The Douglass College art department at Rutgers University was a hotbed of avant-garde experimentation in the 1960s and ’70s, with Geoffrey Hendricks, George Segal, Robert Watts, Allan Kaprow, Roy Lichtenstein, John Cage, and John Goodyear on the faculty. Inspired by Black Mountain College’s innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum, faculty and students at Douglass created a center for avant-garde art that embraced Fluxus, pop, performance, and experimentation.
During that era there was no shortage of edgy women artists studying at Douglass — it didn’t become co-ed until 1972 — yet no women joined the faculty until 1971. One of those edgy artists, Joan Snyder, wrote: “How can an all-male faculty at Douglass choose, select, judge women artists who apply? They can’t, they didn’t, they only chose four in 20 in two years.”
The imbalance is being redressed with both an exhibit and a new book, both sharing the title “Women Artists on the Leading Edge.” In the words of Snyder, the artwork they were making was “personal, autobiographic, expressionistic, narrative, and poetical.”
At a time when the very word “feminist” stoked negative reactions among some, these women were creating artwork that was funny, filled with irony, and packed a political punch. They experimented with installation, film, photography, and even painting.
The Zimmerli Art Museum honors the achievements of these Douglass alumnae and faculty in an exhibition on view through March 1, and “Women Artists on the Leading Edge: Visual Arts at Douglass College” by Dr. Joan Marter (just published by Rutgers University Press) documents the “protofeminist” art identified with women’s issues produced at Douglass.
Drawn from the Zimmerli’s permanent collection, “Women Artists on the Leading Edge” includes work by Alice Aycock, Loretta Dunkelman, Kirsten Kraa, Frances Kuehn, Linda Lindroth, Marion Munk, Joan Semmel, Mimi Smith, Snyder, and Ann Tsubota, many of whom are included in the book (although the works shown are different).
Snyder was a major figure in the women’s art movement. A 2007 winner of the MacArthur “genius” award, as well as Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Snyder founded the Women Artists Series at Douglass in 1971, “before any of the feminist exhibitions and projects arose on the West Coast,” writes Marter in her book. The exhibitions continue today as the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, at the library on the Douglass campus, and is the oldest continuing exhibition space in the United States dedicated to the work of emerging and established contemporary women artists. The series has exhibited the work of established artists at a time when they were pioneers: Louise Bourgeois, Faith Ringgold, Elsie Driggs, Orlan, Miriam Shapiro, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Grace Graupe Pillard, Alice Neel, and others.
Snyder was also a founding member of Heresies, the feminist collective at the epicenter of the lower Manhattan art world in the 1970s. When Heresies published its first issue in 1977, Snyder was teaching advanced painting at Princeton University. “Her ultimate goal was to focus on the lives of women as political, sexual, and creative beings,” says Marter.
A 2016 photograph of Snyder, heading the book’s chapter on her, shows the 79-year-old artist looking content in little round black glasses with pure white tousled hair, surrounded by tubes of paint, jars filled with brush rinse, palette knives, and various storage systems for her prolific work. It is an interesting bookend to a 1970 image, taken by Snyder’s then-husband, the photographer Larry Fink, in which she wears paint-splattered overalls, lying spread eagle on a crochet-blanket-covered mattress on the floor, with an angry look on her face. Both the young woman and the older version of herself are clearly not afraid to get dirty in carrying out their work.
She has made art continuously throughout her life and is quoted in Marter’s book: “Sometimes I am sure I know what my work is about — at other times it is a mystery to me. I am happy when I am working and understanding. My work is a language I create — coming from somewhere in my guts, brains, eyes… It’s about life and art — my life, my art, other lives, other art.”
Born to parents of Russian/German/Jewish heritage — Snyder’s mother worked as a department store clerk and bookkeeper; her father was a toy and novelties salesman — she lived at home in Highland Park while attending Douglass College. She learned to paint by copying magazine reproductions and majored in sociology with the idea that she would become a social worker.
Snyder belonged to a consciousness-raising group on the Douglass campus in the early ’70s, perhaps arousing the feminist sensibility in her work. She didn’t take an art course until her senior year.
Encouraged, Snyder enrolled as a non-matriculated student in Rutgers’ new MFA program, where she discovered the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Hans Hofmann, and others, ultimately earning her MFA and moving to New York where she met Fink. It was around this time she developed her “stroke paintings” in which paint and marks became subject matter.
Also in both the book and the exhibit is Mimi Smith, who became known for her wearable art created from domestic objects. From faculty members Robert Watts and Robert Morris, as well as work by Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol she saw in galleries, Smith learned that anything could be art, and her favored materials became steel wool, plastic bags, fabric, doilies, and tablecloths.
Having learned to sew from her grandmother, Smith used household items to make such creations as “Girdle” (already an obsolete undergarment by 1966; Smith described it, according to Marter, as “one of the most frightening items of clothing that I can imagine… an uncomfortable form of torture”) and “Recycle Coat,” in 1966, constructed of plastic bags from paper napkins, bread and more.
Author Marter, a distinguished professor emerita at Rutgers, where she taught art history for 38 years, was a witness to the feminist revolution in the arts. Editor-in-chief of Woman’s Art Journal since 2006, she is the author of numerous books including “Women of Abstract Expressionism” (Yale 2017) and “Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-63” (Rutgers 1999). She lives in Manhattan, “which worked out very well for seeing contemporary art and writing about it,” she says. “However, it gave me a long commute to Rutgers.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Marter became interested in art history while studying studio art at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. “As I graduated from college in the late ’60s, the women’s movement was in the news,” she says. “I was determined to give special attention to women artists and began teaching courses on the history of women artists.”
After earning master’s and doctoral degrees in art history at the University of Delaware in 1970 and 1974, she taught at Penn State before coming to Rutgers in 1977.
Among the other works on view at the Zimmerli:
Pioneering feminist artist Joan Semmel was the sole tenured woman faculty member of the college’s highly regarded art department when she painted “Faculty Frieze” in 1982. The group portrait depicts her six male colleagues, revealing the persistence of male authority and power in the workplace, including in a progressive art department at a women’s college.
Linda Lindroth poses in “Family Portrait on My 32nd Birthday” (1978), holding separate photographic portraits of her parents. It resulted from the fact that they were estranged, so a traditional family photo was not possible for the special occasion.
The silkscreen series “Miami Proposal” (1990) by Alice Aycock documents a sculpture series that was developed for the Miami Airport, but never built (however, her sculpture “The Matriculating Machine in the Garden” is installed behind the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, home to the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series).
Women Artists on the Leading Edge: Celebrating Douglass College at 100, Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through January 11, 2020. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., first Tuesdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free. 848-932-7237 or zimmerli.rutgers.edu.