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"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972.
"Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968," a bold, new exhibition at the Tufts Art Gallery, opens with that Berger quotation. It's the first thing that greets visitors when then enter the gallery. After a recent visit to the show, I would throw a coda to Berger's perspicacious quip: "And we are finally seeing what these women artists always knew."
Pop art belonged to men. Andy Warhol. Jasper Johns. Roy Lichtenstein. These are the men who stormed New York galleries in the 1960s, who became icons themselves, whose work made all the money and continues to do so. Consider Warhol, whose portrait of Elizabeth Taylor is expected to fetch more than $20 million at auction next month.
"Seductive Subversion" seeks to change that. The show makes a strong case that little-known women pop artists were as skillful, fearless and edgy as their male contemporaries.
"Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann are not necessarily the most interesting or the only pop artists," says Amy Schlegel, director of the Tufts University Art Gallery on a recent tour of the show. We spent some time discussing three of the featured artists: Marjorie Strider, Pauline Boty and Idelle Weber.I. Marjorie Strider, Triptych II (Beach Girl), 1963
Strider was an innovator. She felt limited by the two dimensions on a typical canvas, so she expanded to a third dimension, stretching, shaping and sculpting her paintings so they pop out into the viewers' faces. Her triptych is an almost cartoonish representation of the typical 60s pin-up: a smiling girl in a yellow bikini, seated on her knees with a blank but welcoming stare.
"Yet these rather fulsome breasts literally jut off the surface," Schlegel says. Standing before the canvases, it's impossible not to stare at the breasts. It's as if Strider is saying to men, "We know that when you're standing in front of us, this is what you see."
And men did see it. In 1964, Strider's work appeared in the Pace Gallery's "International Girlie Show". The show also featured artists such as Lichtenstein, but Strider caused a sensation. "I went on and had many shows at many different galleries," Strider says in a video that accompanies "Seductive Subversion".
But unlike Lichtenstein, Strider didn't go on to further critical acclaim or financial success.
"I always thought I'd be famous," Strider says. "You know, like Lichtenstein or something. That's why I never had children. I knew I couldn't do both, and do both well. So..." Her voice and her gaze trail off in the video.
The entire history of the women's movement is contained in that trailing "so...", and for Schlagel, it's one of the reasons why she wanted Tufts to host this exhibition. "These were the kind of sacrifices that women like Marjorie Strider made at the time, and it was always a struggle for them."
The rich irony is, of course, that as so many women artists toiled in obscurity, male pop artists made their names and their fames through images of women. You can't think of Warhol without thinking of Marilyn Monroe. Yet, here is another surprise in "Seductive Subversion": Women were using celebrity images of men to just as great and even more daring effect.II. Pauline Boty, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962.
Pauline Boty was young, blond, brilliant and unlike other women artists, well-known and well-loved in the British pop art scene of the 1960s.
When Jean-Luc Goddard's film, Breathless, came out in 1960, it turned lead actor Jean Paul Belmondo into an international superstar. Boty was smitten. She painted her canvas, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, in her bedroom. (You can see the painting in the slideshow at the top of this story.) The image is dominated by a giant red rose that Schlagel calls a "really radical expression of [Boty's] own sexual desire for this movie star. She's created this enormous red rose that looks like this enormous labia almost enveloping him."
Boty loved Belmondo and her painting so much, she had herself photographed standing in front of the canvas in the nude. "I think that having any hero or heroine is like having an extension of your own personality," Boty told the BBC in the early 1960s.
But the art world wasn't terribly interested in the personalities of these women. Even in Boty's case, though she was well-known and highly regarded, when she died in 1966 at the age of 28, her art was largely forgotten.
"Many of the works went to family members. They were dispersed around the English countryside and not in great circumstances. They were very, very difficult to locate," Schlagel says.III. Idelle Weber, Munchkins I, II & III, 1964
"We know this is what you see." That's Strider. "This is what we want you to see." That's Boty. Then, there's Idelle Weber.
She's been recently called "brilliant", and standing before her huge triptych, it's easy to see why. The painting is stunning to look at. Three black and yellow canvasses, painted with a meticulous hand. There are silhouettes of escalators, giant black diagonals cutting across the field. On the escalators, the silhouettes of salary men with their skinny ties, their cigarettes, their felt hats. It's the twisted mystique of 50s and 60s business life before the age of "Mad Men".
Weber was inspired by the scenes she witnessed at her husband's midtown Manhattan law firm. But by using silhouettes, "she has drained out any individuality any of these men might have," Schlagel says. And by calling it Munchkins, "she's looking into that professional life which is really a male domain, and not liking it much."
In other words, if Strider and Boty represent the seductive part of the "Seductive Subversion" exhibition, then Weber represents the subversion. Women telling men, this is how we see you. Flat. Faceless. Corporate silhouettes.
Not that Weber would have been able to break into her husband's world even if she'd wanted to. That fact is what makes "Seductive Subversion" so interesting. It deliberately features art from 1958 to 1968. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. But it wasn't until 1968 that the modern women's movement really takes off. The artists featured in the Tufts show had been working long before that.
"You're absolutely right," Schlagel says, "There's this sense of coming full circle. Certain things can be articulated now, or seen more clearly now, than 40 years ago even though this work has been around that long."
And how much of that half-century of obscurity is due to plain old sexism?
Schlagel says, "One hundred percent."
That the work of these women artists outlasted the old guard art world that once ignored them is perhaps their most subversive act of all.
- Amy Schlegel, Ph.D., director of the galleries and collections, Tufts University Arts Gallery
This segment aired on March 28, 2011.
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