This is the first in a 3-part series, exploring the role of women artists, their influence and contribution to the America art scene over the last two centuries, by curators and academicians, Sherry Buckberrough and Nancy Noble
August, 2006. Sitting at my computer, looking out over the rooftops of Paris at the end of a summer of research. I had been asked to write the catalogue essay for an exhibition of women artists that would open in September at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut. Then curator (now director) Nancy Stula had decided on the title, femme brut(e), suggested to her by artist Ellen Carey. We all agreed that it was a perfect fit for the show, but none of us had stopped to consider why. It was now up to me to make sense of it.
Femme brut(e) definitely doesn’t fit into the clear categories of knowledge that organize French art and culture. It even startles ears accustomed to French used in English. Despite nearly forty years of feminist, lesbian, and queer attempts to destabilize traditional assumptions about gender, the idea of a woman who is raw or brutal (brute) upsets standard sensibilities. Femme brut(e) as an exhibition title suggests an art that has no precedents and makes no pretenses, an art for which we are profoundly unprepared. Despite my long history of writing about women artists, femme brut(e) was a challenge. fine arts magazine
My reflections drifted through transatlantic and trans-linguistic cross-tides of meaning. Femme brute has no currency in French. Women are seldom understood as ‘brute.’ A femme brute is tough—no one messes with her. But there is more to her image than toughness. The femme brute has bypassed acculturation; she has no refinement, no sense of how to be a proper part of her social milieu; she has no professionalism. Without acculturation, she also has no femininity as it is understood it in either language. Femininity is acquired through a careful process of development that the femme brute has never undertaken. Women are trained in femininity by media images and by real women who themselves reaffirm, in gestures, clothing, comportment, and voice, the feminine images that they have discerned and learned. Were the works in femme brut(e) really that uncultured? Did they emerge from a place that precedes knowledge of the feminine? I thought not. By and large the artists in the exhibition were well aware of their gender positions, even if their stance on femininity was been wary.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the early years of the modern feminist art movement, audiences often remarked on the ‘raw’ anger of the work and the ‘brutality’ of its appropriation of masculine prerogatives. They noted the artists’ use of forthright sexual imagery and of unauthorized materials as unrelated as domestic debris or their own bodies in the process of reclaiming female histories. Femme brut(e), an exhibition based on a museum collection, managed to reexamine the history of this movement, testing the spirit and heritage of an era. It proposed an alternative mode of acculturation shaped by the presence, whether central or tangential, of feminist urgency.
But there’s more to Carey’s provocative term. It was not simply femme brute, but femme brut(e), its feminine ‘e’ detached, isolated, put in question, insisting that we acknowledge and reflect on it. Paradoxically significant and accessory, the feminine in femme brut(e) is held in abeyance, protected by its parentheses, while brut as an adjective is returned to the masculine. In the collision of the masculine brut with the feminine femme, we are conceptually compelled to eliminate the woman (femme), overwriting her in our minds with her ghostly precedent, art (art). We erase the conundrum femme brute and return to its aural source. Art brut is the label artist Jean Dubbuffet (see example, above) gave in the 1940s to the art of isolated, untrained creators such as prisoners, insane people, or ‘outsiders.’ This art had no value before Dubuffet created a category for it and a theory to explain it as a form of primal human creativity engaged directly with materials, uncorrupted by education and social constraints. Much of the work in Femme Brut(e) was, indeed, the outcome of an intense desire on the part of its female makers to concentrate on specific materials, pushing them to produce new visual, textural, and, at times, textual experiences. Yet, unlike artists who fit the category art brut, the artists in femme brut(e) were well trained. All studied professionally at some point and many received graduate degrees from art institutions. They understood and understand the systems of knowledge that surround and delimit recognized artistic disciplines and any discussion of their work springs necessarily from established critical discourses. None of them are naïve.
Nonetheless, the slippage between art and femme in femme brut(e) points to the historically-marginalized position of women and women’s art. It recalls the obstacles women faced obtaining professional training, gaining access to galleries, and establishing an audience. Before the late nineteenth century women were often categorically excluded from official art academies. They were allowed neither to study from the nude model, nor to frequent many urban sites that interested male painters and their audiences. If they did receive training, their work was stereotyped by critics as ‘feminine,’ referencing such characteristics as softness, delicacy, and sentimentality. They were expected to present themes of domesticity, romance, and female self-sacrifice and, with rare exception, their innovations were overlooked or discounted and their successes written out of history. Until recently, the dedication needed to be an artist was, in itself, considered unfeminine. By simply being serious in work, women artists were unsettling to others and strange to themselves. In the popular consciousness, they hovered on the verge of insanity and in that way they recall the psychic isolation of the practitioners of art brut.
