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the root of MY furY: on WoMen artists “getting their due”

Julia Cooke

"Aisha's Acceptance" by Aisha Jemila Daniels. YoungArts.

I stood at the Whitney Museum last autumn, looking for a second time at the Carmen Herrera exhibit. Numinous as the paintings in front of me appeared, quiet though their presence felt, the vague rabble around them wouldn’t quite hush. I wanted only to observe the art; the first time I saw the show, for a press preview, I had been too distracted by the pursuit of the exhibit itself—the facts surrounding it—to focus on the works themselves. I lingered now in the show’s central room around nine of Herrera’s fifteen known “Blanco y Verde” paintings, the series that she considers her most important, on which she worked from 1959-1971.

Each painting—essentially a white background with a slice or two or three of green cutting through it, enough that, on certain canvases, background and foreground swap places—shows movement in perfect balance. Examining the textile of the canvas and the visible brushstrokes, I could just barely trace Herrera’s human hand. They toyed with perception: in one painting, what appeared to be a black line beneath a green triangle turned out to be the juncture of two separate canvases. They invited meditation, projection, technical scrutiny. Together they recalled landscapes natural and manmade. A cliff in its simplest terms, gently slanting outward; a road narrowing to its terminus between two hills; a horizon; kissing skyscrapers.

This exhibit—Herrera’s first solo show at a major New York institution, at age 100—opened last autumn amid thunderous appreciation for older women artists. Many of them, like Herrera, whose graphic black and white series prefigured similar Frank Stella works by nearly a decade, worked alongside the men whose names today appear in art history books. Many, like Herrera, whose work had appeared in occasional shows, have labored with just enough but really not very much appreciation for quite a long time. Painter Dorothea Rockburne had her rst retrospective in 2011 in her late 70s, after being featured in the occasional MoMA group show since 1971; 87 year-old photographer Rosalind Fox Solomon won a 2016 Lucie Award for achieve- ment in portraiture for, among others, pictures shot in the 1980s, one of three women to win the award since its inception in 2003 (three years ago the prize went to Nan Goldin, 63); Phyllida Barlow, at 73 this year’s British pick for the Venice Biennial, was unrepresented by a commercial gallery until 2010. The list goes on and on and is summarized in roundup articles and analyses of how the work of elderly women artists offers collectors both a sparkly sense of discovery and a stable, low-risk investment. Barbara Kasten (81), Joan Semmel (72), Etel Adnan (90), and Rose Wylie (83), all have significant careers behind them and all face newfound admiration.

Few would argue that a correction is not long overdue for all of these women. Their work is good. Credit and a windfall are unquestionably deserved. Still, walk- ing away from Herrera’s paintings both times I saw them, I felt an uncomfortable friction. An unblushing revisionism pressed against an earnest reassessment of the art historical canon and its principals. There is no reversing time to allow Herrera to publicly converse with the genre she anticipated as it happened. And not so very many of the factors that pushed success away from her are different today, as the factors that in many ways demonstrate women’s continued place in the American art world are damning. As of 2014, of 4,000 artists represented by New York and Los Angeles galleries, less than a third were female. Of the top 50 highest-grossing contemporary artists in 2016, four were women; none cracked the top 25. The more I understand the market forces behind these statistics, the more they unsettle me.

The last two summers’ shows of women artists (MoMA’s Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, the Hammer Museum’s Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1985, the Denver Museum’s Women of Abstract Expressionism last year, and many more) will spike inclusion statistics for a number of museums. But as I walked through some of them, the thin connections among women whose primary unifier remains their gender left me feeling angry. And anxious. However, Herrera’s career is hers alone; to feel anger on her behalf threatens to patronize a woman who certainly deserves no more of that.

Fine, then. My feelings go beyond Herrera. I ran into the photographer Rosalind Solomon, with whom I’ve become friendly, at a mutual friend’s wedding. I asked her if she’d seen the Herrera show. The women artists of her generation had been very present in my mind since seeing it, I said, and then my tongue promptly tied itself into a knot. She noticed. “Say what you mean,” she said. I choked out a few sentences about conflicted feelings, that as deserved as attention for women artists of her generation was, it was not enough; that, as a younger woman, it frightened and angered me, not only for what it meant for the many women whose contributions had yet to nd their moments, but also for myself. I want, as a writer, to be compared to people, not women, and in my thirties, forties, and fifties, not in my seventies—without framing my work within my gender and without being the only woman in the room when so many women so many generations before me have already done that dif cult, exciting, isolating work.

