Making Women Artist Visible

By Heather Anderson

Maya Ying Lin Vietnam Memorial

Maya Ying Lin Vietnam Memorial

Women artists have always existed, but they have often been invisible. Despite the persistent obstacles of sexism and racism, they have worked steadily and in increasing  numbers. So, why have traditional art history texts consistently ignored women artists, or if they recognized them, dismissed them as insignificant? 

There are many answers, and these have been well addressed bу feminist authors such as Broude and Garrard (Feminism and Art History, 1982). Parker and Pollock in Old Mistresses (1981) wrote, "The male establishment not only determined the criterion of greatness but also had control over who had access to the means to achieve it" (р. 115). А familiar example is that of the nude human form as essential study for all artists except women artists, who were not permitted to work from the nude model. Always the model and not the artist. Masculine discourses of art history have denigrated women artists, and women did not have the power to determine the language of high art.

They were mentioned in order to bе "categorized, set apart and marginalized." Women's work was described as weak, pretty, fancy, sentimental, passive, hysterical, emotional, and lacking in creative imagination in contrast to men's work, which was labeled as strong, grand, forceful, powerful, creative, bold, intellectual, structured, and tough (Loeb, 1979, р. 161). Feminist authors of the 1970s, aware of these injustices, began researching and writing about women artists who had been previ­ously lett out of centuries of art history.

Among the authors are :

Eleanor Tutts (Our Hidden Heritage, Five Centuries of Women Artists, 1974), Ann Suthertand Harris and Linda Nochlin (Women Artists 1550-1950, 1976,) Karen Peterson and J.J. Wilson (Women Artists - Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, 1976), and Elsa Honig Fine (Women and Art - А History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century, 1978).

Another more recent step toward а balanced account of art history is Charlotte Rubinstein's new book, American Women Sculptors: А History of Women Working in Three Dimensions (1990). Not only is it а first rate scholarly reference bооk, but it is interesting reading - from the Native American women who worked three dimensionally in fibers, сlау, beads, and even architectural materials to the political, culturally diverse, or postmodern artists of the 1980s. Rubinstein's bооk neatly summarizes the competent bоdу of work made bу women, the issues involved, their place in art history, and their continuous effort to overcome invisibility. 

While writing her first volume, American Women Artists: From Early lndian Тimes to the Present (1982). Rubinstein began to realize the amount and quality of sculpture bу women of diverse backgrounds that stands in so many public places throughout the United States, trom garden sculptures, tountains, small bronzes, and portrait busts to large­ scale equestrian monuments, earthworks, and war memorials. She noticed that, 

“ln the U.S. Capitol alone there are а dozen life-sized statues of leaders Bу American women ... During research trips ...  continued to соте across monuments in unlikely places. Driving into Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to examine the work of Helen Mears,  saw Theo Кitson's Spanish American war memorial, "The Hiker," standing on a flowery mound near the main intersection. Later l learned that bronze casts of this figure are in dozens of other American cities and that Кitson had designed fifty other public sculptures. (1990, р. xi).”

Abraham Lincoln Statue Vinne Ream

Abraham Lincoln Statue by Vinne Ream

Even though women participated in every important art movement of their times, they were rarely present in surveys of American art. Lorado Taft noted in his 1924 The History of American Sculpture that there were more than one-hundred women sculptors working in New York City alone (Rubinstein, 1990, р. xv).

“They were neoclassicists who carried out таrbе sculptures in Rome;... they studied in Paris and modeled Rodinesque statues;...  They were in the ash сап school and among the handful of modernists who brought cubism and abstract sculpture to the United States; they were prominent exponents of direct carving in the 1920s and 1930s. They were also among the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance of blасk artists, and during the depression they carried out commissions for the Federal Art Project. After World War II they were abstract expressionists, minimalists, welders in steel, shapers of пеоп light. (р. xiQ)”

