Suffrage and the Arts

Suffrage and the Arts HD

This book (a paperback edition of a hardback) collects essays by specialists on the relationship between the arts and the movement for female suffrage in Great Britain in the 1890-1914 period. (In this review “suffrage” will used a term applied specifically only to the movement for women’s enfranchisement in Great Britain.) There were a number of organisations supporting the suffrage movement, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Women’s Social and Political Union, Women’s Freedom League, Women’s Tax Resistance League, Women’s Liberal Federation and others. This collection focuses on the role of the arts and artists in the movement.

The production of pro-suffrage arts and crafts spanned the gamut of professional-level material made by skilled specialists to homemade folk craft. Some prominent supporters were artists and designers and they could produce and sell wares directly to their moneyed peers. Illustrated are tea sets, badges, brooches, banners and posters made for the cause, as well as some material opposing suffrage. The material was sold to demonstrate solidarity and also to raise money for the cause. To aid recognition, the movement developed a combination of colour: pale green, purple and white.

“Although the majority of artistic women did benefit from privileges due to their race and class, we wish to move away from the tendency to celebrate ‘exceptional’ London-based female painters, to instead reference a wider array of voices from across the country, particularly from those working in the applied arts, who often desperately needed to generate an income.” This is in line with the feminist Marxist critique, which holds to an aversion of discusses society in terms of individuals, instead viewing history as the movement of masses. There is a fear of falling into a seeming trap of admiring exceptional achievement.

The suffrage movement was seen – in its manifestations among the artistically inclined middle- and upper-class families – as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement. The attachment to socialism, collectivism and the moral value of craftwork (for individual, guild and society) translated naturally into the collective action, class solidarity and craftwork in support of women’s emancipation. Authors deprecate “the work of ‘great’ men […] William Morris [and] John Ruskin”. However much the authors dislike veneration for men and exceptional individuals, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement did not appear like morning dew; it was thought, discussed, explicated and propagated by Morris and Ruskin, among others.

Despite the active participation of some members, women’s arts societies remained aloof to the subject of the suffrage campaign, seeming in a wish to remain independent. Had the societies become seen as tied to activism, it would have impaired the perception of the societies working to promote art because of its quality and instead of promoting art due to its political content. (This is in direct contrast to the artivism of today, which measures art by its political/social utility.) Zoe Thomas’s essay describes how internal debate raged between the political radicals and those committed to maintaining group neutrality. As the women’s societies were locked into disengaged stances, the Artists’ Suffrage League was founded. The atelier was opened in 1909, producing posters, banners (used in public gatherings), postcards, curtains, book covers and other items. The Suffrage Atelier admitted male artists.

Other essays discuss the interior design work of prominent campaigners Agnes Garrett (1845-1935), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), who used their work and social prominence to lobby for enfranchisement. The production of goods specifically aimed at pro-suffrage consumers is covered in Elizabeth Crawford’s text. Makers (many of them women) created newsletters (Votes for Women, The Common Cause, The Vote, The Suffragette), jewellery, leather goods, embroidered goods and clothing. Other pieces cover suffragette badges and portraits of suffragists. Oil paintings and drawings of prominent figures in the movement emphasise the resolution and composure of subjects; they were displayed and reproduced as a counter to the news photographs and negative cartoons which appeared in the press. Other essays consider the responses to the male supporters of male suffragists, the responses of Scottish and Irish women to the campaign in the light of nationalist sentiments in their nations and the representations of force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike.

The discussion of suffragette attacks on art provides details and background on these public events. The underlying rationalisation was that because the demands of a lobby had not been met that collateral damage to cultural goods – some owned by the general public – was a proportionate response. It was a campaign of cultural terrorism. Feminists have recently written approvingly of these attacks as an expression of opposition to gender roles and class subjugation. Krista Cowman’s essay is clear and broadly neutral, which compliments the readers’ independence of thought on that matter. Her essay is more informative than the essay in the recent Tate catalogue on iconoclasm.

Overall, this book is a handy primer for the scholarship and debates regarding the suffragette movement in relation to the arts in the Edwardian period. The ample source notes, bibliographies and index will assist historians, academics and students. The illustrations are well chosen and complement the text. This paperback edition makes the welcome and affordable alternative to the rather expensive hardback edition.

 

Miranda Garrett, Zoe Thomas (eds.), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, paperback, 281pp, 16pp col./30 mono illus., $34.95, ISBN 978 1 35012867 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Seven Books on Women Artists & Feminist Art

Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 is a study of one of the planks of the second-wave of feminism: sexual violence. Rape, assault and subjugation are considered manifestations of the second-class status of women, so they are emblematic subjects for feminist art. Vivien Green Fryd writes: “Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 examines how and why feminist artists, working from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century, represented and challenged the dominant narrative about sexual violence against women. I demonstrate in this book that for more than forty years, a key group of American artists has insisted on ending the silence and contributed to an anti-rape, anti-incest counternarrative […]” This is a peculiar characterisation. Rape, assault, incest and marital cruelty have been subject to legal penalty and social opprobrium for many centuries. There certainly was a culture of reticence and aversion to discussion of sexual matters and family violence but that does not equate to approval for legal and moral infractions.

