The Feminine Mistake

by Allison Hewitt Ward

In the White House, a misogynist blunders on; in New York, the second sex grows louder. But the art world, as three very different women prove, must do much more than just lean in

View of “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.” Brooklyn Museum, New York. 2017. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

Women are having a moment. Maybe it started with Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 call to professional women to lean in, or with the 2014 Supreme Court decision that let private companies block female employees’ access to birth control. It might have been outrage over the gunman who opened fire at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado in 2015. But it wasn’t any of these things, really. Like it or not, the fact that feminism, or just simply womanhood, is so in vogue this year is to the credit of Donald J. Trump, who as a candidate called his opponent Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” and, long before his presidential run, spoke on a hot mic about “grabbing ’em by the pussy” — which later inspired the millinery tragedy of cat-eared pink hats. Considering the very real threats to women’s rights in the past decade, and the pressing struggles that have yet to be won (wage equality, paid maternity leave, full access to birth control and abortion), these two remarks seem like a rather impoverished spark for a movement. Certainly, we can all agree that calling someone a nasty woman is mean, but so is kicking someone in the shin. Joking about grabbing pussy as a pickup strategy is creepy, but so is an abandoned house in the country. Mean and creepy hardly form a solid basis for political organizing or consensus.

But organize “we” did — we as in women, a political constituency to which I supposedly belong de facto. The Women’s March on Washington, held the day after Trump’s inauguration as president, drew nearly 500,000 protesters to Washington, and millions nationally. City blocks were flooded with pink hats and homemade posters. PUSSY GRABS BACK was a common slogan. Most striking, however, was the sound, or lack thereof. I’ve been to a number of protests in New York: Occupy, Black Lives Matter, International Women’s Day and several May Days. These were all a cacophony of call and response slogans and homemade drums. But the Women’s March, in New York at least, was disconcertingly quiet; no shouting, no slogans, no demands, no drums. All those women together, and we really had nothing to say.

We’ve been told that a “war on women” is being waged, and that all of us women must band together. Never mind our racial or economic or other differences, and no matter that we have no common slogans: we must all “resist.” Ungrounded as this claim may be, it has propelled a year of tremendous media representation — if nothing else — for women and feminism. The TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a popular and critical triumph, as was the female-directed blockbuster Wonder Woman. An advertising firm jumped in on the trend by erecting a bronze sculpture of a young girl facing off against the famous bull on Wall Street.

Unsurprisingly, the New York art world is in on it too. The Whitney mounted an exhibition of the art of Carmen Herrera in the fall of 2016 that received wide praise, though also recognition that the 102-year-old painter’s day in the sun was woefully overdue. The Brooklyn Museum is just finishing up “A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism,” with solo exhibitions of Marilyn Minter, Beverly Buchanan, and others. Though the museum did present a significant exhibition of postwar black women artists, it was never fully clear over the year which feminism was being reimagined, or what that would actually entail. It would appear “Reimagining Feminism” meant principally a series of shows by female artists.

The keynote of this series was the Brooklyn Museum’s “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” which stayed quite true to its title: it was far more concerned with O’Keeffe’s life, including photographs of the artist and items from her wardrobe, than her work. This focus wasn’t necessarily a museological copout. “Living Modern” was a traveling exhibition designed for mass appeal (appearing subsequently at North Carolina’s Reynolda House Museum of American Art, and then the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts), and large exhibitions of this kind often privilege the life and personality of their subjects over their artistic output. A non-specialist public, it is supposed, will be more engaged with works of art as biographical material framed by a humanizing narrative. However unappetizing this assumption may be, its success has been proven time and again.

Does this mean that the downplaying of O’Keeffe’s work can be excused out of hand as a function of museum strategy? Not entirely. For “Living Modern” was blockbuster feminism. Like Wonder Woman, and indeed like the tepid bourgeois feminism of the Clinton campaign, it hinged on a rebellious woman who, by force of talent, rises above the station of her gender. This was established in the first gallery of the show, an anecdotal primer of sorts on the artist’s early life. O’Keeffe’s school yearbook was displayed, in which she is described as “A girl who would be different in habit, style, and dress / A girl who doesn’t give a cent for men — and boys still less.” Bolstering O’Keeffe’s rebelliousness is the description of another girl on the same page: “Susan is a girl, with many aims in life / Not the least one being, to make a rich man’s wife.” The point is clear: Georgia O’Keeffe is a special kind of girl, a girl who rejects convention, a girl who leans in.

