Museums

Skewering the Egos of Male Artists at Dia:Beacon

by Jillian Steinhauer on May 21, 2013

The West Garden at Dia:Beacon (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The West Garden at Dia:Beacon (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Of the 25 artists whose work is currently on long-term view at Dia:Beacon, four of them are women. One of those women is half of a husband-and-wife team. The open, spacious museum just up the river from New York City is beautiful, staid, and a bit, well, male. Even a fantastic three-room installation of wry Louise Bourgeois sculptures can’t undercut the machismo you get from wandering through a hall full of John Chamberlain pieces made of crushed steel, while knowing that under your feet there’s another hall full of sculpted steel Richard Serras. The men’s pieces just loom so large — they take up an enormous amount of space, both physically and emotionally.

The hall of Chamberlains is, however, filled with windows, and from inside you can look out and see bright pink flowers. They’re attached to the trees in the museum’s west garden, which is a nice place to take a break from all the Very Serious Art — not just because it’s lovely, but because if you sit for a while, you’ll hear something: strange cries that may at first sound like real bird calls but are actually an installation by Louise Lawler, titled “Birdcalls.”

First created in 1972 and Lawler’s only sound piece, the work involves the artist turning the names of well-known and well-respected male artists into bird calls. Julian Schnabel’s last name becomes the warbly, guttural “Schnaaaaabel.” Joseph Kosuth’s last name takes on a light, airy tone, as if Lawler were launching the word like a balloon into the sky. “Aarrrt, aarrrt, A-a-aaartschwager!” she cries (for Richard), in a a throaty squawk reminiscent of a rooster.

The napkins at Dia:Beacon's cafe are the key for Louise Lawler's "Birdcalls." Names in orange are the ones called.

The napkins at Dia:Beacon’s cafe are the key for Louise Lawler’s “Birdcalls.” Names in orange are the ones called.

“Birdcalls” is, in a word (or two), absolutely hilarious. Much of the artwork at Dia:Beacon is monumental and moving, and there’s no question of its importance, but the flip side of the museum’s in-depth solo presentations is that they seem to emphasize artistic greatness basically to the point of sanctification. After a few hours, it’s hard not to feel all those egos pressing down on you. And then you hear Lawler’s work, and you burst out laughing.

The names of these men are most often heard these days when they’re called out by another man, an auctioneer, minutes before a hammer comes down and one of their works sells for millions of dollars. (Often millions of dollars more than any work by a woman.) Lawler, in turn, transforms the men into a species (we might sit in the Dia garden and hope for a sighting!), skewering their egos with simple humor and spotlighting them in an infinitely more critical way. There are moments, too, when her voice seems to shift from bird calls to the caricatured crooning of an old lady, whereupon you can picture little Robert Barry being called into the living room to keep his overbearing grandmother company.

Hopefully, Dia:Beacon will address its gender gap more purposefully one day. In the meantime, thank goodness for Louise Lawler.

Louise Lawler’s “Birdcalls” is on long-term view at Dia:Beacon (3 Beekman Street, Beacon, NY). You can also hear the original piece from 1972 on Paddle8’s blog.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Charles

    great piece! in 1984, before its installation at beacon, ‘birdcalls’ was released on audio tape via Tellus cassette magazine. it was in their ‘audio-visual’ issue (#5-6) and featured a copy of her ‘eve and patriarch’ photograph printed on the reverse side of names: http://www.ubu.com/sound/images/tellus_5-6/01_Louise_Lawler-Birdcalls_1.jpg

    and incidentally, the tape was about halfway filled with works by women artists, unlike some of the spaces she was otherwise working in (and critiquing here).

    charles | http://bit.ly/OX7sHZ

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I want that tape!

      • Charles

        get them before they’re too expensive… people are finally remembering / discovering them!

        • Brenda Oelbaum

          Join the Women’s Caucus for Art every year in February during the College Art Association Conference when we give these women Lifetime Achievement Awards…this year it is in Chicago Saturday February 15th at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Go to http://www.nationalwca.org to find out more.

  • Glenn LaVertu

    So was this supposed to be a piece of writing about the Louise Lawler piece? (I love that too btw) If so, isn’t it just as much a disservice to her to discuss it in terms of the overwhelming presence of men? Or, as the headline claims, is the writing calling attention to a male dominant Dia-Beacon? It’s too short to tell. More examples, more discussion. I too wish there were more work from women. I can think of dozens whose work would fit right in to the atmosphere here.

    At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if we are short-changing our experience of work that the writer is calling out. John Chamberlain’s work isn’t nearly as oppressive as the writer makes it sound. Frankly, that work is a blast! It’s actually a good pairing with the Lawler.

