Seductive Subversion, Brooklyn Museum


The official history of Pop Art is the tale of men who prowled the domestic arena, staging their paintings in suburban kitchens, closets, bedrooms and bathrooms. Warhol’s soup cans, Lichtenstein’s romance comics, Oldenburg’s lipsticks, Rosenquist’s spaghetti and Jim Dine’s bathrobe are icons of a movement that fetishised female equipment but spurned female company. Marilyn Monroe keeps cropping up in fluorescent splendour; so do big breasts and Cloroxed teeth. And yet no women have won permanent seats in the Pop pantheon. None.

All of which makes the Brooklyn Museum’s new revisionist survey such an astonishing delight. Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968 unearths a secret history of talented ladies who toiled in the vineyards of Pop, gathered bushels of critical praise and were almost immediately forgotten. Warhol’s famous epigram on fame certainly applied to them, even if his own 15 minutes have proved infinitely renewable.

The travelling exhibition, curated by Sid Sachs of the Museum of the Arts in Philadelphia, makes it stunningly clear that Pop’s female contingent deserved better than four decades of shabby disregard. There’s the brilliant Rosalyn Drexler, for example, whose cool, noirish collages savour the overlap of power and malevolence. She has had a cinematic life – she wrestled professionally (as Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire), novelised the movie Rocky (under the pseudonym Julia Sorel), and has written novels, plays and films – and her paintings feel like movie stills.

Femmes fatales and sharply dressed thugs strut across vast blank spaces, playing out scenes of cruelty and coercion. A man wearing a fedora glares out of “Home Movies” and aims a machine gun straight between our eyes. In the upper half of “Love and Violence” a suited tough guy cradles a woman’s face in his hands, a gesture of tenderness or assault. We search the storyboards below for clues: is that the same man, wrestling a trench-coated goon for control of a pistol? Drexler’s elusive parables share the pessimism of Warhol’s roughly contemporaneous “Death and Disaster” series. But while Warhol has been posthumously promoted from celebrity to demigod, she has remained a minor polymath. “If you’re alive,” she once said, “things aren’t going to be that good”.

Across the Atlantic, the super-talented Pauline Boty also won a flicker of fame with her lush renderings of stars and gangsters. From a newspaper photo of one Big Jim Colosimo sitting in his attorney’s grubby office, Boty produced a majestic portrait of low-life royalty. The white-suited mobster perches in a throne-like chair like a Velázquez potentate, isolated and monumentalised against an indigo background. His name is inscribed in imperial-sized letters of pastel pink.

Even as Warhol was busy silkscreening odes to Liz Taylor and Elvis, Boty was creating her own idiosyncratic homages to film stars. She, too, worshipped Marilyn Monroe, and she also had a weak spot for the French New Wave. “With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo” (1962) magnifies the Gallic heartthrob’s head to monstrous proportions. His face, half-hidden by sunglasses, looks sensual and oh-so-cool. But from his goofy straw hat blooms a scarlet shape – a mutant rose, a woman’s private parts or a pulsing human brain.

Her renown peaked in the early 1960s, when she was featured, with Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, and Peter Phillips, in Ken Russell’s film Pop Goes the Easel. An actress as well as a painter, she hobnobbed with Bob Dylan, sketched the Rolling Stones, and had just completed the set design for Kenneth Tynan’s production of Oh! Calcutta! when she died of cancer at 28, in 1966. Within a few years, her paintings were gathering dust in an outhouse at her brother’s farm in Kent.

Most of what’s on display has enough self-evident power that the exhibition doesn’t need to holler about injustice. Vitrines full of press releases and clippings record the fact that for a while the female pioneers received plenty of admiration – though not necessarily of the sort they craved. A Vogue profile of Pauline Boty was headlined “Living Doll”. Another magazine marvelled: “Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and also a blond and you have PAULINE BOTY.”

Pop was a scene as well as a movement and its women knew how to leverage their sex appeal, which simultaneously boosted their reputations and made it easy to write them off. Niki de St Phalle posed for Vogue and Life. Evelyne Axell was an actress before taking her clothes off for a series of erotic self-portraits. Marisol’s knockout looks attracted attention to her sculptures, and at the same time deflected it towards herself.

