Essays

Miriam Schapiro’s Road to Feminism

Installation view, 'Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975' at Eric Firestone Loft (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975’ at Eric Firestone Loft, showing, from left to right, “Byzantium” (1967), “Thunderbird” (1970), “Side Ox” (1968), and “Flying Carpet” (1972) (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)

There is a particular thrill in catching an artist in one of those rare moments when they are radically altering the premise of their own work and walking out on a limb, before the direction’s meanings and effects have become codified within their own practice. The exhibition Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975 at Eric Firestone Loft offers a view into such a moment in the career of noted American artist Miriam Schapiro, in tandem with the concurrent survey, Miriam Schapiro, A Visionary, at the National Academy.

These two exhibitions mark the first opportunity to consider Schapiro’s work since her death in June 2015, after a long illness. Each one examines Schapiro’s desire to develop a feminist aesthetic that would enact her politics in visual language.

Schapiro, born in 1923, studied art at the State University of Iowa and, with her husband, the painter and educator Paul Brach, lived in New York City in the 1950s — a time when its art world dominated as the center of postwar modernism. Thus she was first schooled in the aesthetic standards of the male universal — then represented by Modernist formalism, in particular as it was espoused and delineated by critics such as Clement Greenberg — before she began to search for what might constitute a feminine/female/feminist aesthetic, whether such a thing might be, and, if so, how it might be different than the first system.

I approach these two exhibitions with the ironic realization that I was schooled in the same male universal aesthetic value system that Schapiro struggled with — both internally and due the external art world — as she sought a feminist practice; it is one of my critical considerations. She was my teacher in the Feminist Art Program at CalArts in 1971–72, so I also bring to these works the shared experience we had, since teachers and students were in it together, at the same moment trying to figure out what would constitute a female/feminist aesthetic.

Feminism proposed two alternative sets of criteria between 1970 and 1990: in the 1970s, the first — in whose development Schapiro participated — challenged the formalist canon for its exclusion of so much political narrative, and even formal content and materiality, and proposed alternatives that looked to craft, costume, folk art, surrealism, the real, lived experience, and the body; the second, developed by deconstructionist feminism during the 1980s, challenged the first for its essentialism and looked back to aspects of modernism other than those promoted by Greenberg, namely the fragmentary, the filmic, the appropriational, and the disruptive aesthetics of Brechtian distantiation.

Installation view, 'Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975' at Eric Firestone Loft, showing, from left to right, “Keyhole” (1971), “Mylar Series (Computer Series)” (1971) (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975’ at Eric Firestone Loft, with “Keyhole” (1971) at far left (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)

The exhibition at Eric Firestone Loft explores the boldest abstract paintings Schapiro created within the tenets of modernism and brings us to the moment when she opened the door to the feminist challenge.

A majority of the works in the show are hard-edge geometric abstractions, many of their forms and their relation to pictorial space arrived at with the help of early computer programming and projection techniques. The works fall into two categories of codification: those in which the hard-edge forms lend themselves to a retroactive feminist interpretation, and those that cannot be subsumed under a reductive feminist reading, however tempting it may be.

Among the first group are “Side Ox” (1968), a strongly graphic work representing an orange X that frames a central lozenge-like shape — which can be read as a vaginal slit in the surface of the otherwise very flat silver ground — and “Keyhole” (1971), a large pink and blue acrylic and spray-painted work in which a shape thrusts back from the painting surface, away from the viewer, like a spaceship flying into a gender storm: it is sexually ambiguous or dual (pink and blue), suggesting the symbol for both male and female, at the same time as being a technological Duchampian keyhole sexually coded as cunt or asshole. Any of these interpretations can be retrofitted to the feminist détournement of formalism that Schapiro espoused in the transitional moment when she became involved with feminist art: you can, if you are looking for it, read into the work the idea of “central core” imagery that was an important tenet of Schapiro’s new aesthetic and teaching in 1971–72, the first year of the Feminist Art Program. That Schapiro herself was unconscious of the gendered content when she did the painting is detailed in the wall text for a related, earlier painting, “Big Ox” (1967), exhibited at the National Academy:

The painting is a very strong image with a seemingly neutral subject—the letter O superimposed on the letter X. The O was actually a hexagon with a pink labial interior, whose geometry masked its sexual meaning. In painting this image I behaved unconsciously, like all women artists mentored by men.

