Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Qualifying Feminism: Empowerment and the Arts (Part IIIb) - (New photo added 2/19/2019) (New footnote and quotes added April 8. 2019)

The late, great sculptress Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) and her sculpture Fillette in
a 1982 portrait by the brilliant (and often-censored) photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
(Click-on post images for actual sizes.)

“'I am lucky to have been brought up by a mother who was a feminist and fortunate enough to have married a husband who was a feminist, and I have raised sons who are feminists,' Germaine Greer quoted her as saying in The Guardian, not long after Bourgeois’ death in 2010. The artist, famous for her mammoth sculptures of spiders, pointedly leaves herself out of the list, insinuating not a rejection of the -ism, necessarily, but perhaps a bit of condescension toward critics eager to associate her with the term, no matter her opinions.

Bourgeois does owe a lot to the feminist movement. Born in Paris in 1911, she spent many of her early years known merely as the wife of Robert Goldwater, the American art historian with whom she moved to New York in the late 1930s. Though she drew, painted, sculpted and printed throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, Bourgeois didn’t receive real art world attention until her 50s. She had to wait more than a few years before she moved from the periphery of art critics’ minds to somewhere closer to the center. During that time, the feminist movement was blooming."

- Excerpt from a December 25 (Bourgeois' birthday), 2017 Huffington Post article by Katherine Brooks entitled A Love Letter To Louise Bourgeois, A Feminist Icon Whether She Likes It Or Not. Inset right is one of Bourgeois' "mammoth spiders."

"O'Keeffe, whose comfort with her sexuality is evident in the nude photographs taken of her by her husband Alfred Stieglitz, was not comfortable with the way that the paintings were interpreted as erotic images. This may have more to do with the degrading ways that the paintings were discussed. Stieglitz marketed her flower paintings in sexual terms, including quotes from men who were influenced by Stieglitz's viewpoints. She asked her friend, Mabel Dodge Luhan, to write of her work from a feminine perspective to counter interpretations by men.

Judy Chicago gave O'Keeffe a prominent place in her The Dinner Party (1979) in recognition of what many prominent feminist artists considered groundbreaking introduction of sensual and feminist imagery in her works of art, seeing it as a sign of female empowerment."

- From the Wiki entry for Flower Paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe. Inset left is an O'Keeffe orchid found there. Inset right is an element from Judy Chicago's tribute to O'Keeffe: a dinner plate from her ground-breaking, 1979 feminist art installation, The Dinner Party.

"I thought you could write something about me that men can't – What I want written – I do not know – I have no definite idea of what it should be. – but a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living – might say something that a man can't – I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore – Men have done all they can do about it. Does that mean anything to you – or doesn't it?"

- American artist, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), from a 1925 letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan found in the Wiki entry (linked above). Inset left is a photograph of O'Keefe by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.

"Louise Nevelson has been a fundamental key in the feminist art movement. Credited with triggering the examination of femininity in art, Nevelson challenged the vision of what type of art women would be creating with her dark, monumental, masculine and totem-like artworks. Nevelson believed that art reflected the individual, not "masculine-feminine labels", and chose to take on her role as an artist, not specifically a female artist. Reviews of Nevelson's works in the 1940s wrote her off as just a woman artist. A reviewer of her 1941 exhibition at Nierendorf Gallery stated: "We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns." Another review was similar in its sexism: "Nevelson is a sculptor; she comes from Portland, Maine. You'll deny both these facts and you might even insist Nevelson is a man, when you see her Portraits in Paint, showing this month at the Nierendorf Gallery."

Even with her influence upon future generations of feminist artists, Nevelson's opinion of discrimination within the art world bordered on the belief that artists who were not gaining success based on gender suffered from a lack of confidence. When asked by Feminist Art Journal if she suffered from sexism within the art world, Nevelson replied "I am a woman's liberation."

- Sourced from the Wikiwand entry for Louise Nevelson. Inset right above is a portrait of Nevelson by Richard Avedon. Inset left is her 1985 piece, Mirror-Shadow VIII.

"The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem."

"Patriarchy both creates the rage in boys and then contains it for later use, making it a resource to exploit later on as boys become men. As a national product, this rage can be garnered to further imperialism, hatred and oppression of women and men globally. This rage is needed if boys are to become men willing to travel around the world to fight wars without ever demanding that other ways of solving conflict can be found.”

- A quote from feminist (and wise woman), bell hooks, (found here). Her photograph was sourced here. And, here's her blog (last updated September 29, 2016.)

(Update, April 8, 2019: I've just added a quote from a Vietnam vet that supports hooks' insight. It can be found in a footnote at the end of the post. I've also added another quote by hooks.)