For the most part, these artists accepted the beauty bargain of those times, but Jann Haworth, an American who lived in London and studied at the Slade in 1961, resisted it. “The assumption was that, as one tutor put it, ‘the girls were there to keep the boys happy.’ He prefaced that by saying ‘it wasn’t necessary for them to look at the portfolios of the female students … they just needed to look at their photos.'” Haworth answered contempt with competitiveness. “I was determined to better them, and that’s one of the reasons for the partly sarcastic choice of cloth, latex and sequins as media. It was a female language to which the male students didn’t have access.” Defying the sexist culture there, she made the “partly sarcastic choice” of cloth, latex and sequins as media – “a female language to which the male students didn’t have access”, she recalled. The result is a catalogue of hilariously grotesque, squishily soft sculptures like a life-sized doll in a French maid’s uniform, bewigged with human hair.

Her diligence only helped for a while. In 1967, she and her husband, artist Peter Blake, collaborated on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which included one of her stuffed old ladies and a Shirley Temple doll wearing a “Welcome The Rolling Stones” sweater. The couple won a Grammy Award for the design, but while Blake enjoyed permanent celebrity, she drifted into obscurity.

The exhibition feels like a companion piece to the television series Mad Men, which shows professional women in the early 1960s suffering a daily drizzle of humiliation. So perhaps Idelle Weber, another of the forgotten women of Pop, finds some bitter satisfaction in seeing the work she made then being imitated now for the sake of period authenticity. The TV series’s credit sequence shows a silhouetted man in a suit plummeting past a modernist office building. It’s an image of stylish despair, and also either a rip-off or a tribute to Weber’s “Munchkins” triptych, where silhouetted men in suits ride escalators inside a modernist office building. Finally Pop culture is recognising Pop’s women with sincerest flattery.

— Ariella Budick, Financial Times

“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.

Photos: Detail from “Big Jim Colosimo” (c.1963), by Pauline Boty; detail from “With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo” (1962), by Pauline Boty. In “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” at the Brooklyn Museum.

Major Exhibition at Brooklyn Museum Redefines the Role of Female Pop Artists


BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — The first major exhibition to explore in depth the contributions of female Pop artists, “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968,” seeks to expand the definition of classic Pop art and re-evaluate the role of the women who worked alongside the movement’s more famous male practitioners. It features more than fifty works by Pop art’s most significant female artists and includes many pieces that have not been shown in nearly forty years. The exhibition will be on view in the Brooklyn Museum‘s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and in the adjacent fourth-floor Schapiro Wing galleries.

Although radical social changes were taking place in America in the 1960s, the female Pop artists of the time remained largely unacknowledged by the contemporary art critics and academics. Relegated to the margins of history by discrimination, historical precedent, and social expectations, these women were forced to take a back seat to their male counterparts, who became icons of the era. Informed by their personal histories, the work of female Pop artists was often collaborative and incorporated empathetic social commentary.

“Seductive Subversion” includes Marisol’s “John Wayne” sculpture, commissioned by Life magazine for an issue on movies; the French sculptor, painter, and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle’s eight-foot-tall “Black Rosy,” one of her “Nana” sculptures exploring the role of women; Rosalyn Drexler’s oil and acrylic work “Chubby Checker,” inspired by the poster for the movie Twist around the Clock, and “Home Movies,” based on frames from old gangster movies; the Times Square–inspired “Ampersand,” a multilayered, stylized, and illuminated neon ampersand in a Plexiglas cube by Chryssa, one of the first artists to utilize neon in her work; and a seventeen-foot-long triptych by Idelle Weber. Artwork has been loaned by the National Gallery; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, D.C.); the Neuberger Museum (Purchase, New York); and major private collectors.

Works from the Brooklyn Museum’s holdings have been added exclusively for the Brooklyn exhibition. They include “Squeeze Me” and “You Can’t Catch Me” by Mara McAfee; “Dear Diana” and “My Love We Won’t” by Niki de Saint Phalle; “Nestle’s Box” by Marjorie Strider; and “Cents Sign Travelling from Broadway to Africa via Guadeloupe” by Chryssa, which will be on display at the Museum for the first time.

Paintings and sculptures by Evelyne Axell, Pauline Boty, Vija Celmins, Dorothy Grebenak, Kay Kurt, Yayoi Kusama, Lee Lozano, Mara McAfee, Barbro Ostlihn, Faith Ringgold, Martha Rosler, Marjorie Strider, Kiki Kogelnik, Marta Minujin, and May Wilson will also be featured.

