Alison Stewart: This is All Of It. I'm Alison Stewart live from the WNYC studios in Soho. Thank you for sharing part of your day with us. All this week we've been speaking with art historian Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art Without Men. That title is a take on a seminal art history book called The Story of Art which happens to only include one female artist. Hessel’s book corrects the record with copious examples of women artists making extraordinary work since the 1500s.
The book is chronological and as Hessel writes, "To avoid the artists only being seen as the wife of, the muse of, the model for, or the acquaintance of, I have situated them within their social and political context in the time in which they lived. We've discussed The Renaissance, The Baroque period, the Impressionists, and the Surrealists and today we arrived at art post World War II, the period from 1945 to 1970. The era includes a group of New York women who were featured prominently in a 1951 influential event called The 9th Street Art Show that introduced abstract expressionism. They were Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler."
Let's get into it with Katy Hessel.
Let's talk post-World War II. The focus of the art world shifts to New York City from Paris. What was New York City offering?
Katy Hessel: New York City was building. We think about the mid-20th century, it was a time of growth. Again, we have to think about what artists have just experienced with the Second World War or the Spanish Civil War, or the bombing of Hiroshima. It's the fact that actually so many, this is the era of the birth or not birth, but this is the era of globalization on an even grander scale and artists, especially Jewish artists were fleeing Europe for safety and so a lot of them settled in America, thanks to getting visas via college, university jobs, and everything.
What's so extraordinary about this time is that it was this time of immigration and with this, a lot of these artists were Jewish, and you have to think about what they might have experienced during this time. This idea of how can artists even comprehend what has happened and what is the role of the art now, what is the role of artists, and can we even paint the figure in such [unintelligible 00:02:41] apparent prices in such [unintelligible 00:02:44] crisis?
Really, it was this idea of the unknown. I've got this great quote by Grace Hartigan in the book. She says, "Here we had gone through this Holocaust, and for what? What is there left? What was left was a private conscience, an individual searching his or her feelings and making a move into the unknown." For the painters, the unknown was a blank area or space, that was all there was. There was no structure, nothing interwoven and a lot of the music, dance, and poetry also had this as an underlying philosophy. Then what happened was we reacted against Europe, we had a very strong sense of being American, of being pioneers again, creative pioneers.
Really this was when everything shifted and artists not only did they work in an abstract expressionist sense expressing their inner emotions through these swathes of paint and movement or minimalism, where they pared it back to these minimalist-like forms but also this was the era and the start of performance art. This idea of using the body and what that meant. Artists challenged not just what art could look like, this idea of relinquishing the canvas off the easel and putting it on the floor, but actually our interaction with art too. Artists such as Yoko Ono, or Marina Abramovic, or Anna Maria Maiolino using the body as performance.
This idea that the female body has been commodified, objectified for so many centuries in European painting, what does it mean to make it both object and subject now and actually take ownership of that medium and challenge what we so often think of as the female body in our history?
Alison Stewart: I want to talk about allies of women artists and the role of Peggy Guggenheim in uplifting women artists. Who is someone that benefited from Peggy Guggenheim's help?
Katy Hessel: Peggy Guggenheim put on this extraordinary show called The Women at her Art of the Century Gallery in 1945. This was when we see the likes of Leonora Carrington and Hedda Sterne featuring in these exhibitions which really have made a lasting impact in where a lot of people go for reference points today. She also included a little-known artist called Janet Sobel who so many people don't know about but who really was the pioneer of the drip painting technique which as we know was adopted by some very famous male artists of the Abstract Expressionist Era.
Alison Stewart: So interesting. There's actually an exhibit in New York right now at the Ukrainian Museum because I believe Sobel was Ukrainian.
Katy Hessel: Yes, she was born in Ukraine. Exactly. Sobel, she was extraordinary. She was completely self-taught, she took up painting in 1938 when she was 45 and her paintings are really inspired by her emotions. She said, "I'm a surrealist, I paint what I feel within me." Her work almost evokes the strength and power of her Jewish bloodline. These internal influences were remarkable for her, so she turned to fusing enamel paint with sand which she tipped and poured.
