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Life magazine’s portrait of the Abstract Expressionist artists known as ‘The Irascibles,’ 1951. Front row: Theodore Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, and Mark Rothko; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, and Hedda Sterne. (Photo: Nina LeenTime Life Pictures/Getty Images)
After writing my post earlier this week, Life’s Afternoon: Making Art in Old Age, about artists who produce great work later in life, stories and examples have been bubbling to the surface. Several emails came to me with suggestions. My friend Carl reminded me about Hans Hoffman:
I was planning to put in a vote for Hans Hofmann, one of our great post-WW II painters, one who gets better with each passing decade since his death in 1966. He had his first solo show here in 1944 when he was 64 years old. He blossomed in the 1950s, which was after his 70th birthday.
Another friend, George Wingate, sent me the link to an article that appeared in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, about the extraordinary Hedda Sterne. The Last Irascible by Sarah Boxer is a thoughtful—and inspiring—view into another artist whose output deepened over a lifetime. In Sterne’s case, her visibility never achieved anything close to the infamy of many of her male colleagues. So now, in addition to exploring and uncovering those artists who continue to produce great work, there is yet another vector to consider—gender.
It is Hedda you see at the top in the legendary Life magazine photo above. A Romanian exile who was married to the cartoonist/illustrator Saul Steinberg for many years, Sterne is the only one in the photo who is still alive. While she had a long and committed career as an artist, showing with the Surrealists as well as later artists, she does not seem to have been seduced by the ego and self promotion kool-aid that ended up being toxic for many of the Irascibles photographed above.
Regarding that infamous photograph, it is ironic that Sterne never really was an Abstract Expressionist. She walked in late as the photo was being staged, so the photographer put her at the back and had her stand on a table, towering over them all. Sterne told Boxer that the photo was “probably the worst thing that happened to me.” And the fellas weren’t too happy about it either. “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all…I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work,” says Sterne. “If I had an ego, it would bother me.” Plus, she adds, “it is a lie.” Why? “I was not an Abstract Expressionist. Nor was I an Irascible.”
From Boxer’s article:
What really distinguishes her is her refusal to develop what she tartly termed a “logo” style. And that refusal, Sterne said once, “very much destroyed my ‘career.’” Although Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons championed her, although major museums acquired her work, although Clement Greenberg praised her “nice flatness” and “delicacy” and Hilton Kramer mentioned her “first-class graphic gift,” and although she has had one of the longest exhibition histories of any living artist (seventy years), she is hardly well known. That doesn’t bother her. “I don’t know why, I never was burdened with a tremendous competition and ambition of any kind…. There is this wonderful passage in Conrad’s Secret Agent,” she noted. “There is a retarded young boy who sweeps with a concentration as if he were playing. That was how I always worked. The activity absorbed me sufficiently…” What came through was an artist who, in contrast to almost everyone else in the “Irascibles” photograph, had effectively erased herself. Not only was she not an Abstract Expressionist; she was the anti–Abstract Expressionist, someone who had no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture… And at a time when just about every painter who mattered was a heroic abstract artist, or trying to be, she was not.
Sterne’s heroics were of a different order. When her marriage to Steinberg came to an end, a man with whom she was passionately in love, her response is a stoic one. She simply stated that their marriage was “sixteen years of infidelity…a kind of partly pleasant, partly difficult interlude” to a long friendship…there was no divorce. No anger. We went together to friends’ houses to tell them.”
Sterne’s response could be viewed as detached, but I read it as evidence that she was wired most primally to her own inner deep core. And regardless of this change in her living circumstances, she simply moves to a more reclusive life and continues to work.
According to Boxer:
By the mid-1990s, thanks to cataracts and macular degeneration, Sterne was almost blind. She stopped painting and began drawing—not with stronger contrasts, as one might imagine, but with white crayons on white paper, aided by a magnifying glass. She was drawing, she told me, “without any external stimulus, only internal stimulus.” But she was still a figurative artist, representing her own paling vision…”Drawing is continuity. Everything else is interruption, even the night and sleep. I walk in the house like a lion everyday to keep healthy. I work out. I defend myself. I’m “invalidated.” …I can die at any moment. But I still learn. Every drawing teaches me something…”
I want to be able to say that too, right up until the last day of my life.
Paul Goldberger wrote about architect Jeanne Gang and her new shimmery addition to the Chicago skyline (a tower named Aqua, which is quite evocative isn’t it?) in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Goldberger is particularly impressed with the distinctive 82-story apartment building, citing its remarkable blend of the practical and a graceful design.
Goldberger’s description of the functional aspects of the design is intriguing. Every element serves a purpose, and yet both form and function come together so beautifully.
For all its visual power, Aqua is mostly free of conceit. In an age in which so much architectural form—even, sometimes the best architectural form—has no real rationale beyond the fact that it is what the architect felt like doing, there is something admirable about the tower’s lack of arbitrariness. It reclaims the notion that thrilling and beautiful form can still emerge out of the realm of the practical.
