Galleries

How to Be a Lady Painter

by Howard Hurst on October 9, 2012

Louise Bourgeois’ “Life Flower I” (1960) in the foreground, with works by Barbara Morgan and Ruth Asawa in the background. (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

It’s funny that Patricia Albers’s recent and authoritative biography on Joan Mitchell was given the subtitle “Lady Painter.” My only guess is that Mitchell’s lifestyle and painting were so out of character for the time that the term becomes ironic. The artist was known for her camaraderie with Cedar Tavern macho dudes like de Kooning and Pollock, her hangout sessions with beatnik poets, her ability to party, and her tendency to drink and sleep around with bravado. At the time these activities and attitudes were thought to be reserved for men. Mitchell gradually carved out a space for her paintings to be given the same treatment.

Installation view, "To Be a Lady"

Installation view, “To Be a Lady,” (left) Pat Passlof, “Hawthorne” (1999); and (right) Betye Saar, “Proverb (a bird in the hand…)” (2007) (click to enlarge)

Brooklyn-based curator Jason Andrew’s newest exhibition, To Be a Lady, takes a swing in the same direction. To quote his press release:

For much of the early 20th century, women were up against the “lady painter” image which historian Linda Nochlin suggests was “established in 19th century etiquette books and reinforced by the literature of the times.” Despite what might appear to be great progress for women in the arts, these societal expectations continue into the present. As Lee Krasner said, “I’m an artist not a woman artist.”

Andrew pulls from a list of 45 female artists from the last century, showing how these artists hang toe-to-toe with the boys. This is a comparison that has never quite been made in a major historical exhibition so largely focused on mid- to late 20th-C. abstraction; the Museum of Modern Art’s recent show on this subject was rather embarrassingly lacking in all but the most famous female artists of that time. Sure, there is literature on the subject, but it is nice to see an exhibition that treats female abstraction with the same level of attention as the male artists enjoyed in their own time. As if to fix the long-exclusionary art world, Andrew provides a space where we can judge the work of female artists in a formal void. The unfortunate side effect is that we are denied any and all sociopolitical context. We are given the opportunity to explore surface, space, and color in a way that foregrounds physicality and material. The idea of a female space becomes pedagogical and formal, however divorced from societal context it might be.

Left to right: Louise Nevelson, "Untitled" (1976–78), and Alice Neel, "Sunset in Spanish Harlem" (1958)

Left to right: Louise Nevelson, “Untitled” (1976–78); and Alice Neel, “Sunset in Spanish Harlem” (1958)

The 45 artists included relate to each other in different ways. Lee Bontecou’s alien-like fabric constructions might reference the female anatomy, but I see them more as abstractions anchored by their quirky, unnerving confidence. Their presence was so strong, I felt like the artist might as well be standing in the building lobby staring me in the face. Similarly, Jay DeFeo, the artist famous for constructing the massive mandala painting “The Rose,” peers through her painting “Locust Eaters 2” with an otherworldly wisdom. Both of these works push the boundaries of comfort. They vibrate with energy that seems almost extraterrestrial.

Left to right: Alma Thomas, “Red Scarlet Sage” (1976) and a work by Charmion von Wiegand (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For a show that aims to combat a common conception of femininity in the arts, To Be a Lady is apolitical to the point of feeling a bit anemic. That makes me wonder if this exhibition was a missed opportunity, or perhaps not aptly named. Rather than reconsidering the concept of the lady painter, this exhibition is an apt attempt at removing the distinction altogether; it gives us a moment of reflection and discovery. It was in this space that I realized that a very large percentage of my favorite painters are are dead or in their 80s and female. While Louise Nevelson and Alice Neel are rather bold-faced names, artists like Alma Thomas, Charmion von Wiegand, Janice Biala, Pat Passlof, and Ruth Asawa are of equal historical importance. These are artists who are often talked about in the history books and by other artists. They are the painters’ painters and the sculptors’ sculptors.

Left to right: Brooke Moyse, “Mount” (2011) and Rachel Beach, “Hawk” (2012)

This exhibition is not merely of historical value but presents an interesting grouping of younger and mid-career artists as well. Brooklyn artist Brooke Moyse creates rugged and informal abstract geometries that are enthusiastic and casual at the same time. I love her work and am glad she is being given this exposure; she deserves it. Rachel Beach’s off-the-cuff wooden constructs similarly reference the language of geometry and abstraction in a way that reflects the realities of being an artist in New York in 2012. Like it or hate it, the work stands on its own alongside the art of the older generation. Another highlight is Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s large photo-compilation of female flesh. The fatty folds of white skin form a kind of monotone field of depth and texture that seems to render the cellulite into a macro shot of smooth sensuality. The result is portraiture as landscape, and we are reminded of the pleasures and importance of acknowledging the human body.

To Be a Lady‘s mishmash of chronological, stylistic, and theoretical criteria that define these 45 artists is certainly eclectic, to say the least. What we get is a curatorial stance that offers us an apolitical smattering of great, physical artwork. The individual pieces remind us that before theory and politics, we see, feel, and situate ourselves within a work. Using tone, surface, form, and scale, the art on view in To Be a Lady sucks us in and shifts our perceptions.

To Be a Lady is on view at the 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery (Midtown, Manhattan) through January 18.

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