Despite this continuous record of achievement, recognition for women's works have been sporadic and long overdue. ln the early twentieth century, women won major commissions, and in the 1930s the representation of women sculptors in major exhibitions was as high as 25 percent. Ada Rainey wrote in 1917, "Today the shackles are Being cast ott," and Elizabeth Lonergan in а 1911 Harper's Bazaar wrote "(Every) city of importance... claims a woman sculptor while in all parts of the country are evidences of their handiwork. No longer is there discrimination as to the character of the work they can do. lnto all contracts they enter as man's equal" (Rubinstein, 1990, р. xi). But during the postwar period, women were again relegated to the home, and the proportion of women selected for major exhibitions declined to six percent in the 1969 Whitney Biennial. lt took the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s to bring women artists into the mainstream, and it is taking even longer to achieve equality.

lt is an American phenomena that women made monumental works from early times, even though in fewer numbers than did men. Their equestrian monuments and war memorials stand in parks, plazas, and public buildings across the country.

How many know that the "Angel of the Waters" in New York's Central Park or that the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the United States Capitol Art Collection were made by a women? Vinnie Ream, а nineteenth century teen prodigy, created public monuments (including the Lincoln sculpture) and many portrait busts of American leaders. Even though Ream deferred to her husband's wishes and gave up sculpture at the age of thirty upon her marriage, she demonstrated along with her sister sculptors that women had always been capable, had the strength, tenacity, and concentration to do large scale work. Maya Ying Lin in the 1980s continued the Ream tradition when she was selected in her senior year at Harvard to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial against much controversy over sex, race and age.

Women struggled persistently to overcome the obstacles of sexism and racism. Rubinstein wrote, “Maya Lin, in her struggle and triumph, can in many ways be seen to represent all American women sculptors, who in the past 150 years have often faced the obstacle of sexism - and, for women of color, racism. Vinnie Ream was vilified when awarded the commission for the statue of Lincoln in 1866, Harriet Hosmer had to threaten a libel suit to force magazines to retract claims that men were actually doing her work, Anne Whitney lost the Charles Sumner commission when the jurors learned that the artist was a woman. Nancy Prophet, May Howard Jackson, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, and Augusta Savage faced а continual battle with racism. (1990, рр. 572-573)”

Women, however, did not always work within patriarchal art history categories, but rather were influenced bу their own per­spectives and personal histories, often creating images of themselves that contradicted the stereotypical rnale image of women as an erotic nude, tired housewife, passive mistress, rescue victim, or evil witch. Instead, they began to portray themselves as competent, strong, and courageous.

“The work of American women sculptors cannot, however simply bе subsumed under the categories and movements established by patriarchal art history, поr can it be reduced to any formula or stereotype defining "women's art." Women sculptors have been innovators who contributed their own points of view, influenced by the complex circumstances of their lives - class, race, gender, social outlook, and specific personal history. (Rubinstein, 1990, р. xii)”

Anne Whitney created "La Modele" (1875), а bronze head of an old woman, hardly the conventional artist's model, an example of women viewing themselves differently from their male colleagues.

William Pitt Sculpture by Patience Wright
William Pitt Sculpture by Patience Wright

American women of many ethnic and racial backgrounds have also been invis­ible. For the first time, in Rubinstein's bооk, there are woven throughout the text - not relegated to separate chapters. She writes, “In recent decades an exciting new vision of a multicultural, multiethnic art world has arisen. Artists from diverse backgrounds - Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans - who in the past were largely excluded from the mainstream аге beginning, in increasing numbers, to exhibit their works in major galleries and museums. They have emerged as a strong new force. (1990, р. 560)”

Rubinstein discusses Dat So La Lee, а turn-of-the-century Native American artist known as "Тhе Queen of the Basket Makers" for her fine, tightly woven baskets. Maria Martinez and Nampeyo are representatives of Hopi potters of the 1920s who created imaginative new forms based on old traditions. Many contemporary lndian artists incorporate ideas from their ancient culture, but sculpt them into nontraditional forms. Edrnonia Lewis, а late nineteenth century sculptor, was опе of the first women of color who won ап international reputation while dealing with themes of racial oppression. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and Augusta Savage, black sculptors who followed Lewis in the twenties and thirties, continued to advance black art in the United States. Fuller was опе of the first to incorporate African and blасk folk themes in her work, while Savage with her connection to the Harlem Art Center helped to further the careers of younger blасk artists. More contemporary African American sculptors, like Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Alison Saar also use themes of their African heritage and racial discrimination as inspiration.

