For every Frank Stella, Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg — artists who achieve renown early on and never lose it — there are many more who peak early or have to wait until they are dead before they are “rediscovered” and duly honored.
But for women — historically, but also in recent times — the situation has been much, much worse. Male artists of a certain standing are commonly treated to retrospectives every 10 years or so, up to and after their deaths. Women continue to be overlooked.
Consider Marisol Escobar, who died in 2016. A sculptor. Wood, mostly. She was big in the ’60s, a key figure at the beginning of pop art. Then she disappeared. She went by “Marisol.”
When you consider how famous Marisol was in her prime, it’s odd, to say the least, that no major museum thought a Marisol show worth doing during her lifetime. In the 1960s, her shows were mobbed. Thousands lined up just to get into them. “She had more press and more visibility than Andy Warhol,” according to Pacini. She was written up by Gloria Steinem in Glamour magazine and by Grace Glueck in the New York Times Magazine. Along with John Updike, André Previn and Edward Albee, she was featured in Life magazine’s 1962 “A Red-Hot Hundred” list of young movers and shakers.
Born in Paris to Venezuelan parents, she was described as “a Latin Garbo.” She was given a solo show by Leo Castelli in 1957, before either Rauschenberg or Johns. She had an affair with Willem de Kooning. Warhol put her in two of his films.
Why, given all this, weren’t museums falling over themselves to do a Marisol retrospective?
There is no question that things are beginning to change. One of the biggest stories in the art world in the past two or three years has been the rapidly growing number of female artists who are getting solo shows, career surveys and retrospectives at well-known museums.
Which is making one question, in particular, feel more and more urgent: Will some of America’s most accomplished female artists live long enough to get the U.S. retrospectives they deserve? Or will their fates more closely resemble Marisol’s?
Few things have a bigger impact on helping an artist’s reputation spread than a retrospective at a major museum. Retrospectives don’t just provide important, institutional validation. They bring with them publicity, deeper forms of critical consideration and a chance to become known beyond the confines of the art world. The decision by a respected institution to stake a claim on an artist almost always produces a copycat effect, as curators at other museums, as well as collectors, art advisers and auction houses, take note.
This year, the female artists, age 65 and older, who are getting retrospectives or career surveys include Carolee Schneemann (78), Howardena Pindell (75), Judy Dater (76), Adrian Piper (69), Sally Mann (66) and Laurie Simmons (68). Dorothea Rockburne (85) and Mary Corse (72) also will get significant solo shows. Historical figures Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) will be the subjects of major traveling retrospectives. Several of these exhibitions are at major museums of international renown.
Still, for some of America’s most acclaimed female artists, you get the feeling that it will be a race against time.
1. Sheila Hicks, 83
A career survey of Hicks’s ambitious, beautiful, groundbreaking work in textiles was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., in 2012. Hicks has always been prominent in the art world, but she has never been given the full treatment by the Met, MoMA, the Whitney or the Guggenheim, nor by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, or any other truly top-flight U.S. museum.
2. Joan Jonas, 81
In 2015, Jonas, for decades a leading light of video, performance and installation art, became the sixth woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. She was the subject of a show the previous year at HangarBicocca, a major contemporary museum in Milan.
Tate Modern in London opened a Jonas retrospective this month. It will travel to Munich and Porto, but, so far, America’s biggest museums have looked the other way.
3. Lynda Benglis, 76
She has been known and admired in the art world for decades. She influenced Cindy Sherman. She invented dramatic, large-scale sculptures in surprising materials (including, most memorably, poured polyurethane foam with phosphorescent pigment) that can make the likes of Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor and Matthew Barney look timid. Like Hicks and Jonas, she has carved out a genuinely original idiom.
She was given a retrospective back in 2009-2010, that began in Dublin and ended up in Providence, R.I., at the RISD Museum of Art, and then New York’s New Museum, which organized it. Both RISD and the New Museum are respectable institutions, to be sure. But neither is quite on the level of MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, or LACMA.
4. Mary Heilmann, 78
This great California painter is a phenomenal colorist, whose laconic work fizzes with ideas. The New Museum also organized a Heilmann retrospective in 2008, and it traveled to the Orange County Museum of Art. But that was 10 years ago. Heilmann is still far from being a household name.
Perhaps she never will be. But as with Jonas and Hicks, her case suggests that, when it comes to recognizing the accomplishments of senior American female artists, Europe’s leading institutions are often ahead of major U.S. museums: London’s Whitechapel Gallery gave Heilmann a full-scale retrospective two years ago. Nothing comparable is in the works in the United States.
Citing the argument of the late Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian, in her landmark essay, “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?,” Jonas says the responsibility rests with art institutions. But even within art institutions, she says, “it comes down to what individual curators are interested in.”
Hicks concurs. Artists like her must rely, she says, on “individual, inspired curators” navigating their way “through the museum corridors” and persuading museum directors and boards to favor their projects. As much as gender, she thinks, it comes down to fashion. “Political message bearers,” she says, “are presently in favor.” (Her work is different.)