Tag Archives: women artists

“I Love You With All My Hearth”

Today, December 5, 2010, would have been my mother Resia Schor’s 100th birthday. This is not just a nostalgic realization looking back at a deep past, as it was for me in 2004 which was my father Ilya Schor‘s centennial: he had died in 1961 so forty-three years separated his death from his centennial. My mother died only four years ago, nine days before her 96th birthday. So 100 wasn’t such a stretch.  But she had no wish to make it to this landmark. “God forbid!” she said when at one point I explained to her that if she lived to but also died in 2010 I wouldn’t have to pay any estate taxes (an amusing conversation in the light of this week’s disgraceful actions in Congress!). She had retained her excellent memory, her very left politics,  her judgment of people unblurred by sentiment, and her courage intact, but when the encroachments of age threatened her independence and her ability to work, she had had enough. When my friend Tom Knechtel said goodbye to her after a visit to Provincetown in the summer of 2006, he said, “I hope I see you here next summer.” “I hope not,” she answered, flashing a beautiful smile.

When I began A Year of Positive Thinking I said that it posed the challenge to myself to find contemporary art that I love but that I would also write about significant artworks, films, and political actions and speech from the near and the deep past that have given me the courage to become and continue to be an artist and an activist. No artists are as important to that personal history as my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor.

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, silver, c.5″x4″x1″

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, detail, doors open: gouache and gold leaf on paper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I mostly lived alone together. My father had died and my sister Naomi was living away from home, at graduate school and then in Paris. Whatever the tensions that my adolescence and the grief and loss we both held inside our individual hearts imposed on us were tempered among other things by how much I loved the work in silver and gold that she had turned to in order to support my sister and me. I was a fan of her work, and I now sometimes think that if I gave her one thing it was that enthusiastic support.

In the 1950s in New York, she painted and exhibited abstract gouaches in a style reminiscent of Philip Guston. When my father died, she was fifty years old and had two daughters, eleven and seventeen years old. She had no other family. It never occurred to her to look for another man to help her support her children although it was the logical or the more traditional solution to her perilous situation. Instead, figuring that she couldn’t make a living from painting, she took up the tools of my father’s trade as a silversmith, jeweler, and creator of Judaica, transferring her abstract, modernist aesthetic from the soft medium of paint (and the arena of “high art”) to the hard medium of precious metal that challenged her forms in a more powerfully creative direction (though in the area of “craft” as defined by American art at the time).

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1983. White metal, Plexiglass, gouache on paper, 12″x9″

My mother was  a modernist through and through, unlike my father for whom modernist abstraction was a visual language he could speak articulately but it was not his mother tongue: he had deep roots in the philosophical but also the visual traditions of Hasidic folk culture going back to the Middle Ages and it was his unusual gift to carry these into the twentieth century.

Some of my aesthetic and political point of view was formed in these early experiences of art in my home. The curious and problematic thing was that the essence of modernist abstraction was conveyed by her work, but in a form that was generally considered a lesser modality: that of small scale and craft. Yet each piece was so obviously a sculpture.

Resia Schor, Fragmented Mezuzah, 21976. Brass, Plexiglass, gouache on pape with Mezuzah text, c. 12″x6.5.” In a radical and iconoclastic geture, my mother took the mezuzah and turned it inside out, revealing and cutting into small fragments the samll talismanic text that had always been hidden and not to be touched by a woman.

That my mother as a person had sought economic survival through her own aesthetic labor was already a lesson in feminism for me and my sister. And, as she developed her own style and techniques in her new medium, it became intriguingly clear that my parents’ work embodied a strangely crossed gender art message that in itself contributed to my sister Naomi and my involvement with feminism and perhaps too to the slightly unusual flavor of our feminist outlook. Inasmuch as art movements are gender coded, my father’s work — folkloric, figurative, narrative, Jewish, delicate, light in weight — carried a feminine code. My mother’s work, abstract, muscularly sculptural although still relatively small in scale but heavy in weight carried a code that would seem to be masculine, as those terms are used.

Resia Schor, The Moon, 1967. Pendant, silver, gold, precious and semi-precious stones, c.3″x2.5″

Resia Schor, The Moon, back

When potential customers came to visit, there would be the ritual of showing the work: she would gradually open one case and soft pouch after another, unwrap little tissue paper packets, laying out gold and silver pendants and pins studded with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, heavily sculpted silver Mezuzahs, chains whose silver and gold links and  blue African blue glass beads made from ground lapis lazuli tinkled softly, and earrings made with ancient beads from “Roman excawations.” At the end of the unveiling, a profusion of treasures would cover the coffee table in our living room. I never tired of seeing the work and better yet of handling it, wearing it, sculptural, glowing, deeply satisfying as an aesthetic experience that was tactile as well as visual. Her rings in particular became part of my identity.

Resia Schor, silver and gold rings from the 1980s to the 2000s

I also loved to watch my parents at work, in the small “maid’s room” of our Upper West Side apartment. When my father was a teenager, before he went to The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, he had been apprenticed in a kind of medieval guild practice as an engraver and goldsmith, and his gestures at work, with metal as with gouache and brush, were light and deft. My mother had watched him work, she claimed he had taught her some basic skills. After he died she took one course in soldering, but basically she taught herself to make her own work. But her body language at her work was different than his, more determined, she radiated an intense and physical absorption.

Resia Schor, soldering, summer 2002. Video still from Mira Schor, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor,” 2003

When my mother was about 8 years old, spending the summer at her grandparents’ house in a small village near Lublin, in Poland, there was a fire next door, always a dangerous event, but all the more so in a small rural community of wooden houses in the early years of the twentieth century. Left alone, as the aunt who was in charge of her ran out with her own small children, my mother decided to save the bedding, so she tied all the pillows up into a sheet, and got her bundle and herself out of the house. Later they could not untie her knot.