The Newer Woman

Well, I guess the operative question is: what became of the New Woman? Did she simply morph into a Newer Woman?

No, not exactly. Two world wars got in the way. And, by the end of the second one, patriarchal society reasserted itself once again. The upshot is (in as few words as possible), after the disastrous effects of toxic-masculinity-in-action (i.e., war and genocide) depleted the world's population by millions (upon millions) of humans; the world's "little ladies" were obligated to return to the confines of the home, and dedicate their lives to what nature (and the state) intended: motherhood. In reality, the war machine needed new blood (literally) and more human fodder, the bloated corporate sector needed fresh regiments of gullible consumers, and the government needed its tax revenue which, in the form of new taxpayers (requiring new Social Security numbers) it was a patriotic citizen's "duty" to provide. Women were expected to push more and more babies out of their wombs (and purchase the latest soap-powder) while men were obliged to finance the whole deal (or die trying).*

Needless to say, the New Woman movement lost much of its momentum during the post-war years of the mid-1900s. But, then, in (almost) Karmic retaliation, the Baby Boomer generation was spawned. And, the Baby Boomers, in turn, beget the 60s... a time when pretty much all the best-laid plans of white mice and white men went straight to hell. Well, at least, for a decade or two. It was as if, suddenly, all the King's horses, vassals and concubines no longer gave a hoot about putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, but, instead, decided to make an omelet (with his remains) which all might share... regardless of race, religion, nationality, gene-pools or gender. And, it was from this mighty upheaval that second-wave feminism was born.

This is not to say that all females of artistic persuasion were driven underground during the post-war period. No, the feminist spirit was kept alive by a number of female artists who had been born later in the time-frame, at the very end of the 19th century. Many of these women also gravitated to Paris, and it is their artwork which illuminates this section.

First in line: the 1939 painting, Rhythm Colour no. 1076,  by Ukrainian-born French artist Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979)  - above, inset left - who co-founded Orphism (a form of cubism) with her more celebrated husband, French artist, Robert Delauney. Wiki tells us that "she was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964."

As it was, she was one of four female artists initially considered Cubists and one of three who survived the wars to witness the next wave of feminism in bloom. The one Cubist who tragically missed the new resurgence was Spanish artist María Blanchard (1881-1939), whose 1916 painting Composición cubista appears next (above, inset right). Above, inset left, is Composition cubiste by Polish painter Alice (or Alicja) Halicka (1894-1975), while (directly) inset right is a portrait of artist Diego Rivera by Russian-born (Cubist-turned-pointillist) Marie Bronislava Vorobyeva-Stebelska (1892-1984)... also known as Marevna. Of note: in 1919 Marevna gave birth to a daughter fathered by Rivera who, as we know, later married (Patron Saint) Frida Kahlo. More of Marevna's work can be found here.

Speaking of Patron Saints, there was another, German-American visionary and Transcendentalist artist, Agnes Pelton (1881–1961), who can be counted among the women who appear here. Her Patron Saint article is here. Her 1939 painting below, Sea Change, was sourced from a Whitney Museum of American art page. As it was, Pelton was one of two female artists asked to join the Transcendentalist Painting Goup, the other was Florence Miller Pierce (1918-2007). You can find her work here.

And, then, in the latter years of the 19th century, something marvelous occurred... and the 19th century dealt us one of its last cards: an American pioneer, an artist who, living for almost 100 years (1887-1986), would take us into the 20th century and beyond, finally setting the record straight for all female artists while inspiring countless others (myself included). That is, yes, women could be innovators in the art world, and yes, women could be masters at their craft, and, most definitely, women could contribute to the human footprint sans the obligatory "baby-bump." Her name was Georgia Totto O'Keeffe and she broke every rule in the book, besting the men at their own game without batting an eyelash. She is, in fact, Trans-D's missing Patron Saint #12... but, if I never get to her, know that I meant to. Of all her prolific work she is best known for her massive flower paintings (Inset left is Red Canna (1924); another painting is below the jump); organic marvels of which she said: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” 

The painting directly above is O'Keeffe's 1936 painting Jimson Weed. Meanwhile, Wiki (and O'Keeffe's website) inform us that O'Keefe's Jimson Weed/White Flower #1 was sold at a 2014 auction for almost 44 1/2 million USD. Not that O'Keeffe would've been all that impressed. In ways, she seemed to have the stubbornly individualistic spirit of an Outsider... to the degree that, had it not been for her relationship with Steiglitz, she may have chosen to remain relatively obscure. She had a mysterious, almost hermetic relationship with her art, and an intensely spiritual and monastic relationship with Ghost Ranch (inset right), part of her sanctuary in northern New Mexico, where she spent many of the latter years of her life. Yet, despite living well into the feminist's second-wave period she avoided the feminist tag... as she avoided close associations with any "tag." Which is not to say she had no sympathies with the feminist movement. In a 1944 letter to First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, she made a very elegant statement which resonates to this day: 

