/image collection and in my mind. My point is that any woman interested in art has absorbed and paid attention to work by male artists, you would be an ignoramus if you didn’t and you’d be cutting yourself off from a major part of the history of civilization, which I claim as my heritage no matter who did it, but the connection doesn’t flow the other way

Just a short message from Venus which will certainly never get over to Mars, and now I am going to try to get into the studio.

YEAR-Eva-Hesse-postcard

One of my favorite postcards for my studio wall

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On being a “Lady”

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

Other outstanding works in the show are paintings by Pat Passlof and Jay DeFeo, Lee Bontecou, sculptures by Betye Saar and Viola Frey, with the installation of the dead punctuated by a painting by Elizabeth Murray, hung high above a doorway area.

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.

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Biographies of Women Artists: Instinct and Intellect

Reading The New York Times Book Review section today, I was struck by the ironic twist implicit in one sentence of Jed’s Perl’s review, “Freedom of Expression,” of Gail Levin’s Lee Krasner: A Biography and Patricia Albers’ Joan Mitchell-Lady Painter: A Life. Perl writes of Krasner, “by the time Krasner met Pollock she was already extraordinarily self-aware. She had a profound grasp of modern art, deeper though less instinctive than Pollock’s, which she had absorbed through her studies in the 1930s with the great teacher Hans Hofmann.”

That is a bit of an over-simplification of the details of Lee Krasner’s self-chosen path to become a modern artist and an abstract painter–every path is self-chosen of course, but, as Levin’s book makes clear, as do many others about American art in the 1920s and 30s, in this period there was no clear academic or even social path for artists to realize this desire and many of the people who felt the calling of the modern in general and of abstraction in particular pursued every opportunity for enlightenment possible without much of an established guidebook. For Krasner, Hofmann was absolutely key–“I didn’t really get…the full impact of [cubism] until I worked with Hofmann,” & “the most valid thing that came to me from Hofmann was his enthusiasm for painting and his seriousness and commitment to it” (also, more touching, “Hofmann was the first person who said encouraging things to me about my work”) –however she tried several schools and made an effort to know everyone who could teach her something during more than a decade of courageous search.

Perl’s description relates an accepted view of Krasner: that she knew more about and was more articulate about abstract art than Pollock and was therefore able to assist him with theoretical /promotional language for what he instinctively embodied in his painting. Hofmann was a participant in the creation of this mythic image, since Pollock’s most frequently quoted declaration, “I am nature” was in response to Hofmann’s question, upon his first visit to Pollock’s studio (taken there by Krasner),”Do you work from nature?” In Levin’s account, Hofmann’s reply was sadly predictive: “You don’t work from nature, you work by heart. That’s no good. You will repeat yourself.”

Krasner’s knowledge and Pollock’s genius are an established narrative. And although genius always trumps intelligence, even conservative art critic Hilton Kramer was able to suggest a different reading of the same story in his New York Times review of the influential 1981 exhibition,”Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship,’‘ organized by Barbara Rose for the Grey Art Gallery at New York University:

“Yet Krasner, through her studies with Hans Hofmann, her interest in Matisse and other modernists who could not be assimilated into the social art movement, and her acquaintance with Gorky and de Kooning, was already launched on a more independent artistic course, and it was largely through her that Pollock was first drawn into the orbit of the modernist esthetic. (Pollock was not the only person to benefit from her guidance, by the way. It was Krasner who introduced Clement Greenberg to Hofmann and his school.) Part of the fascination of this exhibition lies in the account it gives us of the powerful influence that each of these painters exerted on the development of the other.”

Krasner indeed had years of intellectual, personal, and studio involvement with abstraction before she met Pollock. She even danced to boogie-woogie music with Mondrian! According to Levin, “She considered Mondrian one of her most outstanding partners for dancing. ‘I was a fairly good dancer, that is to say I can follow easily, but the complexity of Mondrian’s rhythm was not simple in any sense.’ ‘I nearly went mad trying to follow this man’s rhythm.'”..Well, in a way that story only restates the case of Krasner as the intellectual plodder to Pollock’s intuitive and nearly incomprehensible genius, but it’s a great story nonetheless.

