Postwar Women Artists
Mon, 10/18/2021 – 12:50
Postwar Women Artists Transcript
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NARRATOR: Hello and welcome to our series of audio tours about modern art at LACMA. This episode is about work made mostly in the latter half of the 20th century by women artists.
Why focus on work by women? LACMA answered that question in 1976 when it organized the very first major historical show of work by women artists. The answer then is still relevant today. The truth is that too often, these artists were overlooked or undervalued because of sexism in the art world. It is simply a fact that w e must correct for the underrepresentation of women artists. The artists you’ll see today aren’t a footnote to the story of modern art. They were radical innovators whose contributions enhance the way that we currently understand modern art.
You should be on the third floor of the BCAM building around the midway point. If you aren’t there already, pause and resume when you reach the room with the video monitors.
Ready to continue? This essay is strictly about art made after 1950. We’ll start in the gallery just ahead, at the small Frida Kahlo painting next to the large Diego Rivera of a woman with a basket of white flowers.
It shows two orange coconuts against a green background.
[Navigate to Frida Kahlo, Weeping Coconuts]
NARRATOR: We begin with Kahlo because she is an icon for so many women even today. She is best known for her self-portraits, but this painting was made later in her career, when she was in her forties, partially incapacitated by pain arising from childhood polio and a subsequent spinal injury. Kahlo has given the coconuts human qualities. During her life, she was most widely known as Diego Rivera’s wife and muse, rather than as an artist and equal—hard to imagine, given what we know today of her forceful personality and her fame.
The life of an artist isn’t just about what she produces. The choice to make art brings with it decisions about how to live one’s life, how to see the world, and how to make sense of things. Kahlo’s relationship to gender and femininity was complex. She smoked, boxed, and embraced politics—things associated with men in her day. As a teenager, she sometimes dressed as a man. She had a long and tumultuous marriage to Rivera, and had several passionate romantic relationships with women. Painful experiences, from multiple miscarriages to her husband’s affair with her sister, all appear in her work. Kahlo defied stereotypes of how a woman should live, seizing her suffering and resilience as subject matter in her unflinching self-portraits.
[Navigate to Dorothea Tanning, Xmas ]
NARRATOR: Now, turn to the tall fabric sculpture in the center of the room. This is the work of Dorothea Tanning. She’d been a painter, working in New York in the 1930s and 40s. By all accounts, Tanning was a happy person who had an unproblematic childhood in a small town in Illinois. She escaped boredom by disappearing into stories and fables; dark fairy tales influenced her paintings. One day in the mid-1960s, she got fed up with painting and started making stuffed figures. “I set myself terrible goals, terrible challenges,” she said. Her sculpted figures are often suggestive of some indescribable darkness or nightmarish hidden reality. The fragility and the impermanence of fabric appealed to her; it seemed more lifelike than materials like metal and stone. This piece is called Xmas. When asked about the small bit of red cloth near the top of the sculpture, Tanning said only: “X marks the spot”, ever elusive in seeking to avoid over-explaining her own work.
Tanning was married to the artist Max Ernst. She once wrote that being the wife of a well-known male artist compromised her own career. Relatively recently, museum curators have tried to correct the imbalance, revisiting her work in a series of exhibitions that evaluate her in her own right.
Now, enter the next gallery. As you enter, look to the left. look for an eight-foot tall painting titled Winter Hunt, It includes expressive black, brown, and blue marks made in a signature stain technique devised by artist Helen Frankenthaler.
[Navigate to Helen Frankenthaler, Winter Hunt]
NARRATOR: Frankenthaler worked on untreated canvas with paint that she diluted with turpentine. The technique produced a thin veil of color that soaked the canvas, almost like watercolor. In Winter Hunt, the marks are spontaneous, improvisational. You can almost sense the artist circling the picture with broad gestures. She painted the canvas as it lay on the floor, a method she adapted after seeing Jackson Pollock work this way. In an interview she said this:
FRANKENTHALER: I think the thing that hit me most of all was that while I knew it was a fact, it became a physical necessity to get pictures off the easel. And therefore, for me, not even on a wall. The reach or fluidity of working from above down into a field, really registered when I saw his studio and he unrolled his paintings on the floor that he had painted them on. Now, I was never drawn to the idea of a stick dipped in a huge can. One thing I have never liked is a drip…It’s a boring accident to me, a drip…Drips are drips.
I think a certain attitude that was probably in me already, but I hadn’t used it yet , was sort of, let ‘er rip. Go free. You have the wherewithal. Just go. Run with it. Try it. Fool around.
NARRATOR: Run with it she did, making enormous paintings on an ambitious scale, even when, as a relatively unknown artist, it would have been easier to sell smaller scale works.
Frankenthaler worked in a style that came to be known as Abstract Expressionism; the movement, centered in New York, was something of a boys’ club. Curators, collectors and critics praised young American abstract artists who painted with bold gestures on giant canvases. It’s not that women weren’t painting in this style; they were. But women artists tended to be left out of books, exhibitions, and conversations about this new style of painting.
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Eventually, her work was exhibited and collected by major museums and she became well known for various innovations, including the stain technique on untreated canvas that you see here.
Just to the left of this work is a painting by another woman who was an important part of the New York art world of the early 1960s, Joan Mitchell.
[Navigate to Joan Mitchell, East Ninth Street]
NARRATOR: Today, abstract art is fairly well accepted. In 1956, it was notably more controversial. Especially for a female artist, a painting like this one defied polite conventions of what constituted real art. More than seven feet by five feet in dimension, East Ninth Street captures an ineffable quality of the artist’s energy and emotion, in the use of color, the broad brushstrokes, and the monumental size of the canvas. It might look random, or at least spontaneous. But Mitchell once said of her work “The freedom is quite controlled. I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best.” .
Mitchell was a competitor, and bold. At times she was described as difficult, even mean. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at twenty, she went to Mexico to paint. At 23, she moved to Paris and rented a studio. By 25, she was back in New York, an integral part of the New York art scene that included the artists you see on this and the adjacent wall.
The title of the painting, East Ninth Street, comes from an exhibition in 1951 that included her work, as well as that of Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner. The exhibition was organized by artists and meant to challenge the conventional taste of established New York galleries. At first, some of the organizers had questioned whether women painters should be included at all but, fortunately, greater balance prevailed. Nevertheless, throughout her life, Mitchell’s work was assigned lesser value than that of male artists. Recently, her paintings have gained the recognition and value that eluded her during her lifetime. A major retrospective happened just recently, nearly twenty years after her death.
Now, turn around. Look to the left of the doorway through which you entered this room. You’ll see a number of smaller works hung together. Look for a piece made of metal and canvas that almost looks like it has a mouth at its center. It’s by Lee Bontecou
[Navigate to Lee Bontecou, Untitled]
NARRATOR: Is this a painting? Or a sculpture? Does it matter?
So many of Bontecou’s best known works are made of canvas mounted on welded steel frames like the one you see here. They tend to be composed, like this one, with a dark opening at the center. The tough metal exterior contrasts with the deep, mysterious void in the middle. Scholars and critics have described the mysterious voids as a metaphor for a woman’s body, but the association limits our understanding of Bontecou’s work to her biology. The work is as much about the contrast between the machinery of war and the fragility of human life; the tension between industrial engineering in the space age and the unknowable mysteries of the universe.
Bontecou grew up with a father who made gliders for the military and a mother who built submarine transmitters. She was deeply affected by the Second World War. Later in her adulthood, the Vietnam War, the space race, the Cold War and other world events continued to occupy her attention. She was an art world star in the 1960s, but she cared little about such things and dropped out of sight after feeling discouraged by some critical reviews. She moved to rural Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter. She continued to work, but not to exhibit. Decades later, around 2004, she was rediscovered by museums and galleries and has been included in major museum shows since then.
Now, turn toward the far end of the room. On your left, near the corner, you’ll see an enormous painting with a thick encrusted surface. Take a closer look.
[Navigate to Jay DeFeo, The Jewel]
NARRATOR: This massive piece by Jay De Feo from 1959, is one of those works of art that is almost impossible to depict in an image. It’s called The Jewel.
STEPHANIE BARRON: The painting weighs several hundred pounds and when you look at it up close you can see the thick surface and the format just draws you in. It has this resonance and this mystical quality to it. And many artists at this time were influenced by Asian culture, by philosophy. It was very much in the air.
NARRATOR: The Jewel is the companion of a better-known painting called The Rose in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The creation of the two paintings entirely consumed the artist as she worked tirelessly for several years, building up and then carving down the surface. The process was so arduous that she developed lead poisoning and stopped working for a while. For many artists, De Feo’s exhausting process of making these two paintings remains a haunting story about an artist driven to extremes in pursuit of something elusive and perhaps impossible.
The myth of these two paintings may be misleading. For a long time, De Feo was seen as a naïve mystic, overcome by an otherworldly inspiration that drove her to the point of madness. In recent years, as scholars have started to reevaluate the work of American women artists, a deeper story has emerged. It places De Feo’s massive paintings in the context of a lifelong practice and credits her as an influential part of bohemian San Francisco and an inspiring teacher. Still, standing in front of this monumental painting with its rich texture and emanating rays of light, it is hard not to be moved by the sheer ambition of a single painting.
Now, turn to the right.
[Navigate to Lee Krasner, Desert Moon]
NARRATOR: Frustration, and what to do about it, is part of any artist’s life. Lee Krasner had an unsparing attitude toward her own work. Even pieces she’d labored over would sometimes disappoint her. When she was dissatisfied, she would destroy a painting, sometimes saving the parts and recombining them in a new composition. This is one of the collages she made in that way. It’s called Desert Moon. Krasner once said in an interview that the moon “made me feel more emotional, more intense. It would build a momentum of some sort for me.”
Krasner was married to Jackson Pollock, the infamous bad boy of Abstract Expressionism. In 1949, Life magazine hailed him as the greatest living American painter. By contrast, Krasner didn’t even have a major museum show until she was 75 years old, despite her accomplishments as a painter in her own right.
Desert Moon was made in the year before her husband died at 44 in a drunk driving accident. His career had descended into the chaos of his alcoholism. While he raged, unable to paint, she took refuge in making collages, destroying and reassembling her own work in her upstairs studio. When Pollock died, Krasner moved into the studio that had been his and carried on with her work for another thirty years. Her nephew later said of her, “She had a very strong conviction about herself as a painter. She saw her own worth. She didn’t have the attention Pollock had, but she’d grown inured to that.”
Now, turn to the right.
In the corner, you’ll see a large painting of black dots on a white background. It’s by Yayoi Kusama.
[Navigate to Yayoi Kusama, No. C.A.9]
NARRATOR: Dubbed the Princess of Polka Dots, Kusama once said:
“Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”
Kusama is prolific and her work has influenced everything from music, to fashion, housewares. It even appears on the side of buses in Japan. She is also revered as a novelist.
As a young woman growing up in Japan, Kusama said she felt trapped by convention. She wrote a letter to the artist Georgia O’Keeffe whom she admired. To her surprise, O’Keeffe wrote back, encouraging her aspirations. Kusama moved to the United States, arriving in New York in 1958. She was young, shy, and so poor she had to scrounge in the garbage for food, but she also became an influential part of the New York avant garde art scene of the 1960s. She organized events in which she painted naked bodies with giant polka dots in Central Park, and began to create fantastical installations called Infinity Rooms using a series of mirrors to create a sense of unlimited space. She was close to artists Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, and Frank Stella, whose 1959 painting hangs nearby. She also had a very close friendship with the artist Joseph Cornell.
Kusama has been very candid about her experiences with mental illness that began in her youth. She traces some of her struggles to a difficult relationship with her mother, and to conflict between her parents. In the 1970s, she returned to Japan from New York and checked herself into a Tokyo psychiatric hospital where she has lived ever since. She continues to work long days in her enormous studio in central Tokyo, near the hospital.
Now look to your right, to the opposite side of the doorway. You’ll see a wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa.
[Navigate to Ruth Asawa, Untitled]
NARRATOR: Ruth Asawa is renowned for ethereal wire hangings like this one. Her looping technique produces two works of art simultaneously—the sculpture itself and the magical shadow it casts.
Asawa grew up on a vegetable farm in Norwalk, California. During World War II, she and her family were interned at the Santa Anita racetrack, because Japanese Americans had been deemed a threat to national security. She first took art classes in the camp at Santa Anita, and then at a Relocation Center in Arkansas when they were forced to move there. She planned to become an art teacher but racial discrimination made that impossible, so she enrolled at Black Mountain College, an experimental art school. There she met the architect Buckminster Fuller who said Asawa was “the most gifted, productive, and originally-inspired artist that I have ever known personally.” Here, she talks about his influence on her work:
RUTH ASAWA:22 Black Mountain really influenced my whole approach…
Bucky talks about basic principles. The use of material to create a shape that can only be done by that material.
He was talking about abstracting from the material. Rather than letting your own design ideas forcing something into it, you become background, just like the parent allows the child to express himself and the parent becomes supportive.
Asawa lived and worked in San Francisco from 1949 until her death. She made this piece in 1954, and kept it in her own personal collection. Her work is part of LACMA’s deep holdings in the area of art made in California.
Enter the next room.
Find the silhouette of a woman jumping rope. The rope is indicated in yellow neon. This is the next stop on our tour.
[Navigate to Idelle Weber, Jump Rope]
NARRATOR: In the 1960s, American artists, instead of treating art as something precious and protected from consumer culture, started to engage directly with ads, magazine and billboard images, and materials like neon, plastic, and commercial printing. Idelle Weber’s woman jumping rope has the slick surface and cheerful polish that are hallmarks of Pop Art. But her work holds a deeper dimension. The way that commercial imagery codifies gender and social roles interested Weber, and “Jump Rope” stands in contrast to the idealized representations of women in mass media. And she was no stranger to sexism in her career. She once showed her portfolio to the artist Robert Motherwell, who told her that it was a shame that she would not be able to continue as an artist, once she became a mother. Later, one of her pieces was selected for a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To encourage her career, the curator there introduced her to a well-known art historian who published best selling textbooks. The textbook writer told her point blank that he did not include women painters in his books.
Weber struggled to find a gallery that would take on a woman artist. She ended up selling her work, not through a gallery, but with the help of a female furniture designer and interior decorator. The sexism she grappled with wasn’t lost on Weber; other silhouette pieces slyly critique the male-dominated business world. In fact, the opening credits for the television show Mad Men borrowed heavily from Weber’s parodies of corporate culture.
Now turn to your right. Look for a sculpture of a giant comb. Take a closer look at this sculpture, by artist Vija Celmins.
[Navigate to Vija Celmins, Untitled (Comb) 1970]
NARRATOR: As you get close to the comb, you’ll notice how tall it is. In an interview, artist Vija Celmins recalled the circumstances of making this comb.
CELMINS: I came from Indiana. Most of the time, the work I saw was in magazines. So it would be people that were pretty well known. And I think when I came to LA, I thought it was like a new beginning. I found this studio at 701 Venice Blvd. Venice was so wonderful! It was almost totally empty. There was very little traffic.