"Equal Rights and Responsibilities is a basic idea that would have very important psychological effects on women and men from the time they are born. It could very much change the girl child's idea of her place in the world.. .It seems to me very important to the idea of true democracy – to my country – and to the world eventually – that all men and women stand equal under the sky – I wish that you could be with us in this fight."
Inset left (above) is one of O'Keefe's 1937 pastels inspired by Ghost Ranch: Red Hills and White Flower, reminiscent of one of Alice Pelton's transcendentalist visions.  An inspirational page for artists featuring quotes by O'Keefe can be be found here.


The Rise of the African-American Women Artists

“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”

-  A quote from the members of the black feminist lesbian organization: the Combahee River Collective (1974-1980). The quote was found on this page.

"Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged."

- A quote from artist, Alma Thomas, 1970.


I love everything about the portrait of sculptress, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890–1960), in her studio (above). She's chic, intense, glamorous, and empowered... and she's both an African-American and Native American artist (like Edmonia Lewis in my previous post). It goes without saying, that if white women had to struggle for a piece of the pie in racist America, women of color had to fight both tooth and nail. The good news is that Prophet worked hard enough to send herself to Paris, where she studied art and lived throughout the 20's and 30's, encountering less prejudice than she would have in the States at the time and achieving a measure of success and recognition. The bad news is that she returned to the States where, despite her great skills as an artist and, eventually, a teacher, she found herself, in her latter years, taking domestic work just to survive. Inset right is her (1931) wooden sculpture Congolaise.

Alma Thomas (1891-1978) was known as a teacher for most of her life, remaining in her childhood home in Washington, D.C. till the time of her death. It was only after her retirement from teaching - in her late 50s - she devoted herself to art, creating her remarkable, mosaic-like "Color Field" paintings (allegedly) in her kitchen! Six years later she was exhibiting, and, at the age of 88 she had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art; she was the first African American woman to do so. She was also the first African-American woman to have her work hanging in the White House as part of its permanent collection. Inset left is Thomas's 1969 painting: Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses.
In spite of the physical abuse meted out by her father - a Methodist minister who attempted to beat the "sinful" art of her - Augusta Savage (1892-1962) spent her life both teaching art and making art. She was an equal rights activist and associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Reading her amazing Wiki entry, and following her through her trials and tribulations as she steadfastly gained artistic respect and recognition, it was a little disconcerting to find at the end: "she was all but forgotten at the time of her death" and "the location of much of her work is unknown." But, then, this is something we've come to expect when researching women artists. Regardless of their accomplishments, they - and their work - somehow mysteriously disappear. What did not disappear was this photo, inset right - of Savage at work.

Born at the very beginning of the 20th century, we have Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), a folk artist of the fantastic, and (in temperament) a playful outsider who devoted the last 30 years of her life to a body of work ranging from paintings to assemblages to sculpture. Happily, her artwork became very popular and continues to be a success. Below is her painting from 1981: Woman Scolding Her Companion. More of her work can be found here.


The Twentieth Century

Untitled painting by Dorothea Tanning.

And, then, a new crop of female artists began to enter the corporeal world. It was the time of the great Surrealists: British artist, Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Spanish artist, Remedios Varo (1908-1963), Argentinian artist, Leonor Fini (1907-1996) - who did not, in fact, consider herself a surrealist - American artists Dorthea Tanning (1910-2012) and Kay Sage (1898-1963), and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Four of these women are Patron Saints of this blog (see sidebar) where links, images and information can be found. The sculpture (inset right) is by Leonora Carrington and was sourced here. More of her sculptures can be found here; her paintings here.

Regarding Fini and Tanning, it is only in the past year that there's been an influx of new material about the artists made available on the internet. I had no such luck when I mentioned them in the 2012 Kay Sage post. Both were fascinating artists, however, and I've found good image sources for both. The Dorthea Tanning painting above was found here. She also has a website now. I've highlighted Leonor Fini in a separate section (coming up next)

Alegoría del invierno (Allegory of Winter), 1948, Remedios Varo


"A handy guide to living life the Leonor way..."

La Lecon de Botanique (The Botany Lesson)
 oil on canvas - 1974, Leonor Fini

“I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms things I like.”

"In 1942, Fini made artistic history by painting the first ever erotic nude portrait of a man made by a woman. She continued to depict males in an unconventional manner - soft, androgynous, powerless and beautiful. 'The man in my painting sleeps because he refuses the animus role of the social and constructed and has rejected the responsibility of working in society toward those ends,' Fini said in a 1982 interview. Simply put, Fini’s male subjects were in touch with their feminine sides."