Fryd includes art by male homosexual artists in this discussion. The idea is that this art critiques systematic faults of a patriarchal society and therefore aligns with the feminist position. Fryd has chronicled the plethora of feminist performances and exhibitions relating to the theme of sexual violence but cannot detach herself from the subject. The author’s accounts of historical activity are accurate and informative but the narrative becomes partial when discussing recent events. Fryd’s discussion of Emma Sulkowicz (famed as “Mattress Girl”), a Columbia University art student who claimed to have been raped and turned the allegation into part of an art performance, is disingenuous. The university settled with the accused and exonerated him of the accusation. When, at the close of the book, Fryd’s avows that she hope her book has contributed to the feminist cause, no reader will be surprised at this expression of a campaigning intent.

Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s covers much of the same ground. Princenthal identifies 1970 and the few years following as a turning point in public attitudes to sexual assault. She nominates (in the American context) the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement and the Vietnam war as pivotal events socially and the rise of Conceptual Art, Body Art, performance, Land Art and allied movements as artistic currents that facilitated the adoption by women of the stories of rape and sexual violence. The unspoken element was the rise of Marxism in academia, with university lecturers pledging themselves to the New Left, which would use what we now call identity politics to advance socialism through lobbying for minority rights. It is within such a context that Feminist art would be artistically and politically sanctioned by the New Left. (It would be this very co-option that later gave rise to concerns voiced by some feminist academics.)

The line between sexual liberation and exploitation was a deliberately blurred one – and the inevitable consequence of deliberate transgression by activists at American universities. Within the counter-culture movements and terrorist groups, sex was offered and demanded in the service of the revolution. Princenthal exposes the cool dismissal of women’s issues by hard-line Marxists, the aggressive misogyny of Frantz Fanon and rape advocacy of Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones. The murders of the hippy commune/cult around Charles Manson were an expression of revolutionary violence, committed by a group including women willing to kill other women for thrills but ostensibly as part of a cultural war.

Princenthal, using quotes from primary sources and new interviews with participants, sets out some touchstones of literature on rape in the 1970s. She discusses early celebrated performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (first performed 1964) and those by Valie Export involving voyeurism and audience participation. Work by Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper and others are mentioned and key performances and publications are deftly summarised. Performance art and the theatre of public protest have numerous parallels and in the case of politically motivated art the two intersect. The importance of collective action and staged spectacle are foregrounded as important components of feminist performances.

New York, New Wave discusses the influence of feminist art of the 60s and 70s on recent artists, explaining that the diffusion of politics and multiple creative approaches are more important that gender politics for today’s postmodernists. The illustrations provide a handy survey of art discussed. The book is clearly written and approachable.

The Art of Feminism studies women’s art from Victorian times to the present day. Although most readers will be interested in art from the 1960s onwards, the most interesting material is the art produced during the suffrage and world wars periods. Skill and ingenuity were used to advance the case for women’s rights in posters that are brilliant, effective and beautiful; that art contrasts with feminist art of recent decades, which is intentionally ugly, angry and confrontational. (The authors mischaracterise the anti-suffrage movement, which in part was an earnest attempt by women to protect their privileges (exemptions from the draft, jury duty and debt liability) which it was assumed would be lost if they were made equal to men.) Oddly, the leading women Abstract Expressionist painters are omitted underlining the political scope of the survey, which limits its usefulness. The quoting of “gender pay gap” statistics indicates the lack of clarity when it comes to political hot topics.

The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World inspires mixed feelings. It is an attractive and informative book (including brief questionnaires with living artists) that will appeal to younger children. It does a good job explaining art to children but some of the art is tiresome and obscure even for informed adults. It also fails to acknowledge legitimate objections to feminism in art. Feminism has not changed art practice other than by promoting existing attitudes and approaches. It has failed to produce much art of worth. Plausibly feminists could claim that these were never their intention. What they have succeeded in doing is entrenching politics in art. Feminism has also shone a light on women artists (past and present) but at the cost of turning women artists into tokens.

The subtitle of “400 artists, 500 years” gives the outline of the dictionary Great Women Artists. This attractive hardback devotes one large-format page to a substantial illustration, biographical data and a paragraph devoted to a different artist. There is much material here that is unfamiliar – some of it very weak – but there are some real finds among the lesser-known figures: Ellen Altfest, Louise Jopling, Katsushika Ōl, Zinaida Serebryakova, Uemura Shōen. The artists share nothing in common except their sex.

Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women follows a similar format, with one to four pages devoted to buildings by women. The book contains a great breadth of architecture in diverse buildings, styles, sizes and locations. For those not following architecture, the names will be unfamiliar even if some of the structures are already known. Architecture allows less potential for expression but the startling, impressive and inventive designs – marrying function and aesthetics – are more satisfying than the majority of the art in Great Women Artists. Of the two books, it is Breaking Ground that is the more surprising and delightful book. This is a beautiful and essential book for anyone interested in modern and contemporary architecture.

