Several decades before the birth of the feminist art movement, a group of women artists forged paths toward personal and abstract imagery through the medium of printmaking.
“Their abilities to carve out progressive artistic identities and professional reputations as avant-garde printmakers was unprecedented given the male-dominated art world and conservative, midcentury gender norms,” says Christina Weyl, co-founder and co-president of the Association of Print Scholars, an organization that brings together the print community to facilitate dialogue and encourage print scholarship. Weyl has curated “Innovation and Abstraction: Women Artists and Atelier 17,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University through May 31.
The exhibition examines the formal innovations and burgeoning feminist consciousness of eight artists who worked in Atelier 17’s New York location: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), and Anne Ryan (1889-1954). In addition to prints, the exhibition includes examples of works in other media for which the artists are better known: sculpture by Bourgeois, Day, Dehner, and Nevelson; paintings by Citron and Mason; a collage by Ryan; and a string composition by Fuller. The artwork comes from a respected body of lenders, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.
“Innovation and Abstraction” debuted at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, New York, in summer, 2016. The Zimmerli exhibition includes 11 additional works primarily drawn from the museum’s collection of 20th-century American art and includes two sculptures and seven prints. The exhibition coincides with the museum’s exhibition “Guerrilla (And Other) Girls: Art/Activism/Attitude,” spotlighting artists whose contemporary graphic works have been shedding light on gender inequality and inequity in the art world for the past 30 years.
Atelier 17 was a legendary printmaking studio that relocated from Paris to New York at the outbreak of World War II, providing a workspace and support for some 200 artists — nearly half of whom were women — to escape political conflicts in Europe. Experimental, often unorthodox, prints by the featured artists are displayed alongside their paintings and sculptures to explore how this work catalyzed their creativity and inspired these women to reshape American abstraction.
Founded in 1927 in Paris by British artist Stanley William Hayter, Atelier 17 included expatriate Surrealist and abstract artists. “I want the artists to try impossible, different, unusual methods,” Hayter has been quoted as saying. For the next 15 years, the workshop led a revival of fine-art graphics, encouraging unorthodox techniques and experimentation. Many of the foremost modern artists, from European refugees during World War II to Americans like de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, and Pollock, made prints there. There were more than 90 women in the group.
“The collaborative environment, where artists shared discoveries and worked together, created fertile conditions for the exchange of avant-garde ideas and the development of formal breakthroughs,” writes Weyl in the exhibition catalog. “Across its three successive locations in Greenwich Village, Atelier 17 became a laboratory that facilitated women artists’ exposure to and eventual practice of modernist styles, including abstraction, surrealism, and expressionism.” Weyl earned her Ph.D. in art history from Rutgers in 2015, and the exhibition stems from her dissertation.
“Making prints at Atelier 17 served as a conduit through which these female artists realized extraordinary professional achievements and impacted the direction of printmaking, postwar sculpture, fiber art, junk art, and Neo-Dadaism,” continues Weyl. “For many artists, affiliation with Atelier 17 also catalyzed a strong feminist consciousness decades before the women’s art movement of the 1970s.”
The exhibition is divided into three sections, representing how women’s printmaking practice influenced their artistic practice outside Atelier 17: impressing fiber and textiles into soft ground intaglio plates to simulate the experience of making a collage led many to explore fiber in other formats; carving metal plates or woodblocks prompted other artists to think three-dimensionally and become more engaged with sculpture; and the workshop’s reputation for technical innovation led many to think innovatively about their artistic practice to make lasting contributions. “Male and female artists often practiced etching and engraving with identical instruments, materials, and approaches, but critics routinely divided their technical achievements along gender lines, no matter how groundbreaking or innovative,” says Weyl.
These women artists were on the cutting edge of 20th-century artists’ quest to reassert fiber and textiles as fine art materials. They impressed lace, string, and woven fibers into their plates with expressive and modernist intentions.
In 1943 Sue Fuller, for example, expanded the technique of soft ground etching — an intaglio technique in which the metal plate is treated to remain sticky so that handprints, botanical materials, or fabric leaves an impression. “She firmly believed that textile designs for her soft ground etchings were far from meaningless feminine patterns, as period reviewers would write, but instead the notable introduction of collage into printmaking,” says Weyl. Fuller, in fact, argued the earliest incidence of modernist collage was not the work of Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque, but the innovative early soft ground etchings of Mary Cassatt, for which she impressed “nubbly materials” and other scraps of fabric over a metal plate. “Fuller recognized Cassatt’s pioneering collage aesthetic more than 25 years before Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer would coin the term ‘femmage.’”