Of course Gang is compared with the most famous female architect, Zaha Hadid. (This is an “of course” because it is inevitable that women architects become their own subclass, particularly in a field as male dominated as architecture is and has been.) Goldberger highlights the differences between Gang and Hadid: “Hadid is a brilliant shaper of form, but her buildings are nothing if not arbitrary, and the combination of her fame and her flamboyant designs has insidiously led people to assume that female architects tend to favor shape-making over problem-solving.”
Other female starichtects like Deborah Berke, Marianne McKenna, Cathy Simon and Denise Scott Brown have also built very successful careers by using a balance of reason, sensitivity and form. “Female architects like these share a high interest in modern design combined with a low interest in ideology. They approach design less as an opportunity to demonstrate a set of ideas than as a way of answering a series of questions about the nature of a place, a client, or a function.”
Some might want to probe the gender issues implied by this discussion. That is less interesting to me, having spent way too much time in my life chasing down that rabbit hole (which is a frustrating “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” to quote Churchill’s famous description of Russia). I am more excited by yet another gifted and visionary artist/architect, and one who presents herself in such an unassuming way. It’s the Meryl Streep school of Celebritism, a willingness to step back from all the glitter and exhibit that rare quality of self-effacement. In an interview with Gang in a Chicago publication, she spent her time praising the dedication and expertise of the construction workers who built the structure.
Wow. Now that’s rare.
More from my side of the room, where I’m having trouble speaking (and painting, to be honest) but so appreciate finding the words of others that hit on target.
I’ve had a life long frustrating dance with the complications, transparencies and overt discrepancies around gender. It is one of those ambient weather systems that I have been flailing my arms at for as long as I’ve been alive. So thank you to Laura Collins-Hughes for her great piece on gender in the arts from her blog, critical difference:
It’s such a hoary cliché that you’d think people would be embarrassed to let it pass their lips, but there it was, coming from the mouth of Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of London contemporary-dance temple Sadler’s Wells.
The question put to him was why no female choreographers are among the “raft of commissions” he’s just announced for the coming season. His response, according to Charlotte Higgins’ piece in The Guardian: “‘It is something to do with women not being as assertive in that field,’ said Spalding. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to commission them.'”
His disavowal reminded me instantly of the time, back in the mid-’90s, that The New Yorker came out with a women’s issue, in which almost none of the cartoons were drawn by women. There were a couple — three at most — which was par for the course any other week but striking, and strange, for that issue. So when Lee Lorenz, then the magazine’s cartoon editor, popped up on a public-radio show, my then-boyfriend called in and asked why that was. Simple, Lorenz explained: Female cartoonists just aren’t interested in the single-panel format.
Sort of like how women aren’t wired for science. Or were emotional females just overreacting a few years ago when Larry Summers suggested to a conference on workforce diversification that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” were to blame for the low numbers of women in science and engineering?
Summers’ speech is breathtaking for many reasons, but one of them is the sheer accumulated mass of familiar, multipurpose sexist statements cloaked in pseudo-intellectualism. Then the president of Harvard University, he addressed the issue of fairness in hiring by noting that “there’s a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools.”
That may be true, but it takes an almost willful myopia not to see that myriad, sometimes elusive factors — such as encouragement, mentoring, and hostility real or perceived — have a substantial and direct bearing on both an individual’s decision to pursue a field and his or her success in it. If a given group faces more obstacles to professional development, it follows that fewer of its members will emerge in the top ranks.
Spalding sounds similarly willing to believe that the level of female representation in choreography is out of his hands.
“Choreography is still male dominated,” he said. “It is something I am aware of, but I can’t make the programme representative for the sake of it. I have to choose the best.”
Even if — just for the sake of argument — all of the best choreographers were male, Spalding would still be looking at the wrong end of the problem. The questions in dance, as in other fields, are straightforward: Are women given a fair shake along the way? Do they get those early commissions? Do experienced choreographers take them under their wing? Are artistic directors, male and female, willing to show a little faith in them? Or is that just for the guys? It’s not that women require special treatment; it’s that they frequently don’t get the same treatment that men do — not even in the arts, an area perceived by the culture at large as feminine.
Back in 2003, Mark Lamos directed an all-male production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at Yale Repertory Theatre. It was Lamos’ rather fascinating attempt to get audiences to see a brutal, highly problematic play in a different light, partly by removing the discomfort inherent in watching a man abuse a woman. It didn’t quite work — Shakespeare’s ending is heartbreaking no matter what — but it was a memorable production.
More memorable to me, however, is an anecdote Lamos related when I interviewed him before the play opened. It was about a development that had taken him completely by surprise: When the men who had women’s roles donned skirts in rehearsal, they suddenly had a harder time being listened to. That hadn’t been Lamos’ intention, nor had it been the other actors’ intention; no mind games were being played. It just happened. And it had to be pointed out to them by the men who were being marginalized.
Instructive as that was for the company (what decent actor or director wouldn’t seize that discovery and use it to feed the performance?), it made immediate sense to me, as it likely would to any woman or girl who’s ever had to fight to be heard by a group of men or boys.
Such reflexive dismissal of female points of view is, I suspect, one of the key factors keeping women from anything approaching equal representation in the top ranks of the arts: Far too often, we raise our voices, and no one hears.