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Celebrating female artists - 20th century heroes

Join us for our first instalment of ‘Celebrating female artists’, a series of editorials shining a light on our abundant collection of female artists. We begin with some of the 20th century’s most innovative multidisciplinary artists, Helen FrankenthalerLouise Bourgeois, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Georgia O’Keefe.

Towards the end of the 20th century, an interest in female-produced art and artists grew on an ambitious scale, spurred on by the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Gradually, scholars, museums, galleries and biennales started exploring why women have been removed from the traditional art historical canon.

During the late 80s and early 90s, at the forefront of this movement were The Guerrilla Girls – an anonymous group of female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world. Their ‘politicised’ posters featured quotes such as:

‘Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art sections (of the Met Museum) are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’

Guerrilla Girls, 1989

In the following years, women and other under-represented figures started to be celebrated due to a collective effort by engaged art historians and curators. In 2020 The National Gallery staged their first major solo exhibition by a historic artist, Artemisia Gentileschi.

So far in 2023, multiple exhibitions celebrating female artists have taken place at the Tate (Sarah Lucas), National Portrait Gallery (Yevonde) and Dulwich Picture Gallery (Berthe Morisot).

Although progress has been made, there is still more to be done. At King & McGaw we aim to continuously shine a light on our abundant collection of female artists, taking a closer look at a collection of 20th century multidisciplinary artists, who were often overshadowed by their male counterparts, but should have always been viewed as established artists in their own right.

Georgia O’Keeffe

Considered one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe refutes categorisation and has been viewed instead as a modernist powerhouse utilising oil paint to create large paintings depicting the natural world.

She is best known for her flower studies, that fill every inch of the canvas. However, since the 1920s these oil paintings have been assumed, mainly by white-male observers, to represent female genitalia.

For six decades, O’Keefe denied that her flower interpretations were in any way sexual. In 1929, partly due to this constant generalisation, she started depicting the vastness of the American Southwest, swapping her pastel paints for vivid yellows and blues.

O’Keefe’s sunflower paintings demonstrate her ability to turn a seemingly ordinary flower into a shock of intense colour, line and depth, highlighting her technical ability and refuting the erotic interpretations she was constantly reduced to.

Louise Bourgeois

Recognised for her giant spider structures, situated in public spaces across the globe, including Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, Louise Bourgeois is one of the greatest figures of modern and contemporary art. She explored several themes during her long career – from sexuality, to motherhood, and the unconscious.

One of her most ambitious bodies of work known as ‘Cells’, comprised of 60 standalone sculptures using objects from her childhood (plaster casts, text and drawings), penis and breast-like bulges, and – of course – spiders, all within cell-like structures.

In 1992 Louisiana Museum of Art, Denmark, staged an exhibition devoted to her cell works. The exhibition poster featured Bourgeois’ ink drawing ‘Sainte Sebastienne’, a female version of the Christian martyr, peppered with schematic arrows, highlighting the pain and suffering women often silently endure.

Despite being hailed as a ‘feminist’ artist by many critics at the time, Bourgeois dismissed this label. She refused to be categorised, especially when the male-dominated genre of abstract expressionism exploded in 1950.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp

During the 1920s and 30s Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s creative output was diverse and, at times, controversial. Producing embroideries, paintings, carved sculptures and unusual Dada objects such as puppets, she combined craft with extremely modernist abstraction.

Ironically, in her lifetime, Taeuber-Arp’s work was often collected by museums. She also won design commissions for soft furnishing and private houses. Yet, since her death in 1943 she has barley featured in art and design history. In contrast, her husband, Jean Arp is mentioned throughout.

Thankfully, Taeuber-Arp is starting to be re-written back into history, partly due to a solo exhibition dedicated to her work staged at the Tate in 2021. Work’s such as Farbige Abstufung (Graduation in colour), 1939 were on view.

These sharp abstract oil paintings, featuring an array of primary colours, were produced during the early war years. Taeuber-Arp fled from Germany, returning to Switzerland via train, restricted to only 2-dimensional forms, having to give up her beloved sculpture due to a lack of materials and constant relocation.

Helen Frankenthaler

American abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler had a lucrative career spanning over 60 decades. She pioneered the ‘soak-stain’ technique, which involved thinning down thick oil paint until it formed a watercolour consistency. This atypical approach formed the basis of what was later known as ‘Colour Field Painting’.

In 1951 Frankenthaler was the youngest artist to feature in the formidable ‘Ninth Street Show’, an artist-led exhibition marking the formal debut of Abstract Expressionism. Despite competing in this overwhelmingly male dominated movement, she made constant breakthroughs during her career.

This rare poster produced for ‘Helen Frankenthaler - Prints’, an exhibition devoted to her works using different printing techniques at the National Gallery of Art Washington in 1993, features her accomplished twelve-colour woodcut ‘Freefall’.

Frankenthaler produced this woodcut using a turkey baster and paper-pulp surface to create unusual colouring effects, defying expectations of a traditional woodcut. Since her death in 2011 Frankenthaler’s popularity has continued to grow, with many major museums and galleries presenting her as an indispensable figure at the overwhelmingly male table of American art.

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