SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA January and February are known as the slowest months in the local art world. Private galleries don’t arrange many new exhibitions during this time because collectors tend to become frugal after the Christmas and Lunar New Year holidays, gallery representatives say. The same has been true this year.
But judging by the three new exhibitions at galleries in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, one of the city’s major districts for art, the slow season is finally coming to an end.
PKM Trinity Gallery’s exhibition “TEXT/VIDEO/FEMALE: Art after 60s” opens tomorrow. With 21 works, the scale of the show is rather small, but the names of the participating artists are big. The names include Louise Bourgeois, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Paik Nam-june, Martin Creed and Tracey Emin. With their participation, the show offers an overview of contemporary art since the 1960s.
“The adoption of text into fine art, the use of video as new media and the active emergence of female artists are the keys of contemporary art,” Park Kyung-mi, PKM Trinity Gallery’s director, said about the title and concept of the show.
Those who saw Oliver Stone’s 2010 film “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” may recognize the painting “Second Chance Nurse” by American artist Richard Prince, which is part of the exhibition. The painting, which appears in the film, is part of the artist’s well-known “Nurse” series that was inspired by the titles and cover art of pulp fiction. According to the gallery, Prince used inkjet printing to transfer the images of the book covers onto canvas. He then painted over them with acrylics.
Meanwhile, Opera Gallery will show works by two of the world’s most popular female contemporary artists beginning on March 10.
The gallery juxtaposes the vivid paintings and sculptures of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who has described herself as an “obsessive artist,” with the vivid sculptures of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
“[The two artists] share common points,” the gallery said in a statement. “Both of them suffered abuse in childhood and sublimated the trauma into art. And the two greatly improved women’s status in the art world.”
Lastly, MC Gallery, located at the midpoint between PKM Trinity and Opera Gallery, is running an exhibition featuring the well-known English land artist Richard Long. The exhibition continues through April 2.
Long is known for his walks through and respect for nature. He arranges objects, such as stones and fallen tree branches, into certain shapes on the spot and takes pictures of the resulting sculpture. Sometimes, he brings the objects into a gallery and rearranges them in order to bring viewers closer to nature.
His installation, “Vermont Georgia South Carolina Wyoming Circle,” which currently fills the gallery’s narrow first floor, is made of red, white, gray and green stones that he gathered in various parts of the United States.
“TEXT/VIDEO/FEMALE: Art after 60s” starts tomorrow and runs through March 23. Admission is free. The gallery is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The gallery is in the Trinity Place building across the street from the Galleria Department Store’s east wing in Cheongdam-dong. Call (02) 515-9496 or visit www.pkmgallery.com.
“Ladies of Legend” starts on March 10 and runs through April 10 at Opera Gallery, on the first floor of the Nature Poem building near the Cheongdam crossroads. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Go to Cheongdam Station, line No. 7, exit 9, and walk for 10 minutes. Call (02) 3446-0070 or visit www.operagallery.com.
The Richard Long solo show continues through April 2. Admission is free. Hours are 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. MC Gallery is located between Galleria Department Store and the Nature Poem building. Call (02) 517-4088 or 9088 or visit www.gallerymc.com.
Image 1: The painting “Dots Obsession (Zoxa)” (2005) by Yayoi Kusama and the sculpture “L’arbre de vie (#74/75)” by Niki de Saint-Phalle are part of the “Ladies of Legend” exhibition at Opera Gallery.
Image 2: “Second Chance Nurse” (2003) by Richard Prince is part of the “TEXT/VIDEO/FEMALE: Art after 60s” exhibition at PKM Trinity Gallery.
Image 3: “Vermont Georgia South Carolina Wyoming Circle” (1987) by Richard Long is on display at MC Gallery. Images provided by the artists and galleries.
BASEL From February 16 to May 15, 2011, Museum Tinguely is showing a comprehensive survey of the work of the artist Arman (1928–2005). The exhibition is a cooperative project with Centre Pompidou in Paris, where it was presented last autumn to resounding acclaim, attracting a large number of visitors. With some 80 works contributed by leading museums and private collections, as well as a selection of films in large-scale projection, video recordings and documents, the second installment of the show in Basel features seven thematically arranged galleries providing a unique overview of the artist’s complete oeuvre from the early 1950s to his late work in the 1990s. Museum Tinguely is placing a special focus on Arman’s artistic pursuits in the 1960s and 70s. Five years after the artist’s death, this is the first major retrospective of his work ever to be held at a Swiss museum. Following projects on Yves Klein (1999), Daniel Spoerri (2001) and Niki de Saint Phalle (2003), Museum Tinguely is now proud to present the oeuvre of yet another member of the Nouveaux Réalistes.
“I maintain that the expression of rubbish, of objects, possesses an immediate intrinsic value, without the will of aesthetic compositions obliterating them and likening them to the colors on a palette; furthermore, I introduce the meaning of the global gesture unremittingly and remorselessly.” ARMAN, 1960
In the thematically organized show, important pieces have been selected to represent Arman’s major work groups, beginning with the Cachets and Allures d’Objets, abstract stamp and object prints on paper and canvas from the latter half of the 1950s. At the center of the show are Arman’s provocative artistic reactions to the throwaway society, his famous Poubelles and Accumulations, in which he showcases discarded everyday goods and trash in glass and perspex boxes as objets d’art. Also on view are key works from the Coupes and Colères series, as well as from the Combustions and Inclusions, demonstrating the artist’s varied forms of engagement beginning in the 1960s with the theme of destruction, deconstruction and transformation of the accoutrements of our daily lives. Completing the exhibition are a selection of Accumulations Renault, assemblages of factory-new auto parts, some of them monumental, which were commissioned in the late 1960s by Renault, and finally, examples of Arman’s paintings and resin casts using paint tubes, in which he turned his attention from the late 1960s to the end of the 1990s to the medium of abstract painting, or Art Informel.
Today, Arman’s works from the 1960s and ’70s seem startlingly topical; in particular his Accumulations, his Colères, involving the destruction of an object, and above all the Poubelles can be read as archaeological traces left behind by consumer society – astonishingly presaging how the throwaway lifestyle and the destruction of the planet would later become the most pressing concerns of our day.