It is such sort of experimental ways and really even art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that she was the first artist in the context of abstract expressionism to demonstrate the all-over painting technique, whereby paint covers the entire surface equally which was a key stylistic feature. She was encouraged by her son and within five years she was offered a gallery exhibition, and it was visited by none other than Jackson Pollock who apparently was enthralled. That's also very interesting, this idea that who actually are the influences, and it's not to say that artists borrow from artists the whole time but I think it's so important to acknowledge those influences as well.
Alison Stewart: Let's use Jackson Pollock as a conduit to get to Lee Krasner. [laughter] Lee Krasner, I thought this was fascinating. She studied at the only high school in New York that offered a course in art to girls, I believe it was Washington Irving-
Katy Hessel: Correct.
Alison Stewart: -which is down on West 15th Street, East 15th Street actually. What was her breakthrough?
Katy Hessel: Krasner was extraordinary because she was again, this was also the era we start to see a lot more working-class artists because suddenly education is offered to so many more people and she was formidably ambitious. There's an interview with her and Cindy Nemser, a great interview in her book, Art Talk. She talks about the fact that she knew she wanted to be an artist from elementary school. Her breakthrough, like so many of her contemporaries, came in 1929 with the opening of The Modern which is obviously now MoMA, which was then just a few rented rooms in the Heckscher Building.
You have to imagine these kids, these working-class kids have probably never even been outside New York before. They’d hardly traveled and to see the splendors of the French Modernists and European painting, those bright colors for the very first time, and to be able to attend these modern art museums that were accessible. It must have just been an absolute breakthrough. Really, that I think was a huge breakthrough for her. Another breakthrough moment was actually when her husband Jackson Pollock died in a way because when she was alive, they shared a house in Long Island in Springs and she was confined to working in the spare bedroom, and he had the sprawling barn.
Actually, when winter came, she was actually forced out of the spare bedroom and then forced to work in the living room, so she was constantly being accommodating for him. After his death in 1956, she was able to access that barn and as a result, her work flourished. She made work that was on a scale of five meters wide and you feel the ferocious energy inside herself in these canvases. There's works in The Whitney right now, MoMA, that you can see that really show what happens when women get access to a proper studio, they can flourish, they can thrive.
Alison Stewart: Lee Krasner was part of this exhibition and sometimes they were known as the 9th Street Women. It was the 9th Street Arts Exhibition that had Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, you write about all of these women in your book. Unlikely Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler were born into means. How did their family wealth impact their careers?
Katy Hessel: It meant that clothes are such an interesting subject in art history because when we think so historically, so many of those artists had the advantage of having parents who maybe could give them access or could provide funding. I think what it meant for someone like Helen Frankenthaler was, she grew up in the Upper East Side.
She attended Dalton. One of her teachers at Dalton High School was Rufino Tamayo, who was a Mexican muralist. Just already having that access to private schools and who your teachers are, is already such an advantage. Also, you're working with an actual artist who's probably teaching you how to live as an artist. It probably gave her confidence as well. All of this plays into it.
The fact that-- There's a great story about when she was tasked with organizing her sort of alumni show at Bennington College, she had the confidence to invite someone like Clement Greenberg to that show, after promising him, apparently, Martinis and Manhattans, but it's the fact that knowing that, having that knowledge about, and actually at 22, she was then the youngest artist to be part of the 9th Street Show. Of course, she used her family wealth to her advantage. She was able to experiment at such a young age, someone like Joan Mitchell also was able to travel.
That also didn't mean that having lots of money or being from a certain family wasn't also disadvantageous. Joan Mitchell had a very sort of fraught relationship with her father, who sort of wished she had been born a boy and never really believed in her painting. Although she had the money and the means, that also she lived in France most of her life. I'm sure no doubt she sort of escaped that as well. Similarly, Helen Frankenthaler lost her father very young. Although people were from means, it didn't necessarily mean that they had a particularly happy childhood.
Alison Stewart: I want to finish it with Elaine de Kooning before we move on. You describe her as reinventing the portrait.
