New Book ‘Identity Unknown’ Rediscovers Women in the Art World
Among America’s female artists, Georgia O’Keeffe gets much of the attention. But there are many other worthy – but lesser-known – female artists.
A new book by author Donna Seaman seeks to rediscover some of these creative people overlooked by history – including a few with important ties to Chicago.
The book is called “Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.” Seaman joins us in discussion.
Below, an excerpt from the book.
The photograph is old; the quality of the black-a nd-white reprod uction in the big, bulky book is poor, yet each artist in the group portrait is vitally present. Comrades and rivals, they are standing in front of a favorite cafe; they are gathered in a garden; they are lounging on a beach, looking pleased with themselves. Maybe they're seated around a table strewn with glasses and ashtrays, burning cigarettes in hands, heads tipped jauntily, suppressed hilarity making their eyes gleam. Or they've been rounded up, encouraged to dress in their best, then posed together, self-consciously formal, in a studio or gallery, uneasily marking an artistic moment and courting the eye of posterity. The captions name each in order from lef t to right. The group might include Thomas Hart Benton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Franz Kline. And a woman. The reader leans in for a closer look, curious about her, only to find the tag: "identity unknown."
I used to come across such dismissive captions as an art student paging slowly and hungrily through art history surveys, intent on learning what the legendary modernist painters and sculptors looked like, where they hung out, how they interacted. As a young, aspiring female, I felt at once indignant and cynically amused at this failure to record a woman's name and connection to the men by her side. This seemingly blase lack of interest implied that these anonymous women were of no interest, mere hangers-on, or some male artist's girlfriend-du-jour or taken-for-granted wife. If the anonymous female was an artist among artists, why was her name not documented along with the others? Not only is the phrase "identity unknown" disparaging, it even gives off a noirish chill, a tabloid shiver, as though we all agree that it's the woman's own fault that her name has been lost and that, most likely, she came to an ignoble end. "Identity unknown " is what a weary clerk in a hospital or morgue would scrawl or type on a form that no one would ever look at again.
It's crushing enough if others don't know or care who you are, but it's even more abjectly demoralizing when you have trouble pinning down your own identity because your sense of self, of vocation, of your abilities and your need to express yourself, are at dire odds with what's expected of you as a female: selfless devotion to home and family. In times of rigid social structures, each woman artist must have felt like a lone traveler without papers traversing a hostile land as she struggled to live a freely creative life. Women had to fight for access to artistic training traditionally reserved for men. Many felt that they had to choose between being an artist or a wife and mother. Between being ostracized or embraced. And if a woman artist did ma nage to carve out ti me and space to pai nt and sculpt, she was confronted by yet more obstacles to being taken seriously as an artist, let alone being treated as equal to her male peers. Of course, male artists have also faced a discouraging battery of endless hurdles. The words starving and artist are legitimately paired. The percentage of artists recognized versus artists working in obscurity is crushingly low; the same holds true for a rtists who are able to make their passion their livelihood versus those who must relega te art to their "free" time. The entire enterprise is quixotic.
But women artists were suspect and disreputable, unwelcome aliens who managed to slip into the gated male art world. And if, by dint of fierce perseverance and good fortune, an artist did achieve renown, it was undermined by reference to her sex and the inference that she was an anomaly. This was a maddening predicament because artists, like doctors, scientists, and writers, want to be identified according to their accomplish ments, not their gender. None of the seven twentieth-century painters and sculptors portrayed here liked the designation "woman artist." Yet being female had profound implications for their lives and their work.
For millennia, women were visible as the subjects, not the creators, of art. It is still difficult for women artists to sustain critical attention and respect. They are routinely accorded less space in shows and exhibitions; their works are priced lower than those of their male peers, and some who teach art continue to be paid less than their male colleagues. Many women artists struggle with apprehension, insecurity, anger, depression, and guilt. This makes the success of the seven artists presented here all the more remarkable.
Each of these exceptional artists, working in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., were highly regarded during their life times, if not nationally, certainly regionally. Their conviction and mastery did earn them encouragement and professional support from men: teachers, brothers, friends, lovers, husbands, sons, gallery owners, critics, and collectors. They exhibited regularly; their shows were reviewed; they posed for photographers and gave interviews to journalists, and they were honored with awards and grants. Collectors and museums purchased their work. But their renown was short-lived. All too soon their original, daring, and galvanizing paintings and sculptures were forgotten, put in storage and neatly excised from the pages of art criticism and art history. Outside the art world, very few people now recognize most of their names or their work. We tell and retell robustly romantic tales of revered and delectably infamous male artists, while lore about women artists is scant and neglected. For decades, there seemed to be room in the American pantheon for only one iconic woman artist, Georgia O'Keeffe. There are many more stories to tell.
Reprinted with permission from “Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists” by Donna Seaman.
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