There is nothing as fascinating and infuriating to me as women who have been erased by history. I constantly find myself enthralled by women whose accomplishments have been reduced to mere footnotes in books that should have been about them. My obsession began when I discovered that, like most people, I had greatly misunderstood the phase “well-behaved women seldom make history.” The quote, usually found screen printed onto splashy T-shirts and mugs next to pictures of Marilyn Monroe, was actually coined by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. It was not written in order to encourage women to misbehave in order to be remembered, but to draw attention to the fact that so many women who have made a positive impact on society have been forgotten. Their work may live on, but their names rarely possess the same immortality.
I was very excited to research for the Gund Gallery’s #5WomenArtists project for this very reason. As a Gund Associate, I have witnessed the talent and innovation of several female artists gracing our gallery. From Jodi Bieber’s dreamlike photos of South Africa to the striking the portraits in Rania Matar’s “She” series, I have found myself constantly amazed by how women are changing the world of art.
Our goal with #5WomenArtists was to find connections between contemporary artists and artists of the past, as well as to shine a light on women whose contributions may have been overlooked. My fellow associates and I worked hard to find a diverse and engaging group of women to research for the project. Narrowing the list down to five was far more difficult than we could have anticipated. Since the number of underrated women in the art world is practically countless, we felt guilty leaving so many out. However, once we had our list of 5 women finalized, we were satisfied.
One of the first artists we added to the list was Louise Nevelson. Nevelson was a Russian-born American sculptor known for her contributions to the abstract expressionist movement. She was monumentally important to the budding Feminist art scene in New York in the 1970s. Using materials (usually scrap wood) she found around her apartment, Nevelson’s work communicated the enormity and diversity of New York City itself. Her sculptures are larger than life, in order to break the assumption that only art created by men could be large-scale. She made a statement simply by taking up the space she felt she deserved.
Similarly to Nevelson, Corita Kent, known as Sister Mary Corita, refused to shy away from politics. She was probably my favorite artist to research, simply because her life was so fascinating. Kent was an American Roman Catholic nun, artist, and educator. Her bold, colorful silkscreen pieces conveyed messages of love and peace, causing her to become a popular figure in the movements of social upheaval during the 1960s and 1970s. For years, critics refused to acknowledge how contributional Kent was to the mid-twentieth century Pop Art movement. However, attention in recent years has brought forth a resurgence of appreciation to Kent’s artwork.
Faith Ringgold is a Harlem-based artist best known for her narrative quilts, although she is accomplished in many different mediums. Inspired by a trip to Paris, the “French Collection” is a series of quilts that utilizes striking colors and childlike mysticism in order to explore the past and present of peoples of African descent. As France was known as the home of modern art at the time of Ringgold’s visit, Ringgold chose it as a source in which to examine the African American “modern” identity. Ringgold is also notable for her participation in political protests for justice in the art world. In 1970, Ringgold was arrested for her part in protesting a modernist exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art that featured no women or African American artists. Throughout her life, Ringgold has remained an engaging artist and a voice for change.
One contemporary artist we chose to feature is Claire Beckett, a photographer who uses her art to examine the relationships between Americans and the Muslim world. Some of Beckett’s subjects include American converts to Islam and soldiers newly enlisted in military training. In a country whose politicians often convey an “us-versus-them” mentality when talking about Islam, it becomes clear why Beckett’s work is so important. In an email to the Gallery, Beckett wrote that “the work can give viewers insights into their own thoughts, to the assumptions and prejudices they carry inside.” By featuring the perspectives of people on both sides of, as well as in-between, the supposed line between Islam and America, Beckett shines a humanizing light on a subject that is so often misunderstood.
Another contemporary artist we chose to feature is Mickalene Thomas, a New York-based mixed-media artist whose work also includes collage, photo, video, sculpture, and installations. Thomas’ work often celebrates black women and their femininity, surrounding the faces and figures in her art with bold colors, patterns, glitter, and rhinestones to draw in the gaze and emphasize their beauty. Inspired by art history and popular culture, Thomas’ work alludes to sources ranging from 19th-century French paintings to 1970s Blaxploitation films. Thomas wrote that “beauty has always been an element of discussion for black women, whether or not we were the ones having the conversation.” With her art, Thomas clarifies that she has taken back the conversation, and is guiding it in a new direction.
In researching #5WomenArtists, our team was not specifically looking for revolutionaries. We chose our artists because of their place in history and the significance and skill of their work. However, we wound up with 5 artists that choose to use their respective mediums to communicate political messages close to their souls. Maybe this is because the act of women creating art is inherently political in one way or another. Maybe this is because we, as young artists and art-lovers ourselves, are drawn to work that stirs us, inspires us, and makes us think. I have learned so much through this project, and will forever be grateful to the 5 amazing artists for teaching me about their movements and causes. I have learned a lot about myself through them. I hope our research can help others learn to appreciate women who have made significant contributions to art, regardless of whether they were “well-behaved.”
Mae Hunt ’21