WOMEN artists may well save the day for late 20th-century art. They have already made a major contribution by helping to break the rigid formalist stranglehold that Minimalism imposed on painting and sculpture during the 1960s and early '70s. And they've been invaluable in reminding everyone who creates or collects that fun, imagination, and feeling have as much right in art as in anything else. Furthermore, women have done a remarkable job in expanding art's formal and thematic repertoire, and in introducing techniques and methods that were traditionally assumed to be beneath the dignity of ``serious'' art.
Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Anni Albers and Sheila Hicks, weaving and other kinds of fiber production have gained new stature and have helped blur some of the old distinctions between ``fine'' and ``applied'' art. And similar results have been achieved by the introduction, primarily by younger women, of such things as beads, sequins, lace, and semiprecious stones into their two- and three-dimensional works.
In short, today's women artists appear to be somewhat more open and expansive - and less afraid of untried or unorthodox methods and modes - than their male counterparts. Perhaps the latter are too concerned about playing by the rules (almost all of which, it must be remembered, were made by men). Or perhaps women, lacking the numerous role models men feel obliged to defer to, are freer to follow their own intuitions regardless of where they might lead.
Or possibly it's because more and more women artists are refusing to be defined and judged by what they perceive as male standards and ideals. And more women artists are insisting that, as far as they're concerned, artistic importance will no longer be equated more or less exclusively with such traditionally ``masculine'' traits as size, power, impact, and the grandiloquent gesture.
As a result, many have rejected the very idea of working within the ``mainstream'' of American art. They balk at conceding to the numerous subtle pressures brought to bear by both dealers and generally well-meaning teachers and colleagues to ``play the game'' according to the rules - especially when those rules make little sense or violate their creative ideals.
The price they pay for this decision is often considerable. Not only must they go it alone, without the help of the ``buddy system,'' which can mean so much in terms of contacts with dealers, critics, and curators. They must also accept the fact that their likelihood of achieving major art-world status has diminished significantly. Success, if it comes, will probably be of a relatively modest sort. Mavericks, after all, even such outstanding ones as Alice Neel, Eva Hesse, and Joyce Treiman, don't generally get the serious attention that ``team players'' do.
The issue is not so much one of quality as of significance. For a woman painter, sculptor, or printmaker to be acknowledged as good is no problem. The difficulty arises when it is suggested she might be ``important.''
That's when the trouble begins. That's when doubts are expressed and arguments raised on the basis of qualities and values that usually have less to do with art per se than with traditional male-originated concepts about artistic importance.
A woman artist still has a somewhat more difficult time getting into the art history books than a man of equal accomplishment. Mary Cassatt, for instance, one of the very best American artists of the late 19th century, still hasn't been accorded her rightful place. And Georgia O'Keeffe, for all her popularity and art-world acclaim, remains a source of embarrassment to many for her feminine imagery and the delicacy of her style.
But the situation is gradually improving, thanks largely to the example of a handful of older women artists such as Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Miriam Schapiro, and Louise Bourgeois, and to the efforts of a number of dynamic and resourceful painters and sculptors at mid-career, including Nancy Graves, Jennifer Bartlett, Audrey Flack, Elizabeth Murray, and Judy Chicago. Each of these women has gone it alone. In the process each has fashioned a style that is totally her own, one accepted to a greater or lesser degree by the art world at large.
The influence of these mid-career artists on younger women has been extensive and valuable. This is not only in the matter of style, but also in the areas of creative and professional independence and in finding the courage to stake out personal objectives and to follow them through to the end.
One of the most interesting of the free-spirited younger artists is Sherry Markovitz, a creator of extraordinarily vibrant papier-m^ach'e sculptures of animals almost entirely covered with colored beads and other decorative elements. These are worked up into patterns and designs that both emphasize the animals' forms and exist independently from them. Among her favorite subjects are realistic, roughly life-size heads of deer, elk, and moose that are designed to be attached to walls in the manner of hunters' trophies, and which achieve a delightfully outrageous effect by their imaginative fusion of naturalistic and decorative qualities.
These works enrich and enliven any exhibition in which they appear and look marvelous on the walls of private homes. And yet, it's unlikely that a man would have had the impulse - or the nerve - to come up with such unconventional and lighthearted creations.