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Maria Lassnig, “Du oder Ich” (2005), oil on canvas, 203,5 x 155,5 cm (photo courtesy Maria Lassnig Foundation)

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in the catalogue for Lucid Gestures, an exhibition of Barnard College alumnae artists last fall.

Very recently I was told that a certain art magazine editor, who had deleted the feminist critique from a review I had written, “can only take so much feminism.” At the time, I was infuriated that someone who is hypothetically tasked with shaping the way art is discussed, would take such an explicit and condescending stance against gender equality. With art world professionals like him hoping that feminism would just go away, it feels necessary to be supportive of any museum exhibitions, gallery shows, market successes, or media attention given to women artists. However, even when it seems as if we might be getting it right (the Museum of Modern Art will feature women in five shows opening this spring! four out of seven Tate solo exhibitions will go to women in 2015! the Hole devotes a show to “Future Feminism”! Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” sells for $44 million!), something is still amiss.

As a onetime writer and editor for a company that owns two art magazines and an art-centric website, I can attest that art journalism is in no way immune from conventions that ostensibly champion women artists, but in fact perpetuate problematic narratives about them — tropes so prevalent, even I have operated within them. In particular, I’m thinking of the widespread myth of the “overlooked,” “forgotten,” and/or “rediscovered” female artist.

Two experiences I had at Barnard irrevocably shaped the way I understand the art history’s inherent power structures, especially regarding the role of female artists. First, serving as the Columbia Daily Spectator’s art editor, I interviewed the Guerrilla Girls. My conversation with founding member Frida Kahlo (the Girls take pseudonymous names for anonymity) taught me that the art world is not, nor has it ever been, a meritocracy. It seems rudimentary now, but realizing that the best artists do not simply rise to the top based on the high quality of their work — without any consideration, say, of their genitalia — was crucial to developing my critical stance toward art.

Next, Rosalyn Deutsche’s class “Feminism and Postmodernism” showed me the connection between images and the maintenance of sexual difference: how masculinism suppresses otherness and elevates the concept of the heroic, alienated (or, “Genius Male”) artist, and how feminist artists have tried to produce different kinds of images as a challenge to phallocentrism. I haven’t used the word “seminal” since.

Yet, the myth of meritocracy is still widely perpetuated in writing and discussions about art. When it comes to the everyday written materials we consume about artists (here I am thinking about the daily glut of press releases, artist profiles, articles, and promotional materials), again and again the social and political forces that marginalize women artists are ignored.

To illustrate the fable of the Overlooked Female Artist, here is a small sampling of headlines from the past year:

From the Guardian: “Marlow Moss: forgotten art maverick;”

From the Independent: “The woman in black: Mira Schendel is finally bursting on to the British art scene;”

From the Huffington Post: “10 Drawings By Female Artists Whom History Has Underestimated;”

From the Wall Street Journal, on Maria Lassnig: “Retrospective Is Part of Late-Career Resurgence for 94-Year-Old;”

From W: “Ahead of her Time: Artist Sarah Charlesworth is experiencing something of a revival;”

And the trend isn’t exclusive to artists. From the Daily Beast, on a writer: “The Rediscovered Genius of Muriel Spark.”

Be it a late career exhibition or a bump in sales, again and again I have seen an eerily similar story structure parroted:

At long last, a senior (or deceased) female artist gets the recognition she has deserved all along. Overlooked by the establishment for her entire life, she never stopped prodigiously toiling in obscurity and is finally being given her due.

At first these recognitions might seem laudable, even a continuation of the efforts of the Women’s Movement to dig into history and pull out disregarded women who have achieved remarkable things. But after reading several of these stories, a troubling pattern starts to emerge: this type of article does not truly advocate for women artists, but rather belatedly elevates women or minorities to the canon, instead of questioning canonicity itself.

Similar to Hollywood’s Strong Female Character (who, for all her kickass prowess, is not actually all that empowering — see: The Matrix’s Trinity), these at-long-last-glorified women artists are being vaunted as emblems of inclusion and steps toward gender equality, when, in fact, the stories that are being told about them are keeping our understanding of women artists firmly grounded in a safe and schematic narrative. Removing all blame from the (white, male) writers of history, these articles justify the delay of recognition as a matter of taste: their work just didn’t “catch on.”

