'Women in Art' -- PBS to book to gallery

"The Originals: Women in Art" was originally an eight-part PBS television series that sketched the lives of seven contemporary women artists and a group of anonymous folk artists. Since it first appeared last year the series has undergone big changes: "It's become a book commissioned by PBS and entitled "Originals: American Women Artists." And there's now an art exhibition simply called "Originals" at the Graham Gallery (through Feb. 20).

Rather like gossip, the story as well as the title changes a little with each retelling. But the constant in all three "originals" is a basic tone of admiration not only for the work of women artists but the obstacles surmounted in accomplishing it.

The Graham Gallery boasts a tradition unusual for a prestigious upper Madison Avenue gallery: It supported women artists before it became fashionable. The current exhibition is being held in honor of its retiring director, Robert C. Graham, who helped nurture the talents of Alice Neel, Nancy Graves, the late Eva Hesse, Elaine de Kooning, Anne Poor, and others. Mr. Graham's enthusiasm for Miss Munro's book inspired him to build an exhibition around it, which the gallery's Terry Davis organized to pay tribute to Graham's discoveries as well.

Most of the 30 artists in the exhibition also appear in Miss Munro's book -- among them Mary cassatt, Georgia O'Keeffe, Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Isabel Bishop, Lee Krasner, Nell Blaine, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Neel Poor, and de Kooning. The book is a compilation of biographies of approximately 50 women artists spanning three generations. It is also a critical analysis of their work in relation to their lives.

In an interview at the gallery Miss Munro, formerly an art critic for Art News, explained how her dissatisfaction with "orthodox formalist criticism" led her feel "art is the repository of intimate information about the artist's life." She coined the word "psychoesthetics" to describe her method of circular biography through which she and the artists unearthed connections between their vivid childhood memories, often visual or tactile, and their artistic imagery.

Another common denominator, she claims, is that the women shared a "turning point . . . a technical break- through that liberated the artist to rejoin her imagination with the primal sources that illuminated it as a child and from which she had been alienated during her academic period." She cites as an example Helen Frankenthaler, who took her canvases off the wall, placed them on the floor, and began pouring the paint rather than brushing it. The effect was reminsiscent of the sunsets she repeatedly watched with her mother as a child.

Of course, this is a theory that can be applied to male artists as well as female -- that the origin of imagery is personal if one digs deeply enough into it. So the book is interesting not as a feminist tract, which is does not purport to be, but for that correlation between memory and art behind the creative impulse in these particular women artists.

Her only feminist bias, if any, is that she believes the pressures of success upon male artists who "made it," particularly ghe abstract expressionists, had the unforeseen negative effect of stunting their creative growth. The relative isolation of women from the mainstream, Miss Munroe feels, left them freer to unearth their primal images. She stresses her "focus on these women as survivors, not victims. However squelching the nature of their lives, they held on to their own sence of special giftedness . . . so that when the world began to open up to them, they were ready."

Since the feminist movement began, a great deal of ink has been spilled defending women against the charge that there have been no "great women artists" and against the stigma of "imagery." This book, like Germaine Greer's recent "Obstacles to Art," is yet another in this fledging tradition. Historically woman's place in society has drastically curtailed even the fantasy of artistic achievement, much less the reality. The rigidity of her role seems to have imposed a similar restriction on the freedom of her imagination.

But today her range of style and subject matter has expanded to match that of her male counterpart. Women artists are being recognized in their own time to a greater degree than ever before.

The exhibition is a testament to this change. The multitude of well-known 20 th-century women artists contrasts with the lonely 19th-century figure of Mary Cassatt. The show is also truly contemporary in that it defies stereotypes about women's art, and in this respect it thoroughly lives up to its title "originals." These women are orginals in that for them gender, just as for male artists, is but one of many influences.

Of course, there are some women artists who intentionally or unintentionally employ female imagery (Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings are the classic example), or use female media such as textiles. In this exhibition Dorothy Ruddick's work on linen "No. 103," for example, is cut whole cloth from the needlepoint tradition, but the tension inherent in its abstract composition and contrasting textures can only be described as painterly. In other words, she is simply using a different medium (and authenticating an often denigrated one) to achieve more dramatic effects than oil or acrylic would allow.

The show is also notable for the scope of its media, and this is another aspect of the emancipation of women artists -- they're not afraid to try anything, even monumental steel sculpture. Of course, none of that is on display here, but there is sculpture in such diverse media as wood, bronze, terra cotta, and paper.

But the paintings predominate, and if one can generalize about them at all, it is to say that there is a certain tendency toward loveliness, to use an old-fashioned term, an appeal to the senses through color and texture that corroborates Miss Munro's emphasis on the importance of early visual and tactile memories.

Obvious examples are the landscapes -- Joan Mitchell's "Bear Right" and Nell Blaine's "Connecticut Landscape" -- and even the city scenes, such as Isabel Bishop's "Students Walking Outdoors No. 2" and Anne Poor's "Spring Morning on River." Even the hard-edged paintings such as Helen Lundeberg's "Double Vision" or Pamela Bianco's mosaiclike "Waverly Place Looking West" have a sensuous lyricism.

There is a boldness in the work of these women that suggests not only self-identification but a newly forged self-confidence.

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