For the week of February 17, 1999  thru February 23, 1999  

Focused determination

Early 20th century women modernists


By MARILYN BAUER
Express Staff Writer

That women artists in the first half of the 20th century ever existed was once difficult to ascertain. Art schools did not admit women. There were no women curators or critics and the texts used in art history courses in even the most progressive institutes of higher learning were renown for their lack of female listings. Women toiled in relative obscurity alongside the masculine masters and the few who received respect and recognition in their own time, were often written out of histories published in our time.

The Guerrilla Girls, notorious in New York art circles for putting racism and sexism on the agenda of the culture at large, brought to the bull market of the 1980s art scene a consciousness of inequity in representation and economics. Female art dealers exclusively representing the paintings of male artists led Mabou Mines’ member Linda Hartinian, recently here to director a production of Sam Shepard’s "Seduced," to stage a satirical performance piece entitled "Stand Up and Paint Like a Man" in which she parodied the patriarchal power struggles of the art elite.

Other art advocates working to break the myth of the heroic male painter, worked less with sound bites, perhaps more quietly, to preserve the work and scholarship of mid-20th century female modernists.

Jeri Louise Waxenberg of Ketchum made the political the personal by amassing an impressive collection of paintings and works on paper created by women in the first half of the century. She saw the collection as a way to address age-old, gender-specific inequalities that have marred the art world and therefore the culture at large.

The collection became a passion and now, with the opening this week of "Uncovered and Recovered: Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Works from the Collection of Jeri Louise Waxenberg" at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, an inspiration for us all.

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In an era, described by the Irish Cubist painter Mary Swanzy as one where "Ladies have to paint pussy-woosies and doggie-woggies," women worked without encouragement, without opportunities to show their work and without the approval of the dominant culture. Relegated to portrait painting, they were denied their rightful place in history as important proponents of Modernism, Surrealism and Futurism.

"It took an incredible amount of courage to go through these uncharted waters," explained Waxenberg in a tour of the collection in her fantasy of a home, "Five Moons." "Mary Swanzy was told to be a portrait painter because portrait painters had validity. But here you are a women and most people did not want to sit for women. Certainly women didn’t want to sit for women and men didn’t recognize the value in women artists at that time either. So the courage it took for these women to devote their lives to a creative and spiritual passion is monumental."

Waxenberg’s courage may be described as monumental, as well. In the early 1980s she found when she joined the board of the Women’s Building in Los Angeles, Calf., that although 50 percent of all graduating art students were women only 10 percent were given public exposure via museums, galleries and public exhibitions. She also learned the main text taught in educational institutions, H.W. Janson’s History of Art, 1978 2nd edition had no listings of women artists at all and that the earning capacity of American women artists was approximately 33 cents to every dollar earned by men.

"I saw my opportunity to address these inequities by putting together a collection that was comprised predominantly of work by women artists," Waxenberg states in her collector’s statement found in the exhibition catalog. "I approached gallery owners asking to see art created by women. I was not concerned whether or not I could afford it. I just wanted galleries to realize there was a public out there looking for art by women artists."

In Waxenberg’s collection a whole new perspective, a feminine perspective, emerges as one moves through the presence of the more than 20 paintings in the Sun Valley Center’s show. Furthermore, Waxenberg has been drawn to color and the depiction of the grandiosity of nature and the artist’s ability to explore inner truths. Thus we see the striking "Silent Places" by Mabel Alvarez depicting a woman journeying in a protective mountain plane, and Adele Watson’s "Protection" – a symbolist,s dream of spiritual harmony where humankind and nature are one.

Every painting elucidates a life. In every case, there is the experience of the canvas enhanced by the experience of the artist’s life.

"To me its been important to learn about the artist and who they were and where they came from," said Waxenbberg. "It gives one a deeper understanding of their work."

The feminine ideal

When Henrietta Shore simultaneously exhibited her work in New York City in 1923 with Georgia O’Keefe, critical response focused on Shore. Her use of bright colors, polished surfaces and simple organic forms lent a kind of dignity, infused with joy, to all her paintings.

