Portrait of Felice Swados
(Writing Her First Novel, House of Fury)
Oil on canvas, 26x32", 1940
© Margaret Lefranc (1)
About a year and a half ago, I had the idea to create an archive of women artists on the Internet - to make the hidden history of women's art visible and accessible to all. That dream has become a reality with Women Artists of the American West, Past and Present.
It is my hope that this archive will grow and blossom, and that it will set a precedent for those of you who also wish to expand the field of art. I extend you an invitation: to view this archive as a garden, and to nourish it by planting more seeds. I believe art is a profound mirror of our humanity, and that to reflect an accurate image, it must include us all. A sanctioned or "official" art can only be partial, limited by definition in scope and value. A healthy society will honor diversity and will "fear no art," especially that which steps outside the mainstream or challenges conventional points of view.
If the above goes without saying, I should end this letter now. However, when I first considered writing an introductory essay, I imagined at least one raised eyebrow or a hand shooting up in the back row, signaling the inevitable question: why study women artists, and why women artists of the American west?
Certainly these are valid questions, so long as they are asked in a spirit of inquiry. After all, it was just a few years ago that the esteemed western writer Wallace Stegner was heard to say that the very notion of a female aesthetics made him "wince," and that any attempt to theorize one was as ill-advised as "chasing moonbeams." (2)
Women Artists of the American West does not need a justification - it exists on its own merits as does women's art. We have wasted far too much time answering such attacks, which need not distract nor divert us any longer! It was June Wayne, the founder of the Tamarind Institute and veteran of feminist art practice, who pointed this out to me last summer as we talked in her Los Angeles studio. I showed her an early prospectus for WAAW, in which I had written that the archive would provide women artists "the recognition they so richly deserve." "Deserve?" asked June Wayne. "Do you really want to say that society owes us; do you want to paint us as victims, to put us in that role?"
In my next proposal, the incriminating words were gone, but the memory remained. To reclaim and even name an arena for the study of women's art is rife with just such pitfalls. It is contested territory, whose borders are still being surveyed. One would have hoped that "the woman question" would have been settled once and for all when in 1976, art historian Linda Nochlin unequivocally stated that being a woman does count for something:
. . . to discard obviously mystificatory, essentialist theories about women's 'natural' directions in art is by no means to affirm that the fact of being a woman is completely irrelevant to artistic creation. That would be tantamount to declaring that art exists in a vacuum instead of in the complex social, historical, psychological, and political matrix within which it is actually produced. The fact that a given artist happens to be a woman rather than a man counts for something: it is a more or less significant variable in the creation of a work of art, like being an American, being poor, or being born in 1900. Like any other variable, little can be predicted on its basis in isolation from the specific context in which it exists. (3)
Nochlin is credited with legitimating feminist inquiry in art history in 1971, when she queried "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" Her essay of that title is landmark because it situates art as a social practice, "not a free autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual," but "an integral element of social structure . . . mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator and artist as he-man or social outcast." (4)
Nochlin reminds us that "Great Art" is not gifted but endowed, bestowed by society's "gatekeepers," who are much more than custodians of good taste. Their role is to maintain institutional power, which is traditionally a male entitlement. As a consequence, most of women's art has been written out of history. In the 1970's things began to change, but the project of recuperating women's art is far from over.
The Bewildered Pupil
by Gina Knee, ca. 1942
(Courtesy Greg Nelson)
Writing in 1994 on Gina Knee, a little-known but remarkable western artist, historian Sharyn Udall said:
A major challenge for art historians today is to reconstruct the discourse of art history to include the experience of women. Still absent from the canon of art history are the works of countless women who have labored in near anonymity or who, like Gina Knee, have operated on the margins of the art world. The discipline has been slow to place the work of talented women on equal footing with their better-known male contemporaries . . . . Highly visible public careers of successful male artists have been relatively easy to document. It is the achievement of women, whose work has often remained tangled in the complex web of their personal lives, that has been difficult to isolate and measure." (5)
This is especially true of the art of the American west. Remember Wallace Stegner's acid comment? Compare it to the following more recent evaluations:
"Western criticism is saddled with male-centered, white-centered and pre-contemporary aesthetic ideals which disable it on questions of gender and race . . ." (6)
"Cowboys and soldiers, gold miners and fur traders - the cast of characters that peoples the stereotypical West is male dominated. Many of the activities celebrated as central to the western experience - conquering a 'virgin' land, subduing Indians, building railroads, ranching, farming, logging, establishing governments - are those perceived as 'men's work.' Imbued with these masculine images, the ideology of the West celebrates a particular, and gendered, form of American identity." (7)
"While Western historians grapple with a 'new' historiography of the American West - rethinking and broadening its scope in terms of race, class, and gender - the production of art by Western women has been virtually ignored. Attention and focus have been directed only toward nineteenth-century art created by men and toward the stereotypical imagery of the Old West conveyed by their work." (8)
This last comment is taken from the preface of Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, catalog to one of the first major exhibitions and critical studies of women artists in the American west. Published in 1995, and exhibited in Santa Fe in 1996, this compilation was a key impetus in developing WAAW, which is dedicated to dispelling such stereotypes.
After all, most everyone has heard of Frederick Remington and Charles M. Russell, whose cowboy and Indian art defined the classical western art canon, but how many of us know that "women artists have worked in what would come to be called the American West as long as humans have inhabited the terrain between the ninety-eighth meridian and the Pacific Ocean. Navajo women wove. Pueblo women made pottery. Pomo women shaped baskets. Between 1890 and 1945 women artists of all kinds worked in the West in great numbers, creating objects so abundant and diverse as to defy facile generalization." (9)
When I went to graduate school in the mid-1970's and studied photography in New Mexico, I learned of Edward Curtis, but not of Laura Gilpin. At that time, there was no National Museum of Women in the Arts, no Women's Caucus of Art in the College Art Association, no women's art infrastructure of which to speak. (10)
The Rio Grande Yields Its Surplus to the Sea,
Laura Gilpin, gelatin silver print 1947
©1979 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Laura Gilpin Collection
Gilpin's book, The Enduring Navajo, was published in 1968 and would have been my inspiration, had someone only told me about it. Gilpin's lifetime of work eventually earned her a Guggenheim fellowship in 1975, when she was 84 years old. Born in 1891, her work spans most of the twentieth-century and mirrors photography's development - from pictorial art to compassionate document. Fortunately, Gilpin's work is well-represented in WAAW. She is included in Peter E. Palmquist's Women in Photography International Archive, and in Martha A. Sandweiss' essay on Laura Gilpin and the Tradition of American Landscape Photography.
Many more women artists have not yet been recognized, but to give them their due does not mean they must be named victims. If it is true that history is written by the victors, then we are the victors now, writing our history for all to see and know. But in truth, we don't need the metaphor of conquest to establish our self-worth. Victors, shmicktors - what we need are more projects like An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, compiled by authors Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, and published by the University of Texas Press in 1998. (11) This book contains information on more than 1000 western women artists, who have lived and worked between 1840 and 1980. And even this massive project does not pretend to be the last word on Women Artists of the American West.
As I said in the beginning of this essay, we have embarked on a work in progress by planting a seed in a garden. There are many more seeds to plant. If you have come this far, dear reader, please join with me in celebrating our future; as there is already much to harvest from our past.
With sincere regards,
Susan Rebecca Ressler
Taos, New Mexico
August 16, 1998
All images © artists.
All text (other than quotations) © Susan Ressler.