The Women of Pop Art


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.”

Black Rosy, by Niki de Saint PhalleThe 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.

Chubby Checker, by Rosalyn Drexler CourtMOMA’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.”

“That’s a historical truth,” Ms. Morris admits. “I hope it’s changing.”

Munchkins I, II, & III, by Idelle Weber“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.

Vacuuming Pop Art, by Martha RoslerAll 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.”

— Carol Strickland, The Christian Science Monitor

“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)

Where Are the Great Women Pop Artists?


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, ARTnews

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)