Miriam Schapiro, "Big Ox" (1967), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 80 in (The Estate of Miriam Schapiro, courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery)
Miriam Schapiro, “Big Ox” (1967), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 80 in (The Estate of Miriam Schapiro, courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery)

Among the second group of abstract paintings at Firestone are works such as “Thunderbird” (1970), where a geometric cluster of blue lines, each about the width of standard masking tape, floats on a vibrant, flat red field. The painting has a strong Op art feel, given that the blue and red are brilliant and of the same value. “Mylar Series (Computer Series)” (1971) features another linear, very forceful architectural projection, asymmetrically positioned on a highly reflective silver Mylar surface.

The largest work in the exhibition, “Byzantium” (1967), is a vertically oriented painting of geometric shapes in bright acrylic colors on a purple ground. Neither the forms nor the colors would seem to have gendered connotations such as those suggested by the Ox series or “Keyhole.” Sitting in front of this impressive, large painting, I wondered about the implications of it as the path not taken. Schapiro’s hard-edge abstractions from this period are mature, confident works with great graphic impact, and it must be emphasized that the later works for which she’s best known, where paint is replaced by or interacts with collaged textiles, are still highly geometric in their underlying structure; it is the inclusion of textile, with its gendered connotations, that marks them as a break from her formalist past. But the strengths of these purely abstract works from the late 1960s pose the question of which was Schapiro’s true voice or style — or, rather, thinking of inclusion in art history, which was an extremely important aspect of Schapiro’s desire for women artists, which of the two major voices/styles of her mature work is the one that marked her for such inclusion?

These abstract works from the late ’60s are strong, forceful, handsome, bold. In the white, open loft setting of the gallery, the show looks contemporary and modern, even “mod,” which may well be a value when trying to raise the image of a historical artist for a new generation. But there is, at least at first sight, something disconcerting about this selection, because it introduces a troubling thought: was “femmage” — the term that Schapiro, along with artist Melissa Meyer, coined to describe the genre of inserting the feminine into collage — a mistake for Schapiro? Was she a stronger artist when she worked in the male universal, objective, modernist, formalist vein — which, say what you will about it, provides art with armor, whereas the feminist mode strips away that armor and leaves the work more contingent upon interpretation and aesthetically more vulnerable?

Installation view, 'Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975' at Eric Firestone Loft, with "Thunderbird" (1970) at right (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975’ at Eric Firestone Loft, with “Thunderbird” (1970) at right (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)

“Side Ox,” “Byzantium,” and “Thunderbird,” among Schapiro’s other works from this period, bear similarities to Al Held’s paintings from the same time, a resemblance that can be tested at the moment by the concurrence of an exhibition of Held’s black-and-white paintings at Cheim and Read. This comparison has a strong historical basis, since Held and Schapiro were both represented by Emmerich Gallery in the 1960s and early ’70s. Held’s Alphabet paintings from the early 1960s — large, flatly painted hard-edge abstractions based on letter forms — preceded Schapiro’s Ox series by a few years, and his black-and-white series are from 1967–69. The projecting cuboid forms in Schapiro’s “Thunderbird” and Held’s “Phoenicia VII” (1969) are very similar, yet there are some significant differences between the two artists’ approach to abstract painting. Perhaps most significantly, Schapiro’s compositions are not allover abstractions, and that not alloverness — the fact that each presents a figure on a ground — is the one element that could be interpreted as a subtle critique of the Greenbergian imperative to deemphasize figure and privilege the totality and immediacy of ground.

There are factual and, to some extent, qualitative differences as well: Held’s works are imposingly large and contain many variations on one theme, a combination that’s optically but also haptically impressive. Even his flattest abstractions possess a gravitas of the paint surface and a sheer weight as objects. Schapiro’s approach was, in a sense, much more conceptual, which may have been a signal of the role that political ideology would come to have in her work. Moreover, if one considers the alternate history of Schapiro’s having continued to work in this vein of geometric abstraction, given the typical narratives of the time, her career would likely have plateaued in relation to a colleague like Held, in part because he was a male artist, with all the privileges that brought, and in part because he was, in that mode, perhaps a stronger artist: as impressive as “Byzantium” is, it can’t compete with the impact of Held’s paintings as paintings, their literal physicality — the extra thick stretchers and larger size and the paint handling, which manages to be worked even when flat — and their composition, which bends vision into sci-fi space but also retains the power of the overall ground.