 

Sophia Bennett, Manjit Thapp, The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World, Tate, 2019, hardback

Kathy Battista, New York, New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice, IB Tauris, 2019, paperback

Helena Reckitt, The Art of Feminism, Tate, 2019, hardback

Vivien Green Fryd, Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019, hardback

Nancy Princenthal, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, Thames & Hudson, 2019, hardback

Rebecca Morrill (ed.), Great Women Artists, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

Jane Hall, Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

 

“Painting by Numbers”

“Last year, troubled by the way a common narrative did not seem to mesh with my lived experience, I set out to assess the obstacles women face in the fine-art world. As we all know, thanks to the tireless work of disinterested campaigners, supplemented by exert academics and repeated by an objective press, women face prejudice in society, including in the arts. Yet the findings of mandatory reporting to the British government purport to show that in 2018 women comprise 56% of the workforce in the UK arts sector, with an unfavourable earnings differential of only 2.6% towards median income women, mainly due to fewer women in top positions. What about the artists themselves?

“Starting in July 2018, for 12 months I collected data from press releases that I encountered as a critic in the form of emails, publisher catalogues, magazine advertisements and notices on specialist websites regarding the international art world…”

Read the full article on The Critic website here: https://thecritic.co.uk/are-women-discriminated-against-in-contemporary-arts/

Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation

GL.014 copy

[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978) gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x
5 3/4 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

The catalogue of a current exhibition (MCA, Denver, 20 September 2019-5 April 2020) includes early material from the short life of photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Portrait of a Reputation was the title of Woodman’s first photographic book, which had no text except the title.  Her choice of the title Portrait of a Reputation for a booklet made at a point when she was beginning her career and completely unknown is indicative of Woodman’s self-consciousness, awareness of art history and her huge ambition. The photographs and writings of this exhibition and publication mostly come from the time when Woodman began photographing herself at 13 up to her departure for New York. The photographs were taken in Denver, Colorado, Andover, Massachusetts and Providence, where Woodman studied (alongside Lange) at Rhode Island School of Art and Design (1975-8). This review is from the catalogue.

Some of this material is unfamiliar to followers of Woodman’s art. Some of it is unique and belongs to George Lange, a friend of Woodman’s youth. Some of the vintage prints (some poorly printed and uncropped) are Woodman’s first prints of images that have since become classics, given away in a flush of excitement and pride. There are teasing and affectionate letters from her to him. Also included are letters from within the Woodman family.

Lange preserved material by, and about, Woodman. That material is exposed in this new book and it provides glimpses of Woodman as a young woman, just emerging as an independent artist. Woodman was unusually precocious. Cultivated by her artist parents and steeped in Italian classical literature, Roman culture and contemporary Italian art, Woodman grew into art as a young teenager, taking her first self-portraits at 13. In one of her earliest photographs, Woodman took the opportunity of encountering dense exposed roots of a large mature tree to pose emerging from (or entangled with) the roots. Woodman was schooled in the classics and would have known Ovid’s Metamorphoses, many of which dealt with the transformation of people into animals and plants

There was a photo session at a cemetery involving friends. Woodman wore a semi-transparent dress and later undressed for photographs next to graves. The symbolism of the graveyard is too intrusive and obvious for the series to be effective but it seems a necessary experiment. An invitation card for an exhibition by Woodman has a photograph of her lying, seen from above, a common Woodman trope of the weightless woman. Profile 2 is titled by the artist in the margin and is one of the most memorable photographs in the exhibition. (Few of the individual photographs are titled or titled and the catalogue does not provide definitive labels for art works.)

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 x 5 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Contact sheets are reproduced, with selected shots illustrated full page. There are shots that are fluffed – Woodman fails to strike a suitable pose, she smiles as she cannot get in position, she moves during an exposure, a shot is not suitably composed and so forth. These are the side-products of any photo session. There are also shots that are blurred and double-exposures that did not seem to Woodman suitable for selection. The material includes letters, postcards and notes by the artist. There is no transcript of the texts. While there is great value in facsimile reproduction – not least a degree of intimacy and a greater order of information – the absence of transcript will leave some readers straining to decipher Woodman’s handwriting.

In her essay Nora Burnett Abrams dwells upon the issue of seriality and instability of Woodman’s photographs; this seems to overlook Woodman’s conventionality: her desire to make great and powerful single photographs. One can consider her efforts in the context of East Coast American art of the late 1970s, namely conceptualism, land art, performance and interventions within existing environments. These referent contexts are certainly not invalid and unproductive as points of departure, but their selection by commentators today is most definitely in opposition to idea Woodman may have been driven to create powerful single images (with or without handwritten marginal texts) that encapsulate the artist’s skill, ideas and vision.

There is a misstep in discussions of gender in relation to Woodman’s photography. Abbot writes that “[…] Woodman does not make her body available for the easy consumption by a (male) gaze.” The first, primary and most important viewer of Woodman’s photographs was Woodman herself. She was the envisager, creator, model, editor and curator of her art. The gaze is primarily her own. Her art was made to satisfy her own gaze. Her own judgment was the ultimate test of suitability that would determine choices about her art. The consumption of her art was by men and women. It is often women who are far more critical, cruel and proscriptive about images of the female body than men are. Woodman’s art, so influenced by stories which intertwine myths of men, women, gods, monsters and animals, is poorly served by such pedestrian commentary.

Drew Sawyer’s essay outlines the material and influences Woodman was exposed to during her education at RISD and the material of photography that was published by editor Max Kozloff in Artforum, who was also a Woodman-family friend. Sawyer points out that a contemporary interest in Man Ray’s photographs may have led Woodman to paraphrase the image of Meret Oppenheim at the printer’s press in her own photograph of herself with a hand outline painted across her chest. Lady Hawarden and Duane Michals’s are also referenced.