Arman and Nouveau Réalisme
As a founding member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, Arman belonged to one of the most important artist groups of the postwar era, whose influence still persists today. The artists in Tinguely and Arman’s generation found themselves at a turning point, with modernist abstraction in painting having been declared dead. The Nouveau Réalisme manifesto (1960) took issue with Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, art trends that dominated the Parisian art scene at the time. Pierre Restany noted in his text: “Easel painting has (…) served its term. Still sublime at times, it is approaching the end of a long monopoly.” Nouveau Réalisme proposed instead “the exciting adventure of the real seen for what it is.” This adventure, according to Restany, is only open to those who go about the world with a sociologically trained gaze, hoping that chance will rush in to assist, “whether it is the posting or the tearing down of a sign, the physical appearance of an object, the rubbish from a house or living room, the unleashing of mechanical affectivity, or the expanding of sensitivity beyond the limits of perception.”
Arman himself referred in 1960 to the object and the gesture as his primary media: “I maintain that the expression of rubbish, of objects, possesses an immediate intrinsic value, without the will of aesthetic compositions obliterating them and likening them to the colors on a palette; furthermore, I introduce the meaning of the global gesture unremittingly and remorselessly.”
Arman’s work in the 1950s
In Arman’s early work executed in the latter half of the 1950s (to which scant attention has been paid until now) the main artistic methods are already apparent that will set the tone for his entire career: the repetitive artistic gesture and the consistent use of everyday objects.
Interestingly enough, Arman came to the object by way of painting and concrete music, which he delved into intensely at the time. He was also influenced by the work of artists active in the 1920s such as Kurt Schwitters, Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman and Marcel Duchamp. In the mid-1950s he was close to Yves Klein, likewise from Nice and the inventor of International Klein Blue. During this period Arman conceived works on paper and canvas – the Cachets and Allures d’objets. In his Cachets he parts ways with the painting style of the École de Paris and uses rubber stamps to print all-over patterns on canvas in a kind of Écriture automatique. The Allures d’objets series, whose name comes from the music of Pierre Schaeffer, consists of abstract pictorial compositions formed by the accidental imprints and traces left behind by various objects dipped in paint and hurled at the canvas. Arman’s Cachets and Allures d’objets can be regarded as provocative reactions to the Informel painting and Abstract Expressionism that were all-pervasive at the time.
Image: A person walking in front of the art work “Chopin’s Waterloo” (1962) by French-born US artist Arman is seen at the exhibition “Arman” in the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland. The exhibition “Arman” runs from 16 February until 15 May 2011. (EPA/GEORGIOS KEFALAS)
Revelatory Tufts show gives underseen ’60s artists their due.
International in scope but nicely focused (there are 67 works by 24 artists), “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” is the sort of smart, engaging, and revelatory exhibition we should see more of around here — and probably would, were it not for the innate conservatism of many of our major art institutions.
The show, at Tufts University Art Gallery, is the first modern thematic exhibition of any real ambition in these parts for ages. It features the work of artists — most of whose names won’t register with the wider public — who worked within the fairly porous parameters of the Pop Art movement in the socially, politically, and aesthetically convulsive 1960s.
The exhibition was conceived and organized by Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It has been garnering plaudits in its two subsequent venues, first the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, and then the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. It was recently named “Best Thematic Show Nationally” by the US section of the International Art Critics Association.
Pop art’s heyday came before the onset of feminism’s second wave. As such, it was perhaps the last major art movement to systematically exclude or downplay the contributions of women (although many would say subsequent movements fared only marginally better).
Deliberately revisionist, this exhibition brings to our attention at least a dozen artists who deserve to be better known. This in itself is exciting. Niki de Saint Phalle, Vija Celmins, and Yayoi Kusama all have established reputations. But there’s no good reason such artists as Kiki Kogelnik, Rosalyn Drexler, Jann Haworth, Idelle Weber, Chryssa, and Dorothy Grebenak, and Marisol are not better known.
Marisol, in particular, is a bona fide star. She’s hardly unknown in the art world, but she ought to be a household name along with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Claes Oldenburg. Here, unfortunately, she’s represented by just one work: a splendidly uncouth mixed media sculpture of a boxy John Wayne riding a wooden horse. Those who are keen to see more will have to wait for a Marisol retrospective slated to open at the Memphis Brooks Museum in 2014. (If the folks at the Museum of Fine Arts or the Institute of Contemporary Art have their wits about them, they will be pulling out all stops to bring it to Boston.)
I first saw “Seductive Subversion” in Philadelphia, where it was shambolically displayed across three separate venues, and can vouch for the superiority of the display at Tufts. Around 20 works have been added, and Amy Schlegel, director of galleries and collections at Tufts, has provided a helpful thematic overlay, grouping the works according to four common-sense themes.
Still, the result is by no means a perfect show. Much of the work cries out for conservation, and some of it makes you think its neglect was not entirely unwarranted. Unwittingly, the show reminds us that, for all its verve, much of the art produced under the rubric of Pop, by both men and women, was technically flimsy, politically naive, intellectually frivolous.
Pop always wanted to have it both ways. Just as such male Pop artists as Warhol and Britain’s Richard Hamilton seemed to waver between, on the one hand, mocking or critiquing mass culture and, on the other, reveling in it, female pop artists fell into a similar bind. The first part of the show conforms to type, gathering together works that seem to revel in seductive images of the female body, only to upend sexist preconceptions through exaggeration or sly shifts in context.
The show’s first work is a case in point. It’s a collage of hundreds of soft-core images of naked young women all looking directly out at the camera by Martha Rosler, the most overtly political artist in the show. Called “Hot House, or Harem,” the effect is reminiscent of Ingres’s “The Turkish Bath” and a zillion other male fantasies of limitless female availability.
Rosler is clearly attempting to convert the preposterousness of pornographic overload into accusation. But I’m not sure how well she succeeds. The tactic has something crudely obvious about it. And the women, after four decades of aggressive escalation in the pornographic stakes, look strangely innocent (at least of surgical enhancement) and, dare I say it, adorable.
More fun — and more effective in its deadpan wit — is Marjorie Strider’s “Triptych II, Beach Girl” of 1963. This playful parody of the girlie pinup ticks all the boxes of Pop: simplified and enlarged mass-media imagery, serial repetition, and, more obscurely, a fashion for “shaped” canvases — in this case, bikini-covered breasts made from sharply faceted wood that jut out from the canvas.
Converting only the girl’s breasts from two dimensions to three (they really do “pop”) is a brilliant burlesque, at once absurdly broad and just subtle enough (one can imagine formalist critics of the day discussing the breasts’ cubist faceting) to create palpable unease.
Much of the best work in the show, however, transcends preoccupations with gender politics, coming from places more immediately personal, experimental, and urgently felt. Sweden’s Barbro Östlihn is a particularly interesting case. Her painting “Sunflower” hits the eye with the mysterious force and abstract sophistication of a mandala merged with a commercial logo. Its presence is as strong — and seductive — as anything else in the show.
