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This article by Nicole Plett was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
Crossing the Arts Threshold
What are the advantages of being a woman artist? "Working
without the pressure of success," say New York’s Guerrilla Girls.
Then there’s "not having to be in shows with men," and that
special benefit of "not having to undergo the embarrassment of
being called a genius."
These are old jokes, perhaps getting a little tired after all these
years. But art dealer and curator Bernice Steinbaum reminds us that
they all still apply.
At the College of New Jersey, Steinbaum’s exhibit of contemporary
women artists, "Crossing the Threshold," is part of a Women’s
History Month celebration that places the art market’s notorious gender
gap under scrutiny once again. The touring show originated at the
Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in New York which Steinbaum directs. The
CNJ stop is part of a national tour to colleges and museums from upstate
New York to Jackson, Mississippi, to Laramie, Wyoming, with its final
opening in Sioux City, Iowa, set for March, 2001.
Steinbaum opens the exhibition with a lecture, "Have You Come
a Long Way, Baby?" on Wednesday, March 4, at 3 p.m. Miriam Schapiro
continues the month-long series with "A Life in Art," on Wednesday,
March 11, at 2 p.m. The show remains on exhibit to April 15.
"Crossing the Threshold" features 31 women artists, some well-known
and some little-known. In an unusual curatorial move, every one of
these artists was born before 1929. The age span runs from a mere
70 years of age to the "elder stateswoman" of the show, the
105-year-old ceramic artist Beatrice Wood. It encompasses works by
some of the titans of 20th century who broke through the gender barrier:
Miriam Schapiro, Agnes Martin, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan,
Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington, Muriel Castanis, and Beverly
Pepper. To name a few.
Printmaker June Wayne, the founder and operator of two
of the nation’s most influential lithography workshops, is also included.
So are some lesser-known women who have worked throughout their long
lifetimes with only minimal recognition and scant remuneration. They
include two New Mexico-born weavers, Eppie Archuleta and Agueda Martinez,
and Navajo weaver Elise Tsosie Sandoval. There’s basketmaker Mary
Adams, photographer Gladys Lander, and noted ceramic artist Toshiko
Takaezu, a retiree from the faculty of Princeton University.
"Sometimes I think I’m a museum, but I’m a gallery," says
the exuberant Steinbaum in a phone interview from her SoHo gallery.
Possible proof of this is the show’s accompanying catalog, a resource
book about all 31 represented artists. Trinkett Clark, curator of
the Swan Coach House Gallery in Atlanta, interviewed each artist and
provides a cogent and illuminating sketch of each.
The collaborative effort was a year in the making and labor intensive,
says Steinbaum. "Although at times leaping off a cliff seemed
easier than what we were doing, we realized that our journey together
would produce this exhibition and this catalog. The 31 artists were
the strings of our parachutes," she says.
"I do group shows once every two years and send them on museum
travel. I can do such shows less expensively than individual institutions
and with a lot of verve and enthusiasm, and it’s my philosophy that
one has to put back into the art community. Art is about exchange,
and this is a form of exchange. So for the 11 good months in the gallery,
I give back one month a year."
The emblem selected for the show is a bridge, or as Steinbaum calls
it, an "extended threshold." "A threshold by definition
is a time interval or set of circumstances marking the imminent beginning
of a new state," she says. "The 31 women in this exhibition
have crossed the threshold (bridge) into the next millennium. To say
nothing of the number of bridges they burned behind them."
The selection of 31 artists is also an homage of sorts to the influential
art dealer Peggy Guggenheim and her unprecedented 1943 exhibition
of works by 31 women artists at her Art of This Century Gallery in
Steinbaum originally titled the show, "Crossing the Threshold
with Thelma and Louise," an allusion to the two fictional women
of the movie of the same name who, when last seen, were going over
the edge of the Grand Canyon, headed to oblivion in an American convertible.
Why did Steinbaum pick Thelma and Louise as the metaphorical "jumping
off point" for her show?
"I was taken with the idea that Thelma and Louise dared to go
against the establishment. I thought that Thelma and Louise represented
the kinds of women that these women are — pioneers who had to
give up a great deal for their passion," says Steinbaum.
Yet more than a few colleges and museums interested in exhibiting
the work found Steinbaum’s reference to the 1991 road movie "upsetting,"
she explains. Written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott,
starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, the movie shows fugitives
on the run and glorifies escape from quotidian responsibilities. These
institutions (the College of New Jersey was not among them) deemed
Thelma and Louise poor role models for young women. Others might argue
that the movie kills off these rebellious women just as western theater
and opera has traditionally killed off such transgressors as Carmen,
Lucia, Mimi, Violetta, et al.
"They thought they represented lawlessness and were not suitable,"
she says. Rather than becoming embroiled in the politics of the situation,
Steinbaum withdrew from the field of battle and abbreviated her original
title to "Crossing the Threshold."
Steinbaum, 54, married at 18, and has stayed married for 37 years.
Her husband, Harold Steinbaum, is in family practice medicine ("He
still makes house calls," she notes), and they are the parents
of three "over-achievers:" a son, 30, physician; and two daughters,
28 and 26, an attorney, and a landscape architect. In the early years
of her marriage she followed her husband’s career, teaching in public
schools in Iowa and Texas. She later taught art history at Hofstra
Founding her first gallery, the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, in the
late 1970s, Steinbaum has always represented equal numbers of women
and men. "She was P.C. before P.C. was coined as a term,"
says her registrar Joanne Isaac, "but this isn’t about numbers,
it’s about representing the best artists." Isaac also notes that
African American, Asian, and Latino artists represent more than 35
percent of the artists in the gallery stable.
