‘Trees’ (1990-1991) by Joan Mitchell

My good friend George Wingate sent me a heartening article from the Financial Times, In praise of older women, by Jackie Wullschlager. While I could be accused of being self serving to highlight it here given that I am both female and aging, it suggests a shift (a trend? a rectifying?) that would certainly represent some kind of delayed justice.

Wullschlager claims that it now appears that “old age among female artists and writers is the new chic.” She points to several outstanding examples of women artists in their 80s and 90s who have become rather glamorous and famous in their older years, including Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington, Yayoi Kusama and Bridget Riley.

Each has managed her career in her own way. Joan Mitchell, a hard drinking, hard talking woman, took a path that was more like her male artist contemporaries. But in spite of her “I’m one of the guys” approach, she still wasn’t given the visibility that her male peers achieved.

According to Wullschlager,

Mitchell felt keenly her marginalised position. Yet many women artists have said loneliness helped preserve the distinctiveness of their creative projects. “I worked in peace for 40 years,” Bourgeois said in the 1990s…

Bourgeois, who trained with Fernand Léger in the 1930s, worked unseen on the roof of her Manhattan apartment while rearing a family. Ignored during the heydays of abstraction and minimalism, she showed little until a MoMA retrospective in 1982 drew international attention. Success liberated her to develop at monumental scale; in her eighties she began her giant spider sculptures, her most significant legacy. The final show with which she was involved, The Fabric Works, inaugurated Hauser & Wirth’s new Mayfair space and turned on her radical use of feminine materials – lace, fur – to convey menace and violence.

Oh that life offered a level playing field, but it never has and it never will. Bourgeois’ story is one of heads down, do your work and wait for the world to catch up with you. (There’s an apocryphal story of Bourgeois telling a younger artist to just do his/her work and then store it in a warehouse in Long Island for 20 years. By then the viewing public may understand.) Hers was the outsider’s position, plowing ahead no matter what the fashion may be at the time. While I am sympathetic—and conversant—with this approach, it isn’t for everyone. Here’s hoping there will be a number of ways to be a chic octogenarian female artist in the years to come.

This article appeared just a few months after the much discussed piece in the July/August Atlantic, The End of Men by Hanna Rosin. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend that you do. It has shifted my thinking on gender, politics and social order in a number of ways. It isn’t the “end of men” (tongue in cheek of course) that I’m celebrating so much as it is the space finally being made for women in a number of venues.

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