But Östlihn was overshadowed by her artist and performer husband, Öyvind Fahlström (whose work she collaborated on), and by other prominent male Pop artists (she was friends with Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, among others). “Sunflower” is presented here in a context that tries to link its flower petals with female genitalia and with the sexualized flower paintings of feminist icon Georgia O’Keeffe. But her work was not, in fact, much related to the body, as the Swedish art historian Annika Öhrner confirms in a catalog essay. Rather, she was interested in architectural facades, patterning, optical illusions, and photography.
Thus we see the danger of revisionist exercises like this one. Individual artists are often rescued from years of neglect only to be stuffed into boxes they do not really fit.
Luckily, most of the artists here escape such a fate. Kiki Kogelnik’s two paintings, inspired by space travel, X-rays, and science fiction, are hauntingly dematerialized arrangements of silhouetted human forms and ’60s-style patterning. They’re knockouts. Dorothy Grebenak’s hooked rugs reproducing baseball cards and banknotes are hilariously deadpan.
And Idelle Weber’s painting and related sculpture parodying the standard-issue urban professional man are brilliant. They hint at something dark and complex beneath the laminated glamour of workaday conformity — exactly the sort of thing “Mad Men” has been trying to explore on TV.
To reiterate: This show is smart, it looks great, and it’s got plenty of surprises. A better show on the same theme is easy to imagine, and it might come along one day. But don’t hold your breath.
Die Werke von Niki de Saint Phalle brauchen viel Raum und sollen diesen im erweiterten Sprengel Museum bekommen. Doch noch fehlen für den Ausbau knapp zwei Millionen Euro an Drittmitteln.
In den sechziger und siebziger Jahren war Mitmachkunst besonders gefragt. Das Publikum sollte in Kunstaktionen einbezogen werden. Niki de Saint Phalle schuf als eine der wenigen Frauen in der damals noch stark männerdominierten Kunstwelt eindringliche Beispiele für Mitmachkunst, zum Beispiel ihr heute im Sprengel Museum Hannover befindliches Werk aus Hemd, Krawatte und einer Dartsscheibe mit dem vielsagenden Titel „Heiliger Sebastian oder Porträt meines Liebhabers“ von 1961. Das Publikum war aufgerufen, mit Pfeilen auf die Figur zu zielen – und tat das auch ausgiebig.
Aus dieser Phase stammt auch „Der Tod des Patriarchen“. Auch an der Figur aus Gips mit eingelegtem Kinderspielzeug – Gewehren, Soldatenpüppchen, Cowboys und kleinen Flugzeugen – durfte sich das Publikum abreagieren. Entsprechend mitgenommen sieht der Patriarchenstellvertreter heute aus. Freilich ist das Werk inzwischen eine Ikone der feministischen Kunst der Sechziger.
Die genannten „Schießbilder“ kamen im Jahr 2000 im Zuge der großzügigen Schenkung von Niki de Saint Phalle nach Hannover. Mit dem Einzug der Werke von Niki de Saint Phalle vor zehn Jahren wurde es endgültig eng im Sprengel Museum. Rund 400 Werke der populären Mutter der Nanas umfasst die Schenkung. Die großzügige Donation machte das hannoversche Museum auf einen Schlag zum wichtigsten Ort für die Kunst der 2002 verstorbenen Frankoamerikanerin.
Freilich stellten die zum Teil sperrigen Dinge aus Materialien wie Gips, Stoff oder Maschendraht das Haus auch vor Probleme – Platz- und Konservierungsprobleme.
Manches Werk ragt meterhoch auf (die Figur „Dolorès“ oder das „Nana-Haus“), anderes hängt vom Plafond oder füllt ganze Wände. Isabelle Schwarz, Kuratorin am Sprengel Museum, gibt eine ungefähre Vorstellung von den Ausmaßen: „Man könnte mit den Werken, wenn man die Papierarbeiten dazunimmt, die gesamten oberen Sammlungsräume plus die Wechselausstellungshalle füllen.“
Derzeit lagert das Gros der Werke in Depots innerhalb und außerhalb des Museums. Im erweiterten Museum werde die Schenkung nicht nur einen riesigen Lagerraum bekommen, sagt Museumsdirektor Ulrich Krempel, „sondern auch deutlich mehr Ausstellungsfläche“. Krempel möchte Niki de Saint Phalle im Kontext von Künstlern wie Daniel Spoerri oder Yves Klein zeigen. „Ich möchte, dass sie nicht mehr so verkitscht transportiert wird, wie das oft noch in den Köpfen der Leute geschieht.“
Viele denken bei Niki de Saint Phalle vor allem an die Nanas, ihre heiteren Matronen, die Künstlerin hatte sich aber in ihrer Jugend als zornige junge Frau einen Namen in der Kunstwelt gemacht. In einem Gedicht hatte sie 1961 erklärt: „Ich schoss auf Papa / alle Männer / kleine Männer / große Männer / bedeutende Männer / dicke Männer / Männer / meinen Bruder / die Gesellschaft / die Kirche / den Konvent / die Schule / meine Familie / meine Mutter / alle Männer / Papa / mich selbst / … ich schoss, weil / das Spaß machte und mich gut fühlen ließ …“
Aus heutiger Sicht mögen solche Abreaktionsaktionen etwas plakativ erscheinen – oder gar als terroristische Phantasien ausgelegt werden. Unbestritten aber kommt Niki de Saint Phalle das Verdienst zu, sich als eine der wenigen Frauen in der Kunst der sechziger Jahre eine Stellung erkämpft zu haben.
Und so wird heute vor allem ihrem Frühwerk eine Schlüsselrolle in der emanzipatorischen und feministischen Kunst zuerkannt. Das Sprengel Museum kann den Stellenwert der Kunstrebellin mit einer Fülle von Werken belegen. Es besitzt auch den Originalschießanzug und das Gewehr der bildschönen Gräfin mit dem Karabiner.
2012 beginnen die Arbeiten am 25 Millionen Euro teuren Erweiterungsbau. Derzeit fehlen noch knapp zwei Millionen Euro an Drittmitteln. Informationen zur Sponsoring-Kampagne „Mehr Museum“ gibt es unter www.mehr-museum-de.
In March, Bechtler Museum unveils major exhibit by “Firebird” creator Niki de Saint Phalle on The Green.
Niki de Saint Phalle was a prodigious artist whose curiosity led her to dig into cultures from all over the world and create huge and colorful works reflecting what she learned.
Her popular “Firebird” in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art uptown is one of the thousands of pieces she produced. Soon, it will have company.