    Never-the-less, I agree emphatically with the want for more work from women. It would be great to see them all. It is sad to see sexism in any facet in our society.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      This is a short blog post about my experience of Dia:Beacon and the place of the Lawler piece within it. It’s not a comprehensive overview and analysis of “Birdcalls,” nor is it meant to be (and I’m not sure why discussing an artwork in terms of all the other artwork it’s surrounded by does it a disservice). I’m glad you think the Chamberlains are a blast; you’re entitled to your opinion, just as I’m entitled to mine. Mine happened to be that their presence, in that context, was quite show-offy and oppressively macho.

      • Glenn LaVertu

        Well, I feel it is a disservice in terms of calling attention to one thing by virtue of its opposition to the other, which is how I feel most feminist or women’s work usually gets attention.

        As far as oppression goes I certainly see that in the Serra’s… in the Judd’s and especially in the Michael Heizer “voids”, and can understand your assessment of male ego in the air there… I just wish you explained what makes the Chamberlain “oppressive”.
        I’m not trying to be antagonistic, nor am I trying to come off as Chamberlain’s biggest fan necessarily. But I question whether that is IN the work, or part of societal baggage that we carry. The argument that the work and our societal experiences are inseparable is one that is an accepted notion in art theory/philosophy, but I can’t help but question it, as I feel I can at times experience the work without politics in tow, no matter the gender of the maker.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          Thanks for writing back, Glenn. I see your point about calling attention to Lawler’s work only in this way, in opposition to other work, and how that maybe gives it short shrift. I tend to write long, in depth pieces, and here I wanted to try doing something shorter and lighter. But maybe you’re right that some more background about the piece would have been good.

          As for the Chamberlains, I’ve always felt that way about his work. Crushed up cars seem very manly and “look at me” to me, even while I realize that there’s a way to read them as the opposite (since cars are a prime macho symbol). But I’m not sure there’s any way to see art separate from societal experiences and baggage. Art exists in the world, not in a vacuum. It’s interaction and exchange. Once a Chamberlain sculpture is out in the world, its associations become part of it, no?

          • Glenn LaVertu

            Yeah I agree. It’s not in a vacuum. I just like to “feel” the sensations of things. it is sort of academic of me. oh well…

            After seeing the Chamberlain retrospective at the Guggenheim last year and it sort of changed my mind. I used to think of it much the same way you mention, but I found that the best of his works can be fun and frivolous in a Rococo kind of way, or kind of razor sharp apocolyptic sci-fi, and i felt the previous baggage of macho tendencies melted away. Admittedly the worst of his work can be oppressive and macho.

            As for the writing, I too tend to write long (clearly), so I can appreciate your attempt. It was a fun read actually, I didn’t mean to give you a hard time. Looking forward to reading more of your work. :)

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I missed the Chamberlain retrospective at the Guggenheim. Gah! I wasn’t sorry before, but now I am. I’m glad to hear this, though. I will do my utmost to open my mind and reconsider his work when I see it in the future. I actually did really like some of his stuff at Dia:Beacon; it just felt like…a lot, given everything around it.

  • thom thom

    Get a time machine and take yourself back to the 70’s to change the role call for important artists. Then come back and see if this exhibition includes all of the female artists of the 70’s who got equal representation in the 70’s due to your time machine. If so, job well done!

    This article makes as much sense as bitching about too many male impressionist painters being shown at the Met.

    • Glenn LaVertu

      Actually I agree with her! We need more women represented in our museums. There was just an article about how the late works of Johannes Vermeer may have been authored by his daughter Maria. There is much resistance to this idea, and I can’t help but feel as though this is in part a sexist attitude. The MoMA is also woefully devoid of female artists. Frankly I’d say they all are.

      And I don’t think you have to go back to the 70s. I can come up with a list right now.

      Alice Aycock
      Ursula von Rydingsvard
      Magdelena Abakanowicz
      Eva Hesse
      Lee Bontecou
      Petah Coyne
      Louise Nevelson (is there even one at Beacon? tragic!)
      Harmony Hammond
      Yayoi Kusama
      Rebecca Horn
      Yoko Ono
      Jackie Ferrara
      Deborah Butterfield
      Lynda Benglis
      Jackie Windsor

      And that’s just the A list (although some are escaping my mind).

      • Jillian Steinhauer

        Thank you, Glenn. Thom Thom, I will let the depressing sexism of your comment stand on its own.

        • thom thom

          Waiting for female artists of the past to be equally represented is pointless. These artists weren’t as popular in the past because the art world was sexist (and still is, although to a much lesser degree). People want to see the big names of the past. The ones everyone wrote about.

          Wishing for a monumental rewriting of art history is naive, pointlessly idealistic and very american. The history was not written according to fact. It was written by critics, most of whom had a slanted view. Who was important and who was not can only be changed by a total rewriting of the history of art. When billions of dollars of artwork are involved, i think people will hesitate.

          Incidentally, stating it is pointless to try to change a sexist event which can’t be changed doesn’t make me a sexist. Curators do of course document and often rewrite history through exhibitions. However, asking curators to take on the impossible task of fixing the sexism of history through a grand rewriting isn’t going to happen.

