Angelica Maier (shown in exhibition) and Bruce Adams
A grave dismissal
By Angelica J. Maier
Art history, like many other academic disciplines, has been challenged and evolved in recent decades. During the 1970s feminist art history emerged, with art historians seeking to recover women’s history and questioning the male-dominated art historical canon. By the 1980s art historians sought to question existing systems of patriarchy, noting that the circulation of power in society is culturally manipulated. In the 1990s art historians explored the notion of female agency, revealing women’s efforts to resist masculinist cultural hegemony. Most recent scholarship further explores gendered subjectivity—the idea that, as Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrad explain in the introduction to their book, Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism, “every artist or writer responds to the world and represents it in artistic constructions, consciously or unconsciously, from the position of gendered experience.” For women artists in particular, societal gender expectations have historically been in conflict with their desire for cultural achievement.
In the June 2013 issue of Buffalo Spree, Bruce Adams wrote an article entitled, “The gendering of expression: A subtle misunderstanding,” critiquing the exhibition I curated, Hartigan, Mitchell, Jackson: Subtle Resistance, on view at the UB Anderson Gallery through August 4, 2013. While presented as a critical review of an exhibition, the article in fact dismisses the value of feminist art history (referring to “gender politics” as a “go-to theme”) while ignoring new archival evidence that illustrates how mid-century artists Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell resisted post-World War II societal gender constructions. This is a grave dismissal indeed because in doing so Adams denies Hartigan and Mitchell agency, while upholding the retrograde view that gender is an irrelevancy not only in the production of art, but also socially.
First I would like to note that the article incorrectly states that “Maier…undertook the project for her master’s thesis.” As it states in the exhibition catalogue, and on the introductory wall panel at the exhibition, I curated this exhibition in addition to writing a Master’s thesis. My Master’s thesis, “Subtle Resistance: How Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Martha Jackson Resisted Post-World War II Gender Constructions,” has been open-published online and is available through the ProQuest database.
The “flimsy foundation” for this exhibition, as well as my Master’s thesis, is based on over a year of research including the use of primary archival documents from the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives, housed at the UB Anderson Gallery, as well as the Grace Hartigan Papers, housed at the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University. I attempted to let the artists speak for themselves by displaying handwritten letters from the Martha Jackson Gallery Archives and quoting liberally in wall-texts and interpretive panels from primary sources.
In the article Adams misses the nuance of the thesis for the exhibition (and my Master’s thesis). The “overarching question” in the exhibition is not the question of “whether Hartigan and Mitchell responded to these challenges with a ‘subtle resistance’ to ‘masculine’ constructs of the abstract expressionist movement.’” The issue presented is both broader and deeper—not only how Hartigan and Mitchell resisted the masculine constructs of abstract expressionism, but also how they resisted the polarized social field they lived in by equally rejecting traditional notions of femininity.
In the post-World War II era, women were expected to return to the home; their ultimate societal value was private and domestic. Hartigan and Mitchell, as well as Martha Jackson, rejected this delimited notion of womanhood and pursued careers in a male-dominated field. The titular “subtle resistance” concerns their self-conscious resistance to this domestic ideal of woman in favor of professional success. I argue that for Hartigan and Mitchell, this path of resistance was twofold. First, they adopted modes of art making that rejected the masculine constructs of abstract expressionism and secondly, that they cultivated tight social networks that gave them strength and support, emblematized least through the example of Martha Jackson herself.
In a context in which abstract expressionism was framed by critics (particularly Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg) as exemplifying masculinity, “Women” as the renowned scholar Michael Leja once wrote, “often symbolized the powerful force fields that had to be negotiated by the conscious, rational part of the subject—gendered as masculine—in his quest for balance, harmony and resolution of conflict.” This construction of the unconscious as inherently female posed a challenge for women abstract expressionists; wholly embracing the expressivity of male painters would instead cause their work to be devalued as irrational, hysteric, unbridled, and lacking in intellectual control. Male painters could gesturally express their “female” unconscious without being perceived of as irrational, but women simply could not. As De Kooning himself famously said of his Woman series: “Maybe…I was painting the woman in me.”