From March through October, five large sculptures by the French-born artist will fill The Green, the Wells Fargo-owned park across South Tryon Street from the Bechtler. Most prominent among them: “La Cabeza,” a representation of a skull in green, yellow and red that weighs six tons and is large enough for people to crawl inside.
For “Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology,” the largest outdoor sculpture exhibit the city has seen, the Bechtler also will show about 60 additional works in its fourth-floor gallery.
“The interest and affection demonstrated for the ‘Firebird’ strongly suggests there will be a large and strong audience for the exhibit,” said John Boyer, president of the Bechtler.
Let the art flow
An internationally known artist, Saint Phalle was born in France, educated in the United States and lived in San Diego for the last decades of her life. Her work is well-represented at the Bechtler.
An exhibit of her work, Boyer said, is part of the museum’s mission to interpret its collection. Future shows likely will look at other artists in the museum’s holdings such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miro.
Andreas Bechtler, the retired Charlotte businessman whose gift of his family’s 20th- century art helped found the museum, knew Saint Phalle. He also was close to Jean Tinguely, an artist with works in the collection who was married to her.
The sculptures will be on loan from the Niki Charitable Art Foundation in California.
Works will be placed so as not to interfere with events on The Green such as Shakespeare in the Park. Two works will be oriented to the Levine Center for the Arts on Tryon, and two works will be situated nearer the convention center on College Street. The fifth work will be in the center.
Bob Bertges, the Wells Fargo vice president who oversaw construction of the cultural campus, said the bank did a structural analysis on where to place the heavy sculptures over the parking beneath The Green.
“The opportunity here was one more way to let the art flow out into the community,” said Bertges, “and it’s totally cool.”
Security would not be enhanced, he said, adding the area is “well patrolled.”
A fashion model in her youth, Saint Phalle became a self-taught experimental artist whose work reflected her energy and curiosity. She once made paintings by firing a rifle at bags of paint attached to a canvas. She was an early exponent of Pop Art and the use of feminist themes.
She also had “a voracious appetite for the cultures, religions, myths and legends from around the globe and looked for ways to absorb and reinterpret them,” said Boyer.
The sculptures draw on Egyptian, Greek and pre-Colombian stories. The works in the museum will include paintings, prints and sculpture, most from her foundation’s collection.
The artist also sought to create a new mythology with a series on Black Heroes. Her “Miles Davis” (1999), a depiction of the famous jazz musician with a multicolored coat and gold-like trumpet, will face College Street. The other works for The Green are “Star Fountain” (1999), “Cat” (1999) and “Golf Player” (2001).
Saint Phalle liked her work outdoors, creating sculpture gardens in Tuscany in Italy, Jerusalem and San Diego. She liked the idea of interaction.
During a well-attended 2008 exhibit of Saint Phalle’s work at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, children especially loved “La Cabeza,” said Lynn Kerkemeyer, the garden’s exhibits manager.
“The kids couldn’t keep off of it,” she said.
When Andreas Becthler bought the 18-foot tall “Firebird,” which is covered with mirrored glass, he wanted not just an iconic piece, but also one people would enjoy.
For Saint Phalle, who died in 2002 in California at age 71, joy was always part of her art.
She said on her foundation’s web site, “In this world of so much pain, if a sculpture of mine can give a moment of joy, a moment of life to a passer-by, I feel rewarded.”
Yet, a year later, I was present at the opening celebration of an exhibition of second wave feminism Kate Millett, when she declared: “Feminism is dead.”
Was this true? Could the black walls surrounding the triangular shaped table of The Dinner Party represent a dead womb, a hermetically sealed timeline that had come to an end? Were the stars of the feminist movement upholding the status quo, thereby preventing the arising of new stars in the feminist galaxy? What hope then lay for the future of women artists?
It seemed that Millett was prophetic, for her proclamation was born out on the eve of the Winter Solstice 2008 by the suicide of the brilliant and beautiful Emma Bee Bernstein, who carried the pedigree, along with the hope for feminist’s future. The tragic death of this prominent third generation feminist daughter sent a chill through the New York feminist/avant-garde establishment.
Where was the meaning in the face of a new feminist generation who wowed the audience at a BMA panel killing herself on the darkest night of the year inside the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice? No one dared ventured a guess.
Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968 signifies a rebirth that delivers us to a place where we can place such a tragedy in the context of shifting paradigms. The exhibition stands as the most timely and groundbreaking in New York City this fall for its excavation of a repressed history that Emma Bee Bernstein was digging into by way of her isolated personal/public examination of the precarious realm between fashion and art.
The exhibition claims for feminism iconic female figures whose Promethean spark brought them brief fame before sinking into the shadows of Pop Art’s slick surfaces.
The Venezuelan native Marisol Escobar (whose given name evokes the marriage of masculine (Sol = sun) and feminine (mar = sea) was prescient of the androgynous spirit of the inspired Pop Princess that lighted the stage for a brief moment, before the men as usual took over the movement.
The founder of British Pop was Pauline Boty, the vibrant artist who embodied the mod style of London’s 1965 Youthquake: rebellious, beautiful, brilliant and free-spirited.
Boty’s seductively subversive multimedia (poet, risqué dancer, radio show host, actress) expression exuded the spirit of the androgynous Aquarian archetype that continues to infiltrate the collective consciousness via the antics of tabloid celebrities, even as the authentic rebellion driving this zeitgeist has been institutionally repressed by the art world system.
Far from revealing the full story of these fascinating women an impossible task to be sure due to the difficulties of locating the work who often were collaborators with their male partners, the exhibition seduces and entices into a new diverse view of feminism founded in a daring penetration into the gender archetypes controlling human behavior. In leaving a hunger for more, it plants the seeds for a new epoch of feminism marked by a younger generation of artists exploring mythologies of freedom delivering on the feminist promise of an authentic equality of gender.
The lack of a feminist consciousness also meant a lack of self-consciousness. This alone makes the ingredients of Seductive Subversion fresh and new, despite being executed nearly a half century ago. And too, the work reveals that the nature of the feminine is to be fluid, which means not retaining a fixed identity that the still male-dominated art world deems essential for success the self-branding currently being brandished via reality TV.
How do artists devoted to inner truth get around this obstacle?
Catalog co-editor Kalliopi Minioudaki’s standout essay “Pop Proto-Feminisms: Beyond the Paradox of the Woman Pop Artist” brings to light what may prove to be the most pertinent feminist scholarship of this century. By examining the diverse strategies in what she terms “proto-feminist” art, this new generation of feminist scholar provides a link between the artists of the early sixties she has excavated and such latter day anomalies as Carolee Schneemann, Tracey Emin and Francesca Woodman. The dismissal of such spirited art as narcissistic by second wave feminist scholars (I witnessed this personally at the Princeton Conference when a prominent feminist scholar stated: “I distrust the inward: it smacks of narcissism.”) has effectively censored a younger generation of artists from inner exploration.
