“You Go Girl! Celebrating Women Artists,” the final exhibition in a series drawn from the permanent collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art in observance of its 95th anniversary, explores challenges female artists faced well into the 20th century that male colleagues never experienced.
Women’s place was in the home. Many were not permitted to enroll in college. The term “coed,” meaning female student, is a throwback to a time when such women were higher education pioneers. In the 1890s, William Merritt Chase was among the foremost artists encouraging women. Among those studying at his Shinnecock Hills summer school was Georgia O’Keeffe, represented in Heckscher’s show with her 1956 “Machu Picchu, Peru” watercolor.
CLOTHING NOT OPTIONAL
Even when admitted to art schools, women remained handicapped by social conventions banning them from drawing nude male models. Women’s suffrage activist Alice Morgan Wright was not allowed to sketch nude males at the Art Students League but got around the restriction by attending boxing and wrestling matches. Her 1930 Heckscher print “Nude” reflects her studies of muscular male figures.
Before art schools allowed women, access to training was by accident of birth — their brother or father was a painter — or marriage. Mary Nimmo Moran, wife of landscape artist Thomas Moran, who adopted East Hampton as his home, was the sole female member of England’s Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. She signed her works M.N. Moran (as in her 1880 Heckscher etching “Solitude”), a gender-obfuscation tactic deployed by 19th-century women artists and writers.
Marrying an artist sometimes proved problematic. Rhoda Holmes Nicholls — her 1890s watercolor, “Thistle Down and Dark Trees, Shinnecock,” is in the show — married artist Burr Nicholls. Shortly after one of her works was accpected by the Paris Salon, while his was rejected, they divorced.
Elaine de Kooning was an artist in her own right when she married Abstract Expressionist Willem. Their two-artist union survived until his death in 1997. Her 1948 “Blue Mountain #6” painting pays homage to Blue Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied and he taught.
The most confrontational piece in the show, challenging male authority, is May Stevens’ 1971 print “Big Daddy Paper Doll,” which also addressed thoughts on racism and the Vietnam War.
Stevens is representative of most of the art by women in the Heckscher collection in that the majority of works are by women who gained traction from the 1970s feminist movement. Among the most prominent is Hamptons artist Audrey Flack, whose tearful 1972 “Lady Madonna” overlooks a gallery of representational art, contrasting with the 1996 abstract construction/painting “Relationships (Kandinsky #1)” by Stony Brook’s Howardina Pindell.
The centerpiece, selected by Heckscher curator Lisa Chalif, is Miriam Shapiro’s 1976 “Berthe Morisot & Me” collage. The “femmage” as Schapiro called it — she died in June — surrounds an image of Morisot’s painting of genteel women with quilt-like squares representing applied-art skills that women were limited to in their domestic careers.
You go girl, indeed.