- Two quotes from Leonor Fini via the Huffington Post article: How To Be A Surrealist Queen, According To Artist Leonor Fini.

Dans La Tour (In the Tower),
1952, Leonor Fini
"The provocative and much-publicized life of Leonor Fini was pure theater. Her story is that of a hard-won struggle to forge her life as a woman artist in a man’s world and to invent herself on her own terms. It is the story of a woman possessing exceptional independence, a highly original vision and great personal magnetism who lived passionately through her art and friendships and in the process became a feminist role model. As for her personal life, she is known for her unique design for living which was based on the practice of not parting company with ex-lovers but continuing to live with them even as new lovers moved in and took their place in her life. In spite of herself she thus gained a certain notoriety as being the originator and best known devotee of that modern practice which consists of a woman’s right to cultivate and nurture an in-house male harem."

- Text and Images (upper and inset left) sourced from this Weinstein Gallery page. The Weinstein Gallery was very instrumental in pulling Leonor Fini out of the obscurity she had fallen into after her death.


In my search for feminist artist's actual comments (and advice) regarding empowerment, I was thrilled to find the Huffington Post article (linked above) regarding artist Leonor Fini. But, then, the Post's co-founder - Greek-American, Arianna Huffington - is an excellent example of an empowered woman in action.

In the 2015 article, however, we find ten suggestions which are not so much in Fini's words (she died in 1996) but are based on elements of her lifestyle. While I don't suspect all feminist artists would choose to live life the "Leonor way," well, the following list will certainly resonate with some of us(!):
  • Play dress up, and not just as a child.
  • Find inspiration, wherever you may find it.
  • Follow your dreams. No, literally, follow them.
  • Choose your friends wisely.
  • Make men your muse.
  • Resist categorization... in art and in life.
  • Surround yourself with things you love. (And if those things are cats, do not hold back.) 
  • Make your home your sanctuary.
  • Ignore the haters.
  • Spread your skills far and wide.

Re: Cats... Leonor owned 13 Persian cats. In other words, she was one "cat lady" who effectively dispelled that particular stereotype. Re: male muses... although Fini's one experimental marriage was short-lived, she co-habited with 2 men from 1954 till the end of her life. As she advised:  “A woman should live with two men; one more a lover and the other more a friend.“ Fini's lithograph, La Beauté - inset right above - was found on her website (FR) (EN). Also, do not missMuseum of Sex Presents Leonor Fini's Theatre of Desire. Lastly, this webpage features a good sampling of Fini's lesser known work, up to and including her 1963 illustrations for Histoire d’O (The Story of O), and the gorgeous portrait of Fini (inset leftwearing one of her fabulous masks.


One last word about Dorothea Tanning: like Kay Sage and Leonora Carrington, she married a male artist whose celebrity (inadvertently) cancelled out her identity as an artist in her own right. What's worse is that it took merely one male artist - Max Ernst - to cancel out two female artists: Leonora Carrington was Ernst's first partner... Dorthea Tanning was his wife till the end of his life. Both Tanning and Carrington out-lived Ernst, of course; had they not - each producing an enormous body of work in his wake - it's unlikely you'd be reading about them here today.

Which brings us to two other "cancelled-out" Surrealists of note: French artists Dora Maar (Henriette Theodora Markovitch) (1907-1997) who just happened to be the mistress of Pablo Picasso - Inset right (above) is one of her photographic self-portraits - and Jacqueline Lamba (1910-1993), the second wife of André Breton (inset left). As it was, Breton's last wife, artist Elisa Bindhoff suffered the same obscuration. And, if that wasn't enough, Breton's daughter, Aube Elléouët, born in 1935, an artist who specializes in the photographic collage - an example is below - hasn't exactly thrived in his shadow either. Both she and her (possibly adoptive) daughter, Oona, however, have co-produced documentary films (in boxed sets) about a number of surrealists: André BretonJacqueline LambaMarcel Duchamp, (High Priestess) Leonora Carrington, and a Czech painter named Toyen. (Note: the links take you to the pages the videos are featured, which includes photos and information you may not have seen before.)

A 2005 collage/assemblage by Aube Elléouët (Breton) found here.

Toyen (Marie Čermínová) (1902 – 1980) began her artistic life as an Artificialist; Artificialism being a Surrealist movement she co-founded with her partner Jindřich Štyrský. She was considered a "poet and painter of the imaginary,"  and influenced by Hermeticism. Quoting Patrick Waldberg from her Wiki entry: "The element of vertigo in her paintings recalls what one may feel upon peering over the bushy cliff haunted by ravens along which Prague, city of her birth, is constructed, the low, mysterious houses of the Street of Alchemists." 