The irresistible seduction of these “proto-feminist” pioneers on view in Brooklyn through January 9 (though the exhibit will be going on tour) not only succeeds in making the underpinnings of a historical movement come alive again, but inspires a new erotically charged Pop movement liberated from the feminist straightjacket and devoted to the mythology of an authentic liberation of gender equality, within and without.
Isn’t the public ready and waiting for the flowering of an archetype which poked through in the sixties cultural revolution only to burrow underground for the next half-century? This time, the promise is a full liberation, an authentic merging of public/private revealed by the archival documents in this exhibition into a new view of the feminine: pro-active in all her androgynous power.
From this viewpoint, we can address the question about women artists and greatness not by comparing woman artists in this exhibition to the male giants of Pop, but by revisiting the word “greatness” from the viewpoint of a holistic paradigm.
Let us not forget here that women are the authentic image-makers for a culture. So if the art of Seductive Subversion seems to be echoing that of much more prominent male artists, you can bet that these women got there first!
“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, 718-638-5000), October 15, 2010 January 9, 2011. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Photo 1: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Black Rosy is an iconic work representing the shadow of Eros that would be repressed by feminist criticism in the years to come.
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy” (1965) (Niki Charitable Art Foundation)
Photo 2: Niki de Saint Phalle’s My Heart Belongs to Marcel Duchamp (1963) reveals the complex inner feminine emotions that would soon be repressed by feminist dogma.
Niki de Saint Phalle, “My Heart Belongs to Marcel Duchamp” (1963) (Niki Charitable Art Foundation)
Photo 3: Kalliopi Minioudaki with her Cretan ancestry on the timeline in the Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
VIENNA Rediscovering outstanding women Pop artists, POWER UP fulfills Dorothy Iannone’s combative promise after fifty years. Currently on display until March 6, 2011 at Kunsthalle wien, the show aims at the reinterpretation of an art movement that until today has primarily been associated with male protagonists. Plastic, loud colors, reduced forms, and graphic contours – the nine women artists’ works on display resemble those of their male colleagues in many respects.
Whereas their works appeal to the taste of the masses, these artists, as pioneers of Feminism, have remained belligerent and critical. They reveal the consumer culture’s superficiality, exposing the commodity myth as an empty shell like Christa Dichgans, ironically transforming everyday objects to oversized kitsch objects like Jann Haworth, or exploring mass media clichés and superstar constructions like Rosalyn Drexler. Like Sister Corita, a committed peace activist, they took a clear stand on the sixties’ social and political events such as the Vietnam War.
The exhibition pursues its political perspective in those instances where the era’s current notions of what a woman is are revised by different views: Kiki Kogelnik and Marisol describe the corset in which the representation of women by themselves and by others is caught, while Evelyne Axell or Dorothy Iannone provocatively display the nude body, love, and sexuality, and, like Niki de Saint Phalle, attract the viewer’s attention with sophisticated modes of self-presentation.
The next great moment in history is ours! Dorothy Iannone
“We choose to LOOK at LIFE all the TIME, and though we realize that they are in one sense adult comic books, they are also full of things that speak…” For Sister Corita, the world of signs, advertising slogans, and the culture of logos was not just some vast wasteland, but a sphere that supplied her with input for an art nourished by everyday life. Her work, like that of Evelyne Axell, Christa Dichgans, Rosalyn Drechsler, Jann Haworth, Dorothy Iannone, Kiki Kogelnik, Marisol, and Niki de Saint Phalle, stands for feminine strategies of artistic self empowerment during the Pop Art era, particularly in the 1960s. While from an art historical point of view Pop Art is mainly associated with male protagonists, POWER UP – Female Pop Art intends to undertake a revision of this understanding through the presentation of outstanding women artists’ positions.
Oscillating between abstraction and figuration, commodity cult and critique of capitalism, high and low art, the women artists’ works on display in many aspects resemble those by their male colleagues in terms of material, subject matter, style, and working method. Documenting and hypostatizing the prosperity of the postwar era and reflecting upon the superficiality of consumerism, the artists unmask the commodity myth as an empty civilizational achievement like Christa Dichgans or affirm certain items by turning them into oversized kitsch objects like Jann Haworth with her Soft Sculptures. Through the graphic character of their simple language of forms, their use of new materials like plastic, and their choice of garish colors, women pop artists, as feminist pioneers attracting maximum attention with their self presentations like Evelyne Axell, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Kiki Kogelnik, satisfied the taste of the mass and yet remained militant, critical, and exceptional. The exhibition does not postulate some genuinely feminine art, but strives to focus on a number of outstanding women artists’ oeuvres in the field of Pop Art and to shed light on their identity creating practice and their view of women’s role in society which was very much determined by patriarchal notions in the 1960s.
These artists’ approaches have revised the male regime of viewing and such representations of women as Tom Wesselmann’s deindividualized matrices of the female body, Mel Ramos’s picturesque fusion of advertisements with lasciviously rendered nudes featuring as objects of desire, and Allen Jones’s sadomasochistically arranged female sexual companions. Instead, they describe the corset in which women’s self representation and representation by others seemed to be caught in those years like Jann Haworth, Kiki Kogelnik, and Marisol, highlight the attempt to shake off the fetters of domestic life and become visible in public by means of art like Christa Dichgans, and provocatively expose the female body, love, and sexuality like Evelyne Axell and Dorothy Iannone. Painting over newspapers in an iconoclastic gesture, Rosalyn Drexler explores the creation of clichés and gender typifications in Hollywood films as well as the construction of superstars. Open toward the popular culture surrounding her, Sister Corita, in an early act of culture jamming, relied on advertising propaganda for creating new messages which were democratically and serigraphically produced and sold at a low price. Her works, like Kiki Kogelnik’s, Marisol’s, or Niki de Saint Phalle’s, comprise critical commentaries on contemporary events and political contexts such as the Vietnam War.
The ladies of the “Années Pop” present strategies of self empowerment, celebrate female sexuality and lust, draw on pin ups, excerpts from consumer culture, and fragments of an occasionally very banal everyday world in a bad girl manner, comment upon social changes, and translate personal issues into political ones in their clearly autobiographically tinted oeuvres. Their proto feminist works counter the affective death of classical Pop Art and its cool and anonymous style. By also employing a traditional female language of forms, using textiles and ornamental elements, and relying on a naïve imagery, their approach idiosyncratically extends the established canon of art. What they share with this style is the humor and lightness of an attitude toward life whose facets and variations are still unfolding in today’s art.
