Underappreciated Women Art Pioneers of the ’60s

By
Share:

Paris-born Venezuelan artist Marisol Escobar died this week — a ‘60s sculptor who spent a large part of her career in obscurity. Pop Art’s influence on Marisol found her the subject of two Andy Warhol films (The Kiss and 13 Most Beautiful Girls), but she flitted between many movements. From Hyperallergic’s homage to the artist:

Marisol was a star of the New York art scene in the 1960s, breaking through with a 1962 solo show at the Stable Gallery that featured her bright, boxy sculptures of people representing a range of American life — everyone from the Kennedys to a dustbowl farm family to the artist herself. The works, which combined painted and minimally carved wooden figures with found objects like shoes and doors, were funny but incisive, simple-looking but expertly made. They helped launch a career that included great artistic success and stardom, followed by decades of obscurity and, more recently, a revival and renewed appreciation of her exceptional work. The latter has been largely spearheaded by Marina Pacini, chief curator at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and organizer of a 2014 Marisol retrospective there.

The tumultuous decade of the ‘60s saw women artists redefining themselves, shifting the male gaze and narrating the feminist, sociological, and political movements happening around them. The art world is only now starting to place their pioneering contributions into context. Here, we offer several underappreciated, and in some cases, forgotten, women artists for consideration.

Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas was recently lauded by Michelle Obama when the First Lady chose two of Thomas’ paintings to be exhibited in the White House. The D.C. expressionist was also the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. From Artsy:

The first graduate of Howard University’s fledgling art department in 1924, Thomas taught art for 35 years in a segregated junior high school in Washington, D.C., while always making her own work. In the 1950s, taking night and weekend classes at American University, Thomas shifted from representational painting to abstraction. After retiring as a school teacher in 1960, she committed herself full-time to her art. Thomas forged a highly personal style of brilliantly hued short brushstrokes aligned in dazzling vertical stripes and radiating circular compositions inspired by natural phenomena like the patterns of light in her garden and images from the Apollo moon missions. “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” the artist said in 1970.

Marjorie Strider

Marjorie Strider’s shaped canvases with 3D breasts and lips satirized the hypersexual women in pop culture at the time, exhibited alongside the touted icons of the era like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. From the New York Times:

Ms. Strider was among the first wave of New York Pop artists and was included in “The First International Girlie Show” at the Pace Gallery in 1964, along with several soon-to-be stars of the movement, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann. She said she did not initially think of her works as Pop, but had grown bored in the 1950s making paintings that were perspectivally flat and began adding things like cardboard and wood to the surface to make them more sculptural. She did this with paintings of plants and vegetables but also with bright triptychs of bikini-clad women, adding what she called “build-outs” to make the breasts and bottoms of the women emerge realistically out of the image, a challenge to the passive gaze. She described her pinup paintings as “a satire of men’s magazines,” and they — along with “Girl With Radish,” a 1963 work showing a woman’s cartoonish face with her mouth suggestively open and a bright red radish clamped between her teeth — remain some of her best-known pieces. But Ms. Strider was stylistically and intellectually restless and quickly moved on to other kinds of work, which rarely received the attention of her early paintings.

Elaine Sturtevant

A cornerstone of Sturtevant’s work was appropriation — before appropriation became a thing. She produced her own versions of Andy Warhol’s Flowers paintings and Robert Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit at the start of her career. For more than a decade, Sturtevant stopped producing work after continuous negative critical reception. From the New York Times:

As a replicator, Ms. Sturtevant was an original. A Sturtevant work is as instantly and uncannily recognizable as a Warhol silk-screen, say, or a Johns flag. But, at the same time, each in its own way is a deliberately inexact likeness of its more famous progenitor. By holding up her imprecise mirror to a gallery of 20th-century titans, Ms. Sturtevant spent her career exploring ideas of authenticity, iconicity and the making of artistic celebrity; the waxing and waning of the public appetite for styles like Pop and Minimalism; and, ultimately, the nature of the creative process itself. “In some ways, style is her medium,” Peter Eleey, the curator of a major exhibition of Ms. Sturtevant’s work opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this fall [in 2014], said on Wednesday. “She was the first postmodern artist — before the fact — and also the last.”

Niki de Saint Phalle

French artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shoot Paintings of the ‘60s found the artist firing a .22 calibre rifle at bags of liquid pigment until they exploded onto a white surface. The works ”aimed an attack at the traditional views of art, religion, and patriarchal society as well as at the political situation that entwined the Cold War and the War in Algeria in a country — the United States — where carrying guns is legal.” From Phaidon:

To the casual observer of course, Niki de Saint Phalle is perhaps best know for her Nanas. These colourful feminine figures were initially made of papier collés and wool, and later of resin. They were a natural extension of the idea of fertility goddesses and births. She said the women were inspired by a drawing she did with Larry Rivers of his pregnant wife, Clarice. One of the most infamous, Hon, meaning ‘She’ in Swedish, was constructed as a temporary monument at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1966, in collaboration with Jean Tinguely and Per-Olof Ultvedt. As Reckitt writes in Art and Feminism, “visitors entered the gigantic , vividly multicolored female figure through the space between her legs, finding themselves inside a warm, dark ‘body’ that contained among other features a bar, a love nest, a planetarium, a gallery of ‘suspect’ artworks, a cinema and an aquarium. Evolving from the earlier small-scale Nanas, Hon playfully paid homage to ancient and modern mythical archetypes of women as nurturer, while simultaneously demythologizing notions of the female body as a place of dark, unknowable mysteries.”