          • Glenn LaVertu

            It is actually already happening. The change won’t be monumental, but slow, but at least it is changing I suppose.
            To boot:
            1. Many are looking past the the blue-chip blockbuster artists towards the second and third tier artists to find something new. There are many women in those categories.

            2. The separation of genres and forms is starting to dissolve (mostly due to the effects of the internet), and will hopefully assist in making the art world/market/history egalitarian.
            This may not happen in our lifetime (certainly change in art history things are slower), but it will happen.

          • thom thom

            I agree it is changing many female artists of the past are gaining much deserved recognition. Years ago I can remember Eva Hesse being seen an oddity due to 1) the quirkiness and humor of her minimalist objects next to her contemporaries. and 2) because she was a woman next to her contemporaries.

            Now Eva Hesse and her work are regarded as equal in importance to anyone from the same time period. However, egalitarianism in written history involves huge change. And we are talking about the public, so no. I hope so, but I kindly have to partially disagree.

            Interesting point about the internet.

          • JosephYoung

            History is re-written all the time! It’s just a story, told differently. Mad Men has changed the way we see the 50s/60s forever [until next time].

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            Asking for a reconsideration and revisiting of the past is not the same as asking for a single curator, or group of curators, to initiate some magical grand rewriting with the wave of a wand. Of course history is written by historians and critics and people with slanted views—that’s why we need to reconsider it in retrospect and fix what was know. You’re basically arguing that studying history is a useless endeavor. I think every historically marginalized person or group of people would disagree.

          • thom thom

            I don’t think I am arguing that studying history is a useless endeavor. I like “studying history” so there’s that. But historically marginalized artists don’t really stand side by side with historically marginalized ethnic groups. Art, for the majority of people on earth is in the same category as fancy coffee, Annie on Broadway, and Gelato. The public buys tickets to go to the museum to revisit what they know and let a little more new stuff in.

            I am not saying the public is full of stupid sheep who are unwilling to change, but when it comes to art, they don’t want a rewrite. It is hard enough for them to remember the little they have accepted. Why do you think everyone is constantly pissed off about the Whitney Biennial?

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            But why do we care if the public wants a rewrite or not? Why does that determine whether or not we try to rewrite things and correct past wrongs?

          • Glenn LaVertu

            Well I do think the public does want a rewrite actually. I have taught art history for 12 years now and the topic comes up immediately: “Where are the women artists?” “What about other minorities?” It’s because of this that I make it a point to present a diverse set of artists and movements and still maintain the art historical canon. In my opinion this has only served to enrich the canon.

            Recently, there have been a number of critics who have “chastised” institutions like MoMA for under representing women artists as well as other groups (Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith come to mind first, but I know a few other too). This has resulted in board meetings with these critics, and some marked changes. Even more progressively, individual curators are mounting shows and promoting work that seek to make a more equal representation in contemporary art, and the work throughout history.

            However, the bigger the institution, the greater the resistance. Museums, galleries and auction houses all play heavily into the canon of art history and will protect their investments at any cost. That being said, they will also welcome a new market that makes them money as long as it doesn’t interfere with the current canon. As a result there has become a greater market for many of the women artists of the 50s, 60s, 70, and up until now. Money does govern so much.

            Generally I like Dia Beacon. I love Louise Bourgeois, but not those works so much actually. The Fred Sandbacks are great. I do think the air of “manly” art exists there. That period of minimalism, pop etc sort of bred that atmosphere, and I would welcome a little more diversity.

          • Guest

            How are you trying?

          • thom thom

            You can try to rewrite things. The internet may even make this possible eventually. What the public wants is very important however. They are exactly the ones that dictate what Dia:Beacon shows.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I don’t mean to dismiss the public outright, but my point was/is that it’s good to give them something they didn’t know they wanted, i.e. teach them. But do you really think the public dictates what Dia:Beacon shows—more than the trustees of Dia, the rich people who pay millions for work by canonical men, and the dealers in the upper echelons of the art world?

        • Charles

          “This article makes as much sense as bitching about too many male impressionist painters being shown at the Met.” / “Waiting for female artists of the past to be equally represented is pointless. These artists weren’t as popular in the past because the art world was sexist (and still is, although to a much lesser degree). People want to see the big names of the past. The ones everyone wrote about.

          Wishing for a monumental rewriting of art history is naive, pointlessly idealistic and very american.”

          I don’t even know where to begin with these comments. You think that writing about how institutions of art have historically internalized cultural oppression is… not worth anyone’s time? And that we shouldn’t question sexist actions because they were somehow ‘historically appropriate’?

          Let’s all just ruminate for a moment on the absurdity of this statement: “Waiting for female artists of the past to be equally represented is pointless.”

Previous post:

Next post: