As we’re coming out of the pandemic, 2021 appears to be a year dedicated to women in the arts as several museums and art centers in Europe and the United States are hosting programs devoted to female artists, far too long left out of the history books.
When speaking with art historians and scholars, the often-cited reasons that left women behind were: they had no access to education, they were living reclusive lives and did not have as much access to sources of inspiration as men, women painters were not accepted in art shows and museums, they also did not sign their paintings, and finally they were deliberately left out.
In recent years books were written to correct that, including The Trouble with Women Artists by Laure Adler and Camille Vieville, published in 2019, and Broad Strokes by Bridget Quinn, published in 2017. They provide a wider perspective on the significant achievements and contributions made by women in the arts.
Earlier this year the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam included for the first time ever works by women artists in the Gallery of Honor, alongside works by 17th century Dutch Golden Age masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals. Paintings by Judith Leyster, Gesina ter Borch, and Rachel Ruysch are now exhibited in the Gallery of Honor as a move by the Museum to highlight women’s contribution to Dutch cultural history.
Musée du Luxembourg in Paris is hosting the exhibition “Peintres Femmes 1780 – 1830”, which includes seventy paintings by forty female painters, most notably Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, both members of the famous l’Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (the precursor of the Louvre Museum), and Marguerite Gérard, the sister-in-law of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Curated by Martine Lacas, the exhibition can also be explored virtually.
Centre Pompidou is hosting the exhibition “Women in Abstraction” featuring one hundred and six artists, and more than five hundred works dating from the 1860s to the 1980s in various disciplines. Included in this exhibition are works by Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Hepworth, Verena Loewensberg, and many others. Centre Pompidou is also hosting an online class through June this year, free of charge, titled Elles font l’art and presenting a different history of modern art, one that focuses on women artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. This class is held in French.
In New York, of course, there is a long tradition of women being active in the art world going back to Sarah Cole, the sister of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of Painting (Luminism); Georgia O’Keeffe (Modernism) – married to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe enjoyed painting Lake George where she vacationed extensively; and Hedda Sterne (Surrealism), who was married to The New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg – both Sterne and Steinberg were born in Bucharest but met in New York.
In 2019 the exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” hosted by Guggenheim attracted more than 600,000 attendees, becoming the museum’s most visited show in its 60-year history, according to Artsy. This year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting “Alice Neel: People Come First”, a retrospective that positions Neel as a radical painter, champion of social justice.
Art in the Catskills has consistently featured works by women artists who have maintained studios in the Catskill Mountains including Amy Masters, Ann Lee Fuller, Ellen Wong, Helene Manzo, June Lanigan, Lisbeth Firmin, Molly Rausch, and many others.
Famed Surrealist painter Marc Chagall, known for works such as I and the Village (1911), Paris through the Window (1913), and Green Violinist (1923), lived and worked in High Falls between 1946 and 1948, producing a significant number of works. At that time, Chagall was accompanied by his lover Virginia Haggard, an artist in her own right, her young daughter from a previous marriage, Jean McNeil, as well as their newly born son David.
Chagall spent six years in New York between 1942 and 1948, a productive time when he painted, but also designed costumes for the American Ballet Theatre and The Metropolitan Opera, murals for the Lincoln Center, and stained-glass windows for the United Nations headquarters.
In 1946 he moved to High Falls where he spent the next two years. Local author Tina Barry created a collaborative called The Virginia Project, pairing poems with visual works by 14 women artists to shed light and reignite interest in that time in Chagall’s life in the United States. Of particular interest to her were Virginia and her daughter Jean.
The show opens today, October 27 at 5 pm at Wired Gallery in High Falls, and will remain on view through November 25.
Best-selling author Francine Prose, known for nonfiction titles like Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and Reading Like a Writer, wrote a heartfelt biography of Peggy Guggenheim, influential art collector, and early promoter of Modernism in America. Well-ahead of her time, Peggy developed a taste for the avant-garde and unconventional that followed her throughout the entire life. She altered the course of art history in an unprecedented manner by meticulously pursuing new styles and supporting emerging artists.