Also, according to Wiki, like many a New Woman who came before her, she was a cross-dresser. She was also a close friend to André Breton and, in the erotic tradition of Leonor Fini, she illustrated Justine by the Marquis de Sade. Inset right  (above) is her 1950 painting Knotting and Return to the Nest. More of her work can be found here.

As it often happens, while researching one artist, I end up with a total of three (apparently my operative number). So, along with Toyen I was introduced to Méret Oppenheim (1913-1985), who, in spite of her own body of Surrealist sculptural work was generally known (for the most part) as the model of photographer Man Ray. You know: that story. However, in the interests of herstory, I will direct you to this page, where both her work and her fabulous, empowering portrait (inset left) can be found.

Claude Cahun (1894-1954), on the other hand - pictured below - was so aggressively and progressively androgynous and ambiguous, she might have just stepped off the fashion runway today. Known especially for her photographic self-portraits (see here where the portrait below was sourced), in which she often appears with a shaved head, she - like many of the New Women born slightly earlier - felt lesbianism represented an alternative understanding of what it meant to be a woman. By the way, her partner and collaborator was her step-sister, Marcel Moore... who was also her lover.

Self portrait - Silver Gelatin - 1928, Claude Cahun.
"Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces."

I would also like to include one last Surrealist from this period: Syrian surrealist Amy Nimr (1907-1974) for which there is not, yet, a Wiki entry. I first found mention of her existence in an article about Egyptian Surrealists of the 1930's, specifically and the exhibit Art et Liberté.  Below is an excerpt from a bibliographical note (found here):

Girl in a Fishnet - 1928, Amy Nimr
"Amy Nimr, a painter and writer, studied Fine Arts in London during the late twenties where she was in close contact with the British surrealists. After marrying the British official Walter Smart, they went to Egypt where her work was embraced with enthusiasm. The couple was known for its hospitality and generosity – welcoming famous personalities as well as penniless artists. Meanwhile, Nimr was an important mediator between the surrealists in Europe and the Cairo art scene. After her son died in a tragic incident, she created her most surrealist and dark work that was exhibited to critical acclaim at the group shows of the surrealist collective Art et Liberté."

BTW, while all the Surrealists mentioned in the section (above) were born in (or very nearly in) the first decade of the 20th century, interestingly, a few of them survived till its last decade and into the 21st Century!

Frida (Kahlo) in New York,1946.
Photo credit: Nickolas Muray.


Second Wave Feminism - An Elemental Force

Cumul I - 1968, Louise Bourgeois.

"What is feminist art? It is art that reaches out and affirms and validates our experience and makes us feel good about ourselves. Feminist art teaches us that the basis of our culture is grounded in a pernicious fallacy - a fallacy which causes us to believe that alienation is the human condition and real human contact is unattainable. This fallacy has divided our feelings from our thoughts, this fallacy has caused the planet to be divided as are the sexes. Feminist art is art that leads us to a future where these opposites can be reconciled and ourselves and the world thereby made whole.

Feminist art is all the stages of a woman giving birth to herself."

- Excerpt from What is Feminist Art?, 1977, lithograph, 1977, Judy Chicago (inset left).

"The black woman is demanding a new set of female definitions and a recognition of herself as a citizen, companion and confidant, not a matriarchal villain or a step-stool baby-maker. Role integration advocates the complementary recognition of man and woman, not the competitive recognition of the same.

Role integration encourages a broader mental and emotional growth in black women and men as they share the responsibility of working towards liberation... Neither of them should have their potentiality for self-determination controlled and predetermined by the opposite sex. That is a type of slavery that will not deliver us as a people..."

- Excerpt from the introduction of the Black Woman's Manifesto, 1970, by Gayle Lynch, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Maxine Williams, Frances Beal and Linda La Rue.  The Manifesto was published by the Third World Women's Alliance (TWWA), a  radical feminist organization by and for women-of-color, which ran from the late 1960s till the 80's. Inset left was the original cover.

"Everything changed at 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, when the New York city police barged into the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall was operating without a liquor license at 51-53 Christopher Street in Manhattan. The N.Y. State Liquor Authority did not give out licenses to establishments that served gay patrons. Despite being paid off to ignore this indiscretion, the police officers entered with a warrant and started to arrest revelers inside the bar, but their squad cars did not arrive. The Stonewall Inn’s patrons were forced to wait outside the bar handcuffed, which drew a crowd.

One woman in handcuffs was hit over the head by an officer. She pleaded with the crowd to “do something.” They responded by throwing pennies and other objects at the police. As the crowd reached hundreds, a full-blown riot ensured. Ten police officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall. The crowd set fire to the barricade."