The fact that the show excludes artists under 70 will
come as a surprise to many. Although Schapiro is more famous than
the Guerrilla Girls for her career-long feminist efforts, many of
these artists have labored far removed from the gender politics arena.
"It occurred to me that 70 would be a good cutoff, it’s past the
age of retirement for most — but none of these women have retired.
All of them are working. Their creative juices have not stopped flowing."
"The work of these artists has an originality and buoyancy that
belies the fact that they are venerable pioneers of American art,"
says Steinbaum. "These artists engage the world as though it has
been seen for the first time — each moment in their art is a fresh
Schapiro has been a pioneer, not only in feminist art, but in a movement
known as Pattern and Decoration, when she quite literally sought to
restore to high-art status women’s art-making traditions.
Her "Femmage" works, her signature collages, have helped to
earn her laurels in the feminist pantheon. Working with the humble
materials that women have always found close at hand — tea towels,
hankies, calico, and tatting — she reconfigures her materials
into powerful, and beautiful, art statements.
On Wednesday, March 11, at 2 p.m. Schapiro presents a talk, "A
Life in Art," chronicling her contributions to art and feminist
culture since the 1950s.
"I think my struggles were human struggles in the sense that I
struggled incredibly for my identity," Schapiro tells interviewer
Clarke. "What I am trying to do is to make a series of images
for the world which show that you can be tortured and triumphant at
the same time. My work is about women, for women, and for everyone
else. My motivation is — as a woman — to express what I feel
has not been expressed enough in art."
As far as suffering from a sexist society, Schapiro says it didn’t
happen to her until she married. As the wife of the artist Paul Brach,
she says, she became known as "the gifted Mrs. Brach. And then
we were known as `The Brachs.’ But I wanted my own name."
If there’s an art to living, one of the artists speaks for many women
when she reflects on how she pursued her career while married and
raising two children in the early 1940s.
"I had to organize my days carefully in order to work in the studio
each day," says Clare Romano, looking back 50 years. "This
was realized with tremendous self-discipline, determining priorities,
and having a sympathetic, cooperative husband . . . Not easy, but
it was a life I had chosen, and coping with its complexities was a
creative challenge in itself."
The show’s December opening in New York, attended by 18 of the senior
artists, was "a little piece of art history that I had just for
myself," says Steinbaum. Parenthetically she notes that if the
viewer notices any glaring absences among senior women artists who
might have been included in such a touring show, these are women artists
who declined to participate in an exclusively "women’s only"
show. Even in the context of the long-running gender debates, such
shows still suggest "ghetto-ization" to some.
Yet Steinbaum’s show is not simply about gender, but
also about the "signs of the times." It posits the possibility
that the third millennium could finally represent the woman’s millennium.
With the millennium approaching, Steinbaum asked herself, "What
are the benchmarks of the last millennium?" She answers her own
question with three benchmarks: the computer, antibiotics and the
Salk vaccine, and women.
"Certainly one has to look at women in the 20th century. where
we’ve been and where we’ve come from. We got the vote in 1920 —
given that information, in 80 years we’ve come some way. With turbulence
comes change. A lot of barriers were broken."
At 54, Steinbaum has been in business for 20 years, and has developed
a significant reputation for showing and selling work by women. Does
she believe that, compared to the grim 1970s, these are gravy days
for the women artist?
"Certainly the women who have gallery representation are being
acquired a great deal more than their male counterparts who have had
representation forever," says Steinbaum. Yet she says that gallery
representation for men still exceeds women’s by a factor of ten to
one. So while her show looks forward to better times for women, it
also looks back on a generation that had scant expectation for glory.
"You can’t have any tomorrow unless you remember your yesterdays.
Many of these women discovered the wheel for us. They didn’t know
what else to do with their creative energy. They worked at kitchen
tables using materials that were inexpensive and readily available,"
"These are women who continued their passion to make art at a
time when art was not an art business. When an artist did not have
to fight for a cover. Their passions were so strong, it didn’t matter
whether they earned a living. They had to make their mark. Some of
them never had a dealer. All of them continued to work in spite of
Even in centuries past when some women did win fame and fortune in
art, it was usually with the approval of a father, brother, or husband
in the business. "We never truly enjoyed our place," says
Steinbaum. "Even [the successful 17th-century painter] Artemisia
Gentileschi was only accepted under her father’s name. But I do think
that most of these women did not have the expectations of young artists
today. Art was about their passion. I think an artist has to be obsessive,
have passion, and have ideas."
Verve and vitality — qualities Steinbaum has in abundance —
are also hallmarks of her artists, she says. "They all wanted
me to come to their studios and select a work," but since time
did not permit 30-some studio visits, she asked the artists to select
their best work — work that they would allow to travel for two
or three years.
"But I haven’t done my best work yet!" was a reply she received
from one artist after another. It was a definite trend. "It’s
such a wonderful attitude," she says.
Gallery, Holman Hall, 609-771-2198. Curator Bernice Steinbaum opens
the exhibition with the lecture, "Have You Come a Long Way, Baby?"
on Wednesday, March 4 at 3 p.m. Free.
Opening reception is Wednesday, March 11, 5 to 7 p.m., for the exhibition
that continues to April 15. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday,
noon to 3 p.m.; also Thursday 7 to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 3 p.m.
of New Jersey’s Forcina Hall, Room 132. For lecture information call
11, 2 p.m. Muriel Castanis, "Making Art Out of Whole Cloth."
Wednesday, March 25, 2 p.m. Carrie Mae Weems, "Daring to
Resist," Thursday, March 26, 3:30 p.m. The final talk, by art
historian Annie Shaver-Crandell, "What’s Doing in New York
City: Women in Art," is in Brower Student Center, Room 202E, Monday,
March 30, 3:30 p.m.
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