Louise Bourgeois, “Cinq” (2007), currently on view as part of ‘Louise Bourgeois: Suspension’, Cheim & Read, New York (photo by Benjamin Sutton)

Take these excerpts from a Wall Street Journal profile of Louise Bourgeois from May of this year:

She met American art critic Robert Goldwater in 1938. They married and moved to New York and had three sons. She continued her art studies and befriended Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman. Like them, she was interested in making psychically charged art, but her sculptures didn’t catch on as quickly.

After her husband died in 1973, […] she coped, as ever, by making art into the night.

In 1980, Mr. Gorovoy said he was working in a gallery when he convinced her to let him exhibit some of her drawings. The show proved a hit and he became her assistant. Two years later, the Museum of Modern Art gave her a retrospective that amounted to her debut on the international art scene. She was 71.

The rhetoric surrounding these “rediscovered” artists excludes too much about the specifics of their lives and the sociopolitical contexts that have perpetuated their exclusion — not simply from notoriety, but also from market success and a place in art education. Instead of acknowledging these forces, we often say women artists were too unorthodox for their times. “She refused to court trends in the art world, and weathered decades of rejection from the Establishment,” reads an August 2014 Telegraph obituary of Maria Lassnig. “Ultimately, she would be rewarded for sticking to her guns.”

Moreover, all too often the stories of women’s lives are forced into the age-old paradigm of the Genius Male Artist. When the mainstream art industry (here I am thinking of the MoMAs, Gagosians, and Tates of the world) finally does bestow its interest upon the Overlooked Female Artist, it forces her to fit into a tired story. The “genius” artist has toiled away for years until she is finally found or discovered by the boys’ club. Unsurprisingly, there is often no discussion of the forces of exclusion faced by the female artist.

Here’s another familiar story from a March 2014 Guardian article on Phyllida Barlow:

She’s taught everyone from Martin Creed to Rachel Whiteread, but it’s only now, at 70, that Barlow is getting her dues as an artist.

Barlow, who turns 70 this week, has spent her adult life making sculpture, enjoying her greatest success by far over the last 10 years.

She went on to the Slade until 1966, and then began teaching, and having children; she and Peake have five in all. […] In those days, she was working in total isolation.

Since she started being represented by the gallery Hauser & Wirth a few years ago, her work has been sold […]

Barlow has weathered the fallow times, to be celebrated as one of the country’s greatest sculptors, her career built on resilience, curiosity and commitment.

Not only does this narrative ignore that women were frequently raising children during their professional prime (hence a reason for “working in total isolation”), but it also fails to take into account that an artist must have some level of economic security in order to work in obscurity for years. Even an exclusionary narrative manages to only admit mostly white, upper- and middle-class women.

When it comes to perpetuating these stories, the official line put out by institutions and the articles written by the media go hand in hand. In just one example of a great many, here’s the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on its current Sturtevant retrospective:

As a woman making versions of the work of better-known male artists, she has passed almost unnoticed through the hierarchies of mid-century modernism and postmodernism, at once absent from these histories while nevertheless articulating their structures.

This exhibition is the first comprehensive survey in America of Sturtevant’s 50-year career, and the only institutional presentation of her work organized in the United States since her solo show at the Everson Museum of Art in 1973.

What infuriates me most about this press release is that MoMA at once shirks any culpability for allowing such an artist to pass “almost unnoticed” at the same time that the museum pats itself on the back for having the insight to give her a long overdue exhibition. Nor does MoMA address how an avant-garde-hungry market has seeped into museum programming and forced institutions to go back and find some women to glorify.

A quick perusal of the materials for the Tate’s 2015 programming, which was praised by The Art Newspaper for putting “women artists first and foremost,” shows the same pitfalls. According to museum materials, Barbara Hepworth’s retrospective will emphasize her “overlooked prominence in the international art world” and an Agnes Martin exhibition will “cover the full breadth of Martin’s practice, reasserting her position as a key figure in the traditionally male-dominated fields of 1950s and 1960s abstraction.”

