Women on the Edge

Seven mid-century modernists are showcased at the Center for the Visual Arts.

Half a century ago, women artists were viewed as second-rate, at best. Then, around 35 years ago, women challenged that old chestnut. In the intervening decades, numerous important female artists have emerged, and works from previous generations have been upwardly reappraised.

This Cinderella story is the political narrative and organizational theme underlying True Grit: Seven Female Visionaries Before Feminism, a compelling traveling show at Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts that looks at a group of women artists who came of age between the 1940s and the 1960s.

True Grit first appeared in an abbreviated form at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City, in a show organized by director halley k. harrisburg in 2000. Katherine B. Crum, deputy director of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, saw the Rosenfeld display and expanded it. Like harrisburg's original, Crum's True Grit, which is the one at the CVA, is more of a snapshot than an encyclopedic survey. Only a handful of artists are features, including Lee Bontecou, Jay DeFeo, Nancy Spero, Louise Nevelson, Claire Falkenstein, Nancy Grossman and Louise Bourgeois.

"Untitled," by Lee Bontecou, welded metal and canvas.
"Untitled," by Lee Bontecou, welded metal and canvas.
"Observer," by Louise Bourgeois, bronze.
"Observer," by Louise Bourgeois, bronze.

As I walked through the exhibit, I thought of other artists who fit its criteria. The most obvious are Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse. Considering that the subtext of the show is the influence that the True Grit artists had on subsequent generations, leaving out Hesse, the quintessential pre-feminist artist, seems an inexplicable oversight. These omissions notwithstanding, True Grit holds together.

The show begins in the intimate entry gallery, half of which is devoted to Bontecou and half to DeFeo. Born in 1931 in Rhode Island, Bontecou moved to New York as a child. In the early '50s, she studied with William Zorach and John Hovannes at New York's Art Students League. By the late '50s, she began to create the abstract assemblages that gave her almost immediate fame. Now in her seventies, Bontecou still works in her Pennsylvania studio.

The CVA show includes two of her signature assemblages, both of which are untitled. As is typical for Bontecou's sculpture, there's a void in the center that provides a point of focus. The palettes employed are muted and predominantly in shades of brown, another Bontecou signature. For these works, the artist created an armature of welded metal and then covered it with metal and canvas. The two Bontecou sculptures at the CVA are unforgettable and among the best things in the show.

Bontecou is hot right now because of her coast-to-coast traveling retrospective, which is packing them in at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. The handful of Bontecous at the CVA are no substitute for seeing the big show, but it's still neat to have them displayed here.

Opposite the Bontecous is a small group of DeFeos. Born in 1929 in New Hampshire, DeFeo grew up in California and Colorado. In the late '40s and early '50s, she attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree. After graduation, she traveled extensively in Europe before moving to San Francisco in the mid-1950s and becoming associated with the Bay Area figural abstractionists. Though she was well known and widely exhibited before she died in 1989, she is more famous now than she's ever been.

There are four DeFeos at the CVA, all dating from the 1970s. Two are works on paper, and two are paintings on Masonite. The paintings -- one in the entry space, the other in the large back gallery -- are essentially the same, with each having a vaguely organic shape placed in the middle of an abstract-expressionist field. The use of the central form, though not strictly figural, links DeFeo's work to the other figural abstractionists in San Francisco.

Nancy Spero also explores figural abstraction. Unlike DeFeo, though, she incorporates actual figures in her pieces. Even more than Bontecou and DeFeo, Spero was very influential for later artists, and these early '60s pieces fully anticipate many things that would happen in the 1980s -- in particular, the use of crudely rendered forms and the incorporation of script.

Born in Cleveland in 1927, Spero graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949. In the 1960s, Spero, who was married to painter Leon Golub, settled in New York, where she continues to live. She has long used her work to address feminist issues and "invent a language of non-male points of view," though that is hard to see in the half-dozen pieces shown here.

Adjacent to the Speros is one of only two Nevelson sculptures on display. Though artists such as Bontecou and DeFeo became famous early on, neither achieved the lasting renown of Nevelson, who has long been regarded as one of the most significant American artists of the twentieth century. The two sculptures at the CVA are immediately recognizable as Nevelsons -- they're architectonic assemblages of wood, painted black -- and are staggeringly valuable, which, I guess, is why there are only two small ones in this show.

Nevelson was born in 1899 in Russia and came to the United States as a small child. She attended the Art Students League in 1920 and later studied for a brief time with Hans Hofmann in Germany. She began exhibiting sculpture in galleries in New York in the early 1940s; by the 1960s, her status as a world-famous artist was assured. Nevelson died in 1988.

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