Katy Hessel: Elaine de Kooning, like Krasner, was a working-class girl. She grew up in Brooklyn. Krasner talks about this idea of her and Elaine, they were part of the first generation of abstract expressionist painters. What was so significant about the 9th Street Show in 1951 was that it was the first time that actually they brought the first-generation and second generation of abstract expressionist artists together. It was attended by the director of MoMA, Alfred Barr Jr. It was the first time that really it was to put in abstract expressionism and this idea of a kind of American abstract avant-garde on the map and also the art market was changing so much then.
What was extraordinary about Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner was the fact that they were both working class. Lee Krasner talks about this to Cindy Nemser. She says we broke the ground. They broke the ground for working-class artists in America for sure. What Elaine de Kooning did was she wasn't just a painter, she was also a writer and she would write about art and her contemporaries for art news. What was extraordinary about that was because this was a movement and a painting style that was so new that was happening in front of her eyes, she was part of it.
Actually, because she was part of it, it allowed her to write so sensitively about the movement as well. Her career spanned a lot of different decades, but she really mastered this idea of the new portrait, really. She became obsessed with JFK and she made these works of this kind of untouchable celebrity, this determined politician, this sort of dynamic movement of their real-life interactions and actually what that means to create a portrait from life in an abstract expressionist fashion, so she was extraordinary.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Katy Hessell. The name of the book is The Story of Art Without Men. This is a wild coincidence. You write about Marisol Escobar, a Venezuelan American sculptor who was born in Paris and lived and worked in New York City. A curator I follow in New York City happened to post about her a few days ago and this is what he wrote, Wade Bonds wrote, "I have no idea why she fell into obscurity. She's always been one of my favorites." Do we know why she fell into obscurity? Do we have any sense of why her work, which is really provocative and engaging that more people don't know about her?
Katy Hessel: It's so disheartening to say, but so many women of this era and so many women from before, and still their work falls into obscurity. Marisol had a complicated life as well. She had this incredible career in the 1960s where she was known to be more famous than her friend Andy Warhol. Thousands would queue up for her 1966 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery. I love this quote in The New York Times, they described her as “clever as the very devil and catty as can be.” When we think about her childhood, she had a very complicated childhood. Her mother committed suicide when she was very young and she was known to just not talk that much, really, and almost keep silence. That's also very interesting in terms of how it worked.
Also, the way that women were treated during this time, it was the 1960s it was the birth of commercialization, Americanization, and the perfect housewife, the perfect woman. What Marisol did, which was so clever, was also the era of factory workers, this idea that a lot of male artists would have these huge factories and studios and it wouldn't necessarily be work that was done by their hand. What she did is she worked specifically, she formed her own version of what pop art was. She wasn't influenced by pre-Columbian and folk art. She hand-carved each sculpture alone. Again, to perhaps emphasize this only human aspect of her work.
One of my favorite works, which is in the book, is called Dinner Date which is hilarious as well. She was so funny. These works are extremely comedic. The fact that these blank-faced boxed-in women was having dinner together, but not speaking to one another and it's kind of as though how society projected women to be sort of idealized with the high fashioners of today, but actually not really saying anything and using their brains. She was so clever, there's this work that MoMA has called Love from 1962, which is essentially got it's really quite difficult to look at.
It's kind of a Coke bottle shoved inside someone's mouth, almost suffocating them. It makes you feel full of anguish. It's very phallic as well. Although it's called Love, it kind of alludes to the silencing of women, the brutal sexual imagery of the era, but also this kind of what was happening at the time in terms of the Cold War, the American Civil Rights Movement.
There was so much of much happening in the 1960s politically that I think her work really talks about. There's an extraordinary work of her by Alice Neel from 1981. I don't know if that reveals anything about her character or personality, but I don't know if she stopped making work or she made less work and moved into different things. I recorded a podcast on this not too long ago and it's the fact that we don't always know the sort of conditions that certain artists are in that actually allows for their work to fall into obscurity. Again, it's a travesty that she's not better known because really she is an artist who defines the 20th century for me.
Alison Stewart: She also is a doppelgänger for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Katy Hessel: That's true.