A moment captured in black and white. Four men, four pairs of eyes fixated on a fifth figure. Her heavy fringe is brushed to one side, her tiny frame swims in a Breton top and men’s slacks; she is the only one staring at the lens, the only one posing. Hands on hips in an exaggerated manner, she puffs out her chest and tries to maintain a faux serious expression under the strain of a half smile.
The woman is Niki de Saint Phalle. It’s 1962, and the French-American is the art world’s new darling thanks to her shooting paintings, for which she set up public galleries and shot at bags of paint strung to canvases with a rifle. She and her partner, the sculptor Jean Tinguely, would soon be known as the “Bonnie and Clyde” of art.
When I stumbled across this photograph in Nice’s Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMAC) three years ago, I stopped still and looked at it for a long time, imagining what it might have been like to be Niki de Saint Phalle. A few months later, I was so inspired I followed her to France. It sounds ridiculous but it’s the truth: I moved to another country because of a photograph. Why? Because in that image, in her art in general, there was something that stirred the romantic in me, because I thought that if I came here maybe my life could be as creative as hers had been.
In retrospect, I see it was both hopeful and hopeless. But living in Nice has at least given me the opportunity to continue the love affair. I get a quick fix walking past her statue of Miles Davis outside the Negresco Hotel, or when I pop into MAMAC, on which she bestowed a number of important works.
There was, however, one major piece missing from my de Saint Phalle repertoire.
The Tarot Garden
Inspired by Gaudí’s Parc Güell in Barcelona, the Giardino dei Tarocchi was the artist’s “garden of joy,” a monumental sculpture park in Garavicchio, 100 km northwest of Rome. Starting in 1979, the Tarot Garden, with its 22 Major Arcana-inspired statues, was her masterwork. It opened in 1998, four years before its creator died of a lung condition caused by inhaling chemicals she had used in her art.
Last month, de Saint Phalle would have turned 80 and at the start of this year I made my resolution: to finally make my pilgrimage to her holy land. In the autumn, together with friends, I boarded a flight to Rome full of anticipation. The garden is around two hours by car from the capital and we set off down small lanes that cut across vast, rusty-green fields; occasionally, we passed through a catatonic village.
After following a trail of signposts, it came into view: a glinting rainbow in the foliage on the hillside. The four of us skipped to the entrance, the official child in our party, 11-year-old Natasha, bounding ahead. “It’s magical,” she called back over her shoulder, having reached a fountain representing three cards: Magician, High Priestess and Wheel of Fortune.
All of us were bedazzled, and bewitched; we had fallen into a real-life wonderland.
Celebrating the child within
De Saint Phalle was obsessed with fairy tales and figures of fantasy, a preoccupation with nature, monsters and animals being a way for her to keep in touch with feelings she had as an infant. “I feel,” she once said, “that the part of me that stayed a child is the artist in me.”
So it’s little wonder that the Tarot Garden renders one in a dreamlike state and makes adults instantly feel like children again. “It’s almost as if the child in me is playing with the child in Niki,” mused my friend. “It’s not childish but child-like, beautiful and pure. Alternatively, you could describe it as a mirror ball from a gay disco put through a blender.”
Mirrors, mirrors on the wall
This mirror ball effect is created by thousands of shards of reflective glass in red, blue, green, silver… on a sunny day, you’ll be blinded by the light bouncing from the walls. In her memoir, the artist described a glass and mirrored piece of 1930s furniture of her mother’s filled with crystal decanters containing coloured rose water. She was so “intoxicated by these pure magic colours” that she later evoked a similar effect in her garden.
Nowhere did she create a stronger feeling of intoxication than in the Empress. The soft, womanly creature, a shimmering sphinx-shaped goddess, is at the very heart of the giardino. De Saint Phalle lived in this “protective mother” whilst working on the project and the inside resembles an ice palace, decorated ceiling to floor in mirror, and with a kitchen and bathroom to boot.
Both sets of the artist’s grandparents owned chateaus in France and she credited the “castles” she saw as a girl for inspiring her to make fairy tale dwellings as an adult.
Watching Natasha run from the Sun to the Star, clambering over dragons in the woods and squeezing into cubbyholes, I remember a favourite de Saint Phalle quote: “In this world of so much pain, if a sculpture of mine can give a moment of joy, a moment of life to a passerby, I feel rewarded.” “Come quick, you have to see this,” Natasha shouts at me, “now this really is magical.” She pulls me into the sugar-plum interior of the Emperor, her eyes wide. And still, I’m not sure who is happier, the real child holding my hand or the eternal one trapped inside of me.
In 1955, 25-year-old Niki de Saint Phalle saw Gaudí’s Parc Güell in Barcelona. It was a moment that changed her life. “I met my master,” she said later, “and my destiny.” She was determined to create a garden of her own. 24 years later, she started work, on the property of her friends, Marella Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo, in Garavicchio, southern Tuscany.
The project became much bigger than intended and with no deadline and creative freedom she went on, despite being struck with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and financing everything herself. Believing in total immersion, she moved into the Empress. Her partner, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, was her “biggest fan” and welded over 50 percent of the garden’s iron chassis.
In 1998, the 22 sculptures of the Major Arcana, made in cement and covered in mosaic, mirrors, glass and ceramic, were ready. In the garden’s guide, its creator reflected it had been made with “difficulties, love, wild enthusiasm, obsession and most of all faith. Nothing could have stopped me.”
Long sidelined, women artists slowly win recognition – and museum space.
NEW YORK Notice a tint of gender bias in terms like “masterpiece” and “old master”? Now a picture is emerging of not just historical, but persistent discrimination against women in the art world. A slew of recent museum exhibitions aims to fill in the blanks. The latest, “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” (at the Brooklyn Museum through January 9), brings a feminine presence to the masculine-sounding term “pop art.”
The show features works by 25 women who helped develop pop art but who (except for the sculptor Marisol) disappeared from art history books. “These artists were all visible once,” says Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, who conceived the show. Yet when the first art histories and surveys of the movement appeared, he adds, “There was a real critical culling.” Mr. Sachs made it his mission to “cherchez la femme” and says that, through exhaustive research, “I found the women!”
It’s not news that art by women has been under-recognized. H.W. Janson’s classic text “History of Art,” used in countless Art 101 courses, didn’t contain work by a single female artist until the 1986 edition, after the author was deceased. (That edition included 19 female artists out of 2,300 illustrations.) As late as 1979 Janson said, “I have not been able to find a woman artist who clearly belongs in a one-volume history of art.”