“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968” was organized by the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The Brooklyn presentation is coordinated by Catherine Morris, Curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Image: Yayoi Kusama, “Untitled,” 1963. Sewn stuffed fabric, cooking pot, lid, ladle and paint d.v. Dimensions variable. (Private Collection, New York Courtesy of Peter Freeman, Inc., New York)

Women Pop Artists at the Brooklyn Museum

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy (1965) is among more than fifty works by groundbreaking women artists in “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968,” now on exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

Art critic Ken Johnson gives the exhibition a thumbs-up review in The New York Times, while Stephen Brown of The Brooklyn Paper says the show gives Pop patriarch Andy Warhol “a swift kick in the groin through an eclectic mix of works that are both provocative and humorous.”

“This large-scale exhibition examines the impact of women artists on the traditionally male-dominated field of Pop art,” says the Brooklyn Museum web site. “It reconsiders the narrow definition of the Pop art movement and reevaluates its critical reception. In recovering important female artists, the show expands the canon to reflect more accurately the women working internationally during this period.”

The exhibition, which opened on 15 October and continues through 9 January 2011, also features works by Chryssa, Rosalyn Drexler, Marisol, Yayoi Kusama, Jann Haworth, Vija Celmins, Lee Lozano, Marjorie Strider, Idelle Weber, and Joyce Wieland, among many others.

(Image © NCAF. All rights reserved. Photo: Laurent Condominas)

The Brooklyn Museum’s new feminist art show is a swift kick in the crotch


A new exhibit of feminist pop art during the turmoil of the 1960s gives the supposed King of Pop, Andy Warhol, a swift kick in the groin through an eclectic mix of works that are both provocative and humorous.

Warhol tended to tackle our commercialized culture through his ironic reproductions of the quotidian, but the works in “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” have an urgent, rebellious attitude.

Many of the pieces are more explicit in their attacks on male-dominated society. John Wayne, a “man’s man” if there ever was one, is lampooned in a wooden sculpture of him riding a carousel horse. The artist May Stevens’s father also gets skewered; he is depicted as a cop, butcher, military man, and executioner. Even King Kong gets in on the misogyny by menacing the ubiquitous damsel in distress in a painting by Rosalyn Drexler.

But men are not the only targets in “Seductive Subversion.” The Vietnam War is an influence on many of the pieces, as is the hyper-sexualization of women in popular culture.

The exhibit seamlessly includes photo collages from skin mags, sculptures, plenty of phallic symbols — including a colorful missile — and much more, all hinting that in a time of social upheaval these artists were struggling to make their voices heard over the din of revolution.

Take, for example, Idelle Weber, who portrays males from the Mad Men era as merely soulless silhouettes on their daily commute. She calls them “Munchkins.”

In another painting called “Marvelous Mechanical Men,” a cadre of identical businessmen with statuesque features enjoy a drink after work.

Finally, in “Squeeze Me,” those same mechanical men get what’s coming to them: a pair of hands — Weber’s — crushes them into oblivion. The piece features comic-book influences, like many of the paintings on display, as the men are crushed in a three-panel sequence.

Other works are less explicit in their aggression. Yayo Kusama’s seat made of phalluses tackles the familiar theme in pop art of mass production. Needless to say, Kusama’s seat — possibly the worst football chair ever — is much more shocking than yet another Campbell’s soup can or silkscreen portrait.

The art makes for a stark contrast with the work of Warhol — who was featured in an excellent retrospective last summer at the Brooklyn Museum and whose work tended have an ironic air of detachment rather than a pugilistic desire to shock the status quo.

Warhol’s dominance of the pop art scene was symbolically broken in 1968 when the feminist writer Valerie Solanas shot and nearly killed him — in the ultimate piece of performance art of the century. But “Seductive Subversion,” which features no works created after that shooting, proves that numerous artists were challenging the male pop-paradigm well before Solanas put a cap in Warhol.

Take Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Black Rosy or My Heart Belongs to Rosy,” which looks like a cross between the Venus of Willendorf and one of R. Crumb’s freakiest fantasies. The towering statue depicts a woman with outrageous proportions, tacky clothes and a tiny, featureless head. It’s as if some dirtbag’s fantasy is towering over the viewer.

“Seductive Subversion” brings levity to feminist art — the genre has a reputation for being earnest, to say the least — that makes it appealing, easy to approach and thought-provoking.

Overall, the exhibit works as an excellent complement to one of the museum’s most important pieces, Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” — the quintessential example of humorless, overwhelming feminist art. Chicago’s famous work is permanently set up in the museum in a pyramid-shaped, dimly lit black room, and features 39 vaginal dinner plates representing underappreciated heroines from history on elaborately embroidered tablecloth.