Exhibited are photographs of Woodman by Lange. Lange visited Woodman’s apartment-cum-studio in New York and took photographs of her at work in the studio and relaxing. We see her at work in her studio, setting up props and testing poses. Another significant aspect of the photographs of Woodman out shopping is that they show Woodman in her own time. So much of Woodman’s Gothic, Victorian and anachronistic props and clothing serve to distance her from the life of her era. Encountering her wearing Chinese style coat in a Chinese good store is to see her outside of her curated setting.

The photographs of her by Lange show Woodman reflective and playful, though not guileless. A skilled and thoughtful artist, so self-conscious and self-crafted, is never guileless. The photographs of her beside her mother and friends are more intimate than her self-taken nudes. This is the artist as a woman off-guard, reacting to stimuli, sharing a joke, trying to amuse a friend or engaged in a dialogue. Her acting capacity – functioning as auteur, both director and actor – is suspended whilst she is out of her zone of absolute control. The portrait shots of Woodman against a white wall are beautiful.

It is strange to think of an iconic presence such as Woodman appearing so unguardedly and in new ways after so many years of us being familiar with a set group of her photographs. It makes it seem as though she is still alive somewhere, producing material and experimenting with her image and her art. These provisional attempts, failed shots and discarded art – along with images of her life – make Woodman peculiarly rematerialized (returned to ordinary actuality) and dematerialised (alive but absent). We see her interacting with friends, colleagues and models (categories that overlap to wide degree). Encountering the deeper (or broader) truth of Woodman’s life pushes us to confront the biographical fact that a young woman died at the age of 22. We are confronted by echoes of life cut short, one which could still be continuing today, with Woodman as the doyenne of women photographers who take themselves as their subject.

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x
10 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Seeing this material – “new” material, as it were – awakens the pain of loss. The old wound makes itself known again because to be cognisant and admire the art of Woodman implies the acknowledgement of her premature death and curtailment of her artistic potential and her future life. Even without an explicitly biographical interpretation of Woodman’s photographs, the fact of her death adjusts our art historical response. She was a young woman when made this art; she was a young woman when she dies; she had no opportunity to extend, revise, curate and revisit the art we know. We have no memoirs, interviews, few notes, few letters, no extended commentary by the artist upon her art. We will never have any. She had no chance to respond to the fame and acclaim her art would achieve posthumously.

However firmly we may attempt to separate the biographical from the artistic when assessing art, it is understandable that the admiration of many for the photographs of Francesca Woodman must be tempered by grief.

 

Nora Burnett Abrams, Drew Sawyer, Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, Rizzoli Electa, September 2019, hardback, 176pp, fully illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 8478 6491 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Women Artists in Victorian, Edwardian and Modern Eras

Two republications in the Routledge Revivals series make available once again two significant scholarly texts regarding women’s art of the late Nineteenth Century. Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, (originally published 2000) surveys the situation of women artists in Edinburgh and Glasgow; Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament (originally published 2002) collects essays by experts on various women in the arts-and-craft field in a slightly later period.

In Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Janice Helland examines the exhibition catalogues and sales records of various organisations to gather data on women artists. She concludes that women were relatively numerous – certainly enough to make associations, clubs and associated exhibitions functional – and that while women artists had fewer options than make counterparts, determined women willing to network with others could exhibit and sell regularly, in some cases enough to make a living. Helland points out that women had a less difficult task being taken seriously as artists (namely training, exhibiting and selling art) than women had at becoming physicians.

Helland recounts the experiences of the well-documented careers of Christina Paterson Ross (1843-1906), Georgina Greenlees (1849-1932), Margaret Dempster (1863-?), Kate Macauley (c. 1849-1914) and others. Included in the book are some sample images of art to give us an idea of the production of female artists. As Helland notes, much of the art has disappeared with little trace – as has much unremarkable realist art of that period – and some line drawings from periodical reviews have been reproduced.

Arts societies and clubs were formed by artists in the Nineteenth Century. Women were no exceptions in this regard. The status of professional bodies conferred authority upon member artists and helped to distinguish them from amateurs – an important point for female artists. Artist associations in Great Britain took on the role of artist guilds, permitting members privileges and excluding non-members from operating on parity with members. This became effectively a restriction of trade and a bar to competition within the public-arts field. When faced by the operative restriction of being denied opportunities to train or exhibit alongside male colleagues, the women artists of Scotland (and other Western countries) formed their own quasi-guilds to advance their art and exclude the art of male colleagues, as well as that of their amateur sisters in order to protect the quality of their exhibitions. Additionally, excluding amateur female artists combatted the accusation that women’s art was product of pursuit of ladylike accomplishment rather than professional-level endeavour. Professional women artists in this period had to fight on two fronts – against men who tended to dominate organisations and receive the lion’s share of plaudits and rewards and against women who practised as hobbyists, whose activities undermined the professionals’ claim to legitimacy.

