A Resentful Retort to the Inanimate: The Grove Book of Art Writing
by: Catherine Howard
We all have a trigger. That one phrase, that one off-handed comment, that one snide remark, that one cliché that makes us implode with fury. The Grove Book of Art Writing didn’t mean to hit that trigger. After all, it started out pretty chill between us. I mean, there was that touchingly intimate article about Bonnard’s life in his studio, about painting in a hollowed out space after the death of a lifelong partner, about pursuing beauty in the midst of grief-stricken depression. A few tears even welled up in my eyes. But then it had to go and make that stereotypical assumption that genius artists are male and that female artists are token aberrations. [Mumble, grumble, fume…]
Of the eighteen articles in the first section, “In the Studio: The Artist at Work”, only one is about a female artist’s studio. The New York critic Hilton Kramer is supposedly visiting sculptor Louise Nevelson. Now in the other writings in the section, artists are lauded for their personalities, for their intense focus. Writers fawned over the gritty nature of the “studio space”, drooled over the traces of “genius” left behind. However, instead of discussing Nevelson’s genius, Kramer references male artists Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and David Smith – lauding them for their creative accomplishments – but what does he have to say about Louise Nevelson, one of the most talented contemporary sculptors, who by this point had work in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection?
“From the street, the house hardly looked like the sort of place where an artist, especially a sculptor, might be engaged in serious work.”
Kramer goes on for another few paragraphs about the status of “sculpture” versus “painting” in the art market. Then he goes into a description of Nevelson’s home, with a passing appreciation of her productivity:
“It was certainly unlike anything one had ever seen or imagined. Its interior seemed to have been stripped of everything – not only furniture, rugs, and the common comforts of daily living, but of many mundane necessities – that might divert attention from the sculptures that crowded every space, occupied every wall, and at once filled and bewildered the eye wherever it turned.”
But how is Nevelson truly treated? As an abberation. Her studio is strange, uncomfortable place, but where is she? She does not exist. All that is mentioned is this eccentric sculptural world that alludes to her existence. But where is she? There are no descriptions of her working, like in the other articles. No mentions of conversations with her. For all intents and purposes, Kramer is describing a haunted house. Louise Nevelson is the ghost.
As I continued to read The Grove Book of Art Writing, this disorienting imbalance persisted: no female artists speaking for themselves, only truncated mentions of women as anything more than models or caretakers. So if I am to be honest with myself (and you), why am I so angered by the oversight of female artists? Why do I take an imbalance of accounts in an anthology so personally that my skin crawls and my nostrils flare? I suppose it’s truly because this ignorant disrespect still catches me off-guard. After all, this book was written in 1998. 1998! My expectation when I pulled the book from the shelf would be that I would find guidance from other artists, insights into their perspectives and processes. But (once again), I realized that “art” wasn’t always for my kind of folk (you know, the kind of folk with vaginas).
And realizing that complaining without action rarely solves anything, my takeaway from this book will be Germaine Greer’s discussion of Artemisia Gentileschi’s artistic career:
“Artemisia did not choose to dwell on her disappointment. She refused to deal in pathos and softer emotions, and, as a result, alienated all those critics and historians of art who nurture the usual presuppositions about women. She developed an ideal of heroic womanhood. She lived it, and she portrayed it.”
Touché… Back to the studio.