- Excerpt from a Stonewall Inn historical account found here. Inset left is a poster for a 1994 Stonewall themed musical - Stonewall: Night Variations -  written and directed by Tina Landau and produced by Annie Hamberger. The poster art was created by Joanna Jasinska and found on this Stonewall page. For other Stonewall Inn accounts try here and here.

"If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam.'"

- Martin Luther King Jr.,1967.


As it happened, second-wave feminism emerged from a similarly volatile political and cultural climate as the first feminine wave had. It was the latter half of the 20th century and New York was now a burgeoning cultural center, giving rise to artists like French-American sculptress Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) - shown at the beginning of this post, wielding a very large penis (sculpture) - Russian-American sculptress (and Patron Saint) Louise Nevelson (1899-1988),  African-American artist Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) - her 1984 painting, Initiation, Liberia is inset right - and Canadian-born, New Mexican artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004), and Alice Neel (1900-1984) (featured in a separate section).

Yet, none of these artists would reach their stride or leave their footprint in the art world till a necessary baptism-by-fire occurred, and this would be the legacy of the 1960s and early 1970s. This was a time when the proverbial "shit-house" - that is, the status quo envisioned by bigots, racists, misogynists, homophobes and the "powers that be" - went up in flames; whether it was the neighborhood of Watts, or the burning barricade at Stonewall Inn. Contrastingly, this was the time when there was a war in which, for the first time in human history, masses of young men refused to participate, and, of those who did, many would eventually condemn it.*** At the same time, culturally, the renaissance continued producing more art, more films, more music, more literature than anyone could have foreseen.

In that way, at least initially, it was a very feminine time. And, it was into this arena a young upstart from Chicago named Judith Cohen came along. Born in 1939, she was an artist in search of her own creative identity and legacy in a world which had yet to truly embrace woman artists nor, for that matter, acknowledge they had ever existed. And, if they had, no one seemed to remember; specifically art historians and museum curators. As it was, one of the first unusual things young Judith did was something no one had anticipated... she spray-painted automobile hoods! (Inset left is Flight Hood from 1965.)

The second unusual thing she did was to legally change her name to Judy Chicago... a process for which, at the time, she needed her husband's signature. The third unusual thing she did was develop and launch the first Feminist Art program (in the States) in Fresno, CA, 1971. In other words, if it were not for Judy Chicago who almost singlehandedly injected the concept of feminism into the overwhelmingly male-orientated art establishment, many of the woman artists appearing here would still be mired in obscurity and this blog post would not exist. Moreover, with her creation of the Dinner Party in which she paid tribute to many forgotten woman artists of the past, she informed future feminists of the importance of herstory... a necessary component of history which women must reclaim, repair, and restructure to reflect the underrepresented feminine side of the human record. Knowledge is power, identity is power. Knowing ones history and the true accomplishments of ones gender, however, is crucial to both. Inset right above is Chicago's Polished Steel Domes from 1968.

Two views of Mrs N's Palace, 1964-77, Louise Nevelson. It is installed at the
Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Which is not to say that all woman artists working at that time were moved to jump on the feminist bandwagon. Many older artists simply didn't want to be attached to any variety of label, such as Georgia O'Keefe, and Louise Nevelson. But, then, when Nevelson proclaimed "I am a woman's liberation," it wasn't just bravado; it was an undisputed fact. Everything about her work (and her life) demolished any and all "woman artist" stereotypes. Incidentally, Nevelson, too, succumbed to the charms of Diego Rivera. Well, at least the man had good taste in women!

I first found a photo of Louise Bourgeois's sculpture Cumul I  (above) in Judy Chicago's early memoir, Through The Flower: My Struggle as A Woman Artist, and I was riveted. I had never actually seen anything quite like it before but I immediately recognized it and it would inform my own artistic identity. It was perfect in its simplicity: spheres of various sizes nested in drapery. But, there was something both egg-like and, yet, slightly phallic in the eggs' mysterious emergences which resonated with me. It is this strange dichotomy which seems to be the underlying theme of much of Bourgeois's work.

Not that I actually saw much of her work till after her death, but, it is certainly very virtually available now... one of the best things about new technology! Her sculptures (inset right and left below) - variations of Nature Study 1984-94 -  are almost Ancient Egyptian-like idols to sexual ambiguity... that is, until we look closely at the posture of the pink version, which seems to bend under the weight of the creature's immense breasts.

Was Bourgeois unconsciously (or consciously) making a sly statement about a feminine stereotype: a headless torso, a baby-machine... mutilated and crippled by her obligatory role - and, in some countries, her state-sanctioned role - to breed and nurture regardless of her own needs, circumstances and reality? (Remember, abortion laws vary all over the world, and, even in the States, the Roe v. Wade judgement didn't occur till 1973).

