THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
By Elizabeth Hatton
Donna Seaman’s poignantly titled, “Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists,” is a bold exploration of the work and lives of seven female visual artists who lived and created in the 20th century. And were largely overlooked by galleries, museums and the art press.
Chicago author and editor Donna Seaman’s survey includes mystic/sculptor Louise Nevelson, painter Gertrude Abercrombie, painter and progressive academic Loïs Mailou Jones, multimedia artist Ree Morton, painter Joan Brown, painter and quilter Christina Ramberg, and fiber artist Lenore Tawney.
Each artist shared common experiences of sexism, restriction, confusion, creativity, liberation, and strength. All these women were self-made artists with sharp minds, wit, talent, drive, and passion who were largely dismissed due to their gender and societal roles.
Most also had to find balance in a society where women artists were disregarded; their art seen by society at large as a pastime or hobby rather than a serious endeavor, especially in comparison to their male counterparts.
All of these women artists exhibited strength and daring by simply following the compulsion to make art. They also were a mixture of educators, scholars, world-travelers, mothers, wives, lovers, friends, innovators, groundbreakers, and inquisitors.
Seaman offers a 360 degree view of each person as a whole being, contextualized within their social, personal, physical, and political lives: the troubles they faced personally and publicly, and how the questions imposed by their subjugated status translated into their art.
Seaman highlights threads of similarity that bound these women together in their individual brilliance and societal discrimination. Beginning with Louise Nevelson, an art world diva whose work was as confident as her male colleagues, she reveals some of the stereotypes women artists had to face.
Nevelson, a late-bloomer who became recognized in her 60s, shattered expectations by being incredibly fashionable while creating robust work that easily rivaled her contemporaries (including her influencers, Joseph Cornell and Pablo Picasso). However, one egregiously sexist (or possibly jokey) reviewer wrote, “We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns.”
Louise Nevelson, Royal Tide I, 1960, Painted Wood 86 X 40 X 8,” Collection of Peter and Beverly Lipman
A particularly unifying trait among all of these artists’ work is the impulse to both conceal and reveal. This is particularly true of Nevelson whose work tends to shroud itself in mystery and secrecy. While it could be argued that most art has this duality, it seems particularly important that these seven artists created work that really reflected both their internal egos and externally imposed identities.
Gertrude Abercrombie’s dark, haunting, dreamy, and poetic imagery formed surreal landscapes that often included female figures and felines as stand-ins for Abercrombie herself and metaphorical objects representing her various, at times tumultuous, relationships. These dreamscapes also echo another Chicago artist, Christina Ramberg, who dealt with her own physical insecurities and fascination with the bondage of the body and fetishization of the feminine ideal.
Gertrude Abercrombie, The Chess Martch, 1948, Oil on canvas. Gift of Gerturde Abercrombie Trust/Collection of the Illinois State Museum.
Ramberg’s faceless, reduced female bodies are restrained and seemingly powerless. They are often cut off at the knees and intensely focused on the torso and genitalia in an exacting visual autopsy. Her figure’s identity was constantly obscured, the body becoming identity itself.
Christina Ramberg, Sedimentary Disturbance,
1980, Acrylic on masonite
Similarly, Joan Brown’s striking female figures, while wholly rendered, become totemic representations of women somehow either devoid of life or in a constant state of shock. Their flatness and placement in these stiff scenes become decorative, melting into the wallpaper.
Joan Brown Self-Portrait, 1977, oil enamel on canvas, 90 x 72 inches, Collection of Sandra Shannonhouse
For most of these artists, there appeared to be a prevailing ambivalence between their drive to create while trying to find balance in expectations of them as caretakers and lovers. Their relationships were in constant flux, with separation and divorce being common. Seaman hones in on this in her afterword when asking, “Where does this all-consuming need to create come from? This bizarre commitment to impractical, even implausible pursuits requiring enormous personal sacrifice? The compulsion to make art complicates every aspect of life, from personal finances to close relationships.”
This compulsion led to questions, and many of these women utilized and transformed feminine cliches, such as Morton’s anthropomorphic bows, Ramberg’s paper dolls, and Tawney’s deconstruction of feminine craft. All of them are cross-examining these modes while looking inward.
Ree Morton, Solitary, or Rarely 2, 1974
The book references political themes that are impossible to ignore. The advent of feminism and the civil rights movements certainly impacted the work of these artists. Loïs Mailou Jones—an icon of the Harlem Renaissance—stands out as a pillar of resolution in the face of these conflicts.
Lois Maillou Jones Self Portrait, 1940
Smithsonian American Art Museum
For her, the mission was simple: she wanted to go down in history. She faced double-discrimination being both a woman and an African-American, and she endured this ostracization both socially and academically. She persevered to create an immense body of work and developed a close-knit exchange with Africa, leading to a collection of over 1,000 art slides compiled at Howard University during an incredibly prolific and hard-won teaching career.
Lenore Tawney likewise became a groundbreaking artist as the first in a wave of new fiber artists. She faced contention with craftspeople when she deconstructed this ancient, feminine craft and effectively turned it into painting and sculpture. She also lived a very quick-paced life as she traveled and relocated. Seaman describes Tawney’s wanderlust not only regarding her physical location but also in her work and personal life, stating that, “[j]ust as Tawney knew when to extract herself from relationships and situations that she felt were holding her back, she recognized that it was time to make a clean break from expressively figurative images and color.”
Her travel impulse eventually resulted in her move from Chicago to an eight-month stint in New York City’s Coenties Slip (an industrial area on the East River utilized by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns). This close-knit community was a safe haven for lesbian and gay people in a world hostile towards this highly-taboo identity. The relocation and newfound freedom in this cultural oasis led to an incredible body of monumental works that continued to challenge the socially acceptable ways in which women could produce art.
Lenore Tawney, Drawing in Air VIII, 1997,
Linen, plexiglas © Lenore G. Tawney
While Seaman sometimes seems to veer off into tangential descriptions of the people surrounding these artists, disrupting an otherwise smooth flow of prose, the context surrounding the more well-known artists and the influence that these seven latently-recognized women may have had and shared with them is incredibly eye-opening.
It calls into question the historical emphasis of one artist from another, as well as the inherent bend towards male contemporaries whose works these female counterparts easily rivaled if not bested. The art world’s exclusion of these artists from the larger narrative is sharply criticized by Seaman in her fascinating narrative of their extraordinary lives and laudable dive into the world of these 20th century artistic pioneers.
“Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American
Elizabeth Hatton is a multidisciplinary artist and SAIC alumna living in Chicago. She is looking for ways to encourage public engagement with art through music, conversation, writing, and visual media.
Donna Seaman, Photo by David Siegfried