History is written by the winners. As Meghan O’Rourke’s recent Slate essay points out, in the literary and cultural worlds, those winners still are — more often than not — men. That’s not because of any native advantage in intelligence or ability, but because of what O’Rourke calls “unconscious gender bias” and our unwillingness to accord “accomplishment and authority” to women as freely as we recognize these qualities in men.
Nevertheless, unequal status notwithstanding, there is more room at the cultural table today than there was in the chauvanist world of 50 years ago. Indeed, blatant sexism is why so many of the artists in Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968, up through January 31 at the Brooklyn Museum (and originally organized by Sid Sachs at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts), received little attention when they were actively making work. But O’Rourke’s “unconscious gender bias” is why so few institutions, academic or otherwise, have paid them any mind in the decades since. We spoke to Catherine Morris, the Curator of the museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art, about ten fantastic women Pop Artists from the show that you’ve probably never heard of.
Idelle Weber’s terrific black and yellow paintings evoke the era of checker cabs, smoky back rooms, and the Long Island Railroad club car. Along with her paintings and sculpture, Weber’s set of nine Lucite blocks, imprinted with scenes straight out of Mad Men (men in suits, holding cigarettes) is a don’t-miss.
Idelle Weber, Munchkins I, II & III, 1964, acrylic on linen, 72” x 120” (in three panels). Courtesy of the artist.
Like Warhol and Lichtenstein, Marjorie Strider made bold-colored paintings of “pinup girls.” But Strider satirizes the usual overemphasis on physical assets by turning parts of her paintings three-dimensional – the pinup girl’s breasts in Triptych II (Beach Girl), 1963, for instance, barely encased in a yellow bikini top, literally pop off the canvas.
Strider was well-known during the ’60s, says Morris, and inspired the now-infamous Pop Art exhibition First International Girlie Show, held in January 1964 at New York’s Pace Gallery.
Marjorie Strider, White Linear (Lilies), 1964, oil and mixed media, 61 1/2” x 48”. Abrams Family Collection
“The history of Pop Art has been gone over and polished to a high sheen,” says Morris. But there’s “a whole history of footnotes that hasn’t been explored.”
To wit: prior to Seductive Subversion, Morris says that she “knew very little” about Rosalyn Drexler, whom she calls “an incredible painter and an incredible Pop voice from the period.” Indeed, Drexler’s cinematic, large-scale paintings encapsulate the Pop aesthetic: bright, bold, with more than a hint of a “commercial” influence.
Austrian-born Kiki Kogelnik was also little-known. Her works, at once dangerous and seductive, include a hand-painted, once-live bomb, as well as paintings depicting male and female figures, bones, and scissors.
Rosalyn Drexler, Home Movies, 1963, oil and synthetic polymer with photomechanical reproductions on canvas, 48 1/8” x 96 1/8”. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
During her short life, British painter and actress Pauline Boty created bold-colored, large-scale paintings of celebrities, as well as darker, political works about the Vietnam War and JFK’s assassination. Though she showed her paintings in British galleries, and was even included in Ken Russell’s 1962 documentary of emerging Pop Artists, Boty’s work largely disappeared from view following her untimely death at 28 from cancer.
In part that’s because one of her brothers, evidently grief-stricken, stockpiled Boty’s paintings in a barn. Making matters still worse, Boty’s husband, Clive Goodwin, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in the mid-’70s. As Alice Rawsthorn explained in the Guardian, “There was no one left to ensure that the critics and curators who would write the ‘official’ accounts of the 1960s art scene over the next two decades would remember to include Pauline Boty.”
Pauline Boty, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962, oil on canvas, 48” x 59 7/8”. Collection of Nadia Fakhoury, Paris
Greek-born sculpture and multimedia artist Chryssa “had one of those typical European love/hate relationships with American pop culture,” says Morris. Partly as a result, Morris says, she was one of the first artists to use neon in her work.
Another pioneer here is British artist Jann Haworth, who is credited with creating some of the earliest “soft sculptures” – which sound exactly like what they are. Frank, Dog, and The Maid appear together here, in a funny/sad tableau that seems like the opening scene to a drama about a lonely older man, his younger, very attractive maid, and his loyal, homely dog. In other words, Pretty Woman. Also, Maid in Manhattan.
Haworth also collaborated with her husband on the album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which includes her soft sculptures of Shirley Temple and an old woman.
Chryssa, Car Tires, 1962, oil on paper, 38” x 23 1/5”. Abrams Family Collection.
Although May Wilson had an abiding interest in becoming an artist, it was her son who exposed her to the “downtown scene.” Inspired, at 61 she “moved to the Chelsea Hotel,” says Morris, to realize her dreams.
For the pieces included here, Wilson took pictures of herself in photo booths, affixed her face to ridiculous or silly portraits, and then applied these pastiches to postcards and other found objects. The results are alternately surreal, hilarious, and profound.
May Wilson, Ridiculous Portrait (Queen Elizabeth), c.1965-72, collage, 8 1/2” x 10 1/8”. Courtesy of William S. Wilson and Pavel Zoubok Gallery.
Martha Rosler’s photomontages skewer the sexist roles ascribed to women during the period — maid, “bombshell,” perfect hostess (which aren’t too far off from idealized notions of femininity today). Although well-known, Rosler typically isn’t associated with Pop Art. Yet, says Morris, Rosler’s work “is very much about Pop ideas.”
Martha Rosler, Vacuuming Pop Art, 1967-72, photomontage, 20” x 24”. Courtesy of the Artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.
Marisol’s work commanded popular appeal when she showed at Leo Castelli Gallery in the ’50s. But in subsequent years, Morris says, her work was largely written off as too anecdotal or personal for a movement that had since come to be defined as “cool.” Her sculptures on view here include a nearly life-size John Wayne astride a thin, carousel-type horse — a thoughtful, trenchant parody of an American icon of masculinity and toughness. It’s worth noting that the artist created the piece in 1963, before the women’s movement took hold, and critiques about the patriarchy became the stuff of women’s studies classes and Eric Bogosian’s Suburbia. What could be cooler than that?
Marisol, John Wayne, 1963, mixed media, 104” x 96” x 15”. Collection of Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Julianne Kemper Gilliam Purchase Fund and the Debutante Ball Purchase Fund, FA 1978.5