Sachs’s essay in the exhibition catalog contains ample evidence of discrimination in the decade prior to the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1970s. Women seeking admission to art schools were judged not by their portfolios but by their profile photographs. Jann Haworth, who invented soft sculpture (although Claes Oldenburg is given credit) recalled, “The girls were there to keep the boys happy.” American artist Carolee Schneemann confirmed, “You had to shut up and affiliate yourself with really interesting men,” adding, “you had to be good looking.”
Nancy Heller, professor of modern art also at the University of the Arts and author of “Women Artists: An Illustrated History,” notes that progress lagged well into the 1970s and ’80s. “It was difficult to convince a committee in graduate school that any woman artist – dead or living – was worth a dissertation.” Museums and galleries were also a no woman’s land. “If you saw a major exhibition by a woman,” Professor Heller recalls, “it was a cause for celebration and shock.”
Museums now are in a do-over moment. Exhibitions displaying female artists abound. Exhibitions such as “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (2007-08), the Brooklyn Museum’s “Global Feminisms” (2009), and “elles@centrepompidou” (through February 2011 in Paris) display female contributions. New York’s Jewish Museum hails pioneers with “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism” through Jan. 30, and the Museum of Modern Art features “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography” through March 21.
MOMA’s commitment to integrate its male-dominated galleries is much needed, since “MOMA historically has not focused on women artists,” admits Connie Butler, chief curator of drawings. Since the museum’s founding in 1929, only 5 percent of the 2,052 exhibitions have highlighted female artists. All that is changing. In the last five years, curators have sought to reclaim the missing women. Butler, who curated the “WACK!” show, calls the revisionism “transformative” saying, “We are more aware of the gaps in the collection in terms of women artists, we’re trying to target women artists in our acquisition program, and generally it’s raised awareness of having a greater representation of women in the galleries.”
Butler co-edited a comprehensive book, “Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art,” that covers both well-known and obscure figures, and the photography gallery has installed “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography” through March 21, 2011.
Catherine Morris, curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, sees “a groundswell of interest in re-examining feminist contributions to the art of the second half of the 20th century.” It seems it’s catch-up time.
Hold onto your horsetail paintbrushes! The Guerrilla Girls, activist female artists who criticize sexism and racism in the art world, think the fight isn’t over. A founder of the group who goes by the pseudonym Frida Kahlo says, “When you look at the ranks of artists who get one-person exhibitions in museums or have monographs or whose work resells for a lot of money, women and artists of color are rarely in those top ranks.”
Ms. Kahlo faults the system, saying, “American art institutions are run by and for art collectors on their boards of trustees … white males who buy art that appeals to them, art about their values, not the values of the general culture.”
Art collecting is indeed dominated by male collectors, often newly super-rich moguls and hedge-funders who view art as an investment or as a trophy to advertise their wealth.
“Until the structure of the art market and how art gets bought, sold, and donated changes,” Kahlo says, “we’ll be fighting this market attempt to define what our visual art history is.”
“We do live in a capitalist society,” Heller says, “but art is not pork bellies.” Nevertheless, the system where wealthy men collect easily recognizable, high-fashion art becomes “a vicious circle,” she says, which perpetuates the under-valuing of art by women.
Greg Allen (in a 2005 New York Times story) pointed out the glaring disparity in resale prices, citing evidence that an “X Factor” denigrates women’s art. Only a handful of women have broken the $1 million mark at auction, while men’s paintings have soared past $100 million. And it’s not just paintings by historical figures. An old master as well as a new master still beats a Ms., generally by a 10-fold ratio.
What about for contemporary artists – the daughters of the feminist revolution? The Brainstormers, a young artist-activist group, document continued inequities. Brooklyn artist Danielle Mysliwiec, a collective member, cites the 50/50 ratio of male to female students in art schools, which disappears at commercial galleries in Chelsea, where more than 80 percent of artists are male. Even in galleries that represent emerging artists, males dominate (they account for 70 percent).
“Young women have a much more level playing field than they did twenty years ago,” Butler says, “but the numbers speak.” The numbers trumpet a higher economic value for art by men—disproportionate to cultural or aesthetic value. “They make me want to say ‘ouch’,” says Morris.
“You see a disturbing perpetuation of discrimination,” Ms. Mysliwiec concludes, adding, “When you think about how an artwork increases in value, it depends on where it’s shown, how many times it’s shown, and in what venues.” A problem with galleries preferring male artists, she says, is that “curators are dependent on gallery validation” to determine which artists to show in museums.
All acknowledge the benefits of increasing awareness of women artists’ contributions. “We’d have an art [history] that represents who we are as a culture and what we’re thinking about,” Kahlo says. “Not just who the billionaire art collectors want to buy.”
“Incorporating historical facts that have been removed because they were not seen as pertinent by a segment of society is incredibly useful,” according to Morris. “It empowers half of the current culture and can teach us about how we’ve come to be who we are and what we need to do moving forward.”
She adds, “I’d like my daughter to make assumptions about who she is in the world and what her history is and where she came from in ways I couldn’t and my mother certainly couldn’t.”
Butler hopes the legacy of her generation of curators is to leave a more nuanced, complex, and complete version of art history than they were taught.
History is a mutable argument. It’s not set in stone, carved only by a male sculptor like Brancusi. Maybe it’s glued together—like a Louise Nevelson work—from fragments of wood. Not that one should replace the other. No one wants a ghetto-ized “Ladies Room” approach.
“To be judged on merit,” the young artist Danielle Mysliwiec sighs wishfully, “to have that be true.”
“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, 718-638-5000), 15 October 2010 – 9 January 2011. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Black Rosy, by Niki de Saint Phalle. (Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum)
Chubby Checker, by Rosalyn Drexler Court. (Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum)
Munchkins I, II, & III, by Idelle Weber. (Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum)
Vacuuming Pop Art, by Martha Rosler. (Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum)
It’s clear that female artists of the ’60s were pushed to the margins of art history. But a series of exhibitions showcasing their work reveals how un-Pop many of them were.
Western art history has nearly always been constructed as a narrative in which women are viewed through male eyes—as subjects and as objects. From the Venus of Willendorf to Raphael’s Madonnas, Rubens’s raped Sabines, Picasso’s jilted lovers, and de Kooning’s man-eating females, the standard gaze was that of the male, and what it gazed upon was the objectified female body.
Suddenly art history (once again) finds itself being turned on its head as another aspect of the past gets unearthed and revised. This time the subject is the supposedly secondary—that is, the unacknowledged, neglected, subservient, auxiliary—role of the women Pop artists who were at work in the pre-Linda Nochlin days, when the textbook-writing Jansons and nearly everyone else thought that only men could create masterpieces.
