SEDUCTIVE SUBVERSION

WOMEN POP ARTISTS 1958-1969

Is it possible to conceptualise Pop without invoking those qualities trademarked under the name ‘Warhol’? Can Pop be imagined outside what might be called the logic of reproduction; and if Pop was an attitude, perhaps, more than a style, a sensibility encapsulated in Warhol’s affectless ‘liking’ for the products of post-war American capitalism, is the use of pop imagery sufficient to label an artist ‘pop’? ‘Seductive Subversions: Women Pop Artists 1958-1969’, a touring exhibition of international work from twenty women, prompts these questions. Pitched as an explicitly revisionist exercise aimed at ‘recovering important artists and enlarging the canon to more accurately reflect the Women artists who worked in the movement alongside its more famous male practitioners’, the exhibition wants to enlarge what it calls ‘the narrow definition of classic Pop art’.

As the exhibition would have it, ‘Pop’ was a shifting category which could include craft (Dorothy Grebenak’s hand-hooked rug of the US dollar bill), assemblage (Niki de Saint Phalle’s amalgam of dolls, toys, lace and plastic spiders), paintings of media figures (Pauline Boty’s pictures of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Chicago mobster, Jim Colosimo), as well as political photomontage (Martha Rosler’s juxtapositions of magazine-based advertising and war imagery). It could also include Chryssa’s Ampersand IV (1964), a neon work encased in a plastic cube; Joyce Wieland’s stitched-together clear plastic pillows of iconic images and film reels, Stuffed Movie (1964), Kay Kurt’s large photorealist painting of chocolates For All Their Innocent Airs, They Know Exactly Where They’re Going (1968), and Marjorie Strider’s Green Triptych (1963), a comic-book image of a bikini-clad woman, in triplicate, with molded buttocks and breasts.

In the roster of work assembled by curator Sid Sachs, some of it not seen publicly for forty years, there is little that could be called cool, affectless, or mechanical. Compared to canonical Pop works, a lot of the work wears its hand-craftedness too well, but this is only to say what it looks like now in light of subsequent assessments of work by male artists. Put the earliest works here against contemporaneous examples of post-painterly abstraction, by artists male or female, and the point is made: what distinguishes much of the work on view is its use of pre-existing images. Returning to something like the original use of the term ‘Pop’—the context in which a lot of the work on view was first shown—Sachs might realize his ambition to extend the canon but whether an enlarged canon, which would be nothing more than a bigger list of significant artists and works, would necessarily change the terms of Pop’s definition remains to be seen. (A multi-authored publication cataloging the show is forthcoming.)

Critical here would be the meanings attached to the difference between slickness and its opposite, between the mark of the hand and its avoidance. The work in ‘Seductive Subversion’ generally eschews a depersonalised touch and refrains from techniques of mass-production, indicating that these differences mattered less in early definitions of Pop. Lucy Lippard’s 1966 overview, Pop Art, confirms that historically Pop was a lot less cool and a lot messier than indicated by the canonical triumvirate of Warhol/Lichtenstein/Rosenquist and it is possible that later definitions of Pop stressing coolness and repetition owe more than a little to the values of minimalism and seriality.

Revisiting the earlier contexts of Pop’s production and reception in order to expand the canon might be a laudable, indeed necessary, goal but if none of the women can be called classic Pop artists for narrowly stylistic reasons, this may not be the result of what the exhibition suggests are the sexist determinants of art historical canon-formation. It is possible they were doing something else, or—as in the case of a number of artists on view—that their moment of coincidence with Pop was brief. (Andy Warhol, it could be argued, never stopped producing Pop work; Roy Lichtenstein’s signature use of Benday dots dates from 1961; and Claes Oldenburg, whose soft sculptures of everyday objects share some of the feel of a number of works on view, is known principally for the overscaled and slicker public sculptures that have been his signature since the later ’60s.) Marjorie Strider is a case in point. Her work was included in two early shows of what came to be called Pop art—‘The First International Girlie Show’ and ‘Four Environments’—and it appeared in Lippard’s survey, but after two sellout shows of enormous, pop-styled sculptures of fruit and vegetables at Pace Gallery in New York in the early sixties, she withdrew from the gallery, disinclined to repeat herself.

Yayoi Kusama and Niki de Saint Phalle also produced work that was exhibited in a pop context but the label in no way encapsulates their practices. Kusama’s eroticised everyday objects, as in the all-white Assemblage with Bowl and Ladle (c.1965) a grouping of phallic, sweet potato-shaped appurtenances in a bowl and on a plate—included in the exhibition—and her use of what became a signature all-over dot pattern on objects and in environments nod to Pop’s use of the mundane and a facile form of sixties grooviness. Her fabulous mirrored installation Fireflies on the Water, shown at the 2004 Whitney Biennale, points however to a long career that has resisted easy labels. De Saint Phalle’s My Heart Belongs to Marcel Duchamp (1963), a heart-shaped mixed-media assemblage in palest pink, exemplified the trans-Atlantic historical association of Pop and assemblage. In France, the Nouveau Realistes, with whom de Saint Phalle was associated, acknowledged Duchamp as an important precursor to their use of real objects, which were typically mass-produced and incorporated or collaged with trash.

Today, de Saint Phalle’s piece looks like a sly take on the father fixation of Duchamp’s self-proclaimed offspring. Indeed a lot of the work looks proto-feminist, and in light of feminism, Strider’s ‘girlie’ paintings with tits and bum can be a little hard to take. In Idelle Weber’s Bride and Groom (1963), a silhouetted couple from an earlier vintage are placed against a blue background; the groom is in profile, the bride faces forward, her face featureless and blank, framed by the exuberant detail of a lace veil. This hollowing out of visual clichés turns malign in Weber’s Munchkins III and III (1964), where anonymous silhouetted city men ride escalators and engage no-one. Weber hints that the images she paints are pre-made; in Rosler’s careful juxtapositions of magazine images this is explicit. Her Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Woman with Vacuum (Vacuuming Pop) (1967-72) seamlessly interjects a ’50’s image of a woman hoovering into a corridor of pop posters and suggests how the use of images of women as raw material by male Pop artists helped underwrite the critical use of same by women artists working later in the sixties. In a related manner, Rosalyn Drexler’s paintings incorporating mass media images—King Kong, Chubby Checker, generic gangsters—presage the kind of critical attention paid to such images by the ‘Pictures’ (or appropriation) generation of artists coming of age a decade or more later. Whether ‘Seductive Subversion’ succeeds in expanding the Pop canon rests to some degree on the subsequent work of art historians; for now, and the duration of the exhibition’s tour, it succeeds in suggesting how Pop was different in the hands of women artists. 

Martha Rosler, Vacuuming Pop Art, 1966-72. Photomontage, 60.96 x 50.8cm. 

Pauline Boty, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 152.08cm. Collection Nadia Fakhoury, Paris.

Rosalyn Drexler, The Dream (aka King Kong), 1963. Acrylic and collage on canvas. Courtesy Pace Gallery, New York. 

notes: 

The tour of Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1969 includes Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 22 January–15 March, 2010; Sheldon Art Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, 30 July–26 September, 2010; Brooklyn Art Museum, Brooklyn, New York, 15 October 2010–9 January, 2011; Tufts University Art Gallery, Medford, Massachusetts, 20 January–3 April, 2011.

 

Ingrid Periz is a free-lance writer based in New Jersey.