Old Boys Club

Women in the arts get their dues


in Archive


There is outright sexism in the arts, and then there is that hidden, sneaky, unconscious sexism that squirms when you try to pin it in place. When Lee Krasner was in art school in 1929, the outright sexism was easiest to identify and also protest against. Under the heading of obvious sexism was the National Academy of Design’s rule that women were not allowed to paint fish. Fish were kept in the basement, where they would rot more slowly in the cooler temperatures and not stink up the studios, and women were not allowed in the basement. When Krasner unveiled her still life with fish, the administration suspended her for “painting figures without permission.” Who has ever really needed to paint a fish before they were told they were not allowed?

  • Lee Krasner: A Biography by Gail Levin. 560 pages. William Morrow. $30.
  • Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini by Peter Webb. 304 pages. Vendome Press. $95.
  • Stories and Essays of Mina Loy, edited by Sara Crangle. 280 pages. Dalkey Archive Press. $15.95.
  • Who Is Ana Mendieta? by Christine Redfern. 84 pages. The Feminist Press at CUNY. $18.95.

When a woman working in the arts today looks back to learn from the greats who came before her, she sees a canon built by men, populated by men, reinforced by men. And when trying to find a place in the contemporary marketplace, you’re often met with resistance that come at you from the side. No one will say outright that women are not capable of creating works of artistic genius. Say that out loud and you’ll find yourself resigning from your position of power real fast. The roadblocks are less obvious, the conversation less straight forward, but the obstacles exist. The fact that they’re not tangible makes them all the more difficult to overcome.

Krasner was one of 236 sit-in demonstrators arrested in December of 1929 for protesting the dismissal of artists from the WPA. Someone at the police station should have been suspicious about the names that were being given. Pablo Picasso. Paul Cézanne. J. M. W. Turner. Michelangelo. Sir Peter Paul Rubens. When their names were read off dutifully at the docket, the artists craned their heads to see who had the balls to call himself Picasso. Krasner gave the name Mary Cassatt as she was being booked. She was not the only woman arrested, and they were having some trouble coming up with aliases for the court. As retold in Lee Krasner: A Biography by Gail Levin, the artist remembered years later, “I didn’t have a big selection, you know, it was either Rosa Bonheur or Mary Cassatt.” And so the bold abstract expressionist, who would never have children and whose most famous project was perhaps her marriage to the violent alcoholic Jackson Pollock, was forced to go by the name of the painter who found fame depicting quiet scenes of blissful domesticity and maternity.

As I read the biography, I tried to think of other names Krasner could have used. I came up kind of blank. Pre-20th century visual artists, well, there was Gwen John and, uh, that one Renaissance female painter whose name is escaping me, and… Yeah, that’s all I’ve got. Twentieth-century painters, sure, I can rattle off names American and Russian and German and French and Italian. I’m sure there were a couple Romantics, hooked on laudanum like the best of them, but my own knowledge of that historical era is a bit spotty. Going to the art history textbooks isn’t really going to help me much. There are always a few token women listed, but they are mostly from Krasner’s era or later. So this raises the question: Is this the fault of historical oversight, or were there simply so few great female artists throughout time?

It is, however, a question that feeds itself, because the obscurity of women’s work is why historians and experts feel free to consider it less than great. Greatness is supposed to speak for itself, it is supposed to show up and demand its own audience. You’re not supposed to have to coddle it. Take, for example, an argument that is currently raging through a commercial art world: the comic book industry. A woman dressed up like Batgirl was attending Comic Con with her daughter, and she stood up at a panel to ask DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio why his company employed so few women artists and writers. This was not exactly a new problem, as any woman who has been reading comic books for a long time knows. But the numbers have recently fallen off of a cliff. Ten years ago, the DC creative staff (writers, artists, etc.) was 12 percent women. Now it is one percent. DiDio snapped at the woman, “Who should we be hiring? Tell me right now. Who should we be hiring right now? Tell me.” As your mind goes blank searching for an answer, he wins the argument. See? No women artists worth hiring — you, who brought this up, can’t even think of any.

This type of argument is not simply a rhetorical crutch, it is a standard response to those who try to have a conversation about why so few female creators and artists win awards, are displayed in museums, or advance into higher profile positions. The women’s obscurity bolsters their argument. The Orange Prize for literature by women was founded in response to the predominance of men on literature award shortlists. And since prizes can be incredibly valuable to an artist’s career — not simply for the money but in bringing her vital media attention and giving the publisher a reason to publish her follow-up — the women behind the award felt it was important to draw some attention to female writers of note. Yet as award season dawns every year, a debate over the award’s mere existence re-emerges. “[T]he Orange Prize is sexist and discriminatory, and it should be shunned — or, at the very least, mocked mercilessly” (Toby Litt, 2008). “The Orange Prize is sexist” (A.S. Byatt, 2010). “Is there sexism at play here… or is it a case that female writers… are just not up to scratch?” (ABC Radio, 2011).