Since the 1960s, when women artists started defining themselves and re-narrating the history, we have slowly become aware of their contributions. Lately museums have gotten into the act. It may be sheer coincidence, but exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and the Kunsthalle Vienna this autumn both focus on the women artists who were identified with Pop art, while an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York tackles a related subject: painting and feminism (with a bit of Jewishness thrown into the mix). These shows complicate the categories of what’s Pop and what’s not, opening up a slew of new questions.
Curator Angela Stief, in her catalogue introduction to “Power Up: Female Pop Art,” at the Kunsthalle Vienna (through February 20), points out that while female Pop artists resemble their male colleagues, oscillating between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, commodity cult and capitalist critique, they remain “militant, critical, and outstanding in their positions as feminist pioneers.”
If Pop art by women artists was hardly ever simply Pop, what was it? The female artists of those years were, willingly or unwittingly, involved in a major change in content, context, and medium. They were concerned with shifting both the objectifying male gaze and the objectified female gaze. As these exhibitions point out, the women whose art skirted around Pop—and can be somewhat misleadingly called Pop—complicate matters, which isn’t a bad thing.
Pop art in the hands and minds of women artists is intricately linked to the rise of feminist art, political and sociological art, art that involves decoration and craft and female sexuality—and thus the subsequent future of 20th-century art. These artists weren’t tangential: they were crucial. And what is most interesting about their work can be found in its disparities and divergences from Pop. What women were doing was another kind of art, and to call their work Pop does a disservice to it.
Pop art in the hands of male artists was cartoony, exaggerated, sometimes cynical. Involved with male sexuality, it had to violate something, blowing a cliché so far out of proportion that it could be reconstituted as an aspect of formalism. Pop art was about fast foods, fast babes, fast mechanically reproductive processes such as the silkscreen and the Benday dot, and blatant commercial images and ads. It was about all-American banality. And it was an almost exclusively male movement. Back in the days when Mel Ramos could paint Chiquita Banana pinups, Tom Wesselmann could sex up his still lifes by putting sunburned nudes with pubic hair into them, and Allen Jones could obnoxiously use a lifelike playmate on her knees as a coffee table, Marjorie Strider was making shaped canvases featuring 3-D breasts that were smartly violating the picture plane as if to one-up the men, who never noticed. And Elaine Sturtevant, a few months after Warhol created his first flower paintings in 1964, borrowed Warhol’s silkscreens to replicate those paintings and inserted her renditions into group shows—along with her George Segal and Frank Stella look-alikes—to make Pop into something more conceptual, a decade or more before the word “appropriation” would emerge.
Unlike the previous macho AbEx generation, which also counted female artists like Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, and Elaine de Kooning, the Pop movement, strictly speaking, did not have high-profile female participation. Marisol, Strider, and Sturtevant were sometimes included in Pop group shows in New York, but they never wholly fit. Pop art was about banality, disaffection, and detachment, and the ideas of the women artists diametrically opposed these themes. Philosophically liberated, they thought for themselves, radicalized their art, and imploded the meaning of Pop.
If Chryssa was Pop because she used neon, does that mean Dan Flavin was too? If Vija Celmins was Pop, wasn’t she at the same time a budding photorealist? If Yayoi Kusama was Pop, what do we make of her phallic obsessions and cosmic polka dots? If Niki de Saint Phalle was Pop, where do her big folk-art mamas fit? And if Lee Lozano’s pre-conceptual work and Faith Ringgold’s pre-quilt paintings can be dragged into the orbit of Pop, we can only throw up our hands and conclude that we desperately need a more descriptive term.
Women’s Pop-related art had its own intentions. It could be about obsession, cosmic design, or, in the case of Marisol, folk arts and crafts. Usually it opposed or dissected the male gaze. The male artists may have been content to flirt with post-industrial Minimalism, but back in the days when femininity equaled domesticity, Martha Rosler mailed out a series of narrative recipes. They involved, for example, the dislocations of a Mexican maid who didn’t have a clue as to what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was, and pieced together images of suburban kitchens invaded by the horrors of the Vietnam war. On the other hand, Warhol, whose latent political content went unremarked for years, didn’t do decorative camouflage painting until the 1980s.
Now “Power Up: Female Pop Art” makes it quite clear that an idea can be about politics as well as about female sexuality. It narrows its scope to nine artists, some of whom—such as the Belgian Evelyne Axell—have remained seriously under-known in New York. The star of this exhibition is Sister Corita Kent, the nun who used signs, slogans, and packaging as a form of political protest.
Twenty-five female artists, including Axell and some other unfamiliar Europeans, are in the Brooklyn Museum’s “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” (on view through January 9), and it’s hard to resist an impertinent question: Would anyone ever dream of titling a show of male Pop artists “Subversive Seducers”? And in an exhibition that includes a number of arguably un-Pop artists, where is Yoko Ono, Lee Bontecou, Carolee Schneemann—or even Colette, who knowingly transformed herself into the objectified object of the male gaze?
The impact of feminist thought permeates works by 27 artists in the Jewish Museum’s “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism” (through January 30). Contributors range from Louise Nevelson, Rosalyn Drexler, and Eva Hesse to Nancy Spero, Hannah Wilke, and Nicole Eisenman. Rosler is oddly absent, but then, conceptual photomontage probably doesn’t count as painting per se. But kudos to this exhibition for anointing three token males as honorary feminists: Leon Golub, who was always attuned to power, persecution, and victimhood; Robert Kushner, who made the most of feminized pattern and decoration; and Cary Leibowitz, with his self-deprecating gay Jewish humor.
Unacknowledged or under-acknowledged at the time, relegated to the margins or forgotten by history, the profound female artists of their time inverted the male gaze and anticipated the future while male Pop artists were getting stuck in their own styles. The tenuous thread that ties them all together is linked to feminism and the contemporary art that was still to come. And now, in these exhibitions in which nearly everyone spills out of the arbitrary category of Pop, what at first may seem curatorial weakness becomes great strength. History is again being distorted, manipulated, and revised, for better and worse, but such are its innate fictions. And we have to conclude that the work by these woman artists doesn’t seem nearly as dated as that of their male counterparts. Shifting the gaze, indeed.
Kim Levin is an independent art critic and curator.
“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, 718-638-5000), October 15, 2010 – January 9, 2011. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Photo: Martha Rosler’s photomontage Vacuuming Pop Art, 1967–72, addresses politics and the male gaze. (Courtesy the Artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York)