The women of pop art

Long sidelined, women artists slowly win recognition – and museum space.

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    'Chubby Checker,' by Rosalyn Drexler Court.
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    'Vacuuming Pop Art,' by Martha Rosler.
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    'Munchkins I, II, & III,' By Idelle Weber.
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Notice a tint of gender bias in terms like "masterpiece" and "old master"? Now a picture is emerging of not just historical, but persistent discrimination against women in the art world. A slew of recent museum exhibitions aims to fill in the blanks. The latest, "Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968" (at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 9), brings a feminine presence to the masculine-sounding term "pop art."

The show features works by 25 women who helped develop pop art but who (except for the sculptor Marisol) disappeared from art history books. "These artists were all visible once," says Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, who conceived the show. Yet when the first art histories and surveys of the movement appeared, he adds, "There was a real critical culling." Mr. Sachs made it his mission to "cherchez la femme" and says, that through exhaustive research, "I found the women!"

It’s not news that art by women has been under-recognized. H.W. Janson’s classic text “History of Art,” used in countless Art 101 courses, didn’t contain work by a single female artist until the 1986 edition, after the author was deceased. (That edition included 19 female artists out of 2,300 illustrations.) As late as 1979 Janson said, “I have not been able to find a woman artist who clearly belongs in a one-volume history of art.”

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Sachs's essay in the exhibition catalog contains ample evidence of discrimination in the decade prior to the burgeoning women's movement of the 1970s. Women seeking admission to art schools were judged not by their portfolios but by their profile photographs. Jann Haworth, who invented soft sculpture (although Claes Oldenburg is given credit) recalled, "The girls were there to keep the boys happy." American artist Carolee Schneemann confirmed, “You had to shut up and affiliate yourself with really interesting men,” adding, “you had to be good looking.”

Nancy Heller, professor of modern art also at the University of the Arts and author of "Women Artists: An Illustrated History," notes that progress lagged well into the 1970s and '80s. "It was difficult to convince a committee in graduate school that any woman artist – dead or living – was worth a dissertation." Museums and galleries were also a no woman's land. "If you saw a major exhibition by a woman," Professor Heller recalls, "it was a cause for celebration and shock."

Museums now are in a do-over moment. Exhibitions displaying female artists abound. Exhibitions such as “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (2007-08), the Brooklyn Museum’s “Global Feminisms” (2009), and “elles@centrepompidou” (through February 2011 in Paris) display female contributions. New York's Jewish Museum hails pioneers with "Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism" through Jan. 30, and the Museum of Modern Art features "Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography" through March 21.

MOMA's commitment to integrate its male-dominated galleries is much needed, since "MOMA historically has not focused on women artists," admits Connie Butler, chief curator of drawings. Since the museum's founding in 1929, only 5 percent of the 2,052 exhibitions have highlighted female artists. All that is changing. In the last five years, curators have sought to reclaim the missing women. Butler, who curated the “WACK!” show, calls the revisionism “transformative” saying, “We are more aware of the gaps in the collection in terms of women artists, we’re trying to target women artists in our acquisition program, and generally it’s raised awareness of having a greater representation of women in the galleries.”

Butler co-edited a comprehensive book, “Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art,” that covers both well-known and obscure figures, and the photography gallery has installed “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography” through March 21, 2011.

Catherine Morris, curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, sees "a groundswell of interest in re-examining feminist contributions to the art of the second half of the 20th century." It seems it's catch-up time.

Hold onto your horsetail paintbrushes! The Guerrilla Girls, activist female artists who criticize sexism and racism in the art world, think the fight isn't over. A founder of the group who goes by the pseudonym Frida Kahlo says, "When you look at the ranks of artists who get one-person exhibitions in museums or have monographs or whose work resells for a lot of money, women and artists of color are rarely in those top ranks."

Ms. Kahlo faults the system, saying, "American art institutions are run by and for art collectors on their boards of trustees ... white males who buy art that appeals to them, art about their values, not the values of the general culture."

Art collecting is indeed dominated by male collectors, often newly super-rich moguls and hedge-funders who view art as an investment or as a trophy to advertise their wealth.

"Until the structure of the art market and how art gets bought, sold, and donated changes," Kahlo says, "we'll be fighting this market attempt to define what our visual art history is."

"That's a historical truth," Ms. Morris admits. "I hope it's changing."

“We do live in a capitalist society,” Heller says, “but art is not pork bellies.” Nevertheless, the system where wealthy men collect easily recognizable, high-fashion art becomes “a vicious circle,” she says, which perpetuates the under-valuing of art by women.

Greg Allen (in a 2005 New York Times story) pointed out the glaring disparity in resale prices, citing evidence that an "X Factor" denigrates women's art. Only a handful of women have broken the $1 million mark at auction, while men's paintings have soared past $100 million. And it's not just paintings by historical figures. An old master as well as a new master still beats a Ms., generally by a 10-fold ratio.

What about for contemporary artists – the daughters of the feminist revolution? The Brainstormers, a young artist-activist group, document continued inequities. Brooklyn artist Danielle Mysliwiec, a collective member, cites the 50/50 ratio of male to female students in art schools, which disappears at commercial galleries in Chelsea, where more than 80 percent of artists are male. Even in galleries that represent emerging artists, males dominate (they account for 70 percent).

“Young women have a much more level playing field than they did twenty years ago,” Butler says, “but the numbers speak.” The numbers trumpet a higher economic value for art by men—disproportionate to cultural or aesthetic value. “They make me want to say ‘ouch’,” says Morris.

"You see a disturbing perpetuation of discrimination," Ms. Mysliwiec concludes, adding, "When you think about how an artwork increases in value, it depends on where it's shown, how many times it's shown, and in what venues." A problem with galleries preferring male artists, she says, is that "curators are dependent on gallery validation" to determine which artists to show in museums.

All acknowledge the benefits of increasing awareness of women artists' contributions. "We'd have an art [history] that represents who we are as a culture and what we're thinking about," Kahlo says. "Not just who the billionaire art collectors want to buy."

"Incorporating historical facts that have been removed because they were not seen as pertinent by a segment of society is incredibly useful," according to Morris. "It empowers half of the current culture and can teach us about how we've come to be who we are and what we need to do moving forward."

She adds, "I'd like my daughter to make assumptions about who she is in the world and what her history is and where she came from in ways I couldn't and my mother certainly couldn't."

Butler hopes the legacy of her generation of curators is to leave a more nuanced, complex, and complete version of art history than they were taught.

History is a mutable argument. It’s not set in stone, carved only by a male sculptor like Brancusi. Maybe it’s glued together—like a Louise Nevelson work—from fragments of wood. Not that one should replace the other. No one wants a ghetto-ized “Ladies Room” approach.

“To be judged on merit,” the young artist Danielle Mysliwiec sighs wishfully, “to have that be true.”

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