Born in New York City in August 1898 to a wealthy family, Peggy Guggenheim developed an interest in art at an early age. Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, perished on the Titanic in 1912, leaving Peggy with a comfortable inheritance. Her mother Florette Seligman, who came from a prominent banking family, also left Peggy with a considerable inheritance, allowing for a sophisticated, privileged lifestyle.
“A Guggenheim, or a Strauss, or a Seligman was expected to be meticulously well mannered and to avoid anything that might be considered ostentatious or vulgar,” explains Francine Prose in her biography of Peggy Guggenheim (p. 37).
As a child, Peggy traveled frequently to Europe with her mother Florette where they stayed at stylish hotels, and learned about art, French history, British literature, and German opera, explains Prose.
In 1920 Peggy moved back to Europe, “in a frenzy to see great art.” “She knew where every important painting was located and insisted on seeing them all” (p. 60).
From 1922 to 1928 Peggy was married to Laurence Vail, a French-born American playwright, novelist, and painter who belonged to the Dada movement. Peggy’s life, relates Prose, had “periods of intense travel interrupted by interludes during which she established and oversaw large bohemian households in Paris, in London, and in rural beauty spots in England and France” (p. 17).
After her failed marriage with Vail, Peggy engaged in notorious affairs with playwright Samuel Beckett, sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and Surrealist painter Max Ernst, whom she married in 1941 – the marriage would end in divorce five years later.
Peggy’s uncle Solomon Guggenheim, who also was an avid collector of modern art, might have been an inspiration to Peggy: Solomon and his mistress, artist and art advisor Baroness Hilla von Rebay opened The Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York in 1937 to display Solomon’s growing collection which included works by Kandinsky, Chagall, Picasso, and many others. As the collection kept growing, the effort eventually led to the opening of Guggenheim Museum in 1959 at its current location on Fifth Avenue in a building designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
While in Europe, Peggy opened Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London in 1938, an unfortunate time, as WWII was about to break out the following year. Peggy had traveled to Paris the year before to secure art for the opening show. She had hoped to open the gallery with an exhibition dedicated to Constantin Brancusi, but the Romanian sculptor was out of town at the time, and Peggy turned her attention to Jean Cocteau. Guggenheim Jeune opened in January 1938 with a show dedicated to Cocteau – the gallery would close in August 1939 due to the war outbreak. In fact, Peggy had plans to open an art museum in London in the fall of 1939, when the war broke, and she had to return to New York.
In June 1941 Peggy and her family sailed from Marseille to New York, bringing with them Peggy’s significant collection of modern art which included 150 works by artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Braque, Miro, Dali, Magritte, Giacometti, Brancusi, and Max Ernst, works that could have not safely remained in Europe. At first, Peggy had hoped that the Louvre Museum in Paris might have sheltered some of the works, but the museum directors considered the art “too modern to merit saving,” as Prose relates.
Back in New York, Peggy opened Art of This Century gallery, which shortly became the city’s cultural center. The gallery functioned from 1942 to 1947, when Peggy returned to Europe. Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackson Pollock frequented the space which was at once “a cultural landmark and a tourist attraction” (p. 137). Peggy helped launch Pollock’s career at Art of this Century – the artist showed four times at the gallery during its existence, and drew the attention of art critics such as Robert Coates at the New Yorker, and Clement Greenberg at The Nation.
In 1943 the gallery hosted the first exhibition of collages in the United States. Also, “among the most remarkable aspects of Art of This Century,” writes Prose, “was the unusual amount of attention paid to women artists” (p. 140). She goes on to say: “equally striking is how few of these women – Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, and Leonora Carrington – went on to develop careers and reputations remotely approaching those of their male contemporaries” (p. 141).
In addition to promoting emergent artists, as Prose relates, the gallery “was used as a background for fashion shoots in Vogue and Glamour, and was the subject of a photo feature in the New York Times Magazine” (p. 138).
In 1946, when Peggy was 48 years old, she published her memoir Out of This Century, which Prose calls “a remarkable document.” “It is hard to think of an important visual artist from the first half of the twentieth century who does not appear in its pages, in the company of an impressive number of celebrated novelists, memoirists, and poets” (p. 11). Several pages are dedicated to Peggy’s “battle to acquire Brancusi’s Bird in Space.”