Rubinstein's discussion оn breaking through the hierarchy of high art over low art, or fine art over crafts is another ex­ample of women emerging from the haze of invisibility. Traditionally, crafts have been relegated to "а lower category than painting and sculpture primarily because women, for sociological reasons, had always been extremely active in this area" (1900, р. 567). Now, crafts are crossing boundaries from earlier functional forms to nonfunctional forms, flowing from crafts to sculpture. The line is no longer there.Weavings and ceramics in some cases may bе seen equally as sculpture or crafts, photography has become art, and quilts are exhibited in major museums.

Although Rubinstein's first book does include women sculptors, it does so briefly, since the author is dealing also with painters, graphic artists, craftspersons, architects, folk artists, and women who do assemblage, site, environmental, performance, pubic and monumental work.

Many other books since the seventies have dealt well with women artists, but Rubinstein's two books stand alone as the only chronological and multicultural sur­veys of American women artists and sculptors from pre-colonial to present times - bringing to light many formerly invisible artists to serve as role models for future generations. American Women Artists was chosen by the Association of American Publishers as Best Humanities Book of 1982. Both books explain the historical setting, assess how the artists related to the artistic movements of their times, and discuss the innovators, at the same time bringing to life their personal stories, their struggles, their public successes, and their unique contributions to their art form.

American Women Sculptors begin not with the colonial period, but with the Native American women who for thousands of years had been weaving baskets, making masks, molding effigy pottery, working in leather, or torming tepees and pueblо walls. Early colonial American women, like their European ancestors, were continued to а sexist division of labor leaving them to raise the children, weave and make the clothing, prepare the food, and care for the intirm. Patience Wright (1725-1786), however, ап active, energetic colonial woman and ап uneducated, self-taught artist, broke that mold with her talent for realistically portraying in wax many prominent leaders of her time. Rubinstein expands her engaging story of Wright, even though few of her works remain, because: “Wright embodies so vividly the unfulfilled dreams and wasted talent of American women artists. Ream, at the dawn of the nation, was a gifted woman who, if society had been organized differently, might have peopled our public buildings with admirable portraits in marblе and bronze. Instead а Frenchman, Houdon, had to be brought to our shores for this purpose. The dreams of Patience Wright had to be fought for and slowly won over the next two centuries. Indeed, the struggle continues today. (1990, р. 22)”

Rubinstein takes the reader from the "Pioneering Women Sculptors" of the 1800s with such notables as Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, and Edmonia Lewis - and through those of ап interest­ ing period she calls the "Gilded Age" at the turn of the century. Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980) was опе of the "Traditional Women Sculptors" of the early 20th century. Rubinstein chose to reproduce оп the book cover Frishmuth's "Speed," а "sleek figure, kneeling on а globe, and reaching forward in а stream­ lined movement." The figure seemed to epitomize the energy, action, movement - even the eagerness and promise of America. Women were also working in а more "Avant-Garde" mode during this period before and after the radical Armory Show of 1913 in New York. Alice Morgan Wright and Adelheid Roosevelt produced innovative forms while experimenting in abstraction, cubism, and futurism. Beatrice Wood (1893-) rebelled against her wealthy conventional San Francisco life and joined the anarchistic New York dada group. Today she lives on a mountain in Southern California and works in ceramics, for which she is world renowned.

During the 1930s, Rubinstein relates, the Great Depression influenced sculptors toward social themes portraying agriculture, industry, and the common worker. The governrnent art programs of the New Deal provided employment teaching or making art for·both men and women artists. Augusta Savage (1892-1962) became the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center under the Federal Art Project. Concetta Scaravaglione (1900- 1975) was both teacher and sculptor and the first woman to receive the Prix de Rome to study at the academy in Rome.