This is not to diminish the importance of Schapiro’s work from this period, but rather to place her in the competitive field of a particular moment in history, and also in the art world culture in which she operated and established a strong and successful presence. It’s also important to note that Schapiro was able to move forward in her work in increasingly innovative ways partly because she had left the marked space of the New York art world and reinvented herself in what was, for her, the unmarked art world of Southern California. Situating her abstract works from the late ’60s historically also emphasizes the context for what came next, when, nearing the age of 50, somewhere between being an “established” and a “veteran” artist, she risked everything by taking off the armor of modernism and assuming the contingent mantle of femininity. She wouldn’t have become Miriam Schapiro if she had not (in Yogi Berra’s words), upon encountering a fork in the road, taken it.

That road was feminism, a movement of liberation that Schapiro embraced with total commitment and political energy. A major educator and proselytizer for it, she began to explore her own solutions to the question of a feminist aesthetic practice. Three major paintings in which Schapiro took her first steps towards putting into effect what she had been teaching and lecturing about that first year at CalArts — “Eurydice,” “Flying Carpet” (both 1972), and “Voyage” (1973) — are the highlight of the exhibition at Firestone, and important new exemplars of her work.

Miriam Schapiro, "Eurydice" (1972), acrylic and collage, 60 x 50 in (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)
Miriam Schapiro, “Eurydice” (1972), acrylic and collage, 60 x 50 in (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)

All three works look remarkably fresh, open, confident, and also experimental. In each one, Schapiro interferes with, interrupts, and disrupts the formalist structure by collaging and spray-painting decorative elements, typical of what would become her femmage or pattern and decoration works of the 1970s and early ’80s. “Eurydice” has a central core organization, but the composition is loose and dynamic — there’s tremendous synergy between the collaged borders and the unusually fluid painterly area, which is dripping and thin to the point of being visceral and bloody, one of the best painterly moments I’ve seen in all of Schapiro’s work because it doesn’t seem “applied” or “executed” but truly exploratory. “Flying Carpet” is more tightly structured around a central core, which in this work is a partially viewed staircase. The collaged elements around this striped center have an orange tonality, and they feel loose and unprogrammatic, filled with moments of energetic surprise and less reliant on symmetry than many later works using the same techniques and elements. This collaged area has a crazy-quilt-like feel which recalls Sonia Delaunay’s bold little quilt made for her infant son in 1911. It was an early cubist work that Schapiro shared with her students, contrasting its bold formal energy and its improvisational use of collage materials with a clear feminine source with Robert Delaunay’s more etiolated and academic paintings of the same period.

Miriam Schapiro, "Voyage" (1973), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 in
Miriam Schapiro, “Voyage” (1973), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 in (image courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery)

Perhaps the most surprising work of this trio and the one that looks the most disconcertingly new — as if painted by a young zombie formalist feminist artist — is “Voyage,” in which appliquéd bits of textile melt into the surface while other textile patterns appear as silhouettes, not literally collaged on but, rather, spray-painted. Pictorially, it is one of the most open of Schapiro’s works, the least confined by geometry. The image shows lace curtains blowing gently at an open window; pink and yellow flowers and a drippy haze create a breezeway between interior and exterior. It is one of the most joyful and carefree paintings I have ever seen by Schapiro; its very contemporary brightness and youthfulness are both values in trying to raise the image of a historical artist for a new generation.

It’s fascinating to think of Schapiro, inspired by the discourse she was helping to create, doing these pieces when she was able to return to her studio after the intense period of working with the feminist program on the Womanhouse project in the fall of 1971 and early winter of 1972, but before she had a name for this work, before “femmage” and “pattern and decoration” became movements and personal brands, with their declarative power but sometimes restrictive effect on art practice. 

