Pow! Women Pop Artists Get Their Day

New Tufts Art Gallery exhibition highlights works hidden in the shadows for decades

Pop Art brings certain images to mind—Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, Roy Lichtenstein’s oversized cartoon strip icons and Robert Rauschenberg’s collages from magazines and newspapers. What might not be as apparent is that all those artists are men.

The movement that began in America in the late 1950s essentially shunned women Pop artists, who were productive and prolific. A new exhibition at the Tufts University Art Gallery, Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968, showcases some of those forgotten artists and their work for the first time. The show, which runs through April 3 and is free and open to the public, features 68 works by 23 women.

Like their male counterparts, women Pop artists experimented with found objects, new materials like Plexiglas and neon, and images from popular culture. They also reinvented craft arts, such as hooked rugs and papier maché, and invented sewn soft sculptures by using fabrics, plastic, foam rubber stuffing, mattress ticking and paint. A small sample from the exhibition tells their story: a gun-toting John Wayne on a carousel horse; a 12-foot-long painting of an open box of chocolates; Chubby Checker dancing across huge plains of primary colors; and a mural-sized painting of men rising on a escalator reminiscent of the opening credits for the TV series Mad Men.

“Pop wants you to consume it all in one gulp—and the allegorical level is often fairly deeply buried,” says artist Martha Rosler in an accompanying film documentary. Rosler used pictures from magazines in her collages; some showed photographs of the Vietnam War seemingly peering through the windows of an average American home. “Pop was cool,” she says. “It maintained a glacial distance from the culture.”

Seductive Subversion premiered last winter at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and since has traveled to the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska and the Brooklyn Museum. The first show to exhibit these women together, it has shaken the received wisdom about which artists mattered in the Pop era.

The exhibition wasn’t easy to organize, and not just because many of the women artists had been left out of mainstream histories and critiques of the Pop period. The lenders, many of whom were family members, had to be cajoled, because they had never been approached before and were unsure why, after so many decades, there was a renewed interest, says Amy Ingrid Schlegel, director of the Tufts University Art Gallery. Schlegel worked with Sid Sachs, curator of the exhibition and director of the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, for several years, researching and unearthing the artists and their work.

A Different Perspective

The exhibition helps tell the story of the gender bias and chauvinism rampant in 50s and 60s American culture, which left many of these artists eclipsed by their male counterparts, Schlegel says. While many of the women did have solo shows at the time, only a handful were included in the critical histories of Pop art that started to be written in the late 1960s, while others faded into obscurity after they left New York City or died prematurely, she notes.

“Being a woman artist was a hindrance in the 60s,” says Idelle Weber, one of the living exhibiting artists, in the short film that chronicles the exhibit’s opening at Rosenwald-Wolf. “Men just didn’t consider you their equal, because women had never been [equals].” As advertising images from the period attest, women cleaned houses, did laundry, cooked dinners and had one primary responsibility: the happiness of their husbands and families.

In the documentary film, exhibiting artist Jann Haworth recalls applying to art school. “The assumption was that, as one tutor put it, ‘the girls were there to keep the boys happy,’ ” she says. “It wasn’t necessary for [admissions officers] to look at the portfolios of the female students . . . they just needed to look at their photos.”

Parodying this gender stereotyping and all aspects of American consumer culture was a recurring motif in Pop Art. “Rosler is a prime example of someone who really mined glossy women’s magazines to recreate her own subversive montages that slyly parody the comforts of domestic middle-class life,” says Schlegel. And then there’s Marjorie Strider’s 12-foot triptych of a woman in a bikini in three poses, breasts projecting off the canvas and invading the exhibit space.

With the perspective this exhibition provides, the women artists’ contributions now seem obvious. “Art history, like any history, is a story that gets constructed, so depending on your politics, your gender, your class structure, your national heritage, you’re going to see the world a little differently,” Sachs says in the film. “People get forgotten because there are power structures in place that make them forgotten or suppress the information.”

Time, though, offers a different perspective. “I think what happens after a number of decades is that you can have some distance from an art movement, away from the rhetoric and advertising and criticism of the time, and you can have your own take on it,” Sachs adds.

Artist Idelle Weber puts it this way: “We were all ordinary people doing extraordinary stuff, and that was the 60s.”

The public opening reception for Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968 is on Thursday, February 3, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Tufts University Art Gallery. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8. For more information, visit the gallery website or call 617.627.3518.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

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