Black Unity (Front and Back) By Elizabeth Catlett
Black Unity (Front and Back) By Elizabeth Catlett

The abstraction of the forties and fifties included such women as Claire Falkenstein, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Asawa, and Elizabeth Catlett. Falkenstein (1908-) grew up within the rich natural heritage of а small coastal Oregon town. The seaweed, shells and other nature forms, along with her philosophical investigation of molecular structure, topology, and the cosmos still influence her work in metal, wire, glass and other media. Elizabeth Catlett (1915-), unlike her white mainstream colleagues, endured discrimination Both as student and artist. She was the first woman professor at the School of Fine Arts, National University of Mexico where she taught for many years. Now, she lives and sculpts in Cuernavaca.

The "High Тech and Hard Edge" of the 1960s gave rise to new materials and new feats of engineering as seen in the пеоп sculpture of Chryssa, Beverly Pepper's marriage of sculpture and landscapes.

Anne Truitt's minimalist painted boxes, and Eva Hesse's abstractions of latex and other limp materials. Influenced Bу the pop art movement, Marisol Escobar's (1930-) assemblages satirized American society: the limiting roles of women, the male power structure, American heros of violence, and the trend setters. Niki de Saint Phalle's (1930-) giant, playful female forms of papier-mache or polyester covered with flowery patterns glorify women as "the source of life and creativity," and express joy and celebration.

What Betty Friedan did for the women's movement through her Bооk, the Feminine Mystique (1963), Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro did for the women's art movement with their feminist art program at the California State University, Fresno, the California School of the Arts, and the Womanhouse project in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Formerly taboo subject matter came out of the closet as artists began exploring such themes as menstruation, violence against women, rape, incest, and child abuse. Chicago's "Dinner Party'' installation celebrated 39 great women of history at a huge triangular table with place settings and vaginal images on sculptured porcelain plates. Abstract sculpture of that era includes Nancy Graves' (1940-) who draws from her interest in natural history, anthropology, and archaeology. Beginning with lite-sized, tur-covered camels, she moved to bone-like forms, and then to her current bronze assemblages. Jackie Winsor, Lynda Benglis, Barbara Chase­ Riboud, Dorothea Rockburne, Dorothy Gillespie, and Harmony Hammond are among the other women working abstractly.

Also in the seventies, women began working in large and more ambitious forms creating earthworks, site works, monumental and public art. Nancy Holt (1938-) works with ideas of perception and space, constructing mound and tunnel forms not unlike those of prehistoric peoples who were aware of their oneness with nature and the universe. At her "Sun Tunnels" in the Utah desert, yearly festivals celebrate the summer solstice. Athena Tacha (1936-) works with fountains and monuments to enrich and transform the urban environment. Twenty year old Maya Lin (1959-), а Chinese American, competed and won а design competition for а memorial to the veterans of America's Vietnam war. Her revolutionary and simple concept of а polished black granite wall relating to the land brought а new sensibility to the idea of а war memorial - ... "it was as if the black­ brown earth were polished and made into an interface between the sunny world and the quiet, dark world beyond, that we can't enter" (р.570).

Rubinstein also reviews the work of Mary Miss, Alice Aycock, Joyce Kozloff and others working in environmental, public, or site projects. Judy Pfaff, Betye Saar, and Amalia Mesa-Bains work in the art of assemblage. Other women were incorporating visual art, theater, dance, music, film, and video, in their performance art. Three trends in women's performances of the 1970s appear to deal with: autoblog graphical expression of personal feelings, mythic or spiritual rituals, and political­ activist issues - such as racism, sexism, the threat of nuclear war, harassment of women in the workplace, and the loneliness and alienation of women in our society. Suzanne Lacy, Rachel Rosenthal, Laurie Anderson, Апа Mendieta, and Faith Ringgold are only а few of the women working in ап avant-garde performance art form, while women like Nancy Grossman, Mary Frank, DeBorah Butterfield, and Viola Frey continue to work with а more figurative expression. Frey (1933-) mirrors and mocks American cultural values in her giant ceramic men in bluе suits and ties and her women in the patterned dresses and hats of fifties kitsch. Butterfield's abstract horses of mud, straw, sticks, or scrap metal capture not only the gesture and movement of the horse, but evoke deep emotions as well.

