A number of long-overdue exhibitions have recently celebrated the achievements of overlooked women artists. What’s driving this wave of rediscoveries?
Early on a mild Sunday evening in the middle of January, the American artist Anna Plesset’s first New York solo show opened at Untitled. Inside the glass-fronted gallery on Orchard Street, Plesset installed a selection of works, including pencil drawings, paintings on rectangular chunks of plasterboard, a self-portrait the size of a thumbtack, book-like stacks of plywood sculptures, and scattered clay objects that looked like the fragments of a broken ceramic jug. Experienced slowly and in sequence, these pieces pulled viewers through the artist’s carefully paced evocations of time, space, illusion, translation and the tangled knot of a long-lost art-historical thread.
The show, titled ‘A Still Life’, stemmed from a residency Plesset did two summers ago in Giverny, a village in northern France made famous by Claude Monet, who lived, worked and tended to his ponds and gardens there. Plesset’s fellowship, supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, had its roots in an earlier colony of Impressionist-loving painters, who were drawn to the light of Monet’s landscapes like pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Soon after arriving, however, Plesset discovered something different. Her studio had once belonged to an enigmatic and anomalous figure, an American woman who had taken her place among a painterly movement consisting primarily of French men. So began two years of work in which Plesset choreographed a delicate dance between herself and the forgotten painter, Lilla Cabot Perry.
Using the sparest of means, expending hours of labour, and turning trompe l’oeil into a rarefied conceptual act, Plesset’s project took the restaging of Perry’s studio as an occasion to consider how power and gender politics have served to both shape and deform the transmission of art history. On the face of it, her exhibition traced a quiet tableau: how the light fell across the walls in Giverny, how reading materials piled up through the summer months, and how research became the intellectual triggers and visual cues of future work. But embedded in her studies were more agitating questions about how the ambitions of art-making, curatorial practice and academic methodology combine to create narratives of encounter and erasure, rediscovery and revival.
Although she is not well known today, Perry was quite successful in her lifetime. In many ways, she was an important precursor to her better-known colleague, Mary Cassatt. She came from a notable Boston family and rose to prominence on the strength of her society portraits. From there, Perry travelled the world. She apprenticed herself to painters in Germany and France. She toured the museums of Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. She lived in Japan. The time she spent with Monet in Giverny transformed her work, and she was responsible, in part, for introducing Impressionism to America.
Perry was still painting well into her 70s, but after she died in 1933, aged 85, her legacy all but disappeared and her name dropped out of circulation in the standard texts. She’s barely a footnote in a book about Monet’s years at Giverny. Walking through Plesset’s exhibition, however, one couldn’t help but wonder if the rediscovered painter was, in fact, a fiction or a feint, an art work in and of herself. Because the thing is, Plesset’s work isn’t really about Perry. It isn’t a restitution effort or an attempt to restore a name. Rather, it’s an attempt to capture the fullness and complexity of an artist asserting herself in the world through her work. It is about presence more than absence, and about making the present visible above and beyond the past. It is about grappling with the strange temporal simultaneity of being a contemporary artist enamoured with history but burdened by it all the same. It is about the seductions and limitations of research, where the traces of past experiences can be gathered into stories, which in turn can be learned and told but never relived.
As it happened, Plesset’s exhibition was also symptomatic of a broader trend, coming as it did midway through the year-long stretch between Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s documenta(13) and Massimiliano Gioni’s 55th Venice Biennale. Among its several hundred participants, the former featured the octogenarian painter, novelist and playwright Etel Adnan; the wild Alexandrian artist Anna Boghiguian, whose most meaningful work is in dialogue with the poet C.P. Cavafy; and Charlotte Salomon, who made one major body of work in her lifetime before she was put to death at Auschwitz in 1943. In Venice, the Golden Lions for lifetime achievement were awarded to Marisa Merz – the 82-year-old Italian sculptor said to have been the only women ever officially embraced by the boys club that was Arte Povera – and Maria Lassnig, the 93-year-old Austrian painter of shockingly emotive, deeply vulnerable self-portraits.
Around the same time, the first major museum show – and also the first proper retrospective – of the work of 76-year-old Zarina Hashmi opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the second stop in a three-city tour that began in Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum and ended at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Although she has lived in New York for 30 years, Hashmi remains known as an artist from India.) The Moderna Museet in Stockholm unveiled an incredible exhibition of work by Hilma af Klint, the Swedish visionary who may have beaten Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich in the break from figuration to abstraction. London’s Tate Modern introduced an unsuspecting audience to the uncommonly consistent and wholly intact oeuvre of 97-year-old Saloua Raouda Choucair, a pioneer of abstract paintings and sculptures from Lebanon. Virtually unknown outside of her country, Choucair has spent the best part of the last seven decades creating a visual language from the terms of Modernism, Sufism and Islamic art, working in near-total isolation.