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Miriam Schapiro, “Façade” (1959), oil on canvas, 69 x 95 in (The Estate of Miriam Schapiro, courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery) (click to enlarge)

The National Academy exhibition, curated by Maura Reilly, presents a modest survey of Schapiro’s work from the mid-1950s to the early ’90s. Notably, “Big Ox,” the large and frequently reproduced work from this series, is the first painting one sees upon entering the museum, introducing and announcing the exhibition. It’s also the last, the one you gaze at as you put on your coat to leave the building, thus framing the survey at the moment when feminism as form begins its shift from latent to overt in Schapiro’s work.

On the first floor one is introduced to large paintings from the 1950s, ably done in the style of the time, a kind of calligraphic abstraction stemming from Abstract Expressionism’s links to Surrealist traditions of automatic drawing and Hoffmanesque approaches to abstraction from the figure. These are impressively adept paintings with a confident sense of scale, but they do not have a distinctive character compared to contemporary works by artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, or Joan Mitchell, to reference only the most noted women abstract painters of Schapiro’s generation. This is not to discredit Schapiro: it was as customary in that period for an artist to display virtuosity in the visual language of the New York School as it was for any European artist in the 19th century to go to Rome to polish their articulation of classical form. And it’s important for young artists to know that artists don’t always find their true voice or style until after they show ability to work in the mainstream style of the day.

Miriam Schapiro's "Peridot Pinwheel" installed at the National Academy Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Miriam Schapiro’s “Peridot Pinwheel” (1979) installed at the National Academy Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The primary part of the exhibition, upstairs, displays a variety of work from different periods, including a number of significant hard-edge abstractions and works that include collage of patterned textiles. There are some resonant moments in the installation, particularly when the work and the setting play into each other’s beauty, as in the case of “Peridot Pinwheel” (1979), a square, blue and pink–themed textile applique painting that references 19th-century needlework and is placed above a marble mantelpiece in a wood-paneled salon. Other times, the intimate and ornate Beaux-Arts setting conflicts with the works, deemphasizing their modernist character and restricting their space to breathe — quite the opposite effect of Firestone’s large and open white space, which hews much closer to the whitewashed loft studios of the period as well as spaces for art today.

An alcove contains one of the most compelling works in the show: the “Dollhouse” that Schapiro created with Sherry Brody for Womanhouse in 1972. It is unique in Schapiro’s oeuvre and highly significant, a Rosetta Stone for her work at this crucial turning point. The sculpture demonstrates a combination of delicacy, decoration, pleasure, and artistic ambition, as well as a revealing degree of ambivalence about traditional female roles — the very ones that, paradoxically, Schapiro was proposing as a vital new source of inspiration for high art! In the piece, the kitchen is empty; in the nursery, a monster fills the cradle and a giant black spider climbs over an open egg shape; and in the studio, the artist’s husband, naked except for his cowboy boots, models for an abstract painting that’s a miniature of “Silver Windows” (1967), a grid-based work from the hard-edge period (that’s also included in the show). The “Dollhouse” stands out as a uniquely autobiographical piece, in which Schapiro represents her view of women’s role in society — at a major transformational moment in the life of American women and in her own — through the invaluable language of play. It is a magical and endlessly enjoyable work: visitors to the National Academy crowd around it, poring over every detail. It alone makes a trip to the exhibition necessary.

Miriam Schapiro, "Dollhouse" (1972) (click to enlarge)
Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody, “Dollhouse” (1972) (click to enlarge)

Miriam Schapiro, A Visionary and Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975 point to the need for more exhibitions of Schapiro’s work, including a more comprehensive retrospective that would give full due to the geometric hard-edge abstract paintings from her first truly mature period, and to those works from the mid to late ’70s that combine the compositional clarity and rigor of those abstract paintings with the feminine materials and feminist world of craft. The latter are the most ambitious in their hybridity of masculine formalism and feminine connotation and contingency — works such as “Anatomy of a Kimono” (1976), a massive multipaneled piece in the collection of Bruno Bischofberger, and “Wonderland” (1983), a large work in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and one of the finest and most poignant of Schapiro’s homages to domesticity and traditional needlework crafts.

Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967–1975 continues at Eric Firestone Loft (4 Great Jones Street, Noho, Manhattan) through March 20. Miriam Schapiro, A Visionary continues at the National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 8. As part of the exhibition, Mira Schor will appear on the panel “Remembering Womanhouse” at the National Academy on March 23, 6:30pm.

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