"However, Henrietta Shore slips into oblivion," explained Waxenberg. "And her slipping into obscurity is what this exhibition is all about and part of the reason why I even began to collect women artists. One of the reasons it happened was O’Keefe had Alfred Stieglitz. He was an incredible proponent and he pushed her out there and put her work out and made it accessible to the public. Henrietta worked slower. She was not as prolific as O’Keefe. She befriended Edward Weston and what she did, what a lot of women artists did, was nurture his career."

In 1930 Shore moved to Carmel, Calf., also Weston’s home, to be closer to nature and to follow her passion. This led to isolation, anonymity and poverty. In the late 1950s Shore was committed to an insane asylum by acquaintances who found her home a hovel. She died there, virtually unknown at the age of 83.

Georgia Engelhard, known for much of her life as "Gerogia Minor" was Stieglit’z neice and the frequent companion of O’Keefe. Ironically it was her friendship with O’Keeke that may have resulted in her relative obscurity. Stieglitz gave her an exhibition at his renown "291" gallery at age 10 encouraged by the fashion of showing children’s art believed uniquely imbued with inner truth. The two paintings in the Waxenberg collection, show colorful landscapes dominated by mountains. This is especially interesting as Englehard was afraid of heights.

"The really cool thing here is her courage to overcome her fear of heights and in doing so she incorporates the mountains into her psyche and becomes the foremost woman mountain climber in North America at the age of 20," said Waxenberg. "Georgia was a pioneer."

"Swanzy was clearly ahead of her time. "She’s a little different story than a lot of these artists," Waxenberg said. "She loses her parents very early on and she’s given a great amount of wealth and has the independence to travel. She goes to Paris –everything was happening in Paris in the ‘20s. Up to this point she’s only been exposed to really literal images, Renaissance kinds of paintings, and she’s even painting in the traditional sense. She’s invited to Gertrude Stein’s studio. She walks into the studio and is exposed to Picasso, Braque, Gris. All of a sudden she begins to recognize there’s a new way to see. Images take on new meaning and she embraces these changes."

Because of Swanzy’s financial independence, historians hypothesize her gender actually freed her to experiment with form and color. According to the show’s curator and the center’s artistic advisor, Kristin Poole, "Had Swanzy been born male, it might have been more difficult to resist the pressure to work in the accepted style and cultivate a following."

"Here’s where I believe Swazy’s courage is," continued Waxenberg before "Cubist Study of Skyscrapers" a futurist oil, date unknown. "What she does is project into the future. There were no skyscrapers in Italian villages in the 1920s. There was no such thing. She reflects this in her choice of colors starting at the bottom of the canvas with earth tones then moving to the future with purples and blues. It’s a sense we’re going to have a brighter future. And they’re not typical skyscrapers because she had never seen one. But on some level she knew that’s where this [over-population] had to go. It was part of the whole dynamism happening in the ‘20s. Reaching for something greater. Mary saw these things.

"In ‘Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers’ probably one of the most important pieces in the collection, lots of things are happening. We’re in the technological age. Futurism was incredibly threatening. Mussolini came in and destroyed all the futuristic paintings. To even have one left, let alone a futurist painting by a woman, is really important. The propellers are projecting us into the modern age and there is a reflection of a steam ship. Another wonderful innovation in this painting is Swanzy showing us above and below the surface. So we’re moving into psychology, Freud, we’re looking at the surface and what’s inside. This is pure futuristic impression."

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The women represented in this exhibition are in the truest sense of the word, role models. They continued to follow their heart’s desire, to express their inner selves to the outer world through paint and canvas. There was no one to encourage them, to support or train them. They were misunderstood, marginalized, even ridiculed. Yet they persisted. We can be glad they did.

Waxenberg has no less measure and deserves our admiration in her persistence in accumulating this collection.

Our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, our friends should take note. Courage, creativity, expression and perseverance was our yesterday. With any luck it will be our tomorrow.

A lecture series in conjunction with the exhibition which continues through Mar. 22, will commence early next month. Betty Ann Brown will speak on "Firing the Gender Canon of Early Modern Art History," on Mar. 4 and author Suzi Gablik will give two half-hour lectures, "Contemporary Issues in Art History – Dehlia’s Gone: An Anti-Cyber Manifesto" and Connective Aesthetics: art after Individualism" on Mar. 18. Two performances from the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company are also planned for mar. 10 and 11. For more information, contact the center at 726-9491.

 

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