20 Pioneering Female Artists You Should Know


German Dada artist Hannah Höch, a pioneer of photomontage and a feminist icon, would have been 126 today. The Guardian called her art’s original punk. We featured Höch in our list of female Dada artists you should know last year:

Höch was an unlikely addition to the early 20th-century group — which favored the irrational, nihilistic, collaborative, and spontaneous — namely, because Höch was a woman. One of the group’s pioneering photomontage artists, Höch critiqued the role of women, beauty standards, marriage, the politics of her home country, Germany, and the oft-misogynist Dada group itself. Take Höch’s 1919 work Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, for instance. The title says it all.

In honor of Höch, we’re highlighting other pioneering women in the art world. Their photos are largely absent in the history books, but we hope to put faces (and their words) to the names too often said in passing — if at all.

Leonora Carrington

I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse . . . I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

From the Guardian:

The consistent element was her art: wonderful paintings in which mingle the fantasies of Bosch, the elegance and spatial understanding of the quattrocento and her own personal mythology (drawing on Catholicism, Jewish mysticism and Celtic elements to create an utterly individual and at times impenetrable symbology). And yet, despite their fantastical elements, when you encounter them they seem natural and familiar: they might be the paintings of one’s own dreams. As Luis Buñuel once wrote of her work, it “liberates us from the miserable reality of our days.”

Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo

Always, when the words ‘art’ and ‘artistic’ are applied to my photographic work, I am disagreeably affected. This is due, surely, to the bad use and abuse made of those terms. I consider myself a photographer, nothing more. If my photographs differ from that which is usually done in this field, it is precisely because I try to produce not art but honest photographs, without distortions or manipulations.” —Tina Modotti

I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.” —Frida Kahlo

From the Telegraph:

But, as biographers would discover, there was much more to Tina Modotti than that. Until her sudden – and some say mysterious – death at 45, the Italian-born artist lived an extraordinary life, morphing from silent-film actress to model, muse, photographer, Mexican revolutionary and (possibly) spy. Yet it wasn’t until the 1990s — when a cache of her photographs was discovered in a farmhouse in Oregon and several platinum prints, Roses and Calla Lilies, were auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars in New York — that her own photographic legacy and incredible story would come to light.

Agnes Martin

Elizabeth Catlett

Women have been cast in the role of mothers and homemakers, and we are real good at it. Black women have been cast in the role of carrying on the survival of black people through their position as mothers and wives, protection and educating and stimulating children and black men. We can learn from black women. They have had to struggle for centuries. I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen because we know and feel and can express so much, contribute so much aesthetically.”

From the New York Times:

Her best-known works depict black women as strong, maternal figures. In one early sculpture, “Mother and Child” (1939), a young woman with close-cropped hair and features resembling a Gabon mask cradles a child against her shoulder. It won first prize in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. In a recent piece, “Bather” (2009), a similar-looking subject flexes her triceps in a gesture of vitality and confidence.

Barbara Hepworth

At no point do I wish to be in conflict with any man or masculine thought. It doesn’t enter my consciousness. Art is anonymous. It’s not competitive with men. It’s a complementary contribution.”

From the Daily Mail:

Her abstract sculptures exude a feeling of feminine calm and resilience, while her strong features, seen in photographs, often wear the same beatific, but determined half-smile. It’s the expression of a woman who fought her way through the hostility of the all-male art world to become the greatest woman artist this country has ever produced, only to suffer an extraordinary and shocking demise.

Louise Bourgeois

Women had to work like slaves in the art world, but a lot of men got to the top through their charm.”

From Vulture:

Though usually hysteria is associated with women, Louise wanted to use a male figure, and I became her model. She wanted to prove that men could be equally hysterical. The foundry had prepared a trough full of hot plaster, which they lifted me into to make a mold of the back part of my body. My body assumed the position of the curved trough. In a second session, they cast the front part of my body. Louise then took the full plaster cast and cut it to accentuate the curve of my body. The final piece was cast in bronze and was suspended from the belly.

Claude Cahun

Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces.”

From the Daily Beast:

Described as “one of the most curious spirits of our time” by the Surrealist Andre Breton, whose family were photographed by the pair at their Jersey house, La Rocquaise, Cahun was a French writer, surrealist and artist, whose subversive art both questioned gender and self, and was a form of protest against the Nazis.

Adrian Piper

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

In America, after the revolution, after the [Gulf] war, nobody wanted to do anything with Iran. None of the galleries wanted to talk to me. And after September 11 — my God. No way. Rather than being a woman, it was difficult just being Iranian.”

From Huffington Post:

The artist is primarily known for two artistic techniques, almost mystically bridging past and present, West and Middle East in their kaleidoscopic beauty. The first consists of mirror mosaics, made when fragments of mirrors and glass are set in intricate designs in plaster. The second, reverse glass painting, involves images painted on sheets of glass that are meant to be viewed from the other side. Both take inspiration from Persian architecture and Islamic patterns, appropriating the ancient traditions to contribute to the modern art conversation.

Sonia Delaunay (right)

It was a tradition to represent a dancer frozen in a chosen position, like a snapshot. I broke away from this tradition by superimposing postures, blending light and motion and scrambling the planes.”