Bourgeois, herself, was the mother of three sons, but she's more or less the exception to the rule when it comes to artists and children. Of all the women mentioned in this post, the majority did not breed. Needless to say, a number of them lived into their 90s. But, like Georgia O'Keefe - who remained childless - Bourgeois was pushing 100 when she passed, so, there's not (necessarily) a connection between breeding and longevity. (But, then again, Dorthea Tanning - childless - lived to 102... so, might there be?) In any case, you can find more of
Bourgeois's work here, here, and here.

Speaking of children, for painter Alice Neel (inset right) having and then losing two of her childen led to a breakdown for which she was institutionalized. But, it also lead to an epiphany: she began painting female nudes - especially pregnant women - which led her to her own unique vision and frank, no-frills expression of the human body. And, her subjects came from across the human spectrum, a vast sampling of her unique friends, eccentric acquaintances, and fellow New Yorkers. I've devoted a special section to her which follows.


Alice Neel, a Painter of Portraits

Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd
- oil on canvas - 1970, Alice Neel.

"Let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art which they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits, and miniatures... To women, above all, falls the practice of the graphic arts, those painstaking arts which correspond so well to the role of abnegation (self-denial) and devotion which the honest woman happily fills here on earth."

- Victorian art historian, Léon Legrange, in Gazette des beaux-arts, 1860 (found here). Inset left is Neel's portrait of her son Hartley (1966).

Frankly, I never realized that portraits were considered a "girlie" thing. But, in the interests of fighting sexism with sexism, my interpretation is that women, who have an intuitive grasp of character, simply have more interest and, therefore, more sensitivity to the psychological aspects of their subjects and are more proficient in portraying the subliminal codes inherent in human form.

"An early example of her portraits of gay couples, Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd portrays two regulars from Andy Warhol’s Factory. Jackie Curtis was an actor, playwright, and poet who appeared in Warhol’s films Flesh and Women in Revolt. Neel plays with expectations of gender through the figures’ postures and dress, which work against typical ideas of masculinity and femininity. The figure on the left is Ritta, not Jackie, as would be expected from the title. Neel appropriately remarked that when 'portraits are good art they reflect the culture, the time and many other things.'"

- An excerpt from a description of Neel's painting Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (above) sourced here. Neel was also known to call herself "a collector of souls." She was possibly one of the first artists to portray gay couples, transvestites, pregnant women and completely nude men in casual positions. The photo (inset right) is of John Curtis Holder, Jr. - aka Jackie Curtis - a Warhol Superstar. More about Jackie can be found on this Andy Warhol site page.

"Neel painted herself in her eightieth year of life, seated on a chair in her studio. She presented herself fully nude. She wore her glasses and held her paintbrush on right hand and an old cloth on the other hand... When Neel's unconventional self-portrait was showcased it attracted considerable attention. Neel painted herself in a truthful manner as she exposed her saggy breasts and belly for everyone to see. Yet again in her last painting, she challenged the social norms of what was acceptable to be depicted in art. Her self-portrait was one of her last works before she died."

- Excerpt from Wiki's Alice Neel entry (linked to in the paragraph previous to this section).

"Unlike Rembrandt’s weary personal testaments to the ravages of time, there’s no sense that Neel feels sorry for herself. What many might consider a ruin of a body is just realism at work, a fact like any other. Though painted in an age when finding something that might still épater le bourgeois was almost impossible, a naked old woman was pretty damned shocking.

'Frightful, isn’t it?' Neel cackled to critic Ted Castle. 'I love it. At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.'"

- Excerpt from the wonderful (2017) article: Alice Neel: How to Persevere and Live the Artist's Life by Bridget Quinn. The photo of Neel shown previously was also sourced there.


I wanted to close out this post with the work of Alice Neel who singlehandedly seemed to evoke the spirit of New York in the 1960s more than any other artist from her period. Remember, she was born at the exact turn of the 19th century.  And, yet, ultimately, she was one of those elemental forces that accompanied second-wave feminism and was a true pioneer in an area where few woman (if any) had gone before. More than anything else, Alice Neel was the very definition of (and I think we can all agree) artistic empowerment.

Inset right is Neel's enigmatic portrait (1930): Rhoda Myers with Blue Hat.


The reality is, as we begin to move towards the latter years of the 20th century, we are often referring to artists who are still alive and in the process of creating new work and contributing unforeseen possibilities to the herstorical record, or those who - like Bourgeois - died fairly recently but whose work is either timeless, or still very current. Then again, although I am including birth and death dates, in many cases the dates - and/or "age groups" - hardly seem relevant. The artists here, although most were born very early in the 20th century continue to feel very contemporary and very now, perhaps more so than many of their well-documented male peers.