Art by Scottish women received respectful reviews, by and large. Articles, reviews and letters published in the newspapers were encouraging towards women artists and sympathetic to the plight of ill-served students who had to endure lacklustre teaching, cancelled classes, a poor library and lack of access to nude models. This swell of support was due partly to gallantry, an innate sense of fairness among writers and a consensus that this situation did not reflect well upon the cultural aspirations of the Scots vis-à-vis the situation in London. Apparently the conditions of display shaped the tone of reviews.Mary Cameron is presented as an example of traveling woman artist who was celebrated for her pictures of bullfights. The glowing praise by the press is evidence (if needed) that the public and press were willing to set aside reservations about women as painters if they earned respect through competence and – in this case – the novelty of her subject matter.

The author fairly discusses the monetary impetus in the production of art without squeamishness. Helland errs in suggesting that lower price for art by women is an instance of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. It was the result of a market mechanism pricing the desirability of unique goods in an open market, with price determined by demand, availability and utility. In Scotland in the Nineteenth Century there was simply less demand for art by lesser known artists than by more prestigious artists. Helland knows – or should have known – that women’s art has often commanded prices higher than that for art by men (e.g. Lavinia Terlinc, Rachel Ruysch, Angelica Kauffmann, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and others). This is a lapse into ideological cant that mars an otherwise generally even-handed account.

* * * * * *

Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament  comprises 10 essays on different subjects. Elizabeth Cumming assesses the links between craftswomen Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) and Mary Seton Watts née Fraser-Tytler (1849-1938; wife of painter George Frederick Watts). Traquair was an illustrator, mural painter and embroiderer who worked in the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. Watts was a potter and textile designer, based in Surrey. Whereas Traquair preferred to work alone, Watts collaborated with skilled artisans and technicians. The Watts’s interior decoration for the Compton Chapel (1890), attached to the house-studio she shared with her husband, was informed by her consultation of Traquair, who had previous experience of decorative schemes. Jan Marsh writes on May Morris (1862-1938), an Arts and Crafts embroiderer. She was the daughter of William Morris and founder of the Women Guild of Arts in 1907, records of which are apparently not extant. Australian commercial artist Thea Proctor (1879-1966) is considered as the epitome of Art Deco modernism by Pamela Gerrish Nunn. This essay is particularly enjoyable and worth thinking of in relation to the women linocut artists of the Grosvenor School, who flourished contemporaneously to Proctor. The last word in sophistication in Australian taste in the inter-war period, Proctor’s reputation has not experienced a revival comparable to Lempicka’s. Illustrations show Proctor was a gifted designer of posters and journal covers.

Other topics include ceramic design; British court dress; the 1920s film sets of Natacha Rambova; Hungarian embroiderer Laura Nagy; the 1913 Women’s Exhibition, Amsterdam; Romaine Brooks, Gluck and Eileen Gray; American artist, costume designer and interior designer Florine Stettheimer. Monochrome illustrations provide sufficient indication of these uncommon subjects. This title and the former are both serious and thought-provoking re-evaluations of lesser-known creative women.

 

Janice Helland, Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 212pp + xiii, 40 mono illus., £90, ISBN 978 1 138 723 184

Bridget Elliott, Janice Helland (eds.), Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 229pp + xiv, 47 mono illus., £29.99, ISBN 978 1 138 72145 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime

9783030207656

In Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Penelope Jackson explores the multiple roles that women have played in art crimes major and minor. As well as crimes, the discussion includes infractions and misdemeanours. The author sets out her case as such: “I am hoping that the material here will encourage curiosity. For me it is the obligation of art historians to research and write about artists and aspects of art history that have been neglected by others. In my opinion, the cases and issues around about women, art, and crime, fulfils a much-neglected area.”

Jackson covers female vandals, fraudsters, art destroyers con women, thieves and assistors of criminals. Curiously, as Jackson notes, no (heretofore unmasked) art forgers have been women. If there have been some they have not yet been exposed. She recounts the stories of each, though she does not reach particular conclusions about how women as women might be adept or unsuited to such roles. Jackson is somewhat unreliable about the causes of the dearth of women’s art in museum collections and accepts too readily the feminist narrative of patriarchal exclusion. However, once one has recognised these deficiencies the book has much to commend it to the general reader.

Women as destroyers of art have included Clementine Churchill, known to have destroyed at least three portraits of her husband Winston Churchill. Other destroyers include the legatees of American Ashcan realist Robert Henri, who destroyed a large quantity of art they considered substandard. Women have been complicit in art theft and forgery actively and indirectly as the mothers and girlfriends of thieves and forgers. In at least two cases, the mothers of thieves destroyed paintings before the police could search, locate and confiscate the stolen art. Although they thought they were helping out their sons by concealing their crimes, they compounded the crime by making restitution impossible. The saddest section of the book is the description of how Marielle Schwengel (mother of thief Stéphane Breitwieser) destroyed historical paintings by Boucher, Dürer, Watteau and Cranach the Elder by hacking them to pieces, throwing them in a canal or leaving them out for the refuse collectors. Likewise, Olga Dogaru (mother of thief Radu Dogaru) burned he paintings he stole from a Rotterdam museum in an attempt to conceal his crime. These paintings included a Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Freud. The ashes in her stove were forensically analysed and found to contain the remnants of canvases and nails.

