Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists
By Donna Seaman
I discovered this book about female artists who never received proper recognition after seeing the Newberry Library exhibit titled Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time. The exhibit features two dancers, a poet, an art curator and a painter, all active and pushing artistic boundaries in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Chicago author Donna Seaman features seven artists in her book, including one of those Chicago artists—painter Gertrude Abercrombie—as well as painter Christina Ramberg, who was part of the Chicago Imagists group in the 1970s and 80s.
It was a world where women were more often the subjects—rather than the makers—of art. Seaman frames the question on the cover of her book. “Who hasn’t wondered where—aside from Georgie O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo—all the women artists are? In many art books, they’ve been marginalized with cold efficiency, summarily dismissed in the captions of group photographs with the phrase ‘Identity Unknown’ while each male is named.” She observes that this lack of interest implies that these anonymous women were “mere hangers-on, or some male artist’s girlfriend-du-jour or taken-for-granted wife.”
In 1989, an activist group calling themselves the Guerrilla Girls took a census of the works hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and found that only 5 percent of the artists were women while 95 percent of the nudes were female.
Seaman’s other five artists, all highly regarded regionally, if not nationally, during their lifetimes, lived and worked in San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC.
Louise Nevelson, sculptor of “painted wooden boxes and their strange, salvaged cargo” and later of large black metal sculptures.
Loïs Mailou Jones, a Harlem Renaissance artist and art educator who faced not only sexism but racism in her long career.
Ree Morton, who created “witty, shrewd, oddly beautiful constructions and paintings.”
Joan Brown, Bay Area artist and participant in the Beat Generation culture.
Lenore Tawney, textile artist and creator of finely executed woven forms.
Seaman’s 480-page book, carefully researched, noted and indexed, is made up of profiles of the seven artists (including in-depth analysis of the work) varying in length from 26 pages for Nevelson to 100+ for Brown. The artists’ works are shown in shimmering color on 32 pages of high-gloss inserts plus black-and-white images throughout the book.
Seaman is the editor for Adult Books at Booklist, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a recipient of many awards, including the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award.
Seaman pays homage to several female artists who inspired her work. She grew up observing a woman artist at work: her mother. She witnessed what it took for painter Elayne Seaman to balance caring for her family and home and meeting the demands of her art. Her mother created intricately detailed incised ink paintings on the old illustration medium, scratchboard. Her father, an electrical engineer and photographer, documented and framed his wife’s paintings and helped hang them for exhibitions.
Seaman notes that the Italian Renaissance painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, “was the first woman artist in the history of western art whose significance is unquestionable.” Gentileschi’s father, a painter in the Caravaggio school, hired an artist to train his talented daughter. A nasty scandal ensued involving the teacher’s rape of his student, but Gentileschi survived it, married a wealthy Florentine man, and had a 40-year painting career. She is revered to this day, Seaman says, for her ”mastery and for her triumphantly dramatic paintings of courageous women, including the ferocious and indelible Judith Decapitating Holofernes,” her masterpiece.
We also are re-introduced to Judy Chicago (she took the name of her native city rather than her birth name, Judith Sylvia Cohen), who studied art at UCLA and in the 1970s began creating the enormous, complex and still controversial exhibit, The Dinner Party. The exhibit consisted of a grand triangular table with 39 painted ceramic place settings designed to celebrate mythic and historic women who struggled against sexual discrimination and male tyranny. Some of the platters featured a butterfly/vagina motif, which some observers fiercely criticized because of the explicit nature of the imagery. The exhibit premiered in San Francisco in 1979 and arrived in Chicago for a 21-week run in 1981–82 at the Franklin Building in Printers Row. It now has a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum.
Of Seaman’s seven contemporary artists, perhaps only Louise Nevelson had a truly national reputation. She was a work of art in herself, Seaman says, known for her resplendent layers of colorful fabrics and furs, sculptural jewelry, headscarves and turbans, and theatrical false eyelashes. (A recent Metropolitan Diary entry in the New York Times reports on the writer, an artist intern, encountering Nevelson leaving the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and recognizing her instantly because of her mink eyelashes.)