My intention here is not to call out museums or simplistic writing, but to point out the ways in which institutions and publications — both major and minor — are guilty of perpetuating a schematic and damaging narrative about the lives of women artists. These paradigms of understanding are stale caricatures of these artists’ lives.

Part of the issue is the way that art journalism works. A hook must quickly be established to make a story seem timely, and often with women artists, the supposed “breakthrough” moment is the easiest one to reach for. One of the major consequences of this discovery narrative, however, is that it essentializes an artist’s practice and oversimplifies her achievements. We don’t look at the ways that an artist’s work changed over time or the ways in which she influenced her better-known peers. Major early milestones like exhibitions or acquisitions are left out of the story in order to foreground the triumphal moment of recognition, which leads to a monolithic understanding of what women’s art making looks like.

Sarah Charlesworth, “Work” (1988) (courtesy of the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone Gallery)

Did you know that Judy Chicago was part of the landmark minimalism show Primary Structures before she made “The Dinner Party”? That, before her MoMA retrospective, Isa Genzken was in the 1982 Venice Biennale? That Sarah Charlesworth was in the 1985 Whitney Biennial before she was included in the 2014 edition? It takes decades to become an overnight success.

It is essential that we complicate these stories. Writers, along with collectors, dealers, and curators, are all part of an ecosystem that is constantly forming and unforming art history. So instead of focusing on the moment when these women were finally “found” — and by extension, on the institution that was gracious enough to do so — I propose we talk more about that period where she was toiling away in obscurity. What was she doing then? Where was she showing? Who was she in community with? How did her practice change? What forces of exclusion did she face?

Instead of the tired story where a masculinist force deigns to discover, find, or recognize female artists, what if we tried to also understand the material realities of these women’s lives? Ultimately, we would not be so dependent on the recognition of the art world’s skewed mainstream if we used these histories as case studies to define different kinds of success.

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Ashton Cooper

Ashton Cooper is a Brooklyn-based independent writer and curator. She has organized exhibitions at Maccarone in New York and the Knockdown Center in Maspeth,...

32 replies on “The Problem of the Overlooked Female Artist: An Argument for Enlivening a Stale Model of Discussion”

  1. I would be very interested to know what the difference between men and women collectors and an overall breakdown of dollars. Very unscientific but I had a gallery for six years and as far as I can remember the collectors where mostly men even among women artists.

    1. If by “very unscientific” you mean not scientific at all then yes, your observation is quite astute. What you cite is anecdotal evidence and furthermore, not really certain what the gender of collectors has to do with gender bias / sexism as they relate to how critics, curators and other arts writers discuss men versus how they discuss women??

      1. Mmmm yhea you dont have to be a scientist to notice a trend in a business you’re a professional in. Years of experience interacting with collectors, artists, other gallerists stc is enough to notice things. in any event your right you don’t know what it has to do with how art is talked about that’s why I was interested in an actual study. But to answer a hypothetical “how” I was wondering how critique and value is tied to catering to patron sales. i.e. gender, race, class etc but in this case gender since that’s what this article is about.

        1. No you don’t need to be a “scientist” to engage in a scientific practice but that doesn’t change the fact that what you’re describing, it’s usually called anecdotal evidence, is not, by any definition of the word, considered science. It’s simply not scientific. You might not agree with this but that doesn’t change it. Don’t believe me, please google the phrase “anecdotal evidence”. This isn’t my opinion, it’s the definition of the word. By the way, I’ve looked at some of your previous posts on this site and all them are in regards to gender and in all of them you use your experience as a gallerist to critique arguments of gender bias. Not certain why you think that truths can emerge from your singular experiences but that’s not how science works. Science requires objective observation, followed by third party duplication of results. Period. Lastly, you still haven’t answered how men, in your experience, collecting most art relates to an article about the role the media plays in reinforcing gender bias. This article isn’t about collecting art, it’s about writing about art.