This story always seemed metaphoric and predictive of my mother’s strengths and abilities. She was courageous and had presence of mind: when, as she sat with my father and friends in a café in Paris in May 1940 and saw French peasants from the East pushing their belongings and their elderly relatives in wheel-barrows through the streets of Paris, with their livestock in tow, she understood that she, my father, and their friends, poor Jewish émigrés, must leave at once and so, early the next morning, they fled, with only a few lumps of sugar and a change of underwear, a day ahead of Hitler’s army.

English was the fifth language she learned, after Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and French: when I was at summer camp, she once wrote to me “I love you with all my hearth.” One of the important images of my adolescence is of my always very elegant little mother wearing goggles, hair covered in a dirty bandana, face blackened by metal dust, carbon, and red metal polish, wielding a gas-powered torch over a gas burner on our kitchen stove to solder her large silver mezuzahs. Vulcan’s sister at a domestic forge.

The heat of that unquenchable fire inhabits a recurrent dream I have had for many years that the burners on my stove spontaneously alight and like the burning bush, the flame cannot be extinguished and the bush is not consumed.

Video still, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor.”

In a 1974 letter to his sister Janice, Jack Tworkov wrote about my mother “[…] alone in the house, always fighting loneliness, but better off than most because she has a work in hand and makes a living from it. ” (from The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov). “A work in hand,” those are powerfully meaningful words to describe her and to describe what I feel I learned from her – the importance of dedication to a self-created aesthetic task pursued in daily practice. To have a work in hand gave meaning to her life and to mine and my sister’s.

Resia Schor, c.1928

Resia and Ilya Schor, under the Magnolia tree on the grounds of the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, c.1935

Resia Schor, Student ID, Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, 1930

Resia Schor, Carte d”Eleve, Louvre Museum, 1938

Resia Schor, Provincetown, 1960, photo: Ryszard Horowitz

Resia Schor with Naomi and Mira, from top 1965, 1982, 1985

Richard Howard, “Jewelry by Resia Schor,” Craft Horizons, July/August, 1966

Resia Schor, Gold Pin, c. 1970

Resia Schor, 2005. Photo: Chie Nishio

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Stealth Feminism at MoMA

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.

Wall signage, MoMA Lobby, May 6, 2010

The shows include Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now, Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense, Performance 7: Mirage by Joan Jonas, and Pictures by Women: A History of  Modern Photography, (and look for Experimental Women in Flux, opening in August).

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.

Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1980–98. Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, wire, and grommets, 7 x 8 x 6'. MoMA © 2010 Lee Bontecou

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.

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Looking for art to love, day one: Chelsea

I started my search for art to love in Chelsea, April 20

(see my first post, immediately below, for some general thoughts about falling in love with artworks)

“Talk Show” at Ed Thorp Gallery: is the title a sly way of hinting that the show is all women painters? (talk show > The View > all women???)  A show with many good small paintings, with the slightly funky, folksy, even fey quality that Thorp has favored over the years: representational, slightly surrealist or fantasist. There are aspects of several artists’ work that I like [category: je l’aime bien]: I was interested in Clare Grill’s paintings, particularly Close Our Eyes and Go to Bed, a small painting of a group of shoes at a door way or threshold. The painting surface style is sketchy and relaxed, rich and with small pleasures in some of Grill’s decisions about paint transparency and the trace of an under-drawing, as well as the subject: the shoes suggest a family, but they are not all pairs, which, with the shadow that flows up towards the door, creates a subtle undercurrent of disquiet.

Clare Grill, Close Our Eyes and Go to Bed, 2008, Oil on linen on panel, 20h x 17w in.

Also I spent some time with E.T., a delicate painting of a girl’s translucent blouse disrupted by a red spot over her left breast.

Clare Grill, E.T., oil on linen over panel, 18"x13", 2010

This brought to my mind the first small paintings I saw by Portia Munson when she was still a graduate student at Rutgers. These represented simple yet startlingly potent aspects of a woman’s life in a style of painting that was just as good as it needed to be to get the image across: either totally plain but curious still-lifes, such a pair of cotton panties rolled up from being just taken off and left on the floor, or the body transformed with a feminist perspective, as in Munson’s Lipstick on Tits, a close-up of breasts smeared in red lipstick.

I don’t think that Grill and Munson are working exactly the same corner of gender representation. The oozing red stain on Grill’s delicately painted blouse suggests illness, mutilation, or defilement while Munson’s bold image speaks to the social necessity of duplication of gender identity: having tits is apparently not enough to inscribe a female body as a woman in society, lipstick must be applied. Also, in Munson’s work, the woman painter begins by literally painting herself. Nevertheless I think it’s important to bring these works together: many important artworks from the near past are not as well known as they should be, often because the artist was not positioned properly in relation to the center of the art world, either by circumstance, content, age, or location. These gaps in history are particularly important to address when women artists are concerned, despite the many advances of women in the artworld.

Portia Munson, "Lipstick on Tits," oil on linen, 16"x22", 1986

Of all the works in “Talk Show,” one painting has stayed in my mind past the Ninth Avenue barrier of Chelsea: Little Boy in Bed, a watercolor on canvas by Bettina Sellmann. It keeps drifting back into my mind as it drifts in and out of visibility even when you are right in front of it, a sweet little baby in a small ornately carved bed, all limned in a few strokes of watercolor on a scumbled grey stain on canvas. This painting seems old fashioned in a way, in terms of art style, it could be from the 1940s, never mind, it’s a haunting work [perhaps a sub-category: je l’aime bien + bonus points].

Bettina Sellmann, Little Boy in Bed, 2010, Watercolor on canvas, 30h x 36w in.

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