Corrections or additions?

This article by Jeanne Kolva was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 4, 1998. All rights reserved.

Women Artists, New Attitudes

After gathering up her courage to approach an established

art dealer sometime in the early half of the 1970s, the novice post-minimalist

artist, Michelle Stuart, asked him to represent her. "I showed

a woman artist last year," he told her, "and I couldn’t bear

to do it again."

This anecdote was one of many shared by a small group of pioneer feminist

artists from the 1960s and 1970s for an attentive audience at last

year’s College Art Association meeting in New York City. It vividly

illustrates the overt sexism that many women artists have had to overcome

on their paths to success. In light of the artworld’s predominantly

male power base that has perpetuated such flagrant discrimination,

the 1970s strategy of banding together to form exclusively women artists’

cooperative gallery spaces was not only necessary, but as time has

shown, has contributed to the flourishing renaissance of talented

professional women artists.

Several of the regional venues that have become known as "alternative

spaces" arose during the activist years of the women’s movement.

And they continue to thrive.

The A.I.R. Gallery (Artists in Residence Gallery) in SoHo, founded

in 1972, one of the first feminist cooperatives in the country. Today

it continues to operate with its stated mission "of providing

a professional and permanent exhibition space for women artists to

show work of quality and diversity," and also "to bring a

new understanding to old attitudes about women and the arts."

If, as Beverly Sills has suggested, "art is the signature of civilizations,"

then women’s art can be seen as a mark of their importance to that

civilization. In a recent statement corresponding with a digital print

exhibition and workshop, the mission has been updated to reflect A.I.R.’s

current role as "a forum to alert the public to the fact that

women are on the cutting edge of what is new in art."

The need for women-only art groups has now changed. As more women

artists — Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois, Susan Rothenberg and

Kiki Smith, to name just a few — became widely known by breaking

into the previously men-only canon, there is no longer the need for

all women to merge together to battle a "common enemy." Today’s

desire for group affiliation seems to be based on the sincere appreciation

for the diversity brought about by shared interests and experiences

expressed in the broad spectrum of women’s art. Celebrating the genuine

interest in and understanding of each other’s work motivates the women

art professionals to focus their time, thoughts, and money on each

other.

Last year, A.I.R. director Alissa Schoenfeld organized "Generations,"

an extravaganza art exhibit of approximately 450 women’s works to

celebrate the gallery’s important anniversary. She says that the exhibit

was a way of "taking the temperature and seeing how many of us

are out there." With a new attitude of combating the artworld’s

more subtle discrimination against those women who are not yet artworld

stars, A.I.R. will catapult into the future from the momentum built

up over the past decades by continuing to build the community of women

artists with exhibition opportunities, an expanded archive, and outreach

programs.

Closer to home, and with a similar history, the Mary H. Dana Women

Artists Series at Rutgers University’s Douglass College Library in

New Brunswick continues its mission to exhibit selected women artists’

works, bringing them to the attention of the students, faculty, staff,

and the region. Having celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1996, this

exhibition series is also fueled by new passions. No longer a response

to the discriminatory artworld of the past, it now projects women

artists as full participants in the development of contemporary culture.

In 1971, with no women on Rutgers’ art school’s faculty and in wanting

to offer role models to the art students, the Women Artists Series

was launched by the influential neo-expressionist painte, Highland

Park native, and Douglass alumna, Joan Snyder. In a 1992 essay commemorating

the 20th anniversary of the series she states the during the first

years, she chose artists either because she thought the students needed

to see certain work, or the artist herself needed the exposure.

Snyder says that women artists pumped the blood back into the art

movements of the 1970s and 1980s with their personal, biographical,

expressionistic, political, and narrative art. This, despite the fact

that much of the credit for this sea change has gone to such male

practitioners as David Salle and Julian Schnabel. The series’ current

curator, art historian Ferris Olin, says that a similar lack of attention

was given to the dynamic women who led the pattern and decoration

movement during the early 1970s. "The men still get more publicity,"

she states.

Douglass College is an ideal location for scholarship into all aspects

of women’s lives, having one of the top women’s studies programs in

the country. As an archivist at Douglass Library, Olin is also involved

with the growing collection of papers from the contemporary art organizations

such as the Women’s Caucus for Art, the Heresies Collective, and the

New York Feminist Art Institute. Olin understands the collaborative

effort it takes to maintain the dynamism that women artists have generated

over the past quarter century. Developing programs that tie the Women

Artists Series into course work at both the Mason Gross School and

the art history program is important.

In art movements where the practitioners are both male and female,

it is virtually impossible to tell from looking at a particular work

the gender of the artist who did it. However, in the artworld, the

treatment given the sex of the artist differs dramatically. As Elizabeth

Murray beautifully sums up in her essay "Modern Women" that

accompanied her 1995 "Artist’s Choice" exhibit at the Museum

of Modern Art in New York, she thanks the previous generations of

pioneering women — Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon, and Grace

Hartigan among them — who, "without much fanfare or attention,

got their art out into the world." So, too, have the women-only

exhibition spaces provided society with the material that "has

widened our consciousness of what art can be, and who can be an artist,

a real artist."

— Jeanne Kolva

The Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, Douglass College

Library, Rutgers, 732-932-9407. Artist books without words by Princeton

Junction resident, Debra Weier, and a collaborative video piece which

visually domesticates the Park of the Wolf in Bucharest by Jan Blair

and Nancy Macko, continues through March 23.

A.I.R gallery, 40 Wooster Street, New York, 212-966-0799.

Large-scale abstract paintings by Linda Levit and photographs by Nijole

Kudirka, To March 7. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.


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