One of Nevelson’s later black sculptures, Dawn Shadows, marked the plaza of the office building at 200 W. Madison St., the northwest corner of Franklin and Madison, until the building was renovated; the sculpture is now enclosed, unfortunately, in a glass lobby. The work was commissioned in 1982 by the building developers, and inspired by the structure and configuration of our elevated train system.
Nevelson was everywhere, and then she was nowhere, Seaman observes. After her death in 1988, she was quickly and completely forgotten. There were no major retrospectives of her work, her work was rarely reproduced, and museums put her large installations in storage. Playwright Edward Albee, a close friend, wrote a two-person play about Nevelson titled Occupant; it premiered in New York in 2002, and never opened.
The two Chicago artists profiled by Seaman were accomplished and highly regarded but never as well-known as Nevelson was in her prime.
Gertrude Abercrombie (pictured on the book cover in her preferred stripes) was born to her traveling opera-singer parents in Austin, Texas. The family moved around for career reasons and finally settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood, where Gertrude lived for much of her adult life. She took art classes at the School of the Art Institute and began creating unsettling surreal works and stark landscapes such as The Parachutist and Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting, which depicts the horror of lynching. She also often painted female portraits and self-portraits, although she considered herself unattractive because of her sharp chin and nose. Her portrait, Self-Portrait of My Sister, owned by the Art Institute, is in the Newberry Library exhibit.
She bought a three-story Victorian brownstone in Hyde Park, which became the site of her salons and jazz sessions; she counted Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins among her friends and guests and cherished her title as the Queen of Bohemia. Later in life, she began painting objects with double meanings in macabre settings, such as shells, pitchers, hats, cats, owls and doors. Her health began to decline because of alcoholism and arthritis and she died in 1977, at the age of 68. Her work is displayed in many Midwestern art museums.
Christina Ramberg was part of the group of Chicago Imagist artists (some of them known as the Hairy Who) who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago with Ray Yoshida in the 1960s. The Imagists were influenced by pop art, comic books and cartoons, and commercial advertising. Their work was garish, vividly colored, and sometimes vulgar. One of the subgroups of Imagists was the Nonplussed Some, whose members included the most famous of the bunch, Jefferson Park native Ed Paschke, as well as Ramberg. She was part of a military family that lived in Japan, Germany and in many US states before settling in Chicago’s northern suburbs; Ramberg earned her BFA and MFA at the School of the Art Institute.
Ramberg’s paintings most often depicted the female torso, with the body corseted or constricted, signifying the bondage-like female garments of the 1950s. (Even young women used to wear girdles, no matter how slender they were. That is personal experience speaking.) Seaman describes it this way: “And this lovely, charming, witty and warm woman, this masterful artist, drew and painted erotic, taunting, disturbing and mysterious images of bound, broken, disintegrating, amputated and reassembled bodies…. The start of an exacting, formal and provocative inquiry into the human figure as an icon of all our vulnerabilities and strengths, secrets and paradoxes, wounds and resilience.” In a 1971 painting shown in the book and titled Black Widow, the figure is encased in one of the mid-century torture garments in black satin and lace, known as a “merry widow.” Also black satin panties and thigh-high stockings. It’s a quintessential Ramberg painting, Seaman says, created in Ramberg’s favorite materials, acrylic on masonite. Her figures usually have no face or hands.
By 1973, Ramberg’s paintings had been in 11 group shows, including the prestigious Whitney Biennial. She met her husband, Philip Hanson, also an Imagist, at the SAIC, where they both became faculty members. In the 1980s, she shifted to a series of works in patterns and geometric shapes, based on her quilting work. She died of an early-onset degenerative disease at the age of 49 in 1995.
Seaman’s writing is lucid and lively and she creates colorful profiles of each artist, based on reviewing the artists’ works and papers and interviewing friends, family and colleagues. Identity Unknown is a worthy history of female artists in mid-century America and just as relevant today as when it was published in 2017. The book is available from the publisher or online sellers or you can ask your favorite bookseller to order it for you.
Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time runs through December 30, at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St. The galleries are open Tuesday–Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free and advance tickets are not required. Docent-led tours of Chicago Avant-Garde are free and open to all every Wednesday and Saturday at 1 p.m.
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