In 1947 Peggy returned to Europe, and bought Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni in Venice. Her collection was swiftly included in the 24th Venice Biennale in 1948, one of the most prestigious art shows in the world. Afterwards, the collection traveled to Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich, before returning to Venice in 1951, and being permanently housed at Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni. Among luminaries spending time with Peggy while in Venice, Prose mentions Surrealist painter Marc Chagall, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and experimental composer John Cage.
Adam Cohen earned his BFA at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He also studied abroad in Rome. Using Photo Shop 1, Cohen was one of the very first artists ever to use the computer for art-making, launching his career as a top illustrator. He worked for clients such as Disney, Visa, MasterCard, Coca-Cola, CBS-TV, McGraw-Hill, Pfizer, Orion Pictures, Verizon, AT&T, The Atlantic Monthly, Dean-Witter, The New York Times and others.
In 2015 Adam’s painting Intuition was selected among the finalists in the Art Olympia International Competition held in Tokyo, Japan. Judges from prestigious art institutions in the United States, France, Japan and other countries looked at 5000 entries from all over the world in two categories: Open Category, and Student Category. Eighty works, including Adam’s Intuition, were selected for the final. Also, in 2015 Adam signed a contract with Morren Galleries to be represented in the Netherlands.
Simona David: Adam, you have formal training as a painter – you studied at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. When did you start painting?
Adam Cohen: I started painting when I was 12 year old. A friend of mine was studying with this teacher – Lillian Marzell, who was to become a pivotal figure in my life. I studied with Marzell for a few years. What was great about her was that she wanted us to listen to and bring out what was inside us; she was not telling us how to do things. I think that’s what really kills creativity – the idea that if you draw the sky it has to be blue. Marzell was an abstract painter. She knew all these artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham – she would go out to Provincetown and hang out with them in her earlier days. Bob Dylan used to go there too. Marzell was ahead of her time, and very dynamic. At that time, when I was 12 year old, I was doing figurative painting, and I wanted instructions. If I asked how to do clouds, or how to draw the sky, she would say “You know how. You do it the way you feel it inside.”
SD: When did you switch to abstract painting?
AC: About three years ago. I was feeling lost, and got the feeling that there was something else that I wanted to express, but it wasn’t clear to me. In college I didn’t like abstract, and didn’t understand it. I wasn’t really interested in it. Everyone else was doing abstract painting, I was doing figurative. But students were doing these hideous abstract paintings, and the teachers were upset with them – it was the worst year of painting at Tyler. From 1967 until 1975 the work was amazing in the school. Those years were like a Renaissance in art. My class wasn’t living up to that.
SD: What painters did you like around that time?
AC: I liked de Chirico. I liked Léger at one point. I never liked representational work. I prefer dream like, surrealist works. There is a mysteriousness in them.
SD: Who is your favorite painter today?
AC: I like Gerhard Richter. He’s a German painter. There are many things that I like about his work. He’s using a big squeegee to rub the paint. My approach is different. But I like a lot the early abstract painters.
SD: These days you paint abstract only – Carter Ratcliff characterized your style as Gestural Abstraction. Let’s talk about your toolbox: what materials do you use in your work?
AC: I use acrylics, some oil paint. I work mostly on canvas, and some wood panel. I go to art supplies stores and buy gels that I mix in my own formula.
SD: Let’s talk a little bit about your style.
AC: I’m an intuitive painter. But I can always do what I did as well: once you know that it’s part of your language. Carter said that I’ve taken every nice thing from every earlier phase and carried with me what I thought was the best. I do a lot of line work, and cutting, and slicing through the paint. I’m doing all this vascular work: the paintings are very much sculptural; they look visceral.
SD: How do you name your paintings?
AC: My partner, John Merriman, who does PR for celebrities, usually steps in and captures both my inner drive and the mood that a certain work of art is set to convey. Sometimes he even tells me when the work is done, although at night I may sneak back in the studio and add a few more brushes.
With abstract painting, John says, “There are so many things that you can get out of the painting, and what it’s supposed to tell. Some people would look at an abstract painting, and they’ll find all kinds of little faces in it. Others may very well see fire and ice.”