Hartigan and Mitchell’s styles, therefore, can be read as illustrating a controlled and self-conscious expressivity, telegraphing their rationality and intellectual restraint. This “gendering of expression” is visible in the work of Hartigan and Mitchell, whose contained gestural expressivity is moreover always married to a manifest art historical tradition such that their work, in direct contrast to male painters, “reads” first and foremost as designed, structured and intentional, the very obverse of the look of abandon (however itself carefully wrought) characteristic of their male peers. Articulating this controlled expressivity, Hartigan has frequently stated throughout her career that “‘I want an art that is not ‘abstract’ and not ‘realistic.’” Hartigan wrote several entries in her journals of her concern that her painting looked “too feminine.” Like her use of the name George early in her career, which in later years she stated was to honor George Eliot and George Sand, my research has indicated that in fact “George” also allowed her to escape the gender dictates of the era. While in her later career Hartigan denied being treated differently because of her gender, her journals reveal another story—explored in my Master’s thesis—in which her rage at being treated differently is palpable. Mitchell’s work as well illustrates this controlled expressivity, although her work is more abstract than Hartigan’s work. In a 1957 article Mitchell stated “The freedom in my work is quite controlled,” –of note because Mitchell, being a woman, had to continually assert her control in the creative process.
While Adams finds my pointing to the role of tight social networks unimportant (“All artists depend on such networks”), Hartigan and Mitchell’s relationships with New York School poets, almost exclusively queer men and women, is noteworthy because those men and women were also not conforming to traditional gender prescriptions. While it is true that Hartigan and Mitchell were friends with Pollock, De Kooning and other abstract expressionist painters, my research has suggested that they were never equally accepted into this “boys’ club” (Hartigan’s journal recounts feeling isolated and excluded from the men). For the exhibition I focused on the two artists’ relationships with Frank O’Hara because the gallery was able to display three works illustrating these close relationships. I also focused on their relationships with Martha Jackson.
An aim of this exhibition was to remind Buffalo of the importance of one of its own, Martha Jackson. Jackson, a Buffalo native who founded the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York City in 1953, is noteworthy in that she cultivated female artists at a time when male artists were favored, embraced a business model based on the mutual support of artist and owner, and helped internationalize the art market during the mid-twentieth century. Jackson’s gallery represented Hartigan and Mitchell from 1962-77 and 1966-74 respectively, and her stewardship helped propel the success of their careers during the tumultuous rise of Pop Art. The majority of works in the exhibition have some relation to Martha Jackson—they were created while the artist was represented by her, were donated by her son David Anderson after her death, or reflect the relationships she had with her artists.
Adams’ statement, “…it wasn’t the male-dominated art community they were resisting; it was the rise of pop art,” dismisses the struggles mid-century women faced and upholds a male-centered historical narrative. While Adams would apparently prefer “the work to stand on its own,” divorcing the social context from art is a hazardous endeavor. Art historians should seek to emphasize with equal weight the two eponymous aspects of the discipline, art and history—and by marrying a visual analysis of art with the social and historical context, we have a fuller understanding of artwork, of artists, and of the period in which they were created. Disregarding the social erases the struggles, successes and agency of all parties, particularly minority groups. Until we question the narrative presented to us, unearth the stories silenced, and value the voices of the powerless, we will never achieve equality.
Angelica J. Maier is an art historian, educator, and second wave feminist living in Buffalo.
Bruce Adams responds:
As an artist, I’ve been on the receiving end of less-than-glowing reviews, so I can sympathize with Angelica Maier. Of course, I too believed the critics were wrong. However, Maier’s response to my review, which runs longer than the article itself, is fraught with common reasoning fallacies, beginning with an appeal to authority. She dedicates long passages to establishing her expertise—which was never in doubt—and to quoting other experts. Much of this is at best obliquely germane to my original review, but the inference is that because authoritative voices say something, it must be right. Of course even highly knowledgeable people sometimes get it wrong.
Maier describes herself as a second wave feminist. I too aligned with feminist philosophy somewhere around the end of the first wave. Indeed, I have a National Organization for Women membership card I’ll wage is older than Maier. I hopped on the second feminism wave, and I’m currently riding the third. I’ve acted on my feminist beliefs too, volunteering weekly as an abortion clinic escort ushering clients past hostile picketers, and later as a videographer witness at the Spring of Life clinic protests.
I’ve studied painting and actually been a painter for more than thirty years. I have a personal interest in gender issues, having explored them with my Fish and Bicycle series (fellow feminists will get the reference), Tattooed Women, and my recent Divine Beauty series. My work appeared prominently in the documentary film Swimming with Lesbians. In 1994, then-Hallwalls curator Sara Kellner included my paintings in a lecture she delivered in Ecuador on gender in contemporary art. But good things can be overdone. In the two decades since Kellner’s lecture, gender has been heavily mined by curators who fall back on it as an au courant theme.