A chapter is devoted to vandals, either mentally unbalanced or politically motivated. The best known example is the Suffragette campaign of the 1910s. As prominent women were being arrested, imprisoned and injured (even accidentally killed) in acts of civil disobedience, a core of dedicated supporters took to the museums of Great Britain with the intention of outraging public morals by damaging art. The author’s sympathy for Suffragette iconoclasm (“[…] if there were ever a case of legitimate art vandalism, the Suffragettes take the cake hands down.”) will disappoint readers who realise that vandalising art for political reasons inevitably leads to the question “At which point do you consider legitimate political violence could be enacted by you?” The logic puts the security of cultural heritage in the hands of righteous activists who reserve the authority to destroy cultural material because of supposed inequities of society at large. This position risks sanctioning future iconoclasm, with the arbiters being the attackers and the degree of their indignation.

An additional area which is one of deception rather than outright fraud is the use of pseudonyms. Traditionally, women faced social disapproval, so it was relatively common for women to use aliases, initials or male names if they wrote or made art. Walter and Margaret worked together, starting in the 1950s. Although Walter Keane was known as an artist of kitsch children with large eyes, it was actually Margaret who painted them. Walter was the better salesman and for the apparently tenuous reason that buyers wanted contact with the artist, Walter claimed authorship of Margaret’s paintings. She permitted them to be sold as original “Walter Keanes” and shared in the profits. Even after their divorce, Margaret continued to paint as Walter, sending him finished pictures to exhibit and sell.

Whether he had the idea or not, it was Margaret Keane who executed the paintings and Walter Keane who took the credit for them, which is criminal given they were sold deceitfully. Walter Keane’s signing of Margaret Keane’s work was fraudulent. That Margaret was part of this deceit can also be viewed as criminal. Margaret Keane must have been aware of the implications but, because of the difficulty this would involve, she chose not to do anything about it until she was in a ‘safe’ time and place [i.e. not until after their divorce].

Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. Artists frequently employ assistants to work in their studios, always uncredited. The work can range to the menial, mundane and administrative to the highly technically demanding production of finished art. This practice started in the medieval period and continues today, with the most successful artists frequently employing assistants to do much work in a prescribed style, under the artist’s direction. The Keane studio system may have been domestic in character, emotionally abusive and highly secretive but it was by no means unprecedented or illegal. Artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons produce paintings in studios using unnamed assistants, a fact known to dealers and collectors.

A fascinating case is Australian painter Elizabeth Durack (1915-2000) taking up the alias of Eddie Burrup. Already a successful artist under her own name, Durack identified so closely with Aboriginal people that in 1995 she adopted an artistic persona as a male Aboriginal artist, complete with fictional biography. She painted in the distinctive style of the native Australians, using a pseudonym “Eddie Burrup”. The paintings were exhibited, sold and entered into prize competitions as by Burrup, with only a handful of insiders knowing the truth. When it was revealed by the artist, there was considerable controversy, with Durack being criticised for deception, appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Females in the Frame provides a diverting and informative overview of the subject of women in art crime for general readers.

[NB: This review is from an electronic file, therefore paper, print quality, layout, binding and illustration detail could not be assessed.]

Penelope Jackson, Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, paperback, 223pp + xv, 13 col./5 mono illus., €20, ISBN 978-3-030-20765-6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

The war on America’s past continues

In the wake of recent attempts – some successful – to have Confederate statues removed from the US south, what is the future of colonialist statues in the US west? In Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, Cynthia Culver Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, senses a reluctance to apply to pioneer monuments the ideological zeal that was turned on Confederate memorials. ‘We resist applying the insights of settler colonial studies to American pioneer narratives because to do so would call into question foundational myths of Jeffersonian agrarianism and American exceptionalism, and lay bare white conquest of native lands and peoples.’ She outlines the cases against statues of colonialists, and particularly against female settlers, who took part in the drive to colonise the American west in the 19th century.

“Statues depicting women have been criticised by academics and campaigners for being idealising, inaccurate, generalising and stereotypical. There is a sense that campaigners direct such ire at statues of women settlers not just because they embody sexism and colonialism but because they show women as complicit in the act of dispossessing native peoples. There is a residual resentment that – in intersectional terms – a political minority took part in a project to oppress another minority….”

Read my article on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/29/the-war-on-americas-past-continues/

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Abstract Expressionist Women Painters

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As with other past art movements, these individuals are predominantly male; in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.[i]

So stated is the recent feminist case against Abstract Expressionism, an art style associated with hard-drinking, brawling men who wore workmen’s clothes and used industrial paint. For feminists, the discussion of such art is embodied in the language of criticism.

Discussion of the work of abstract expressionists abounds with highly gender-laden adjectives, it is “strong” “incisive”, “thrusting” and “aggressive”. Its image of barely controlled violence is reinforced by the frequent title of “Action Painting”, all these elements conforming to popular perceptions of masculinity. […] cultural stereotypes of female passivity made the function of the female artist within “Action Painting” difficult to define, hence the often peripheral position allocated to artists such as Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler. […] in art as in so many other areas of activity, women were denied a central role in post-war western culture.[iii]

Critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess would arbitrate on the quality of art using language that would lock in place a masculine set of virtues, the argument goes. “A so-called canon would arise that solidified Abstract Expressionism as male.” [iv] Yet one of the leading critics was Elaine de Kooning – a shrewd, intelligent and informed woman who was also a painter.  Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler enjoyably and thoroughly surveys the lives of five prominent female artists of the New York scene. Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning née Fried (1918-1989), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) are all artists well worth biographical and critical attention, which have received to varying degrees over the decades.