Asked about the naming process, John adds: “I tend to go after unexpected contrasts in the name. Adam paints so intuitively that at times it tends to be emotional. For instance, this one is one of his earlier works – it’s called Enigma: it’s kind of dark, but you don’t quite know what’s at the bottom of the whole thing. Life is not all black and white: there is the grey, and then there are different colors, it can be paradoxical. Enigma is one of his first carving paintings – it’s when Adam started to carve his paintings.”
SD: Adam, what inspires you? You divide your time between New York City, the Catskills, and Ocean Grove, NJ. Are there any external sources of inspiration or just inner experiences that trigger your creativity?
AC: Consciously or unconsciously the environment influences me. For example, this winter was so long, and I painted Early Spring a few days before the equinox – I was dreaming of spring, hence these colors: reds, pinks, oranges, greens and blues. I spend a lot of time on Instagram these days. For instance, this painting was inspired by a photo I saw on Instagram with shimmering flowing water. I wasn’t trying to copy, but rather use these reds in a way that inspired me. There is also an internal color palette that changes for me. It’s a little mysterious. For example, I go to my studio in a particular week and for some reason there is a color that I feel attracted to. I don’t question why I’m feeling drawn to that particular color. But then, as I start to work, a whole color palette emerges. And then I realize that I want to do the same color palette in the next painting, and the next, and the next, like I can’t get enough of it. Maybe a month or so I’m in love with this color palette, and then all of a sudden that changes. I see paintings as living experiences. And to me they need to have a life of their own, and energy. I think Carter Ratcliff put it best when John asked him one day what makes a great work of art. Carter said “if I was going to use one single word, I would say that it’s inexhaustible.” When you look at it, there is no beginning, and there is no end, and you always discover new things. He once said about my work that the entire surface was connected and alive. I like how he brings definitions to me about something I can’t define. The intuition and the experience come first, but then you need someone to define it. However, once I do define something, and it really resonates with me, I look for that experience in it.
SD: What kind of message would you like people to find in your work or you’re not concerned about that?
AC: It’s that kind of question that people have: how do you know when it’s finished? It’s such a deeply personal feeling, and so critical. Yes, I want the surface to be connected and alive, and the painting be inexhaustible, and look at it forever and still find something you haven’t seen before. It’s almost like a magic trick.
SD: You mentioned Carter Ratcliff before. He wrote a beautiful essay about your work. “A painting by Adam Cohen is like a sudden burst of light,” he said.
AC: Carter was actually the closest to my very private and personal experience, and the decisions that I’m making in the process of painting. It felt like he was right there in the room with me, but he’s never been there. He interviewed me, but he was never there. He got the process so right. In his essay Carter said that the viewer looks at the painting and tries to look back at how the painter painted it.
SD: That’s right. The artist starts with a blank canvas, and keeps adding to it. The viewer sees the final product, and strives to understand the artistic process that led to that accomplishment.
AC: It’s a little bit like a maze. Really the entire world is abstract. The closer you get to anything that you magnify – your skin, a table, a rock – it’s abstract; everything is abstract and our eyes pull it together. I think it’s very natural to create that way. If you go very close to a Renoir painting you don’t see something that looks like a face or a shirt or an object on a table. You see all these very abstract marks. If you get really close, you can see every brush mark. It’s extremely abstract. You have to step back ten or fifteen feet, and then it comes together.
SD: Let’s talk about your contract with Morren Galleries.
AC: I signed a contract with Morren Galleries to be represented in the Netherlands. They have four galleries. My work is shown in Amsterdam. I have five paintings there: Infinity Blue, which was done by the ocean, and November Moon, done in November during the full moon. Usually John names my paintings, but this one I named myself. There is also Spring Sequence, which I named myself, and Mystic Marsh, named by John. I’m the first abstract painter to be shown in Morren Galleries in Amsterdam.
SD: You are getting ready for a show at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson: Abstraction, opening date July 18. Let’s talk about that.
AC: I have nine paintings in this show, including Paleolithic, Reflecting Pool, Enchanted, Clairvoyant, and Dragon Fly. Abstraction is a group exhibit showing the works of five artists, including mine. There will be a reception on Saturday, July 18 from 6 to 8 pm. I invite everyone to come.