Books

How Women Helped Revolutionize the Art of Printmaking

A new book examines the collective Atelier 17, whose members redefined beliefs about gender identity and artistic achievement in the 1940s and ’50s.

Martin Harris, “Fannie Engraves a Copper Plate” (ca. 1947), gelatin silver print, 9 15/16 × 8 13/16 inches (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Robert Flynn Johnson, courtesy estate of Martin Harris)

The artist Boris Margo once confronted Louise Nevelson about the messiness of her printmaking. “You leave so much black on the plate; you can wipe it cleaner.” “I don’t want it clean,” she retorted. At the innovative print collective Atelier 17, women “got dirty” in ways that resisted gender norms. Home and hearth were the midcentury feminine ideal, so being an artist was challenge enough. Add to that assumptions about women as weak — surely they couldn’t operate a heavy printing press or use “manly” tools like the burin in copper plate engraving. But at Atelier 17, women displayed more than mastery. They helped revolutionize printmaking, and along the way redefined beliefs about gender identity and artistic achievement in the 1940s and ’50s.

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Christina Weyl, an independent scholar, has created a highly readable book, titled The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York (Yale University Press), about this period in history with magnificent color reproductions. Though Atelier 17 has gained attention for its breakthroughs in printmaking technique, Weyl expands our view to the social and cultural factors that shaped women’s experiences. Her work sheds new light on their contributions to printmaking and, more broadly, to 20th century art.

Eight artists are central to Weyl’s discussion: Louise Bourgeois, Minna Citron, Worden Day, Dorothy Dehner, Sue Fuller, Alice Trumbull Mason, Louise Nevelson, and Anne Ryan. She threads their stories through five chapters that move from the physical spaces of printmaking outward to the social networks women created to market their work. For the book, Weyl probed letters, daybooks, and diaries to uncover information about the roughly 90 women who worked in the studio.

British expatriate Stanley William Hayter founded Atelier 17 in Paris in 1927/28. At the outbreak of World War II, he fled France for New York. For the next 16 years, the studio was based first at the New School for Social Research, then at two other sites in Greenwich Village. From the beginning, Hayter welcomed novice as well as established artists. He also valued women’s contributions. Their roles in the Atelier have been ignored, some critics argue, because Hayter was sexist. Weyl refutes these charges. He was short-tempered and demanding but not, in her view, anti-woman.

Sue Fuller, proof for “Hen” (1945), soft ground etching and engraving, plate: 14 15/16 × 11 11/16 inches, Susan Teller Gallery, New York (courtesy the Estate of Sue Fuller and the Susan Teller Gallery, New York)

While they flourished inside the studio, women in postwar America still faced “real life” outside, where their value rested on motherhood and the home. Critics, even when praising women’s prints, often resorted to kitchen metaphors. A positive 1951 New York Times review of Minna Citron’s soft ground etching “Way Through the Woods” nonetheless compared it to being “carved by gingerbread.” Women artists sometimes reinforced the influence, both real and metaphoric, of the kitchen. Nevelson, famously resistant to domestic life, nonetheless repurposed a can opener to gauge metal plates. Another Atelier artist, Ruth Leaf, wrote a printmaking manual that described one aspect of the process as akin to doing laundry.

Weyl carefully examines the divergent critical responses to men’s and women’s work. In 1943, Hayter and Anne Ryan exhibited prints created through an almost identical technical process. Critics praised Hayter’s “control of sinuous swirling line,” while Ryan’s “delicate etchings” were seen as less assured, “sensitive and essentially feminine.” Sue Fuller’s introduction of lace, string, and other textiles to soft ground etching was a creative move that prefigured Miriam Schapiro and “femmage” of the 1960s and ’70s. Though the innovation was Fuller’s, one critic claimed the technique clearly showed the influence of “the master” Hayter.

Anne Ryan, “XXXIV” (1949), woodcut, sheet: 19 × 24 3/4 inches (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn. Anonymous Purchase Fund, courtesy the Estate of Anne Ryan and the Susan Teller Gallery, New York)

Printmakers had long fought the dominant view of their work as merely technical and craft-based. But women faced an added layer of bias since craft was seen as a “feminine” domain. Printmaking was also associated with mass production and the black-and-white images of 1930s social realism and leftist causes. So even when printmakers began to embrace the vibrant color, spontaneity, and scale that dominated Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s, art world figures like Clement Greenberg held on to their critical preconceptions.

Worden Day, among others, created prints that echoed the spiritual and philosophical concerns that “permeated the New York School’s smoke-filled hangouts” where Greenberg and other critics held court. Her large-scale woodcut “The Burning Bush” follows her spiritual journey from a Southern childhood listening to Evangelical preachers though her pursuit of Buddhism and Christian Science, finally landing in Catholicism. Yet Greenberg’s 1948 review of her first solo show characterized her originality as “narrow,” claiming that “despite the mystical pretentions announced by the titles,” her work “does not say enough yet to be important.”

Worden Day, “Marginal Peripheries” (1952), woodcut, image: 23 1/2 × 28 1/8 inches; sheet: 24 × 28 5/16 inches (Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, courtesy estate of Worden Day)

The women of Atelier 17 were not a monolithic group. Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois were reluctant to embrace feminism, though Nevelson once famously proclaimed, “I am a woman’s liberation.” Some, like Sue Fuller, were outspoken about their struggles. “I never accepted the fact I was a woman and therefore I could not do anything … I was an artist and I was interested. So dammit, I was finding out. And I didn’t care what anybody had to say about it.” Others created studios and taught a younger generation of women printmakers. Weyl argues that many women were “proto-feminist” in their mutual aid as well as their sometimes overt, sometimes subtle rebellion against entrenched sexism in the art world and larger society. Their impact on the Atelier and on the art world has endured.

Never completely at home in the US, Hayter returned to Paris in 1950. He reopened a studio there, which thrived until his death in 1988. Financial problems finally closed the New York site in 1955. But Atelier 17 had already transformed the printmaking landscape in the US. Women’s contributions to that process come to life in this wide-ranging and thoughtful book. Reading their stories expands art history’s frame, uncovering a hidden path to the feminist art of the 1960s and ’70s.

The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York by Christina Weyl is out from Yale University Press and is available from your local indie bookstore. 

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