The starting point of the book is the Ninth Street Show, a group show held in a building in New York due for demolition. The show displayed the depth and variety of the New York School as it became the vanguard style of world Modernist art. The show, held over May and June of 1951, brought together the leading artists of the first generation of newly prominent New York School (including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Krasner) alongside many members of the second generation (including Hartigan, Frankenthaler and Mitchell). The second generation were not much younger than the first generation (sometimes only a matter of ten years). The main differentiation was participation in the experiences of the 1930s as artists: the Great Depression, the conflict between Modernists and Regionalists, the WPA (which provided indigent artists with paid employment for public benefit) and the political activism of unionism and Socialist events.

Gabriel captures the excitement, poverty and cultural ferment of the arts starting in 1929, when artists divided into camps and argued vehemently (to the point of fistfights) about aesthetics. Social commitment meant being gaoled for affray during protests. The writing is lively, informed and strongly narrative. It is an approachable entrance in the atmosphere, politics and characters of the New York School. Although it is centred on five painters it weaves in the stories of other major (and a few of the minor) figures of the time: Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Hess, Rosenberg, Greenburg, Peggy Guggenheim, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers and John Graham. Most prominent of the other figures are Pollock and de Kooning. The book closes in 1959, with a coda describing the later lives of the painters.

Krasner trained at the Cooper Union, New York. Discouraged by the limitations of social realism (the Ash Can School) and the politics of Communism in the wake of Stalin’s show trials, she turned to abstraction and Modernism by taking classes under Hans Hofmann. She became a committed Modernist and admired Mondrian; soon she had a chance to meet her hero when he moved to New York as part of the influx of emigre artists. During the war years she met Pollock, they moved in together and shared ideas. In 1945 they married. Together with Clement Greenberg, Krasner made Pollock’s career a joint effort, even to the extent of painting less. It seems that Pollock’s emotional demands and ego inhibited Krasner from working for a time, though they did co-operate for a number of joint exhibitions.

Elaine Fried studied at Leonardo da Vinci School. In 1938 she met de Kooning at about the same time as Gorky and John Graham, the painter and theoretician who wrote System and Dialectics of Art (1937). This eccentric book on the subject of Modern art was one of key references for the tiny group of American artists of the era. Well before their marriage in 1943, Elaine made de Kooning’s career her project, networking with critic Harold Rosenberg. Her art was portraiture of herself and fellow artists, executed with painterly bravura. In 1948 Hess, editor of ArtNews, commissioned Elaine de Kooning to write exhibition reviews. This made her an important figure in the New York art world and appreciated by artists, about whose work she could write with the knowledge and sympathy of an insider.

Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College and with Hans Hofmann and entered an art world where the nascent Abstract Expressionists were already being exhibited and sold. Unlike the first generation, she never experienced the pre-war scene. She was joining an art world where Modernism was in ascendant with the cognoscenti even if it was not widely accepted by the general public. While freshly graduated, she met Greenberg and began an affair with him. Although he did not write about her art, his status helped to open doors for Frankenthaler. On 26 October 1952 she painted Mountains and the Sea, which is made with diluted paint which she splashed and soaked into the canvas while it was horizontal on the floor of her studio. It is credited with starting the Colour Field School.

Hartigan, without art qualifications, she worked as a technical draughtsman during the war. Her future husband Harry Jackson was a painter and fan of Pollock. She met Pollock and Krasner in 1948 and the couples became friends. Hartigan’s rise was faster than that of most artists and she was soon exhibiting and selling paintings alongside veteran painters. The 1953 purchase of one of her paintings by MoMA marked a remarkable level of recognition for one of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists.

Mitchell studied painting at the School of Art Institute, Chicago. She married fellow Chicagoan Barney Rosset, filmmaker and future publisher of Grove Press, in 1949. In New York she became an abstract painter, influenced by a tour of Europe. Critics consider her part of Abstract Impressionism, fusing Abstract Expressionism and the inheritance of Monet. Substance abuse and infidelity caused a split from Rosset. Later, Mitchell had a long-term relationship with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.

All of these artists knew each other and had periods of close friendships, sometimes working side by side, at other times estranged through personal differences. All achieved public and commercial recognition, sometimes slow, sometimes ebbing, subject to the changing critical tastes of their times. All achieved financial independence.

Reading Ninth Street Women we come to understand how important painting as painting was for this generation. Painting was a way of discovering the world and unlocking doors to new experiences; it was an expression of individual humanity in an era of Cold War. The earnest atmosphere of The Club and the boozy raucousness of the Cedar Tavern are conveyed in the author’s descriptions, augmented by recollections of artists. The poverty and neglect these artists faced brought (relative) camaraderie; with fame and money came (relative) rivalry. The main narrative ends in the year 1959, which marks the decline of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Painting and the rise of Pop Art. By 1959 American Modernist art had become mainstream, big business and a haven for speculators. Mitchell had moved to France to be closer to Riopelle and escape the drinking culture of the Five Spot (the replacement for the Cedar Tavern). Frankenthaler had married Robert Motherwell. Krasner was managing Pollock’s estate and making her own art on Long Island. Elaine was estranged from de Kooning, painting and teaching art; she would go on to paint portraits of many notable people, including President Kennedy. Hartigan was changing her art, leaving behind the sturm und drang of Ab Ex impasto and diluting her paint to washes, influenced by Colour Field Painting.