Not all of the artists of femme brut(e) were consciously concerned with the category of the ‘feminine.’ Viewers of the exhibition, on the other hand, had no choice. Nor do the readers of this article. The problem of the ‘feminine’ embedded in femme brut(e) precedes, frames, and interrogates the viewer’s experience of all the works illustrated. Asked to stand for more than art, these works are the necessary instruments of our difficult process of attempting to visualize, characterize, or categorize the gender, and even the humanity, of the artists and, by extension, of ourselves. Seriously questioned, they are inconsistent in their answers. Some works are ‘raw’ in their use of materials. Others show deliberation and are refined in their techniques. Some are engendered by the force of their artist’s anger. Others exhibit a state of emotional distance, a mature contemplation of the meaning of their materials and their content. The ‘feminine’ in the work remains in abeyance as completely as the femme brute remains a conundrum.
The aesthetic of the works in femme brut(e) was direct in form and in statement. Acquired by different directors of the Lyman Allyn over the past two decades through both gifts and purchases, most are nonetheless of an era—one that exploited the charged confrontation of modernism and feminism. The artists came of age (the youngest born in 1956) while the status of women in the art world was still strongly contested. Their careers predate or parallel the feminist revolution, whose practitioners pounded at the doors of galleries and museums, insisting on gender equality in the representation of women’s art. Many of the artists were, in fact, important actors in the feminist art movement. During the run of the exhibition the museum acquired two more works by luminary feminist artists. Though not by planning, the Lyman Allyn has embraced a feminist sensibility.
The women discussed in the context of femme brut(e) became artists when the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘artist’ were still distinctly incompatible. Their very existence ran against the grain of social conceptions of femininity. They all challenged artistic institutions and their challenge confused gender categories. In this way they are femmes brutes.
The earliest work in the exhibition was a bronze sculpture, The Boxer, probably from the 1920s or 30s, by German artist Renee Sintenis. Its masculine image of physical strength and aggression set the stage for femme brut(e). We picture Sintenis examining the boxer’s body, sketching in the gym or at boxing matches, mingling with men and boldly inserting her images into the definitions of twentieth century masculinity. New London artist Beatrice Cuming’s Chubb (c. 1944), a views of Electric Boat shipyard demonstrates the same desire to intervene in the world of working-class men. It pictures American modernity as a brutal industrial landscape, yet one that is also heroic. The factory, purely functional and devoid of décor, is the visual reference for the exposed functional elements that characterize Brutalist architecture. In this heavy metal world of men, the ‘brut” aesthetic evokes the power of industry; it signifies American progress and, painted during World War II, documents American military force. Sintenis and Cumming infiltrated and appropriate the brutal world accepted and lived by men.
The life of an artist in New York City after the war produced bohemian scenes shaped by bare bones existence, another brush with brutality that honed the sensibility of Alice Neel. No longer supported by the WPA funding that had allowed her to establish a reputation for social realist work during the 1930s, she was pushed aside by the Abstract Expressionist coterie for the following two decades. Living in Spanish Harlem with minimal income and children to support, she painted the people who populated her life, her expressive color and outline seeking character rather than abstract form. Sam, a late silkscreen, proves the continuity of this tough style up to the end of her life, by which time she was back in the limelight, brought there by feminist critics.
May Steven’s Big Daddy (1969) marked the onset of the feminist movement. Its caustic indictment of the patriarchy inserted the tradition of political caricature into the multiple vocabularies of this female avant-garde. Feminism brought women artists out of isolation and into political action groups that supported women artists’ work in all styles, testing aesthetics of forms and materials for their feminist and/or feminine resonances. The movement shined a spotlight on Neel’s aggressive and contorted realism, established decades earlier. Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Women Artists (1972), a recent addition to the museum’s collection, is a poster of Leonardo’s Last Supper, onto which photos of living women artists have been collaged in place of those of Christ and the disciples. A full border of further women artists completes this reclamation of historical fame, which simultaneously spoofs the reverence accorded to dead male artists.
In the year of Edelson’s poster, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro were working with women students from the California Institute of the Arts in the transformation of an entire house in Los Angeles into an artistic feminist statement. Entitled Womanhouse, it is now recognized as an early and dramatic example of women artists working communally and outside the normal exhibition system in order to make a political point. Womanhouse was perhaps the epitome of the sensibility of femme brut(e). The Lyman Allyn now has a print by Judy Chicago of her famous Through the Flower (1972-74). Balancing the forceful repetitive forms of contemporary Minimalism and the effusive and radiant colors that she associated with being female, the soft blue petals and glowing pink interior are an attempt to capture the essence of women’s experience through an abstraction of the flower/vulva. This centralized image became Chicago’s insignia for the decade of the 1970s, culminating in completion of her own mammoth version of the Dinner Party, now in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Miriam Schapiro’s Golden Pinwheel (1979) employs the same centralizing composition, alluding as well to women’s genitals. Reviving female traditions of textiles and patterning, she transformed feminine craft into an attack on masculine Minimalism. The decorative, associated with women’s fashion and interior décor, was then anathema to fine arts aesthetics. Today, with the advent of the internet, which provides access to decorative imagery throughout the world and the ubiquitous use of Photoshop, which supports an aesthetic of complex, layered spaces, the decorative is both lauded and accepted. Schapiro’s art no longer shocks.