While it would be just lovely, quite nice, if the most brilliant artists were the most well-received and things like movements, nepotism, location, gender, and money just didn’t even get a say, it’s not the case. It’s tempting to classify the Argentinian/Italian artist Leonor Fini as surrealist retrospectively, at least in certain phases of her career, but at the time she disliked the association. The movement was pretty heavily controlled by André Breton, and it was primarily up to him whether or not you were exhibited with the surrealists. Breton also was not a great fan of women. As Peter Webb tells it in Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini, “[Fini] was the perfect incarnation of the femme-enfant, or woman-child, the subordinate role to which the surrealists restricted their female associates in the 1930s, preferring to see them as muses rather than artists. This was a role she steadfastly refused.” As a result, there were exhibitions, collections, introductions, monographs, histories that she was simply not invited to, and Fini is now more likely to be mentioned as an aside or displayed as exhibition wall filler than discussed in the same breath as Dalí, Magritte, or Buñuel.

And so now, sitting with Sphinx on my lap, can I say that Fini was most definitely undervalued in the history of art? That she should be ranked higher? And higher than whom? When Fini explains why she stopped accepting the surrealists’ small crumbs, she tells her biographer, “It seemed that the women were expected to keep quiet in cafe discussions, yet I felt that I was just as good as the men.” It might be felt, but can it actually be qualified? I see her painting “The Useless Dress,” with its heroine looking like she either just dressed herself in an extravagant display or performed self-immolation, and I feel something for it that I’ve never felt for Dalí, who has always left me cold. And yet there is a Dalí museum in Potsdamer Platz that I pass on a weekly basis. There most definitely is not a Fini museum there. Should the “Useless Dress” appear on as many postcards, wristwatches, college dorm room walls, and coffee mugs as Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory”? Would that soothe my suspicions that something is off balance here?

The Feminist Press, associated with the City University of New York, has launched a line of books called Blind Spot. The series profiles women who for one reason or another did not get the attention that (someone decided) they deserved. The first subject is Ana Mendieta, a conceptual and performance and sculptural and feminist artist who died under mysterious circumstances in the presence of her sculptor husband Carl Andre. The back of the book — following Christine Redfern and Caro Caron’s explanation of Who is Ana Mendieta? and discussion of her life, work, and possible murder — includes a patchwork text of misplaced women. The talented sculptor Claudine Claudel was committed to an insane asylum for 30 years by an overbearing brother. Marie Bashkirtseff died young of tuberculosis and, as a result, her artwork has been mostly overlooked. Krasner’s husband Pollock makes an appearance, but only for killing a young woman when he crashed his car in a suicidal, alcoholic fit. Wives of artists don’t fare much better. Mailer’s wife is stabbed in the chest. Burroughs’s wife is shot in the head. Then there is the less violent silencing, as Bettie Rinhart chimes in with a story about reading H. W. Janson’s definitive work History of Art. “Women were not included in his commonly used tome, now in its 20th or so printing, because, he said, ‘I have not been able to find a woman artist who clearly belongs in a one-volume history of art.’” I imagine trying to have a conversation with (the now dead) Janson to make my case for including a woman, and I can feel his eyes rolling in his grave.

How does one restore women to the historical record without getting out a glue stick and pasting some women into History of Art? Every five to 10 years, someone tries to establish a place for Mina Loy in the canon of modernist literature, next to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Someone will publish definitive collections of her poetry, or write her biography, or do for her what Malcolm Cowley did for Faulkner, bringing him out of obscurity into ubiquity. This year sees a new attempt, in Dalkey Archive’s publication of Stories and Essays of Mina Loy. But it never quite takes. The ingredients are right — an overwhelming talent, a fascinating life story, all of the right connections and all the right supporters — but the sauce keeps breaking.

Not that progress isn’t being made. Writing is perhaps the most comfortable place for a woman creator to be. We have a strong history of important women writers. Successful women writers are working today. And there are women in positions of power who can mentor younger writers. What of the young female artist, or (god forbid) composer, who would like to feel she is part of a lineage? I asked Christine Redfern, co-author of Who Is Ana Mendieta? and a visual artist herself, if she was aware, starting out, of the women artists missing from her art history classes? “I didn’t really notice, like many young people, I felt I was invincible and whatever I set my mind to I could accomplish. I was quite naïve as well,” she wrote me. “I thought ‘history’ was this organized progression, a fair and faithful retelling of events without prejudice.”

“That said,” she continues, “I do think it is important to talk about women’s work and to tell stories about women in a way that does not pander to societal stereotypes and biases. It is imperative for both sexes to have role models and even more importantly mentors.” Greatness does need a little nurturing, a little structure and room to try and fail. Even if it doesn’t always need community, greatness at the very least needs someone who is capable — and willing — to recognize it for what it is and give it its name.

Lee Krasner had a long history of protest. Not only did she protest the decision-making process of the WPA, she protested the Modern Museum of Art for first not exhibiting American artists and then for not including more women. She did not want a token show of women artists — she had a great distaste for the label “woman artist,” just as she disliked being called an American artist or a Jewish artist. Artist was fine, thank you. In conversations with her biographer, she explains that she believes her fight against the art establishment was an essential part of her artistic life. “The Modern [Museum of Art] was like a feeding machine. You attack it for everything, but finally it’s the source you have to make peace with. There are always problems between artists and an institution. Maybe that’s healthy. You need the dichotomy — artist/museum, individual/society — for the individual to be able to breathe.” To the end of her life she remained hyperaware that when people talked about the abstract expressionist movement, her name and the names of other women active at the time were never the first mentioned, and that they probably never will be. • 1 September 2011