Also, while I had hoped, in this post, to move past the 1970s and into the 21 century, after discovering a number of earlier 20th century artists worthy of mention, it gradually became impossible. So - as is often the case with my best-laid plans - much of the material I gathered for this post will find itself in Qualifying Feminism: Empowerment and the Arts (Part IIIc).

BTW,  one of those artists - and I think you know which one - will be following us into third wave feminism along with a number of other artists who became artists during the second-wave. Feminist "waves" and feminist artists are not necessarily equal, nor interchangeable... and that, too, is the meaning of empowerment.


* Synchronistically, during the course of this post, this article just happened to arrive on my home page: Traditional masculinity officially labeled 'harmful' by the American Psychological Association. And I quote:

“'Traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict and negatively influence mental health and physical health,' according to the 36-page report, featured in January’s issue of Monitor on Psychology."

Uh... not to mention, "traditional masculinity ideology" has been known to kill people.... LOTS of people... all at one time. Maybe the APA should familiarize themselves with feminist pioneer, bell hooks (see this post's quote section).

** I wasn't quite sure where to put Canadian Modernist painter, Emily Carr (1871-1945), in our timeframe. Perhaps she belonged in my previous New Woman post. In any case, very much like Georgia O'Keeffe - whom she met in 1930 - she was a law unto her self and deserves more than a mere footnote. Alas, it's the best I could manage. Via the Wiki article:

"As well as being 'an artist of stunning originality and strength', she was an exceptionally late bloomer, starting the work for which she is best known at the age of 57... Carr was also an artist who succeeded against the odds, living in an artistically unadventurous society, and working mostly in seclusion away from major art centers..."

Inset left is a photograph of Carr and below is her 1939 painting Odds & Ends. Both images were sourced from her Wiki entry. More can be found here.

*** (UPDATE, April 8, 2019). I recently found the book An Accidental Soldier: Memoirs of a Mestizo in Vietnam  by Vietnam vet, Manny Garcia, in which he harrowingly describes his service in the army - specifically in Vietnam - and his eventual difficulties in dealing with post-war civilian life. This quote - a slightly abbreviated version of one appearing on the book's jacket, illustrates the ludicrousness of sending virtual boys off to war and the psychological damage incurred:

"This was my first kill. I killed a woman before I made love to one. I killed a woman before I was old enough to vote. I killed a woman before I bought my first car... I killed a woman before I knew she was a woman. I killed a woman wile working for the United States Army in South Vietnam. I had killed before I lived. The afternoon in the jungle was bright and hot. I stood there sweating, bewildered, dumbfound and completely absorbed by the power."

Note the last 4 words of that quote. Towards the end of Garcia's story, now disenchanted with - and emotionally crippled by - the war and all that it represents, he describes the various medals he received and why and when he ended up tossing them on the White House lawn:

"These medals and citations were awarded to me, supposedly, for displaying courage or valor under fire. I didn't see it that way. I saw the truth. I was decorated for committing assorted acts of unconscionable savagery upon other men. Occasionally, I energetically slaughtered them and I was heartily patted on the back for it - good boy. The more savage and ruthless I became, the more prestigious the medal that followed."

Later note: Reading the online Amazon reviews of Garcia's book, it seems other vets claim that he fictionalized his account. If you feel compelled to read the reviews, I suggest reading them till the very last when other views are presented.


Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others. We are taught that this will to dominate is more biologically hardwired in males than in females. In actuality, dominator culture teaches us that we are all natural-born killers but that males are more able to realize the predator role. In the dominator model the pursuit of external power, the ability to manipulate and control others, is what matters most. When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.” 

- Another relevant quote by bell hooks.


  1. My god.....such a fascinating in-depth look at amazing artists. The light you shine upon the struggle is blinding -- AND should be required reading for all.

    Well said and BRAVO! Hell..this article is art.

  2. Once again, you're too kind, sweets. I think the artists themselves made this post; my input was marginal. But, I must say one thing: all of the artists in this post, some born more than a hundred years ago, were so far ahead of their times that it's eerily astounding. They might all still be alive today... and that, in itself, is empowering.

    Re: required reading. Yes, especially for young women artists. They should know these women. Not one artist mentioned here gave a flying f* about what anyone thought about her; they were fierce! I look at Méret Oppenheims's photograph or Claude Cahun's self-portrait and I'm so proud of these women. They're my sisters. So, yeah, that's very empowering... and that's my point with these posts. :-)

    1. I think...some art - when you move outside of the decorative and period-representative realm -- is often timeless and can fit nearly any time (relatively speaking) because it speaks of something within the human shell.

      Power up. Just don't blow the circuits!