          1. I think we already agreed that having years of experience with something is not science so not sure what your point is. I’m not a social scientist either but I know gender bias exists. You don’tneed to be a scientist to have a valid point. as far a “collecting most art relates to an article” I don’t know…that’s why I asked if there was any studies on the subject. see how that works someone observers something in their experience and then is curious if there is more information about it

            lol your misleading insinuation that I’m always using my experience to critique gender bias made me laugh. clearly your trolling me with an agenda. I had to dig deep to even see what your talking about. here is a list of ALL my posts most of which have nothing to do with the subject much less being a gallerist.

            Teach Yourself Graphic Design: A Self-Study Course Outline
            Create a low-poly portrait
            How Not to Write About Women Artists
            Samurai Sword-Wielding Lesbian Murders Woman With…
            Laura Prepon Tom Cruise Dating Rumors Scientology 2…
            A Well-Oiled Machine Project
            Dumb Starbucks’ Store In Los Feliz Providing A Latte Laugh…
            US Rep. Kingston Criticized for School Lunch Idea
            xoJane
            Would Kazimir Malevich Get into Art School Today?
            Why Talented Creatives Are Leaving Your Shitty Agency
            California Police Arrest Man for Video Recording, then Kill his…
            Could Belgium Bring Down Scientology?
            Internships: The Beginning of the End of Interns Without W…
            Sunset Junction Organizers Say City Tried to Gouge Them
            Jiggle Tests, Dunk Tanks, and Unpaid Labor:

          2. Science found that an overwhelming amount of male internet commentators don’t believe sexism exists: http://www.themarysue.com/male-internet-commenters-dont-see-sexism/ (linking just to this article for *that* authors comments.)

            If people are surprised that Science can and does verifiable peoples’ experiences of the world (such as thelaister’s here) those people need to learn what empiricism is. Its’ like the old saying that a thousand people believing doesn’t make it true, but neither does a thousand people believing it isn’t make them right. This isn’t even the only scientific study of this sort to suggest women aren’t given their due and equal place in society, despite any trappings of formal equality.

          3. So your opinion is that the opinion is invalid because thelaister is not a scientist and cannot use personal experience as a foundation for the reasoning?
            Are you a linguist? If not I reject your use of definition to disregard the point.
            If personal experience cannot be used, especially by a person who says they are not using scientific method, then we are all in big trouble.
            After all, it is personal experience, and not scientific evidence, that keeps me from sticking my hand in the fire.

  2. The co-op where I participate has a numerically larger presence of female artists, yet…when writers have held forth on the art in local papers, they have predominantly featured female artists. Still, the local university has a female artist student show, but no male artist student show. I’m not certain how one gets to parity– or gender neutrality (if that’s what is desired) –when the private institutions show gender preference. Can society “make up” or compensate for hundreds of years of masculine preference by advocating otherwise? I’m not certain it works.

    1. I guess

      the first question I would as is whether these institutions are looking to promote parity… or are they just trying to show the art of female artists because, quite frankly, without them doing so the mainstream art world has shown for centuries that it simply won’t bother showing or respecting their work at all.

  3. Excellent article. But the first sentence (Very recently I was told that a certain art magazine editor, who had deleted the feminist critique from a review I had written, “can only
    take so much feminism.”) stopped me short. Shouldn’t that editor, shouldn’t all those editors–and there are so many of them–be named? To what end are their identities being hidden, their behaviors being hidden?

    1. The editor may have done a good job.

      This essay is an example of why I distance myself from the “feminist” moniker, as do so many others. From the start, the author mistakes the editor’s distaste for “so much feminism” as a stance “against gender equality,” which is a false and insulting inference. Reality check, now.

      In a recent PEW survey, only 20% of Americans identified as “feminists,” but when asked if “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals,” 82% of Americans said yes, and only 9% said no. So, 62% of Americans *are* for gender equality and are *not* feminists. An author who doesn’t understand this needs an editor who does.

      So what is “feminism”? Sometimes, as we see here, it’s a lack of common sense.