Solomon told me two things.

First, that as much as the awards and solo shows meant, she’d had shows before. To see her name printed along with other artists in scholarly texts, or in other people’s catalogues, had brought fresh gratification.

Second, she said that in examining her career from the vantage point of accepting awards for her oeuvre on the stage of Carnegie Hall at age 86, she could now observe peaks and valleys of accomplishments and self-sabotage. Earlier, in her fifties, following two New York solo exhibits, in the sweep of gathering momentum after years of work, she’d been offered two more shows at different museums. She admitted she’d torpedoed both in different ways.

“I think I was afraid of success,” she told me. “I didn’t have that much inner confidence. It wasn’t about my work. It was the idea of being successful. That was not my self-image.”

I know that fear.

It points toward the solitude of female success and asks if I’m sure I have the guts for loneliness. It gestures at the other roles I inhabit, or would like to inhabit— daughter, wife, mother, friend—and asks which I will jettison if I achieve what I want.

Having to insist upon being taken seriously burns dourly against the creative looseness that makes for good writing.

As Barbara Kasten, whose artwork defies classification told me, “People have as hard a time getting across borders and boundaries with [genre] as they do with male and female.” She spoke of her recent success as “a bittersweet acknowledgment, in a way.”

This alchemy of attention and ambivalence, recognition for and siloing of female artists, is the known road. The latest wave of recognition for older women artists is only the current, most visible iteration of a longstanding trend. Even artists we’d today call successful, women who’d been working and showing and selling since their youth, waited for wide institutional recognition in their times. Agnes Martin signed with her first blue-chip gallery when she was in her sixties; Louise Bourgeois’ first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art opened in 1982 when Bourgeois was 70. Lee Krasner’s MoMA retrospective opened the year she died at age 76, thirty-odd years after her husband, Jackson Pollock, had gotten his at age 44.

I can’t help but take this personally: I am rounding into that part of a career in which I feel momentum but also solitude, in which messy, dusty striving feels old and known but hasn’t yet given way to a clean progression of success. When I look around me, I see options for turning away from writing and toward any number of satisfying pursuits. Among the immense pleasures I balance around me are my family, deep and longstanding friendships, the home I own, students I enjoy teaching. Endlessly, I see the precarious poise of work with the life around it. Energy expended upon family inclines spikily against writing like two triangles of green paint competing for primacy in the white field of a Herrera painting.

It’s not that these tensions do not exist in the lives of men; they do. But today, not in Herrera’s day—when the names of fewer women than men grace gallery rosters, magazine bylines, and so on—a woman can less frequently lean against the external valuation of her success to keep on keeping on. A woman must more consistently rustle around inside of herself to find what sustains the artistic impulse against the family demands and the money jobs.

Herrera remembers the gallerist Rose Fried telling her that she wouldn’t represent her, though she admired her paintings, because Herrera had a husband to support her and her other clients—Mondrian, Kandinsky, other abstract artists—had wives and families.

For women, society still values the things that press against the art over the art itself.

For men, society values the art. I feel nothing but envy for that fact.

Herrera, the twenty-first century media personality, will allow Herrera, the twentieth-century visionary artist, entrée into the annals of art history via the very agents that denied her all these years. And as much as I admire her, I feel rage at the triumphant headlines about women of her generation “getting their due,” and the oversimplified way that their neglect is attributed to sexism of the supposed past.

To lionize this arc of success appalls me. When I consider the reality of not selling a single work that I nd artistically important until almost ninety years old, as Herrera did, I find the prospect nearly unbearable. I, certainly, would not continue to labor with anything like Herrera’s grace, humor, and confidence under such circumstances.

But then again, who knows.

“I reach a different part of myself when I’m really into my work, out there with my camera,” Solomon told me later.

I feel that way, too. Solomon never stopped working. Now the Center for Creative Photography owns her archive. Now Bruce Silverstein has convoked four exhibits of her work since 2008. Her ambition is nowhere near spent.

“People don’t see me as a ‘has been’ or a note in the history book, they see me as a viable working artist,” Kasten said. “That’s because I am, I’m not past… I’m not repeating the same thing I’ve done for years.”

I suppose, in lieu of a resolution, there is only this: the work, its persistence, its drive, returning to it again and again in newer and better ways.

The third time I saw the Herrera show, the space around them was silent.

Julia Cooke’s essays and reporting have appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, A Public Space, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she is a contributing editor. She is the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, narrative non-fiction about youth culture in Havana.