In “Cacophony” (1944) Fuller impressed pieces of cut-up Victorian lace, which she had inherited from her mother, around the print’s edges, and teased the threads from a recycled garlic bag to shape the two female figures, as seen in a preparatory collage. Although these abstract “string compositions” were usually categorized as decorative or feminine because of their materials, they captured Fuller’s beliefs about the tensions and structures of modern architecture and engineering. With them, Fuller became an early pioneer of what, in the 1960s, became known as fiber art.
Fuller grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1936. Her earliest childhood memories were of her mother knitting, crocheting, and sewing on a sun porch with windows of leaded glass. These combined the elements of thread and glass that would become her life’s work. She said that the abundant threads available to her from her mother’s work “were so wonderful I couldn’t let them go to waste.” She was also influenced by her father, an engineer who made model bridges of string. Fuller studied lacemaking and glass making in Italy and England and calligraphy in Japan. Her string compositions are networks of complexly arranged threads, embedded in panels or blocks. Made from a plastic monofilament, the geometric abstractions are like snowflakes preserved for all time.
Other works in the exhibition illuminate a new chapter in the use of medium and expression. Anne Ryan, for example, was influenced by the collages of German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) as well as Fuller. Here, in “Beside the Sea,” a woman walks down the beach, a fine layer of silk stocking underneath a larger hexagonal pattern from fishnet stockings. Scraps of fishnet stockings would appear in Ryan’s later collages. And Minna Citron saw the technique of soft ground as an expressive tool to convey her inner psyche and feminist agenda. “Squid Under Pier” (1948) visualizes Citron’s personal struggles with her ex-husband and overbearing mother and mother-in-law.
Summing up the overall spirit of the exhibition, Zimmerli assistant curator of prints and drawings Nicole Simpson says, “Atelier 17 was one of the most progressive printmaking workshops of the 20th century. Faced with societal pressures and juggling the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood, these women found kinship and formed friendships at the workshop as they together sought professional recognition in the male-dominated art field.”
Innovation and Abstraction: Women Artists and Atelier 17, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through May 31. Opening reception, Tuesday, February 7, 5 to 9 p.m., with talk by guest curator Christina Weyl at 5:45 p.m. Free. 732-932-7237 or zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
#b#More at the Zimmerli#/b#
The Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick has several additional new exhibitions.
Reflections: Photographs of Iconic African Americans by Terrence A. Reese (aka TAR) has also just gone on view. The exhibition features 60 images of African Americans who have fought against social inequality — including Reverend Jesse Jackson, Gordon Parks, Lois Mailou Jones, B.B. King, and Eleanor Holmes Norton. The name comes from the photographer’s approach of photographing each of his subjects by framing them in mirrors. It closes on July 30.
Women artists are also the subject of Guerrilla (And Other) Girls: Art/Activism/Attitude. The show opens on Saturday, February 4, and demonstrates how a very public group of anonymous artists formed in 1985 to expose art world inequalities through witty signage, performances, and other impromptu strategies.
The exhibition includes posters belonging to the Rutgers Archives on Women Artists and works by artists aligned with the group: Pat Adams, Emma Amos, Ida Applebroog, Jackie Ferrara, Bonnie Lucas, Howardina Pindell, Joan Semmel, and Joan Snyder. The exhibition also features to be announced Guerrilla Girls events. It remains on view through July 20.
Toutes Les Nouvelles – All the News: Current Events in Nineteenth-Century French Prints, running from January 21 through July 30, shows how 19th-century French artists served as reporters and critics.
A Vibrant Field: Nature and Landscape in Soviet Nonconformist Art, 1970s-1980s opens on March 4 and is on view through July 30. This exhibition of approximately 50 works in a variety of media shows how artists living and working under Soviet rule approached nature as a “vibrant subject matter, push the boundaries of landscape as a genre, and limit the appropriation of landscape imagery in the name of socialist ideology.”