View of “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.” Brooklyn Museum, New York. 2017. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

The abundant ephemera in the exhibition were a distraction from, not a supplement to, O’Keeffe’s work. While the artist’s dresses may be beautiful, they offer little insight into her art. Even then, it’s one thing to display the garments she designed and constructed (there were a few) but quite another to show storebought items pulled from her wardrobe (there were more of these). These garments, along with numerous photographs of her by her husband Alfred Stieglitz and other men in her circle, created a portrait of the artist. But to what end? Can one imagine an exhibition of the work of one of her equally image-conscious contemporaries, Marcel Duchamp perhaps, with The Large Glass displayed next to a mannequin wearing the artist’s pants and jacket?

Georgia O’Keeffe has long suffered from overdetermined readings of her work that downplay form, history, and context and overplay her gender. Despite her consistent insistence otherwise, her large paintings of flowers are read as synonyms for vaginas, albeit in a form subdued enough to appear in reproduction in suburban homes. Their mass appeal comes directly from their family-room-friendly femininity. But reading outside the prescribed narrative of O’Keeffe’s “feminine” forms (repeated too often for comfort in the show’s wall text), we find an artist concerned, like her peers, with the collision of nature and urbanity in a post-industrial world. Fauna appears in her depictions of the city, and urban architecture is mimicked in her depictions of nature. There is a beauty and an alienation in her pictures that has little to do with the artist’s gender.

The appeal of the late Italian artist Carol Rama is almost binary to that of O’Keeffe. Far from the oft-reproduced orchids, Rama’s work is intentionally aligned with sex, bodies, and a manic dissociation from convention, and her retrospective at the New Museum did not suffer from the same overburdened framing that O’Keeffe was subject to. The show opened instead with the artist’s wild, sexual (but quite unsexy) watercolors from the mid-1930s and 1940s. Exploring Rama’s fascination with madness and the mad, these modestly scaled works depict figures with tongues lolling idly on their lips, limbs amputated, and bodies disconnected. Floral crowns spring from the heads of women, as if they may already be corpses decaying into fertile soil. Brilliantly red vaginas seem like wounds. A recurring motif of women fucking themselves with snakes, faces wild, mad, perhaps orgasmic, can’t help but make us wonder whether Eve screwed the serpent in the garden, taking pleasure in her fall. Dicks always appear in multiple — deformed masses of overlapping outlines and color fields emerging from the groin. Often depicted gesturing towards a woman’s face or cunt, these cock clusters might represent a threatening momentum of active male towards immobile female. But in none of these paintings does male-female penetration take place.

Carol Rama. Dorina. 1940. Watercolor on paper. 8 × 5 in.

It’s tempting to find a hedonistic liberation in these wild scenes, inspired by Rama’s visits to psychiatric hospitals in fascist Italy, and perhaps there is. “A person who paints the way I do could be free, lesbian, a slut, and able to say things that other women can’t,” Rama once said. But that freedom is hardly to be found in the figures she depicts — writhing, confined, amputated, broken. There may be pleasure here, but it is an impoverished one: pleasure bought at the expense of sanity. It’s also questionable whether, as the exhibition’s introductory text claimed, Rama’s “fantastical anatomies opposed the political ideology of her time.” More likely, they inhabited and embodied the precise failure of that ideology. Desire in her works is consistently frustrated and alienated, not fulfilled. The madness here isn’t personal, it’s social. To be sure, its origins and motivations lie deep within the artist, but it speaks to us today not simply as an expression of Rama’s alienation, but of the alienated world which she laid bare over the course of her career. To read her work as merely subjectively expressive, or specifically female, would leave much of its content behind.

It’s easy to forget that Carol Rama and Sturtevant, another long-lived beneficiary of this year’s woman trend, were born only six years apart. Sturtevant feels entirely more contemporary, while Rama seems already historical. This is in part a simple function of the movements of their careers; Rama is best known for her earliest works, while Sturtevant began to make art in the 1950s and only hit her stride in the late 1960s. (Both died just a few years ago, Sturtevant at age 89, Rama at 97.) But there’s also an epistemological divide: Rama speaks to the inadequacy of the past in the present, Sturtevant to the fissures within the late 20th century itself. To compare the two is to reveal the poverty of the category of the “20th century woman artist.”