      1. I think you are making assumptions about what the author’s “feminist critique” entailed. We don’t know; we don’t know the artist in question either, or how appropriate (or inappropriate) a feminist lens may have been in discussing the work. In any case, the editor might have simply said, “For this article, could you focus more on the artist’s formal concerns, that will bring more balance to the issue/appeal more to our readership?” Or, “Please explain the artist’s feminist concerns in a more accessible way.”

        It is the editor’s dismissive reaction that is telling — yes, feminism has a “brand problem.” Being a feminist means being for gender equality. It doesn’t require
        that you constantly irritate or alienate or inconvenience others with strident,
        jargon-laden, man-hating diatribes. But it does mean that you are aware of systemic inequalities that women (and others) face. As much as people may want gender equality, it isn’t going to happen without us actually confronting vital issues that feminism raises and renders visible in our daily lives.

        Let’s assume the editor in question is male, and married to a woman. Now, say his wife works outside the home, and they find out that she gets paid significantly less than her equally qualified male peers (as is still prevalent). Might this man want his wife be paid fairly, adding some thousands of dollars to their annual household income? Might he also start thinking about his daughter in this regard? Bam, there you have a feminist, if not in name. And perhaps
        someone less willing to instantly shut down conversations of this
        nature.

        Feminism isn’t a theoretical exercise, it is real life. That so many people dislike the word feminist means that, yes, it has an image problem — but also that the conversations it begs are all the more sorely needed.

        1. “Being a feminist means being for gender equality.”

          Yes, but being for gender equality does make one a feminist (see 62% of America). So long as “feminists” can’t let ordinary beliefs, such as men and women getting the same pay for the same work, be ordinary beliefs, but instead must be branded as “feminist” ideas, then “feminism” will always make lots of people’s eyes roll. It’s the precious self-regard that’s so wearisome.

          1. Oh goodness. Ever since the women’s movement started back up in the 1970’s (or actually, ever since the beginning
            of time), women have been slapped down for saying things that are considered “too extreme”, “man-hating” etc. How tiresome to have that still be a constant refrain. Reality check back at you. Read the stats, whether about the art world, the film world, or any other “world”, and then tell me that there isn’t good reason to speak as vigorously and critically as possible about the fact that men continue, for the most part, to guarantee that they hold the reins of power, money, respect and influence. It’s the oldest game in town: To tell women they shouldn’t speak for themselves, in the name of feminism, thereby, once again, dividing and conquering them.

          2. “To tell women they shouldn’t speak for themselves, in the name of feminism, thereby, once again, dividing and conquering them.”

            Guadalupe, are you a feminist?

            Yes? Then note I am not dividing and conquering “women” by taking issue with your comments.

            No? Me neither.

          3. I understand your point. But having ‘precious self-regard’ isn’t a requirement of feminism. For all the obnoxious, strident, overly self-important feminists you’ve encountered, isn’t it possible that there are many equally sincere but non-precious, self-respecting feminists?

            If the idea of equal pay were truly “ordinary”, then it would already be the case that men and women are paid equitably. But it isn’t, and it certainly wasn’t in the past. For societal change, you need advocates as well as the general tide of public opinion. I don’t think that the latter changes without at least some of the former (see the civil rights movement, disability rights, marriage equality, etc.). Without conversations about injustice, it is just the invisible but ever-present status quo.

          4. “…isn’t it possible that there are many equally sincere but non-precious, self-respecting feminists?”

            I don’t know anyone who calls themselves a feminist in casual conversation. My mother always made more money than my father when I was growing up, as she was taught by her mother never to rely on a man for her financial well-being. That probably fits the bill as “feminist” for lots of people and yet I’d never heard of feminism and when talking to my mother it was a subject she hardly thought about.

            I have a friend who teaches college courses on feminism and writes “feminist” scholarship. But these are highly contextualized uses of the term. If I met someone on the street who readily introduced themselves as a “feminist,” I would likely brace myself for a rhetorical tone and edgy disposition, but certainly not any introduction of ideas I don’t already know or likely share. I’d say this is a pretty common scenario for people.