Taken together, the two exhibits are a powerful indicator of the diversity and creativity of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

— Stephen Brown, The Brooklyn Paper

“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: The Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture “Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy” (1965) (Image © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. Photo: Laurent Condominas)

Before the Rebellion, Playful Pop Art Novelty


Why have there been no great female Pop artists? That’s the question posed by Sid Sachs at the start of his catalog essay for “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968,” a revelatory time capsule of an exhibition that he has organized at the Brooklyn Museum. He is paraphrasing the title of Linda Nochlin’s monument of feminist art history, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

Like Ms. Nochlin’s, Mr. Sach’s question breaks down into several smaller queries: Is it true that no female artists did anything with popular imagery as powerful as the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein or James Rosenquist? If so, why didn’t they? If there were some who did, who were they, and why are they not more celebrated? And what does “great artist” mean anyway?

Produced initially by the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where it opened in January, the exhibition presents an entertaining hodgepodge of paintings and sculptures by two dozen women. If it does represent the best female artists of the first Pop Art generation — and there is no reason to think otherwise — you’d have to admit that there were no women producing Pop Art as inventively, ambitiously and memorably as their male counterparts. That is not to say, however, that there were no interesting women mining the Pop vein.

Paintings by Rosalyn Drexler with figures lifted from news photographs, gangster movies and a Chubby Checker poster isolated on flat, gridded, Mondrianesque backgrounds anticipate the cool neo-Pop art of Pictures Generation artists like Robert Longo and Sarah Charlesworth. Idelle Weber’s mural-size painting of silhouetted businessmen riding escalators against an optically buzzing black-and-yellow-checked wall and her small, cast-Lucite cubes with men in silhouette silk-screened on them similarly evoke a shadow world of mechanical representations.

A neon-light sculpture by Chryssa, with variously colored cent signs blinking inside a box of translucent, dark plexiglass, is a nice marriage of Minimalism and commercial signage. Barbro Ostlihn’s Georgia O’Keeffe-like centered painting of a simplified, many-petaled, orange sunflower has a psychedelic vibe, while Dorothy Grebenak’s translation of liquor-bottle labels and other sorts of commercial logos into hooked rugs give Pop a sensuously tactile, folk-art spin. Kay Kurt’s 10-foot-wide painting of a box of white chocolates is a spectacular piece of Photorealism.

A quibbler might point out that some artists in the exhibition are not, strictly speaking, Pop Artists. A Vija Celmin sculpture of a greatly enlarged, stubby pencil, for example, is closer to Magrittean magic realism than Pop. Yayoi Kusama’s pieces of furniture bristling with white, stuffed phallic forms are more in a tradition of Surrealist assemblage, and May Wilson’s glittery, collaged portraits of masked women resemble works of an eccentric Victorian hobbyist. They have an idiosyncratic strangeness far from the cool modernity of Pop. Including such artists, however, does help capture the general spirit of playful novelty that inspired all kinds of artists in the early ’60s.

A self-consciously feminist art movement came after the decade covered by this show, but a few of these women asserted protest against sexism in no uncertain terms. Martha Rosler’s collages of Vietnam War imagery, domestic interiors and Playboy pinups are exceptional for their ideological ferocity. May Stevens’s “Big Daddy Paper Doll,” which was made in 1970 and was added to the show by the Brooklyn Museum, belongs to a later moment. It personifies the patriarchy in the cartoon character of a uniformed, thick-necked authority figure. But most of the exhibition’s artists were more ambivalent about the feminine mystique.

Marjorie Strider’s painted relief of a beautiful woman holding a basketball-size radish in her teeth is like a work by the lubricious Tom Wesselmann. Her 12-foot-wide triptych picturing a sexy woman in a bikini in three different poses, breasts projecting in three dimensions, seems simultaneously to embrace the sexual freedoms precipitated by the Pill and to mock the commercial exploitation of desire. A bulbous statue of a cartoon giantess by Niki de Saint Phalle, meanwhile, incarnates a zany, retrogressive Great Mother of countercultural revolution.

Few women of this era, evidently, were ready to challenge male domination in life or in art openly. Mr. Sachs’s anecdote-rich essay vividly describes a bohemian art world not unlike the bourgeois milieu of “Mad Men,” in which female artists were expected to play the roles of wife, lover, helpmeet and caretaker first and that of professional art maker last if at all.

