Daughter Of The Revolution
Miriam Schapiro Brought Feminist Art Into The Mainstream.
By Margaret Regan
JANUARY 25, 1999: FEW FATHERS WANT their daughters, or their sons, for that matter, to grow up to be artists.
Not so with Miriam Schapiro, the artist whose 30-year-retrospective of works on paper has the upper levels of the Tucson Museum of Art pulsating with patchwork collages and rainbow-bright lithographs. Schapiro's father gave her more than encouragement. He literally pushed her into art.
Young Mimi had been sketching since the age of 6, and when she hit 14 Theodore Schapiro, a painter himself, decided to sign her up for a life drawing class. She was big for her age, but this was 1937, and with nude models in the class, minors were banned.
"My father was very imposing-looking, good-looking, tall and dark," remembers Schapiro, now 75. "He was standing in back of me and the teacher said, 'How old is she?'
"My father said, 'How old does she need to be?' The teacher said, 'Nineteen.'
"My father pushed me from the back and said, 'She's 19.' "
After she got that shove, Schapiro never turned back. Nowadays, she's the grande dame of feminist art, a pioneer who mixes lowly female craft materials with the exalted stuff of high art, and who celebrates traditional icons of women's lives--the fan, the house, the heart--in monumental paintings. She's retrieved the lost histories of women artists by incorporating their pictures into her own, "mimi-izing" her Mary Cassatts and Frida Kahlos by framing them in her own trademark patterns and colors. And she helped found the pattern and decoration movement, returning a painterly sensuality to an art form squeezed dry by minimalism and conceptualism.
"Few artists occupy a more imposing position in the history of contemporary art than Miriam Schapiro," writes TMA director Robert Yassin in the catalog for the exhibition, which he curated. "Through the extraordinary body of work she has created over the past half-century, and the example she has set for women artists everywhere as a leading figure in the feminist art movement, Ms. Schapiro has had a profound impact on the art world."
Ironically, if it was her father's loving push that jump-started Schapiro's career, it was the female world of her mother and her grandmother that helped seal her reputation. Though Schapiro first won notice in the 1950s for her hard-edged abstractions, her richest imagery comes directly from the back parlor and the kitchen, where from time immemorial unsung women have stitched and knitted and embroidered. Remembering her grandma's needlework, Schapiro says, "I decided I would bring the thing I loved best as a woman into my paintings, and that was cloth, fabric."
Nowadays, when every artist and her sister mixes her media, casually combining high materials with low, Schapiro's techniques don't seem so shocking. Twenty or 30 years ago, they did. When she first started making her "femmages"--feminist images--"I had a reputation already in the New York art world, a very good gallery and so forth," she says. "There weren't many women artists in my day. And when the men saw the fabric on the canvases, they were astonished."
Bailey Doogan, a Tucson painter and University of Arizona art prof who makes challenging paintings of the aging bodies of women, remembers how energizing it was to see Schapiro's work for the first time. The year was 1977, and Doogan had some works in a Los Angeles show called Contemporary Issues: Works on Paper by Women.
"It was odd, then, to see a show of all women's work, and Mimi was in it," Doogan says. "It was the first time I had seen that mix of drawing, collage, pattern and text. Up until the women's movement, art had become reductive, abstract. It was anathema to be figurative or, God forbid, personal. All of a sudden, here was Mimi doing it."
AT 75, SCHAPIRO has a halo of thick gray hair, and she's still working. The most recent piece in the TMA show is 1998's "Lost and Found," a hot-off-the-press lithograph with color Xerox that explores her Jewish identity. She traveled to Tucson from her New York home last week for the opening of her TMA show, and during an interview at the museum, she was dressed in a signature Schapiro print, a skirt in a geometric black, red, green and white. A string of fat wooden beads hung round her neck.
The usual pre-opening chaos reigned in the sprawling museum. Workers were hammering on walls and polishing the protective glass on her art, and Schapiro had to raise her voice above the din. As staffers hurried by, she'd call out anxious questions, about the late arrival of "Ox," a work on paper coming from the Newark Museum (it's been delayed by two weeks) and the catalog (right on schedule). She fretted over the lights shining on her doily lithographs series, "Anonymous Was a Woman," and she was troubled by a gender division of labor between the male painting-hangers and the female glass polishers.
She was right in the middle of an explanation about how a giant 1995 screen print fan, "In the Heat of Winter," was meant to "heroicize" women, when she noticed the man-woman breakdown in the museum. She turned to the workers and called out, only half-joking, "How come the two women are washing windows? Give me a break." Then she laughed, and returned to her fan.
The fan is one of the recurring female objects in her "lexicon of forms" that she settled on in the early '70s, the others being the house, the heart, the kimono and the screen.