The hard-drinking uninhibited lifestyles of the New York School were punctuated by arguments that escalated to fistfights. Affairs were common and marriages and relationships imploding regularly. In 1956 Pollock died when he crashed his car whilst drunk. These women painters strove for equality and some of them – in their hard drinking, heavy smoking, drug taking, casual sex and flouting of conventions – sometimes partook of the freedoms and temptations of bohemian life as much as their male counterparts. Like the men, they suffered consequences. Mitchell experienced fits of depression after bouts of drunken wildness and earned a reputation as a hell raiser. In 1953 Mitchell attempted suicide attempt following an extreme party. By the mid-1950s many of the New York School were struggling with excessive alcohol consumption, a problem heightened by their increasing incomes.[v] “Marriages and relationships born in poverty and obscurity could not withstand the onset of fortune and fame.”[vi] Hartigan suffered depression[vii] and later experienced alcoholism and would attempt suicide. Like Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning overcame alcoholism. Elaine de Kooning died of cancer, possibly caused by lifelong smoking – the same cause as Mitchell.

Gabriel discusses the situation of women artists of the time with sensitivity and fairness. Gabriel uses the words of the artists to give us their views on the subject. “Throughout her career, Grace was loath to acknowledge any difference between the sexes when it came to making art – except in the case of children [i.e. childbearing and childcare].”[ix] Only one of these five women had a child; Hartigan spent prolonged periods apart from her only child.

Gabriel remembers her first interview with Hartigan. “As Grace [Hartigan] spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that she was a woman artist. […] but each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. […] and yet, the story of that movement has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.”[x] The story of these artists is worth telling but we should not think that these women artists have not been overly neglected. The question is where are the books advancing forgotten figures such as Milton Resnick, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Friedel Dzubas, Norman Lewis and Theodoros Stamos? The Abstract Expressionist movement is full of skilled artists who were successful for a brief heyday but subsequently suffered a slump in recognition and today we hear almost nothing about them. The tough truth is that if the curator of a group exhibition can include only 10 artists then the temptation is to exhibit work by the 10 most famous artists to attract visitors and press. There is also the weight of expectations. If the same 10 artists appear in histories then it is hard for any writer of a new history to exclude any of those 10 artists to include an unfamiliar artist because it will look like an omission. Expectation and complacency play a greater role than prejudice in generating histories.

In every art movement or school, vanguards get the majority of attention, influence, press and market appeal. It is only later – as the primary figures get played out biographically and critically (and their art becomes scarcer in the market) – that scholars and dealers move to lesser-known figures. This is a universal phenomenon observable in all cases in fine art. Why women artists might find themselves as secondary or peripheral figures is another matter but it is one that they share with male counterparts. In the case of these five painters, only one of them was part of the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists, so in any short account of the brief heyday of the movement only Lee Krasner seems like a necessary inclusion, though Frankenthaler is essential if one wants to discuss the transition between Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field Painting. Elaine de Kooning was not really an Abstract Expressionist in style. Hartigan and Mitchell are talented painters but not innovators. This book reminds us that the artists (male and female) who make a success of their careers are often abnormal – abnormally confident, selfish, dedicated (or obsessive), ambitious or in some other way outliers in psychological terms. One might also say they are also abnormally lucky. Among the dozens or hundreds or (in our era of widespread global higher education in the fine arts) thousands of aspiring artists, it is only a handful who become successful, respected and remembered. Elaine de Kooning, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Hartigan and Mitchell were such artists.

The advent of feminism in the 1960s was in some ways antithetical to these artists. None of them wanted to be judged as a “woman painter” and social issues did not feature in their art. They distanced themselves from trends towards conceptualism and performance, remaining resolutely painters. Many of the younger generation of women artists resented and despised them as upholders of tradition. In later years Frankenthaler endured insults from political critics and artists for her perceived aloofness and affluence.[xi]

The book includes photographs of the artists and the main movers of the art scene, as well as some colour images of paintings. Over 160 pages of detailed notes and bibliography attest to the formidably thorough work of the author. The book is a sweeping panorama of an excitingly dynamic period in Modernism, when the creation of advanced art was a prize worth sacrificing everything for. Ninth Street Women will stand as a classic and rich recounting of Abstract Expressionism alongside Naifeh and Smith’s biography of Pollock and Stevens and Swan’s biography of de Kooning.

 

Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, Little, Brown, 2018, hardback, 927pp + xvi, col./mono illus., $35, ISBN 978 0 316 22618 9

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

 

 

[i] P. 10, Gwen F Chanzit, “Introduction to the Exhibition”, Marten etc.

[iii] Teresa Grimes, Judith Collins, Oriana Baddeley, Five Women Painters, Lennard, 1989, p. 179-180

[iv] P. 22, Joan Marten, “Missing in Action”, Marten etc.

[v] Elaine de Kooning “I was addicted to alcohol, and so was almost everyone else on the scene at that time.” p. 637

[vi] P. 587

[vii] “I had been seriously mentally ill those last two years in New York.” Quoted p. 678

[viii] P. 31

[ix] P. 288

[x] pp. xii-xiii

[xi] Pp. 713-6