After disappearing for decades, the 84-year-old Yayoi Kusama is back and everywhere, as is her autobiography, Infinity Net, which was published a decade ago in Japan but only translated into English last year. Insightful vis-à-vis her mental health, her affair with Joseph Cornell, her rivalry with Andy Warhol and her friendship with the famously unfriendly Georgia O’Keeffe, it is indeed a strange and riveting read. Sturtevant’s summer show at the Serpentine Gallery was her first major exhibition at an arts institution in the UK. She hasn’t had a museum show in her native us for 40 years, but that’s set to change next year with a solid retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In November, Semiotext(e) will publish her first substantial monograph, titled Under the Sign of [sic] and penned by Bruce Hainley. Sturtevant is 83, but among the tight circles of artists, curators and critics who adore her, she’s been a legend forever. The curator Bill Arning once said that, alongside Kusama and Lee Lozano, Sturtevant was one of the three great ‘rumours artists’ of the international art world, figures known only by a handful of colleagues, protégés and historians.1
With the possible exception of Lozano, who is probably the most exceptional of them all, these rumour artists have become very real, substantiated by exhibitions and books alongside media hype and market buzz. What brings the work of these women to the world’s attention? It would be wonderful, probably foolish and perhaps even misguided, to assume that it’s driven by a feminist agenda, with an army of magnanimous activists toiling behind the scenes to correct decades and centuries of men dominating the histories of art. It would be equally wrong to imagine that the gender of artists is no longer relevant, that it doesn’t matter and belongs, as Sturtevant has remarked, to the vestiges of ‘medieval thinking’.2 Clearly, male chauvinism persists. The reasons why women have been overlooked as artists are fairly easy to identity. More difficult, however, are the remedies to address the resulting omissions.
‘If there are artists who were not allowed to show, who were not allowed to teach, who were overlooked and ignored, then how can you trace their influence?’ asks Jessica Morgan, the Tate Modern curator who discovered the work of Choucair during a research trip to Beirut. ‘If other artists never saw their work, because they couldn’t have seen their work, then you don’t have that trail of evidence and influence. This means we have to re-evaluate how we evaluate artists, because there isn’t the same critical context in which to place them.’3
More difficult still are the industries of interest at play. When artists are discovered at the margins of the conventional art histories of Modernism and abstraction in Europe and the us, when they are active in unexpected places – an American woman among Impressionists in France, or middle-class modern women in the Middle East, South Asia and Latin American – there is often an element of the exotic that complicates the resurgence of interest in their work. The drive to open up emerging markets in the developing world has made the process even murkier.
‘The market has been particularly aggressive in the Middle East, and whenever you have women from the region, people imagine their work in relation to women’s rights,’ says the art historian Media Farzin, who, among other things, has written a number of scholarly essays on the geometric cut-glass mosaics of the 89-year-old Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, another artist who has been discovered and embraced by the art world late in life. ‘It’s very sexy to think about women’s rights,’ says Farzin. ‘But it’s a complicated question when activism turns into marketing, not only in art but also in the broader sense. As a historian, I want art to be innovative and relevant, but I don’t need it to be marketable or accessible.’4
‘The market moved in very fast,’ says Morgan. ‘Now everyone is very excited about these old forgotten figures. But there’s a danger, especially in the Middle East, where there isn’t enough critical writing and contextual understanding. If our first introduction to an older artist comes through the market, in the flash of an art fair with a hefty price tag, and not in an exhibition that comes with a catalogue and is surrounded by discursive support’, she explains, ‘then we may never come to know anything of substance about that artist’s work.’ However galling, the work of art history would never be done because no one would ever need it, demand it, push for it, or (most crucially) support it.
On the level of documentation, the dealer Andrée Sfeir-Semler agrees. She represents Adnan through her galleries in Beirut and Hamburg, and she laments the fact that there’s little to no record of who bought the artist’s paintings, drawings and accordion-folded books (or leporellos) in decades past. This makes a comprehensive retrospective of Adnan’s work nearly impossible because the potential lenders, like the possible works, are virtually unknown.