            “If the idea of equal pay were truly “ordinary”, then it would already be the case that men and women are paid equitably.“

            The pay gap is subject far more complicated than those who debate it wish to admit. But no, just because people share the same moral intuitions does not mean that institutional structures or even tricky employer decisions just align themselves accordingly like magnets.

          5. Right, so people should study and understand (from a feminist perspective or otherwise!) the complexities of the pay gap — and other realities that don’t square with our common moral intuitions — so as to find ways to make reality conform at least a little bit more to our hopes for a fairer world. That’s in addition to individuals living by their notions of fairness as best they can. The changing status of gay people has been shaped by both individuals who love their lesbian Aunt Sally and activists who helped change the national conversation about gay rights. We need both — people living their insights about fairness AND those who examine institutional structures and forces from a political, academic, artistic, or activist standpoint.

            “I don’t know anyone who calls themselves a feminist in casual conversation.” Art criticism isn’t casual conversation. Also, I think this might be changing amongst young people who can be both proud of and casual about their feminist ideas and identification.

        2. More likely the editor was communicating that there’s only so much room for yet another redundant article about more feminist grievances. Sometimes people want to enjoy reading about art without all the social political pandering about what men aren’t doing this week or that week for women in this that and the other thing. Feminism is a damn killjoy, its insistence in turning every gesture, thought, expression and feeling past present and future into yet another gender conflict just murders any notion of enjoying art for enjoyments sake.

          And it sure doesn’t help that feminist frequently employ the moral blackmail and ethical extortion of equality to signify what anyone is against if they demur from allowing feminism to direct, control and impose upon all discourse and expression of well, everything.

          Feminism’s main problem is its absolutism, its entitled authoritarian belief that it and only it is the qualified practice of equality and social justice. Am equality it doesn’t practice with a range of its own sexist hypocrisy it refuses to acknowledge.

          The feminist writer seems more concerned about submitting just another version of the same blame white men stuff with the same indignant screeds about the faults and flaws of men in the art world, while lobbing in the usual indictments about misogyny and patriarchy straight out of the gender studies playbook. The editor was right to dismiss her.

        3. “she gets paid significantly less than her equally qualified male peers (as is still prevalent).”

          Provably verifiable myth. The gap is almost non-existant now, all considerations being taken.
          Except in government. Still a big gap there.
          But in the real world, no

  4. I appreciate this article and have experienced my own discomforts when creating the ‘hook’ for an exhibition or artist. There is a great deal of nuance within the truth and the sell of a story and it requires careful and conscientious handling to ensure it is shared responsibly.

    Great quote: “It takes decades to become an overnight success.”

    1. Yes! I see the same narrative applied to “undiscovered” male artists too. It can be facile, but it can be a good hook to lead viewers into a more in-depth exploration of why the work wasn’t well-known before, and what forces have now brought about their recognition!

  5. great article. it gives me a certain confidence to continue “working in obscurity” because i have a child and a wonderful teaching job.

  6. I don’t understand “artspeak”. I found the article difficult to follow. I wish I got the attention these women artists got. I don’t care if the author is whining about too little to late. most artists get NO attention

  7. Not to minimize the issue in any way, but really – Louise Bourgeois unrecognized? My handy Herbert Read’s Modern Sculpture– the Bible — ca 1964, shows her work Sleeping Figure dated 1950-59 as being at MOMA as of publication date. She may well have deserved even more recognition, but there are an awful lot of truly under-recognized artists out there- men and women– who would be happy with a fraction of that attention.

  8. Feminist is a thrilling word. Feminists believe correctly that everyone is a person. This is an interesting article, there is a great deal of fabulous work by women, perhaps because our point of view has been seen and heard much less often. This idea that we get “discovered” in old age or later seems true to me, Alice Neel comes to mind. Not always so easy to find an audience for some excellent work. For we artists it is not so easy to find our own point of view and put it in our work. I think of Maria Lassnig whose work developed so much after 1980. Please stop putting down feminists and calling us strident. Join us instead. The boys have war, they have the worlds of politics and art. Watch out here we come.

  9. Oh yes, I worked in an art gallery for ten years and almost all the people who I saw buy art were jewish women.

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