Ultimately though, neither my background, nor Maier’s expertise, nor the overuse of gender themes makes a whit of difference. It’s the exhibition itself that matters. I could not review Maier’s well-researched Master’s thesis, because it’s not part of the show. The “broader and deeper issues Maier believes she presented may be implicit, but they are not addressed centrally. What Maier calls Hartigan and Mitchell’s “self-conscious resistance to this domestic ideal of woman in favor of professional success” is as obvious as a scene from Mad Men, but it’s only presented as a backdrop for the exhibition’s essential theme. But please don’t take my word for it. Never trust a critic, or curator. For any reader who is intrigued by our differing views, I encourage you by all means to see the show and judge for yourself.
Now it seems Maier misses the nuance of my review, so I’ll respond to a few of her points. First, in my original text I did not refer to this exhibition as a Master’s thesis. That was inserted by Spreeeditors, believing it added clarity. I regret the confusion.
In her rebuttal, Maier makes a giant leap in logic that goes like this: Adams disagrees with my exhibition premise; ergo, Adams dismisses the relevancy of feminism and gender subjectivity in art. This is another reasoning fallacy known as a hasty generalization, here bordering on gender stereotyping.
Maier says that in the exhibition she let the artists speak for themselves by displaying their letters and quoting their own words. As my review makes clear, these sources are often misinterpreted, or used to derive unwarranted inferences.
In Maier’s rebuttal she includes a great deal of information that, while interesting, is irrelevant to the point, but she comes back again and again to what we both agree is the central premise of her exhibition. Hartigan and Mitchell “adopted modes of art making that rejected the masculine constructs of Abstract Expressionism.” Maier says this resistance can be “read” in their work. I contend this is claptrap.
Here’s where Maier slips into another common fallacy called confirmation bias. It’s a form of selective thinking in which an observer sees what she expects to see. Like a scientist doing a poorly constructed experiment without a double blind, Maier makes highly subjective analyses.
Imagine for a moment the art equivalent of the Coke/Pepsi taste test. A group of qualified art experts have been assembled, who also happen to be unfamiliar with Hartigan, Mitchell, and the leading male abstract expressionists of the day. Yeah, I know, this is impossible, but just imagine. We hang a line of unlabeled paintings including the two women’s and works by artists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Hans Hofmann.
Now imagine that the experts must each blindly pick out the two works that “‘read’ first and foremost as designed, structured, and intentional.” Ones that are “telegraphing their rationality and intellectual restraint.” According to Maier this would be a snap; the women’s work she says, is “the very obverse of the look of abandon (however itself carefully wrought) characteristic of their male peers.”
Okay, who actually believes the judges would consistently pick out the woman’s work using those standards? Absurd, right? Maier is like a tealeaf reader, who gazes into the cup and sees what suits her needs.
According to Maier, Hartigan even articulates this “controlled expressivity” by stating, “I want an art that is not ‘abstract’ and not ‘realistic.’” This is just one of Maier’s many non-sequitors. There’s no connection between Hartigan’s statement and Maier’s imaginative analysis of her work. Throughout his life Mark Rothko insisted he was not an abstract painter. Adolph Gottlieb said, “In my mind certain so called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.” My point here is that artists say and do lots of things. It’s risky to play psychic translator.
Ironically Maier’s rebuttal contains the smoking gun that argues my case. She quotes Hartigan as writing several times that her painting looked “too feminine.” Are these the words of someone resisting the “masculinist” nature of abstract expressionism, or someone struggling to conform to it? I’ll let readers judge.
The other central theme of the show is that the artists cultivated tight social networks that gave them strength and support. I agree. I would say their relationship with Martha Jackson suggests a strong element of feminist solidarity. But there is no societal “resistance” in the partnership, except in the broad and very obvious sense that they were all attempting to succeed in a man’s world. If that’s all Maier is saying, we have no disagreement. However Jackson herself verbally expresses genuine resistance to the emergence of pop art. And then she sticks with her abstract expressionist artists in spite of its rise. As I said, that is a far more interesting story.
Maier claims that I dismiss “the struggles mid-century women faced in a male-centered historical narrative.” Again, my disagreement with one narrow assertion is extrapolated into rejection of the entire historical record. It’s another hasty generalization, this time stereotyping me as a male chauvinism denier. Yet in my review I state, “It can’t be denied that sexism existed, impacting women artists of the period.” I also describe how the “patriarchal art community” marginalized artist Janet Sobel.
I believe Maier’s interpretation of Hartigan and Mitchell’s work similarly diminishes these artists, marginalizing them in a special women’s club, rather than crediting them with success within the prevailing standards of the day. Basketball, tennis, and pole vaulting were all originally “gendered as masculine,” but women now compete in those and many other sports. Fortunately, art doesn’t require a separate women’s league. And it’s best if we don’t create one to advance a social agenda.
You cannot divorce art making from its social and historical context; this is a belief I passionately convey to my students. But an overzealous application of social context to conjure up imagined phenomena is a truly hazardous endeavor.