‘You cannot be your own lawyer,’ says Sfeir-Semler. ‘You need someone to fight for you. Louise Bourgeois had her first museum show at the age of 60. It’s not just women who are forgotten. Many men are forgotten, too. The hype for modern painters in the Arab world only started with the first auctions in Dubai. The prices for all of these artists, including the men, such as Hussein Madi, exploded that day. In the special case of Etel, she was recognized before. She painted a lot. She didn’t keep anything. She sold everything. For us, what that was is unknown.’5
By Hans Ulrich Obrist’s own estimation, Adnan is the artist whom the curator has interviewed the most, and he has interviewed a lot of them. Again and again, he has brought her writing and her painting to the attention of audiences who might not otherwise have found her. He has done the same for Sturtevant, Farmanfarmaian, Lassnig, Lygia Pape and many more. What draws him to them? In the first instance, the admiration of other artists. In his interviews, Obrist always asks his subjects to name their heroes and heroines. Very often, young artists answer the question by handpicking their own forebears and inserting themselves into a self-styled lineage. In effect, they feed him an ongoing list of rumour artists. Obrist then follows up and tracks them down. (Or, as on one occasion, he asks the curator Adriano Pedrosa, ‘Who is the Louise Bourgeois of Brazil?’ and turns up at Pape’s studio in Rio de Janeiro the same day.)
As for the industries of interest, Obrist reads three layers into the recent rediscoveries of so many women artists. First, he quotes the late historian Eric Hobsbawm, who spoke of his work and his field as a protest against forgetting. ‘This is what curatorial work can be,’ says Obrist. ‘There is an urgency to address the visibility of artists whose works, until recently, were not recognized. There is an urgency for exhibitions and an urgency for books.’ Second, he tells a story about meeting Rosemarie Trockel when he was a teenager. ‘She told me to preserve the intelligence in the art of the past. That was a trigger. She really urged me to do this. She said to me: “That’s your job.” To hear that at 18 really had a big impact.’ Third, he points out the obvious: the late work of these artists is extraordinary.6
In the last collection of essays he worked on before he died in 2003, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said considered how the work of certain artists and writers ‘acquired a new idiom’ toward the end of their lives. What Said came to call ‘late style’ was neither serene nor settled but was rather characterized by intransigence, difficulty and contradiction.7 Likewise, as Farzin points out, none of the women whose work has come to be known in their 70s, 80s and 90s are particularly interested in a classically feminine look. ‘The work is very unsentimental,’ she says. ‘Farmanfarmaian’s work is almost industrial. It’s not expressive of being a woman in the Middle East.’ As such, it thwarts expectations, and in doing so, poses a healthy challenge to the historians who may follow.
‘We forget that most people still learn about art through textbooks,’ says Farzin. ‘I would like to think that the books we write will be different, but I’m afraid identity politics are still going to matter. The figures who really need to be written into the history of art tend to be the figures who were out of their time and misunderstood. The really interesting artists are the ones you can’t extricate from their anonymity, because they are so single-minded, so intense. Don’t forget, Lee Lozano basically wrote herself out of the art world and out of art history.’8
When it comes to engaging directly with late style, rumour artists and the ambiguities of revival, the stakes are arguably both higher and lower for artists when compared to critics and curators. Plesset, for example, has the freedom to play fast and loose with art history, but she does so quite seriously. She also steadfastly refuses to divulge her own interests and attachments to the work of Perry, or to the material fuelling her subsequent body of work, which is built around a film shot by her grandfather during World War II.
‘It operates for me as found footage’, she says of the film. ‘Putting it out there makes it not about my family, and it’s really not about my family. How much focus do I want to put on Perry’s life? How much presence should these past figures have? I see my work beginning at the point of convergence between my work and the work of these figures. Conceptually, materially and formally, my work is looking forward and looking back.’9
Given that the subjects of Plesset’s art are essentially the trauma of war and the cruelty of history, she says: ‘I worry about taking on things that seem so much larger than me. But by locating myself through them, I come to own them. I don’t have a voice of critique with these things. It’s as if the labour, the contemplation and the sheer endurance of my work gives me the right to own them. I don’t want my work to garner strength solely from the subject, where the subject is stronger than the work.’ She pauses on a question about Perry, then offers the most telling answer about her relationship to the material. ‘It is essential to keep thinking about things from a feminist perspective. But until we can do something different, we’ll never be in a post-feminist place.’
1 Quoted in Andrew Russeth, ‘The Original: Doing the Elastic Tango with Sturtevant’, The New York Observer, 8 May 2012
2 Quoted in ‘Sturtevant, with Peter Halley’, Index Magazine, 2005
3 Author interview conducted by Skype between London and New York, 17 August
4 Author interview conducted by phone between Maine and London, 15 August
5 Author interview conducted by phone between Hamburg and New York, 16 August
6 Author interview conducted by phone between London and New York, 13–14 August
7 Edward Said, ‘Thoughts on Late Style’, London Review of Books, Vol. 26, No. 15, 5 August 2004, pp. 3–7
8 Author interview conducted by phone between Maine and London, 15 August
9 Author interview and studio visit, Brooklyn, 15 August
First published in Issue 158