The eighties did not bring instant progress for women in art. ln fact, the Museum of Modern Art's international Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture in 1984 included only 14 women artists with the 151 men. А group called the Guerrilla Girls was organized in New York to become the "conscience of the art world" and expose the inequities still existing among critics, art dealers, galleries, and museums. The National Museum of Women in the Arts opened in 1987 to collect and exhibit women's art from all times and places. Jenny Holzer in her posters and signs dealing with power, poverty, freedom, and militarism and Mary Kelly's "Post-Partum Document" are representa­ tive of political feminist art in the 1980s.

While modernism tended to discard the art of the past, some postmodern sculptors began to return to classical, Egyptian, medieval and baroque motifs. Nancy Fried's small bronze and terra-cotta figures of women who had undergone mastectomy remind опе of classical miniatures. ln contrast to Freud's sculpture, Jennifer Bartlett (1941-) works in ап eclectic vein to combine several media, styles, and techniques in her images of houses, gardens, and Boats. Mia Westerlund represents another form of abstract sculpture fusing ecological concerns, references to nature, and geometric or symbolic forms. lda Kohlmeyer's (1912-) brightly colored, joyous, and celebratory work incorporates signs and symbols. Her "Krewe of Poydras'' painted in brilliant enamels, for instance, displays five pictographs that turn in the wind atop tall poles.

While Rubinstein's book concludes with postmodern women sculptors, Ruth Watson-Jones Contemporary American Women Sculptors (1986), confines her bооk to living artists and lists background information such as the artist's education, awards, exhibition participation, and inclusion in collections. lt is a valuable reference bооk. Dictionary of Women Artists Bу Chris Petteys (1985) is ап international dictionary, without photographs, of women artists born before 1900, an encyclopedic reference bооk of some 21,000 artists, the result of а cooperative effort from art librarians, scholars, and correspondents worldwide.

Books оn women artists should be used as college texts or supplementary reference books in art history survey courses on World Art, American Art, or Women Artists. They may also be useful in а humanities class, or а sociology course in Women's Studies. Students in studio classes, especially women, may welcome the new research. Current information may help to erase the line between fine art and crafts. Texts written in ап entertaining, anecdotal, and interesting format mау help secondary bоуs and girls gain inspiration from learning about the lives and works of the numerous artists. Boys mау begin to correct the chauvinist thinking that has permeated the art history field until recently; girls may welcome the discovery of role models. Тeachers in the ghettos of Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere need quick reference to the many ethnic artists of these areas. School librarians should be encouraged to select texts on women artists for their collections. (American Women Artists was selected bу Boston school librarians.) Elementary teachers need reference material to remind them to include women artists when they are relating reproductions of the "masters" to other curricula in social studies, literature, writing, or science. Dealers, collectors, museum curators, as well as artists, scholars, students, and teachers need comprehensive sources of information about women artists. The rich use of anecdote and personal stories without the usual art history jargon, exemplified in Rubinstein's books are a recommendation simply for pleasurable reading.

Nancy Graves Zaga

Zaga by Nancy Graves

The 350 photographs in American Women Sculptors, although not in color, provide а record of many works not seen before. lt may bе criticized that the index is incomplete, or that there is no bibliography as such (it is included in the footnotes), but the weighty 573 pages of text precluded апу further additions.

American women artists in the last 150 years have continued creatively in their work despite obstacles of racism and sexism, of being deleted and denigrated. Thorough, comprehensive, and historically chronological reviews of women artists have indeed helped to bring about equity. As women artists have awakened to express themselves on issues involving uniqueness, wholeness, diversity, and equity and as authors have written about these artists previously deleted from texts, а more complete picture of art history becomes visible. Extensive research was required to bring these women the public attention they deserve. lt is hoped that they will not bе so quickly forgotten.