Alison Stewart: She's quite striking looking, yes. Another artist I wanted to ask about because I think it really gets to the idea of the gaze, whether it's the male gaze or the white gaze or the mainstream gaze, it's Pauline, is it Boty? B-O-T-Y?
Katy Hessel: Yes.
Alison Stewart: Her gaze on Marilyn Monroe, probably one of the most painted and reproduced images ever. Hers is called The Only Blonde in the World and in this image, Marilyn Monroe is quite powerful, I would say.
Katy Hessel: I sort of see this work as quite heartbreaking, I don't know. It was made the year after Marilyn Monroe killed herself. Pauline Boty was an extraordinary pop artist. She had such a brilliant take on the world in the sense that she painted collages. She painted these works called It's a Man's World I and II because this idea that the proliferation of information and images coming at us in the 1960s was like nothing before, so how do you visualize that? You do it through collage and this work, The Only Blonde in the World, it's broken up into three sections and almost looks like a cinema curtain closing in on her in this kind of amazing silver dress shimmying.
It's as though we're sort of catching that last or like a door closing. It's like we're catching our last view of her. She looks angelic in it. She doesn't look objectified. You can just tell that Pauline Boty worships her. I think she paints her with such sensitivity, but it's
also heartbreaking because it signifies this end for me. Anyway, that's just my interpretation.
Alison Stewart: We'll continue our conversation with Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art Without Men, and we'll hear about the Guerrilla Girls, the activist who put the art world on notice that sexism and misogyny in art would no longer go unchecked in public. This is All Of It.
This is All Of It on WYNC. I'm Alison Stewart. All this week we've been speaking with art historian Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art Without Men, a book that inserts women into the timeline of art history, where they deserve to be. We are at a section of the book called Taking Ownership, 1970 to 2000. For example, a group of artists activists who wore gorilla mask began to stage protests, and famously were featured on a billboard that read, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" They were called the Guerrilla Girls.
There were ads like the 1985 one that read, "How many women had one person exhibitions at New York City's last museum's last year, Guggenheim 0, Metropolitan 0, The Modern 1, the Whitney 0," and the famous poster that said, "The advantages of being a woman artist." Things on that list were, "Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius, being reassured that whatever kind of art you make, it will be labeled feminine." The last line, "Finally getting your picture in an art magazine wearing a gorilla suit." During the last decades of the 20th century, there were different groups seeking to take up space, including queer folks and underrepresented minorities.
Let's get back into it with Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art Without Men.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the Black Arts Movement. You mentioned Betye Saar, Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold, all fairly well known. I thought we could talk a little bit about Emma Amos, who recently passed away. A member of Spiral, an original Guerrilla Girl. First of all, what is Spiral. What was Spiral?
Katy Hessel: The Black Arts Movement really came about during the Civil Rights era, the turmoil of the 1960s and '70s, which really changed the making of and discourse around Black art in America, but also this idea of how it is exhibited. What did they talk? What do artists discuss? Is it abstraction? Is it figuration? One of the first collectives to emerge was Spiral, which was a New York-based group of 15 radical artists that was established to discuss the role of art and culture at the time of the Civil Rights movement. It was predominantly male. Emma Amos was the only female member and she was very young at the time, I think she was about 27 years old.
It was this time of discussion and I think that's really important as well. She was right at the center of that. She made work in so many different ways in the sense that in her early 19, the 1960s and '70s, she made these gorgeous figurative paintings. One of which in my book is Sandy and her husband from 1973, which shows the union between this interracial couple. It's also really interesting because there's a painting at the back of it, which is actually based on a self-portrait by Emma Amos and looks, it is based on another painting by Emma Amos of a girl sniffing flowers.
Although it might be on the wall, it could also signify to me anyway, this idea of voyeurism and this uncomfortableness of all these two people allowed to be together because of political turmoil of the era. What's amazing about this painting is the way that she paints it is with such love, I think as well. It got this great zebra skin rug in the middle of it. The plant is gorgeous, and this couple are just dancing so intimately. Emma Amos shows that it doesn't matter what color our skin is in the sense that all love is love. I think it's a really powerful portrait.