"The fan was a female object, but I made it monumental...The fan, let's say from Victorian times on, had to do with the coyness of women in getting a man. I thought, OK, I'm not going to denigrate the fan because it was part of women's culture. What I'm going to do is heroicize it because I'm heroicizing women."
The big fan work layers cloth roses over bold geometries, screen-printed onto a 5-foot-long curve of paper. Like most of Schapiro's work, it bridges two schools of art. Its allusion to women's lives and its joyful explosion of patterns are all her own, while its careful handling of forms bears witness to her training in modernism and her formalist sensibilities.
After the life-altering, life drawing class Schapiro took as a teenager, she went on to study art at the State University of Iowa. How did a kid from New York, born in 1923 and growing up around the edges of the Abstract Expressionism, end up in college in the Midwest?
"My folks were very poor, and it was only $400 a semester," she says. "The Midwestern schools were cheap. I lived in the dorm, worked as a waitress. My rebelliousness was always in my art."
The curriculum was not as behind the times as might be supposed far from the madding coasts. The profs basically favored good old-fashioned representation, but Schapiro credits an inspirational refugee printmaker who had fled Argentina, Mauricio Lasansky, with teaching her "how to be an artist." Lasansky singled her out as one of a half-dozen serious students.
"I knew I was going to be an artist. The other students didn't."
Nevertheless, when it came to the 20th century's major innovations, Schapiro was on her own. "I went home and taught myself cubism. I spent a whole summer copying cubism from books."
At Iowa, Schapiro met the painter Paul Brach, a fellow New Yorker whose education had been interrupted by World War II. (Brach, who winters at Tucson's Rancho Linda Vista, occasionally lectures at TMA.) They were 23 years old when they married, and they're still married 52 years later. While Brach finished up his degree, Schapiro collected a pair of master's degrees and worked in Lasansky's printshop. The couple moved on to Missouri, where Brach taught at a university, and Schapiro, despite her numerous degrees, languished as a faculty wife. The painters decided in 1951 to return to New York.
"That time in New York was very exciting, and we met a lot of people--Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Mitchell...Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan were my friends."
Both Brach and Schapiro had some successes, exhibiting at the Tanager Gallery, and Schapiro signed on with dealer André Emmerich.
"I moved in a lot of circles and met a lot of artists. I learned a lot about my craft. I was always recognized as an up-and-coming artist; I had shows and got good reviews."
Schapiro's early works, large abstract paintings, fall outside the purview of the TMA show, which is dedicated solely to her later works on paper. Her early paintings were influenced by Abstract Expressionism, Brach writes in a catalog essay, "yet they have a lyrical evocation of nature and of figures in landscape that is far from the angst of many of the Abstract Expressionists."
Their son Peter was born in 1955. Schapiro's parents moved into the apartment upstairs from them in Greenwich Village to help out, and the baby's two grandmas alternated baby-sitting in the afternoons. Still, in the notoriously macho Village art scene of the 1950s, the seriousness of women artists could always be called into question. With a baby in the house, outsiders began to think of Schapiro as a hobbyist.
"I was raising our son, juggling two worlds. It was a man's world...I didn't have the language for it then but I realized something was wrong. Once another artist asked me what I had been working on. I was so excited to be asked, and just as I was about to tell him, he put his hand over my mouth. And said, 'Don't tell me.'
"I felt I was locked into a place with a duty to my husband and child. Art was a sideline and it was killing me inside."
It wasn't until Schapiro moved with her family to California in 1967 that she happened onto feminism. Brach had gotten a post as head of the art department at the University of California, San Diego. Schapiro had been promised a job too, but when they arrived the administration reneged. Brach, whom Schapiro calls a "good man," supportive not only of her career but of feminism, threatened to go back to New York. A job miraculously materialized for Schapiro. Shortly thereafter, Brach was hired as dean of the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts, and Schapiro was named a professor. Nicknamed Cal Arts, the new school quickly earned a national rep for producing hot young artists, among them David Salle, Mira Schor and Faith Wilding.
"The big change came when we moved to California. I met all these fabulous women. They were into consciousness-raising. I learned so much about myself...I began to read Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex) and Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (about a woman writer). I'd never read a work about a woman artist. I identified with it."
Judy Chicago, another groundbreaking feminist artist, was already in California. The two women joined forces to found the feminist art program at Cal Arts. The pair "team-taught the class and built our teaching around consciousness-raising. We tried to get the women to understand in what ways they could empower themselves as human beings and use art to make a statement."