From the Guardian:

Sonia Delaunay is now rightly seen as a stronger and more complex artist than her husband, who died in 1941. Although the Delaunays were regarded as collaborators in a single artistic project, the truth was never so simple. The major retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, which comes here from Paris, is wonderful – and something of a relevation. Far from retreating into the applied arts and stereotypical “women’s work”, Delaunay sought instead to extend art into the everyday and the broader material culture.

Carmen Herrera

Miriam Schapiro

Women have always collected things and saved and recycled them because leftovers yielded nourishment in new forms. The decorative functional objects women made often spoke in a secret language, bore a covert imagery. When we read these images in needlework, in paintings, in quilts, rugs and scrapbooks, we sometimes find a cry for help, sometimes an allusion to a secret political alignment, sometimes a moving symbol about the relationships between men and women.”

From Art News:

In the ’70s, Schapiro became one of the most important artists in a growing feminist-art scene. In collaboration with Chicago, in 1971, Schapiro co-founded the first feminist art program, at the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia. The following year, Schapiro and Chicago co-directed Womanhouse, an installation in a rundown Hollywood house that involved the work of 28 female artists. (Only women were allowed to visit the installation on its first day.) Schapiro’s art could be found in the Dollhouse Room. She, along with Sherry Brody, created a dollhouse that, in Schapiro’s words, combined “the beauty, charm, and supposed safety and comfort of the home with the unnamable terrors existing with its walls.” In a statement in the brochure, she said it “echoes the feelings of a woman’s place and reminds of the magic of childhood, fantasy control over the tremors of the heart.” Some 10,000 people visited the installation in the month it was open. “When we did Womanhouse, we were scared to death, because it had never been done before—such a mammoth project, you know, on an idea that had never been set forth before,” Schapiro said in a 1989 oral history. The piece has since become a landmark in feminist art history.

Gunta Stölzl

We wanted to create living things with contemporary relevance, suitable for a new style of life. Huge potential for experimentation lay before us. It was essential to define our imaginary world, to shape our experiences through material, rhythm, proportion, color, form.”

From Venetian Red:

In spite of the limitations placed on female students at the Bauhaus, many flourished there, particularly in the Weaving Workshop. At that time, women were often barred from traditional art academies, and, adapted to low expectations, found the Bauhaus relatively inclusive and the atmosphere exciting and inspiring. Stölzl, who was always pleased to talk about her days at the Bauhaus, later wrote about that time: “I believe that the most important of all was life itself. It was brimful with impressions, experiences, encounters and friendships which have lasted over decades.”

Florine Stettheimer

It’s very interesting being legendary when you can’t even make a living and the public’s never heard of you.”

From Art News:

Stettheimer was certainly ambivalent in her involvement in the New York art world (which seems the only proper way to approach it). She regular accepted invitations to show her paintings at Whitney Annuals and Carnegie Internationals, but agreed to only a single solo show, at Knoedler, in 1916, for which she created a bit of installation art, avant la lettre, by bringing in furniture and curtains she had designed. She refused all other solos, even turning down the ever-powerful Alfred Stieglitz, who asked her to do an exhibition with him in December 1930—“during Xmas week you could add an Xmas tree if you wished,” he wrote, appealing to her prescient desire to control the environments in which her paintings hung. She preferred to unveil new paintings to select friends at “birthday parties” she held at her studio overlooking Bryant Park.

Joan Jonas

The convention that you have to behave well makes one shier. One excitement of being a woman artist is, in fact, that you can control your public face more. That’s exactly why I hate descriptions of women artists that begin with: She’s so personal or she’s so eccentric. My work is really something made for the public. I never want it to be described as autobiographical.”

From the Guardian:

Though she has always been keen on experimentation with new media (she’s a professor emerita at MIT), Jonas’s art has never been a showcase of technology for its own nifty sake. Instead, different kinds of media – video, performance, sculpture, drawings – bleed beyond their boundaries, and different artworks inform and inspire one another. A performance might feature a projected video, which itself might depict an earlier performance, or else her drawing; the drawings might then be shown as artworks on their own, or might be incorporated into a new work, ad infinitum. What keeps it all together are Jonas’s themes and leitmotifs: masks, mirrors, the natural world, mythological narratives, her home in Cape Breton, and even the poodle Ozu.

Romaine Brooks

I am not inclined to believe that my disobedience was inspired by a spirit of rebellion. I was too young and friendless. Rather, I think that my desire to draw, stimulated by opposition, was stronger than any fear of punishment.”

From Huffington Post:

At 19 she moved to Paris and at the age of 21, Brooks moved to Rome to study art at Scuola Nazionale and Circolo Artistico — where she was inexplicably the only woman at a men’s school. During this time, Brooks faced a great deal of sexual discrimination and harassment. In one incident, a fellow student in her life drawing class left a book open by her workspace with pornographic excerpts highlighted. Brooks responded by hitting the offender in his face with the book. As you’ve likely inferred, Brooks wasn’t all too concerned with conforming to the mainstream expectations of women at the time. She took up with an artistic counterculture, upper-class Europeans and American expatriates, many of whom were creative, bohemian and gay.

Alma Woodsey Thomas

Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged.”

From NMWA:

Thomas became an important role model for women, African-Americans, and older artists. She was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and she exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.

Evelyne Axell

Madame Yevonde

Bernice Bing