What struck me in Perl’s casual formulation of the valence of self-awareness and knowledge versus that of instinct is how much of a twist this is on the usual gender stereotype of art historical canon formation: woman as instinctive and contingent, without language, man as intellectual and empowered by self-determination and theoretical clarity. “Instinctive” or “intuitive” is usually used to describe, and mark as lesser, work by women. “Women’s intuition” is commonly a trope for something less dependable and scientifically rooted than, presumably, men’s superior reason. Or, if she did it, it was just instinct, natural, unconscious, feminine, if he did it, he was able to productively channel his anima.

The exhibition, ”Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship,’‘ changed my view of Krasner’s work. The image, “good artist, but not as great as Pollock,” was challenged by the comparative chronology of abstraction in Krasner and Pollock’s work in the 1940s and particularly by the power and intensity of Krasner “Little Image” paintings.

Or, I should say that if while in general I have shared the commonly held view of Krasner as “good but not great” in the sense that her work doesn’t transform my understanding of what painting can be, the Krasner/Pollock show at the Grey Art Gallery troubled that conformist view in two ways.

First, in a field (Abstract Expressionism) dominated by an obsession with who did what first, Krasner’s so-called cerebral labor supported by her trio of influences– Cézanne/Matisse/Mondrian–seemed to have brought her to all-over abstract mark-making a moment before Pollock was able to fully break from the figurative social realism of Thomas Hart Benton and the surrealism/Picasso-influenced heavy symbolism of his earlier work to arrive at the all-over abstraction of his great works. And the image and the surface of the “Little Image” paintings are really intense, I find them exciting in general as well as the most exciting of Krasner’s work, so what is the role or standing of the category genius, when facing such paintings?

Also, although Krasner’s work was consistently involved with a cubism-based sense of architectonic structure, from the underlying grid of her  “Little Image” paintings to her 1970s works in which she re-used cut up figure drawings from her Hofmann classes, Krasner seems to have changed course in a fairly contingent way. For all the intellectualism she gave to Pollock in support of his work, she seems to have followed unexpected urges for new directions in her own work in an instinctive/intuitive way rather than a structuralist/cerebral one, although the cubist infrastructure of her work  was certainly always a given.

Levin’s book  yields one wonderful image pertinent to this question of the intellectual versus the intuitive: apparently Krasner would jump up to produce marks at the top of her large canvases: “What I don’t want to do is get up on a ladder and hit the top. I want it to be within my body experience. I don’t want assistants working for me. I don’t experience it that way. I want to be in contact with my body and the work.”

Lee Krasner painting "Portrait in Green." Photo taken by Mark Patiky in 1969, from Gail Levin's "Lee Krasner: A Biography"

The images of Pollock in the act of painting are iconic representations which in some ways are as important and perhaps more influential than his work: his actions take us and art off of the field of painting into the performance of daily life and the actual space of the world. But here Krasner gets a moment of contingency and almost child-like joy for her involvement with the field of painting.

The two biographies join a growing bibliography of biographies of women artists. A few books of note:

Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity-A Cultural Biography by Irene Gammel is an exemplary biography about the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) a fascinating figure of the early vanguard modernist period in Germany and the United States. Essential reading in tandem with this book is Amelia Jones’s Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada.

To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era by Mary Lowenthal Felstiner (every book that reproduces Salomon’s great autobiographical series of paintings, Life? Or Theater? is worth collecting. For those who don’t know her work at all, to say that she is painting’s Anne Frank is only the quickest historical placement for a major work by a young but trained and precociously mature artist, Life? Or Theater? is a great artwork, formally inventive, personally moving, historically significant as art and as historical record, a truly heroic work as well. I’ve linked to the most readily available version, but the 1981 Viking book and the 1963 version with an introduction by Paul Tillich mean more to me, the 1963 book, which I found in on the used book section of a small Provincetown bookstore, introduced me to this artist).

Remedios Varo:Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan. A really interesting book about the Spanish-born Mexican artist not well enough known in the United States.

Paula Modersohn-Becker: Her life and Work by Gillian Perry. Another wonderful early-Twentieth century vanguard modernist painter not well enough known in the US.

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera. This is a very good book, well-written and with very good description and analysis of Kahlo’s paintings. Believe it or not, there was a time when there was no Kahlo industry, this book in a way initiated it. The only thing I can’t stand is that the original book cover with a self-portrait by Kahlo on it has been replaced by a photo of  Selma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, from her film portrayal of the artist. The movie was enjoyable but that cover is a travesty. Still, the book is terrific.

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