Some women contributed significantly to their partners’ work with little or no acknowledgment. Ms. Ostlihn produced some of the paintings of her husband, Oyvind Fahlstrom, and Richard Hamilton created his seminal collage “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” using images that his wife, Terry Hamilton, and the artist Magda Cordell spent several days clipping from magazines.

Patty Mucha sewed the fabric shells for the early soft sculptures of her husband, Claes Oldenburg. Her essay chronicling her collaboration with Mr. Oldenburg is one of the delights of the catalog. Though notably rancor free, she admits that after they divorced in 1970 she stopped making her own clothes, as she was “suffering from intense burnout.”

Then there was what Mr. Sachs called “the beauty trap”: Women who were young and pretty could hang out with the boys, but few of them would be taken seriously as artists. Mr. Sachs quotes Carolee Schneemann, who said, “You had to shut up and affiliate yourself with interesting men,” and “you had to be good looking.” This is borne out in the catalog by pictures of artists like de Saint Phalle, Marisol, Evelyne Axell and Pauline Boty, who happened to be blessed with extraordinarily photogenic looks. It is easy to imagine why such naturally and socially privileged people would hesitate to break out of their gilded cages.

In light of all this, the exhibition’s title, “Seductive Subversion,” takes on a shady double meaning. Ostensibly it describes works that smuggle social critique under appealing aesthetic cover. But it also implies an old idea about what members of the so-called weaker sex must do to get what they want: use their charms and wiles to put men off their guard. In most parts of the world, open rebellion is still not an option for women.

That things are better today for female artists working in Europe and the United States is undeniable, though how much better remains debatable. While the highest prices are still reserved for male heavyweights, there were more women than men represented in the last Whitney Biennial. We might suppose, therefore, that some female artists living and working now will one day go down in history as “great.” But what would that mean?

It would be hyperbolic to claim that any of the artists in “Seductive Subversion” are great in the sense that Michelangelo and Picasso were. Nor will any of them be found to have eclipsed the kings of Pop. But then again, is the idea of greatness even relevant anymore? Are any artists of the Postmodern era, male or female, truly great? Absent consensus about standards for measuring excellence in art, it becomes an empty term of endearment and a marketing label. (Andy Warhol thought everything was great.) Maybe the Bravo reality television show “Work of Art” has it all wrong. Maybe there will never be another great artist. And maybe that will be O.K.

— Ken Johnson, The New York Times

“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” continues through January 9, 2011 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park, Brooklyn; 718-638-5000,

Photo: The Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture “Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy” (1965) (Image © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. Photo: Laurent Condominas)

Brea Artwork: La Lune by Niki de St. Phalle


Californians are big fans of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose work can be seen at the Brea Mall.

Internationally renowned artist Niki de Saint Phalle created a whimsical public piece which sits in the center of a fountain pool at Brea Mall. Drawing inspiration from the 18th card of the tarot deck, the polymer creation evokes attention from passersby with its brilliant primal colors: red, blue, green and yellow. La Lune (French for “The Moon”) features the slender profile of a woman’s face in a double-image silver crescent moon. The moon is then clasped by a startling red and orange lobster, which is supported by a wolf and a dog. The dog implies domesticity, the wolf signifies the wild, the lobster represents the sea and the moon symbolizes man’s highest achievement. The artist’s work is known for searching the unknown and the mystical in feminine themes.

The piece is one of over 20 quality public installations throughout the city of Brea you can see during a visit.

About the artist: Born as Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, she lived from October 1930 to May 2002. Multi-talented, she was recognized not only for her sculpting and painting but also her film-making. Her striking features and figure also provided a career during her teen and young adult years as a fashion model for the French Vogue magazine, and she also appeared on the cover of Life magazine circa 1949.

Niki de Saint Phalle moved to the U.S. from France with her family and lived on the East Coast. Expelled from one school for painting fig leaves red on the school statuary, the budding artist had only begun to explore her creative side and fortunately, was not deterred from pursuing one of her many talents as painter.

In California you’ll find four of her sculpted works — all in Southern California, from San Diego to Brea.

EscondidoQueen Califia’s Magic Circle, a sculpture garden in Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California.

San DiegoSun God is a fanciful winged creature next to the Faculty Club on the campus of the University of California, San Diego as a part of the Stuart Collection of public art.

San DiegoComing Together is showcased at the San Diego Convention Center.

BreaLa Lune, a sculpture located inside the Brea Mall in Brea, California.

See California

Photo: La Lune. (City of Brea)