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
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
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,"
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
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.
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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