I had just been married and I made the comb about the size of my husband, 6’ 4”, for some bizarre unknown reason. I drew the comb on this piece of wood and then I thought, well, how am I going to cut it? So I had a lumber yard, I took it in, and I had them roughly cut the shape in. And then I got a file, 2, 3 files, and I started filing. I like the physical labor. My work is pretty physical anyway. I like the physical labor of it, you know? I sprayed—I can’t believe I did this!—this is sprayed with lacquer, without a mask or anything. But I’m still here! I didn’t know. When I get on to something, my brain is ticking and I’m trying to figure out how to make it! I had someone write on there. Because I never could write on things. It took a couple of years, on and off.
NARRATOR: On the wall to your right, you’ll see a work with a highly polished background and multi-hued octagonal forms.
[Navigate to Judy Chicago, Pasadena Lifesavers]
NARRATOR: It’s impossible to talk about feminist art in American art history without talking about Judy Chicago. In fact, she pioneered the genre of feminist art, creating images and objects that would challenge male domination and make female sexuality and women’s experience a subject. In this piece, called Pasadena Lifesavers Yellow #4, the octagonal forms are airbrushed with a machine-like finish that she learned in auto body school, where she was the only woman among 250 men in her class. She says that the orbs reference her own emerging knowledge of her sexual self.
A number of artists in Southern California, most of them men, were making work around this time that was inspired by car culture. Chicago felt there was little room for her point of view as a woman and a feminist in the art culture of the time. She described that experience in an interview:
CHICAGO: In the 1960s, the highest compliment you could get was “You paint like a man.”…I moved away from my natural tendencies and in order to be taken seriously as an artist, I tried to make art that did not reveal that I was a woman. After a decade of that, I got tired of it. I want to be myself as artist!”…I had met Anais Nin, the writer. With her I had long conversations about whether there was a female aesthetic…
If you walk through most museums even now, you see very little evidence of female sensibility. At entry level, young woman artists…it’s all over. But at the highest levels of the art world there’s still an absence. A big absence. I’ve had to spend an awful lot of time educating viewers and the art world about the right women artists have to use our own experiences as a subject matter of art….I’m really tired of doing it…I feel like, come on! Catch up, will you please! (laughs)
Now exit the gallery and we’ll look at one more piece in the lobby before we conclude. Look for a large sculpture hanging on the wall in the shape of a sea anemone,. It’s by Maren Hassinger. Hassinger recently talked about this work:
[Navigate to Maren Hassinger, Untitled (Sea Anemone)]
HASSINGER: The piece called Sea Anemone has had some iterations and its had different titles…At first, it was…actually sitting on the ground supported by those tentacles. Later it was pulled up and supported by the mesh from which the tentacles hang. One day, someone came into the…gallery where it was hanging, I think it was a young child…and he said , it looks like a Portugese Man of War. And actually it does. (laughs) Out of the mouths of babes.
I’m always influenced by what is around me. Not only visually, but the intellectual part, the emotional part.
NARRATOR: In the life of an artist, the failures and setbacks are as much a part of the evolution of their work as the successes and triumphs. Hassinger set out to be a dancer. Her academic counselor, the painter Pat Adams, saw other potential in her young student.
HASSINGER: When I got to Bennington College as a dance major, they did not accept me. I was living, I was miserable, I was going to leave. But I had a counselor…who said, why don’t you stay, and major in art? I stayed at Bennington and majored in art…and now that’s basically what I do. Very much of sculpture has to do with moving through space…and it has to do with understanding the world around you in its totality…and although I never got a chance to be a professional dancer, I never stopped doing performance work where my body was involved.
I feel like an essential part of sculpture is movement.
NARRATOR: Hassinger studied sculpture at Bennington with Isaac Witkin. Hassinger went on to become an influential teacher herself. In fact, early on, she taught here at LACMA. Today, she is professor emeritus at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Only recently has her work begun to enter museum collections, success coming later in life as has too often been the case for so many of the artists we’ve encountered today.
This is the end of our tour about postwar women artists at LACMA. Enjoy your visit.