Corita Kent

Screenprinting pioneer Corita Kent used signs, slogans, and other text-based forms during the turbulent ’60s and ’70s as a form of protest. From Warhol.com:

Corita Kent (1918-1986) was a pioneering, Los Angeles-based artist and designer. For over three decades, Corita, as she is commonly referred to, experimented in printmaking, producing a prodigious and groundbreaking body of work that combines faith, activism, and teaching with messages of acceptance and hope. Her vibrant, Pop-inspired prints from the 1960s pose philosophical questions about racism, war, poverty, and religion and remain iconic symbols of that period in American history. Bringing together artwork from across Corita’s entire career, Someday Is Now reveals the impassioned energy of this artist, educator, and activist.

Chryssa

Greek-born sculptor Chryssa, aka Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali, was an early pioneer of advertising and neon in fine art, perfected in, perhaps, her most important sculpture, 1966’s The Gates to Times Square. From the Tate:

It was the same interest in the written word that inspired Chryssa Vardea’s most ambitious, monumental work, The Gates to Times Square (also known as ‘The Gates’), which was realised between 1964 and 1966. The work is Vardea’s homage to her experience of New York, to popular culture, advertising and mass communication. Consisting of two monumental letter As, incorporating fragments of commercial signs, the just under one-metresquare stainless steel, Plexiglas and neon sculpture invites visitors to walk through it, becoming physically immersed in the pale blue neon light with changing intensity and rhythm. Study for Gates No. 4 1967 is one of sixteen sculptures entitled Studies for Gates, which the artist produced both before and after the completion of the main work itself. The work takes a fragment of the monumental work, resembling the letter S, repeating it sixteen times, in eight double sets of blue neon lights, which light up in sequence.

Vija Celmins

From e-flux about Latvian-American artist Vija Clemens, whose paintings of intangible spaces and photorealistic elements reinforced “her persistent attention to the psychological implications of the artistic process in relation to the formulation of images made the images objects for contemplation”:

Throughout much of her career, Vija Celmins has been known for her captivating paintings and drawings of starry night skies, fragile spider webs, and barren desert floors—quiet, expansive worlds meticulously executed in gradations of black and grey. As a young artist in Los Angeles during the early 1960s, however, Celmins’s work was marked by a distinctly different tone, one influenced by the violence of the era and the mass media that represented it. Realistically rendering images from newspapers, magazines, and television, Celmins filled her canvases with smoking handguns, crashing warplanes, and other images of disaster and violence. . . . It was a 1964 group of paintings based on images of violence that proved to be a pivotal turning point in Celmins’s development as an artist. Rather than simply representing a subject on canvas as she had with her common-object works, she began painting directly from images culled from television, print media, and personal photographs—a practice she continues to this day, with straightforward, almost factual representations of violence and power as she approaches material more closely tied to her childhood in war-torn Europe.

Lee Lozano

Lee Lozano is, oddly, best known for her self-imposed exile from the art world, which became a work of art in itself. She initially critiqued the powers that be in her explicit, proto-feminist comix. From the New York Times:

Ms. Lozano was a quixotic, confounding rebel whose decadelong New York career seemed always to involve pushing one limit or another. Her early paintings, executed in an Expressionistic cartoon style, confronted issues of sexual and painterly decorum. They featured a robust messiness, distorted close-ups of the body, intimations of violence and suggestively exaggerated images of tools. By 1967 she had taken the systemic approach of Minimalism, making nearly monochromatic ”Wave” paintings based on wavelengths that pushed the limits of visual perception. In the mid-1960’s she also began to execute a series of life-related actions (she didn’t like the word performance) that tested, among other things, her stamina, her friends’ patience and the conduct of everyday life. These works reflected her friendship with Conceptually inclined artists like Sol LeWitt, Hollis Frampton, Dan Graham and Carl Andre. They also reflected an increasing disenchantment with the art world that bordered on hostility. Many of these pieces were proposed or recorded in written works that she considered drawings. Sometimes she designated everyday activities like thought, conversation or marijuana smoking as art, attracted by the idea that they were unsaleable and democratic. Her ”Throw-Up Piece” proposed throwing the 10 most recent issues of Artforum, the leading magazine of contemporary art, in the air and letting them fall where they may. In ”Transistor Radio Piece” she listened to a radio while attending a panel discussion on art.