Fighting against a current of exclusion from the male-dominated art world, generations of female artists have long sought the recognition rightly due to them and have poured this energy directly into their art. From painting and sculpture to photography and installations, the range of work is diverse, pulsating with life, gesture, rhythm, color, and emotional intensity. A number of factors, both historical and contemporary, have contributed to the current situation, including a lack of formal training accessible to female artists up until the end of the 19th century and an institutional bias against women artists by predominantly male curators, museum heads, publishing directors and art galleries. However, signs of change are now on the horizon, and there appears to be an identifiable shift towards a more inclusive view of the art world. The important role that women artists occupy is now beginning to be recognized.
While artists like Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Mary Cassatt established in the 18th and 19th centuries the possibility of success for female artists in a male-dominated world, it was not really until the mid-20th century, most notably within the realm of Abstract Expressionism, that the role of women artists became substantially consequential. Elaine de Kooning, for instance, sidelined much of her early career out of support for the career of her husband, but her talent and influence as an artist in her own right is undeniable, and was even at the time of her creations. Best known for her energetic portraits, de Kooning invoked figuration within a vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism, in spite of the fact it was antithetical to the core beliefs of many of her contemporaries. “Abstract artists dismissed the whole idea of portraits…Elaine de Kooning painted portraits as a way of doing something that was uniquely hers. They’re very powerful, because she captured the essence of each personality.” (J.K. Bledsoe, quoted in “Shining a Light on the Other de Kooning,” New York Times, 21 November 1993 via www.nytimes.com [accessed 26 January 2017]).
Helen Frankenthaler, who was for a time married to Robert Motherwell, not only developed highly original tactics that she powerfully introduced into her own art; she also created an environment in which her male contemporaries, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, could promote their own careers. Her staining technique, in which she poured turpentine-thinned paint directly on the raw canvas, emphasized the flatness of the painting’s surface and paved the way for the cultivation and advancement of the Color Field movement. With an egalitarian attitude, Frankenthaler rejected characterizations of her painting based on her gender: “I wonder if my paintings are more ‘lyrical’ [that loaded word!] because I’m a woman. Looking at my paintings as if they were painted by a woman is superficial, a side issue…The making of serious painting is difficult and complicated for all serious painters” (H. Frankenthaler in conversation with H. Geldzahler, “Interview with Helen Frankenthaler,” Artforum, October 1965, p. 39).
In the second half of the 20th century, as the definition of art became more expansive and inclusive of other media, many women artists began carving out their careers within a wider context: sculpture, photography and conceptual art. Diane Arbus pioneered a new format of photography, commanding her subjects to look directly into the camera. These subjects were often considered members of society’s fringe—eccentric dressers, giants sideshow performers. She also chronicled New York women, exploring what it meant to be a woman at the time: a struggling mother; a wrinkled, elderly commuter; or a professional on her way to or from the office. Similarly, Cindy Sherman, who cites Arbus as an influence, aims to capture the artifice of culture in her own photographs, but with a specific focus on women’s distinct representation in popular culture. Using her own self as her model, Sherman captures timeless female stereotypes within the frames of her photographs, holding up a mirror to reflect the social roles and gender expectations pervasive in film and advertising images. Her contemporaries, including Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler and Laurie Simmons, attempt to explore that same notion within their own body of work, through a combination of photography, sculpture and conceptual art. Jenny Holzer, who in 1981 became the first female artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, is both artist and activist: her text-based art, which she refers to as Truisms, intends to generate debate and challenges us to think critically.
Time has confirmed that the prominent position of these remarkable female painters in the art historical canon and has clarified their profound individual contributions to the postwar identity of American art, and thus to the irrevocable rerouting of art history. Recent events such as the 2016 groundbreaking exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism organized by the Denver Art Museum and the appointment of Francis Morris as the new Director of London’s Tate Modern (the most visited contemporary art museum in the world) has bought a renewed focus on the representation of women artists and their art and hopefully negating the need to repeat Linda Nochlin’s famous question: “Why have there been no great women artists?”