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As the women’s march headed into its forth year this month and recent exhibitions like Abortion Is Normal seize the zeitgeist of our current political moment, a chorus of female voices seems to be setting a defiant note for 2020. A new podcast produced by the Getty gives us the chance to listen to six iconic female artists from the 20th century: Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Betye Saar, Helen Frankenthaler, Yoko Ono, and Eva Hesse. But as the episodes of the podcast, titled Recording Artists: Radical Women, progress, we quickly recognize a common thread of struggle in the stories of these artists.
Each of the artists featured in the podcast, hosted by the historian and curator Helen Molesworth, holds a significant yet disparate role in the history of contemporary art. Though the podcast struggles with the fact that many of these women are remembered in part because of the men they dated or married — a roster that includes Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell, Clement Greenberg, John Lennon, and Tom Doyle — the narrative of individual choice found in Radical Women contributes to its relatability today. Every feminist wave has been forced to confront the myriad of social restraints, requirements, and contradictions inherent in definitions of autonomy.
Even today, it remains extremely difficult for women to tell their own stories, and Radical Women is so compelling because much of its narrative comes from rare interviews with the artists themselves. For the podcast, Molesworth delved into the archives of the Getty Research Institute to highlight and curate a series of artist conversations recorded in the 1960s and ’70s with historians Cindy Nemser and Barbara Rose. These interviews reflect a time when art and the country itself were in a state of flux, caught between the new feminist wave and an art world too comfortable devaluing female artists. The podcast is part revelation for the remarkable insight it provides, and part affirmation, as these six women recount all too familiar experiences as female artists.
Alice Neel, with her curmudgeonly tone and self-effacing humor, kicks off the series by saying, “My mother used to say to me, I don’t know what you expect to do, you’re only a girl.” The oldest of the artists covered in the series, Neel was born at the turn of the century, and is celebrated today for her unapologetically honest portraits of friends, family, neighbors, and herself. Rebellious in the face of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, Neel was committed to her figurative work, painting feminist subjects while utterly rejecting the idea that feminism or sex had anything to do with her painting.
“I don’t think the quality of being a good teacher or good artist has anything to do with sex. I think it’s just objective. You either are or you aren’t,” she explains to Cindy Nemser in 1975. A common theme throughout the episodes is the hesitation these women felt at being described as “female artists.” Helen Frankenthaler also refuted the question of gender and the role it played in her work, mainly large-scale, colorful paintings made with her signature technique of pouring and staining. Writing to Nemser in 1970, Frankenthaler states, “I am concerned primarily with Painting and not Painting by Women.”
One of the more complicated and enlightening episodes seeks to reconcile Lee Krasner’s contributions as a first-wave Abstract Expressionist with her role as the wife and widow of Jackson Pollock. While understanding Krasner exclusively in her own right is admittedly very difficult in retrospect, the discussion around her artistic autonomy is undeniably relevant. “But if you remember, my whole background is one where I don’t have encouragement right from the beginning,” she tells Rose.
Yoko Ono struggles with a similar story as both an artist associated with Fluxus and the avant-garde, as well as the wife and widow of John Lennon. Twelve years old when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ono created “event scores” like Grapefruit and performance pieces that were deeply inspired by both feminism and her pacifist ideology. In “Cut Piece,” first staged in 1964, Ono invited audience members to cut and keep a piece of her best suit with a pair of scissors as she sat perfectly still onstage, referencing her memories of war and refugees as well as the complicated dynamics of power and gender. At the preview for her solo exhibition at MoMA in 2015, I remember Ono telling a room full of young art writers to “continue working even when it seems like no one will ever notice.”
At 93, Betye Saar has become an icon, with a recent exhibition at MoMA and an ongoing show at LACMA, and yet her episode begins with a confession. “It took a long time, even for me to say, ‘I am an artist,’” she tells Nemser in 1975. An overlooked figure in many art history textbooks, the episode focusing on Saar highlights the role of Black artists during the Civil Rights movement and the Los Angeles community they created during the 1970s. Working with found objects and assemblage, Saar collected items imbued with racist imagery and mixed them together with personal snapshots and mystical talismans to create charged readymades.
The final episode in the series focuses on Eva Hesse, whose exciting artistic career was cut short by a tragic brain tumor at the age of 34. The episode uses an interview she gave with Nemser in 1970 just a few months before her death. With her work on endless rotation in the Chelsea galleries today, this was perhaps my favorite episode, as it frames Hesse’s quiet, thoughtful musings against her bold, almost affronting sculptures. “All I wanted was to find my own scene,” Hesse tells Nemser, “my own world, my own inner peace or inner turmoil; but I wanted it to be mine.”
In her conclusion to the podcast series, Molesworth states that the “problem” with being a female artist is that it “both doesn’t matter and it means everything at the same time,” and that sentiment can be traced throughout the entire series. There is something unprecedented about hearing these women tell their own stories and something deeply saddening about the stories themselves. Perhaps, taking advice from the artists, the work they created and continue to create is a better way to understand the world as they experienced it, as it both personified and defied their era and expectations around their gender. As Eve Hesse states, “the way to beat discrimination in art is by art. Excellence has no sex.”
Recording Artists: Radical Women is available on the Getty website and other streaming services.