The statement they made turned out to be Womanhouse, a wild whole-house installation that became legendary in the annals of feminist art. Students and teachers temporarily took over an abandoned Los Angeles house, and renovated its rooms, walls, closets and even staircase into three-dimensional pieces of art. Widely reported on, even in mainstream Time magazine, the house had a shocking pink kitchen covered with sculpted breasts and fried eggs. There was a menstruation bathroom, full of bloodied tampons, and a dining room full of inedible plaster food. A performance artist in the bedroom applied makeup repeatedly to her face. Schapiro's contribution, made in collaboration with Sherry Brody, was "Doll House Room," a childlike house filled with ordinary domestic paraphernalia and nightmares at the windows.
"It's now in the National Museum of American Art," Schapiro says, "because the director says it's an icon of American art."
Such icons, never before seen in art, came out of brainstorming sessions that were just as unprecedented.
"This house was abandoned. There was no furniture. There was nothing in it. So we'd sit on the floor--and believe it or not in L.A. in winter it was really cold. We'd say, 'Here is the kitchen.' Our consciousness-raising took the form of talking about growing up, and how our mothers and fathers reacted or behaved in the kitchen and what our feelings as people were, what they were in the kitchen now. And I cannot tell you how that gave birth to ideas. My God!...They were rich, inner stories. I kept saying to them, just think that a slide is dropping in your head...and find an image of what she's talking about."
Gloria Steinem, who paid a visit, wrote in a foreword to the TMA catalog, "In those rooms, I discovered for the first time that women's experience could be the stuff of art--and vice versa."
That rich storehouse of stuff was pivotal for Schapiro, as well as for a whole generation of young artists. After Womanhouse it was time to break some more taboos.
WHAT SCHAPIRO HAD in mind was "using the things of women's art, doilies, quilts, making art on my terms. I brought all these anonymous women not only into my life, but into the life of art."
Artists like Robert Rauschenberg had already defied art's conventional hierarchy of materials--oil painting at the summit, crafts in the deepest valley--by bringing found objects into their constructions. Schapiro's new experiments with fabric on cloth headed in the same direction.
"The difference in me is that I had an idealistic" goal, Schapiro says: She wanted her found objects to refer explicitly to women's lives.
She rummaged in the linen closet, retrieved the lowly doily, the embroidered handkerchief and the lacy apron, and brought them into the studio. Sometimes she'd use them unaltered. "Patience," a 1976 acrylic and fabric in the TMA show, has a real-life white apron glued to a background that alternates between painted stripes and patchwork hexagons cut out of fabric.
Other times she'd cut out roses or stripes or patterns from commercial fabric, and use them as subsidiary elements in her design. In "Doll's House," for instance, a 1972 watercolor and collage also in the show, Schapiro constructed a house--the quintessential female space. It's of an abstracted geometry that relates directly back to her earlier work as an abstract painter, but its walls and roof and windows are made up of scissored fabric, and its blue skies of paint.
"I wanted to validate the traditional activities of women," Schapiro wrote in 1977, "to connect myself to the unknown women artists who made quilts, who had done the invisible 'women's work' of civilization. I wanted to acknowledge them, to honor them."
The switch cost Schapiro her long-time relationship with the Emmerich Gallery, but that didn't stop her. She reveled in her delicious new layerings of fabric and paint and ink, where it was hard to tell where one medium stopped and another began. "Decorative" had long been a dirty word in abstract art, but Schapiro's new work was defiantly decorative. A new movement, Pattern and Decoration, was born.
"We were trying to register in the mainstream that we were tired of minimalism, we were tired of conceptualism. We missed the sensuality of art," Schapiro says, gesturing to a glittery work called "Glitzy Fan," a 1983 amalgam of acrylic, fabric, glitter and sequins. "This was early and I used all this glitzy material. Tedious, tedious, tedious. You should see my studio."
Stymied by the classic H.W. Janson History of Art, the widely used textbook that discusses not a single woman artist, Schapiro began to study up on her lost, fine-art foremothers. She tracked down the rare book that reproduced images by women painters, and called up scholars to ferret out names of women she'd never heard of before. She learned about Sonia Delaunay, the early 20th-century master of pattern and paint whom Schapiro calls "my foster mother," about the early Soviet graphic artists, about the hidden women of the Renaissance, the Gentileschis and Anguissolas.
"We're talking 1970. There was no literature on women artists. Everybody knew two names, Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt; I started with Mary Cassatt. I had to buy books that had only one reproduction (by a woman) in them. I had to buy all these books--and they were expensive--and cut out the images."
Just as Schapiro collaborated with the anonymous doily makers of yore, she combined photocopied reproductions of the paintings with honorary borders she painted herself. Or she made fast poster-like prints, such as "Re: Art History," with its list of typewritten names, the better to spread the word.
"What I'm (saying) is, 'This is women. Women are good, they're noble. They're brilliant. They're great.' Words that have never been used about women before."
Still, it's not easy being the one to collaborate backward and forward in time, to matchmake media and genres.
Says Schapiro, "This is one hell of a labor-intensive job."
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