Alison Stewart: Emma Amos was involved with the Guerrilla Girls. Would you explain who the Guerrilla Girls were, what their mission was, how they went about it?
Katy Hessel: Yes. The Guerrilla Girls are incredible. They formed in 1985, and they are a feminist-focused collective who dedicate their lives to almost preaching truth to the public about what happens in museums in terms of the statistics. Really they emerged in 1985 after MoMA included just 17 women and eight artists of color out of 169 artists in their international survey of recent painting and sculpture.
Obviously, the Guerrilla Girls outraged said, "That is totally not international. We need to do something about it." What they did, they took to the streets anonymously and throughout the night they protested for the recognition and support of women artists and artists of color. What was also really interesting that at this time in the 1980s and 1970s, was that artists were artists, especially women artists, were starting to take to the streets because the establishment was, "No, are still not letting them in." They said, "Okay, we're going to take to the streets," because they were free.
The group kitted out in gorilla masks, they pasted posters emblazoned with bold disruptive text and statistics on walls near museums. They had these amazing humorous taglines such as, "When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?" Or, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" Less than 5% of the artists in the modern arts sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female. Although they might be humorous, and brilliantly bold and graphic, and they use advertising techniques, they're also true.
Actually it's outrageous. What they do, that clever technique of using bold humor and actually to grab our attention. As a result, they've changed so much in our history, but they're still working today. [unintelligible 00:26:27] 1985 to the present day, because there is still so much work to be done. Where I live in London, just 1% of the national galleries collection is by women.
Alison Stewart: Wow. Just 1%. That's amazing.
Katy Hessel: I know. The Royal Academy of Arts, yet to host a solo exhibition by a female artist in their main galleries in their over 250-year history. Really, although progress is happening, there is still so much to be done.
Alison Stewart: Katie, I wanted to ask you about the fiber arts, embroidery, yarn work, quilting. It sometimes has been dismissed as not real art, and it's largely been a medium that women work in, and it's considered more of a craft than art. When did fiber arts start to be taken seriously and who is a fiber artist you'd like people to know about?
Katy Hessel: Oh my goodness, so many. I adore fiber arts and actually. So much of the time when I'm reading my [unintelligible 00:27:24], there was no mention of fiber artists when it was really the kind of 1960s that things began to shift in terms of museums, recognizing artists who are working in fiber to have that the platform that they deserve. It's still taken a long time. In the '70s, a lot of artists such as Judy Chicago, they used the needle as a form of protest because it was this art form that had previously been dismissed as decorative or craft or design.
I think it deserves to be celebrated. One artist I want to tell you about is an artist called Judith Scott. Judith Scott was really, really extraordinary. She was born with Down Syndrome and an undiagnosed deafness, and she was born in 1943. She died in 2005. She endured horrific conditions as a child. She was placed in a mental institution for more than 35 years until her twin sister Joyce tracked her down, who was born without disabilities. Joyce tracked her down and brought her to San Francisco or the Bay area and enrolled her in a place called Creative Growth.
Creative Growth, gives neurodiverse artists or people an option to actually use art and play with art and create art as a form of communication. Apparently Judith Scott, didn't do anything for two years. Apparently, after a participating in a fiber art workshop, she became completely obsessed with threads. As a result, bundled all these threads together, she would hide wheels under threads and bits of string and all sorts of fibers. She'd hide chairs, bicycles, she'd make these beautiful sculptures.
What's amazing about that, is that it was almost like a form of communication for her and this idea that actually everyone should be given the opportunity to make art, or appreciate art or be educated in art because really it can change lives. That's what she did for 17 years and until her death in 2005. It's the fact that, she's since had exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and is known around the world. I think actually having someone like her, platforming someone like her is so important because we need to spotlight neurodiverse artists as well as people without disabilities. It's this idea of including as many people as possible in this conversation.
Alison Stewart: Tomorrow we'll air the final installment of our conversation with Katy Hessel, with a look at the art of last 20 years, and the introduction of photography and text as powerful tools.
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