Harmony Hammond’s work as a lesbian critic, historian, and editor is as well recognized as her art. Her subtle monoprint, The Fold [Pink] (1981), also references female genitalia, but with the goal of expressing the pleasures of female sexuality. Associating the sensual surface of acrylic, oil crayon and collage to female skin, she evokes the tactile feeling of sex through the subtle interplay of color, pattern, and iconic form.
Nancy Spero was political before she was a feminist. Her anti-authoritarian and anti-war images from the 1960s are now recognized as some of the strongest visual statements in activist art of the period. Spero was drawn to feminism on her return to New York from Paris in the early 1970s and became a founding member of the women’s collective A.I.R. Gallery. She developed her signature style at that time, combining expressionist force with stamped icons and letters, an aesthetic of fragility with surprise attack on the spectator’s sensibilities. In Kill Commies (1988) she indicts the hawkish attitudes of the Reagan years as renewed silencing of women’s voices. The upside-down head of the war-mongering harpy has no mouth from which to speak and no control over the direction of its flight. Reiterated in the spectral head of a classical goddess figure embedded in the feathers, female anguish in the face of male aggression is brought into historical context.
Alison Saar’s imposing woodcut, Sweeping Beauty (1997) joins with Stevens and Spero in altering the drawn human form for political purpose. Dramatic in scale and inviting in color, Saar presents the entire female form of an African-American beauty turned upside-down. Recalling Gauguin’s woodcuts of languidly reclining Tahitian nudes, Saar’s figure has no exotic setting. Rather she appears to lie in the earth, a makeshift grave to which she is confined in life, her straw colored body and stitched hair transforming her into a broom. The African-American woman of the 1990s remains a cultural utility tool.
Like Spero, Barbara Kruger and Elizabeth Enders both incorporate language into their work in ways that force us to consider its meaning in relation to visual experience. Kruger’s gloss, appropriated from the language of advertising, resonates across the image of a woman’s face vertically split between positive and negative. The Foucauldian phrase ‘knowledge is power (Savoir, c’est pouvoir) is both ironically and instrumentally presented as a commodity in itself. The repressive economy that binds women and their beauty products in an endless circle of commodity exchange is potentially broken by knowledge of the system that fractures her, separating her from her image of herself. The knowledgeable woman reciprocally threatens the system that depends on her blank beauty to run its markets.
Ender’s engagement with language also challenges the commodity system, but does so with the force of personal artistic invention. Her work investigates the subtle and fundamental distinction between writing and visual form. In Landscape/Language, Field Series II (1997) (above, left), she begins with the classified advertizing page of a Chinese newspaper, covering much but not all of it with of expressive nets of layered acrylic. The non-Chinese-reading viewer is caught between recognizable representation (images pictured in the ads), decoratively printed motifs (whose significance as language is indecipherable) and painted forms that require a knowledge of art to be rendered pertinent. It’s a heady enterprise, dependent on an assessment of forms, materials and cultural contexts that brings us again to the modernist interplay between representation and abstraction.
Ellen Carey’s photographs were seen in a solo exhibition that accompanied femme brut(e). Her work plumbs the processes of Polaroid production to achieve monumental colored surfaces whose textural flow departs radically from prior photographic traditions. Replacing representation with a bold and direct investigation of the medium, she recalls the heroic forms of Abstract Expressionist painting. The brutality of her encounter with the photographic surface registers with an elegance that once again forces us to rethink material and aesthetic categories. It is this troubling process of psychic and intellectual readjustment in the face of art that refuses to settle that marked the sensibility of the exhibition and of the collection that remains in the museum.
As an exhibition, femme brut(e) was prescient, preceding by six months the blockbuster shows Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum and WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, both of which opened in March, 2007. Since then there has been a momentous resurgence of interest in feminist art and a rush for museums internationally to taut their collections of works by women. A few on the list are Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, elles@centrepompidou: Women Artists in the Collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Paris), Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968 (Brooklyn Museum), Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism (The Jewish Museum, New York City) and WomenArtists@NewBritainMuseum (New Britain Museum of American Art).
While younger women artists have the choice of many other models, the shadow of femme brut(e) looms large as an ambiguous and compelling conception of female power.
By Sherry Buckberrough, Ph.D.
Dr. Buckberrough is Associate Professor of Art History and Women’s Studies at the University of Hartford, West Hartford, CT and writes about modern and contemporary women artists. She, along with colleague Nancy Noble have curated an exhibition called, Women Artists @ new Britain Museum, through March 20, 2011.
Visit the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, home of this extensive collection of art by contemporary women artists at www.lymanallyn.org or contact them to purchase the femme brut(e) catalogue, which includes a bonus feature on the hand-written musical scores and views of composer and singer, Melissa Manchester. The catalogue is availabel for $12.50, plus $2.00 S & H. call to order at (860) 444-2545.