A New Book on Women Artists Is Welcome, But Uneven

Great Women Artists, published by Phaidon (all images via Phaidon)

Women artists are all the rage. From Renaissance portraitists Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola at the Prado Museum in Madrid to women Pre-Raphaelites at the National Gallery in London; from Judy Chicago’s first-ever retrospective in San Francisco next spring to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s full 2020 slate of female-centric shows, women appear to be taking over the art world. I say “appear” because appearances can be deceiving.

A recent artnet News series revealed, among many other disappointing but not terribly surprising stats, that women artists currently figure in just 11% of acquisitions and 14% of exhibitions at 26 major American museums. It’s far worse for Black women. Artist Adrian Piper published a response to the series, noting that lack of support for women artists extends to scarce or, often, nonexistent media coverage.

Which is why a new book highlighting the work of women artists should be welcome, especially one from Phaidon, whose popular 1994 tome, The Art Book (still in print), set a publishing standard for lavish and abundant reproductions. Similarly, Phaidon’s newest, Great Women Artists, is a spectacular object, with full-page — in some cases, two-page — full-color reproductions of artwork by 400 women artists across 500 years. As a visual reference, it’s gorgeous. As a text on women and the history of art, it’s sometimes uneven.

Page spread from Great Women Artists featuring Nina Chanel Abney and Marina Abramovic

The title, for example, is complete with a strikethrough across “women” to indicate that the artists within are “great artists” regardless of gender. Visually, it’s arresting, but its intention is murky. In her introduction, editor Rebecca Morrill notes that in 1976 Georgia O’Keeffe refused to lend work to the groundbreaking Los Angeles County Museum of Art show curated by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950, because she objected to being isolated with other women. O’Keeffe had a point, but such setting apart characterizes Phaidon’s book no matter how you strike it. Wouldn’t it be excellent to have a book just titled Great Artists with only women inside?

It seems to me that a woman-centric art book is nothing to apologize for (full disclosure, I wrote one), but Phaidon seems wary of anything too overtly feminist. “This is not a survey of feminist art” or “art about ‘female experience,’” the preface warns, but “it is a testament to the extensive work that has been undertaken over several decades to research artists who had been written out of history.” Which is to say, the fruits of an explicitly feminist undertaking.

Page spread from Great Women Artists featuring Mamma Andersson and Sofonisba Anguissola

In fact, the title Great Women Artists references Nochlin’s revolutionary feminist essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” but it seems to miss both the irony of the original title and the wit of Nochlin’s polemic. “What Nochlin did not address,” Morrill writes in the introduction, “was the possibility that perceptions of ‘greatness’ in art could shift in time and space, rather than being fixed in perpetuity.” Actually, Nochlin thought the notion of “greatness” itself was silly (and patriarchal), and said so in her essay.

Questions of greatness aside, compiling and reproducing the work of 400 artists, in alphabetical order, one per page, with a short biographical paragraph for each, is admirable, although more about breadth than depth. The reproductions are excellent: large, full-color, dazzling. And by featuring artists alphabetically rather than chronologically, otherwise unrelated works can communicate with each other in elegant, sometimes moving ways, as when Jordan Casteel’s 2017 oil portrait of a seated man in Harlem, “Q,” faces Elizabeth Catlett’s 1993 sculpture of a seated woman, “Woman Fixing Her Hair,” their posture, eyes, and gaze uncannily alike. Or where ceramicist and painter Betty Woodman’s 2017 piece, “A Single Song of Joy,” adjoins a 1977 photograph, “Self-Portrait Talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island,” by her daughter, Francesca Woodman, who died by suicide in 1981 at age 22.

Page spread from Great Women Artists featuring Carmen Herrera and Eva Hesse

Morrill writes that the long list of possible artists for the book included some 2,000 initially, so it’s understandable that personal favorites might be missing. Still, it would be helpful to know what criteria was used to select one artist over another. Why include, for example, French 18th-century portraitist Rose Adélaïde Ducreux, represented by her “Self-Portrait with a Harp” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not her contemporary, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, one of only four female members of the French Royal Academy who publicly campaigned, at great personal risk, in support of other women artists and whose own monumental “Self-Portrait with Two Students” is also in the Met? Whether via her biography or art historical significance, Labille-Guaird would seem a more obvious choice in the context of women’s art and history.

While Great Women Artists covers 500 years of art, only an eighth of its artists are pre-20th century, and a good third of those are from the 19th century. More women artists have and will emerge as time goes on, thank goodness. It’s in bringing to attention the work of these modern and contemporary women artists that the book is at its best, and even sometimes great.

Great Women Artists (2019) is published by Phaidon and is available from Amazon and your local independent bookstore.

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