Upon entering Sturtevant’s show at Gavin Brown, I thought perhaps the Harlem gallery had closed early and the attendants had forgotten to lock the doors. The lights were all off, the works on the wall next to the door indiscernible, and there was not another person in sight. The space was filled with a generic club music. It was a rare and subtle moment of disorientation in a gallery space, an architecture that seems tapped out of surprises. But the dark was quickly explained by a projection, made in 2000, that circumnavigated the space. Dillinger Running Series Compilation (which isn’t really a film, but rather a series of still photographs) depicted the artist walking in profile, dressed as the gangster John Dillinger. As it rotated around the galleries, it gave the impression of a phantasmic Sturtevant traversing the walls. It was strange to see an artist so famous for appropriation appear herself. But even so, this wasn’t really her: the work reinterprets a Joseph Beuys video from 1974, in which the German artist performed as the American gangster. It’s another disguise, another costume put on.

Sturtevant’s oeuvre — nearly exact remakes of work by her contemporaries — is usually discussed in terms of copying and appropriation, situated in the discourses of reproduction, presentation, and representation. It’s about pushing the limits and dismantling the structures of authorship and authenticity. This is all true enough, but her work also evokes an obsessive archivist or collector: Benjamin unpacking his library; a dedicated monk copying manuscripts for preservation; an art student with a sketchbook making copies in a museum.

Sturtevant. Johns White Flag. 1991. Encaustic and collage on canvas. 6 ft. 6 in. × 10 ft. 9 in. Courtesy Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.

There’s something very personal in this kind of replication, like an amateur musician covering her favorite song. To remake something is to make it your own. And of course women have a long history of amateurism is the arts. As Linda Nochlin noted in her now standard curriculum essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), women in the 18th- and 19th-century academies were barred from nude figure drawing classes, and had to content themselves with the lesser study of copying the old masters. Mastery, in general, was frowned upon for the upstanding lady; women were expected to be good at many things, but great at none, amateurs in all pursuits.

Sturtevant was no amateur, but she did find a way to professionalize the modes of amateurism that have historically limited the pursuits of women. She made a career of trying on different artists for size, copying others’ accomplishments as new accomplishments of her own. She mastered the mastery of others, all the while obscuring her own identity. Her name Sturtevant, which she emphatically insisted stand on its own, was never preceded by her given name, Elaine; she also stuck with that last name rather than revert to her maiden name, Horan, after her divorce. It was an attempt to evade the trappings of having been born a woman, though the attempt could only be futile; even in trying to evade a gendering of her work, Sturtevant couldn’t help but make a statement on the subject. Her attempt to degender her professional name became a position on gender itself.

And that’s precisely the trap. Women artists just can’t win. One way or another, the female-sexed artist becomes a Woman Artist, whether she likes it, whether her work demands it, or not. Georgia O’Keeffe greeted 2017 at the Brooklyn Museum as a Rebellious Woman, despite not just an indifference to her gender, but an insistence that her paintings had nothing to do with the matter. Sturtevant’s rejection of gender only catapulted her back into its grip. As I, a woman, write this piece about women who made art and how it’s presented at this moment of enthusiastic, if incoherent, “women’s politics,” and I can’t help but fear that this trap will catch me as well.

View of "Carol Rama: Antibodies." New Museum, New York. 2017. Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

Nearly 50 years after its publication, the point of Nochlin’s essay is now often forgotten: women are largely absent from the halls of our great museums not because individual bigoted males excluded them, but because, for most of modern history, the social conditions necessary to become a great artist were not available to women. If the task of women’s liberation is to be undertaken by artists and arts workers, the job is not to mine history for the isolated women who produced notable work. It isn’t even merely to show more work by women. It is to support the struggle for the improved social conditions that will allow more women to make great art. (For a start, this would mean fair compensation for artists’ labor, and not just women artists’.) These conditions have improved, slightly, over the course of the past century. But the struggle has got stuck at “Great Woman Artist.” For a woman to simply be a great artist: that would be a real victory.

Carol Rama fares better in this vice of history than O’Keeffe or Sturtevant. Perhaps because the madness pictured and enacted in her work, especially the early drawings and paintings on paper, is difficult to subject to a simplified gender politics. Perhaps, too, because she dove headlong into the quagmire of sex and bodies. Or maybe because her interrogation of her own womanhood was just that: an interrogation. Neither celebration nor evasion, Rama tackled the messy, fleshy, fluid realities of her existence. As it turns out, such realities are rather difficult to knit into a pussy hat.

Allison Hewitt Ward is an art critic in New York. She co-edits Caesura, an online art publication.