Q&A: Shining a New Light on Underappreciated Women Artists

Donna Seaman, Editor/Adult Books for Booklist, is known for her short, elegant reviews that read like prose poems – and for elegant longer reviews in publications like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Seaman, who has served on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, has also conducted illuminating interviews with authors that were collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books. Seaman also has a passionate interest in visual arts, which she brings to her illuminating – and beautiful – book Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists. She talked to with The National about underappreciated women artists, the struggle to produce art, and the role of the critic.

Q: Identity Unknown is a book only you could have written, yet it is a surprising choice. I’m aware of your deep connection with the world of visual art -- your mother Elayne Seaman, was an artist whose own incised ink painting is in the opening few pages, and you yourself attended art school. But you’re also known as a respected literary critic. How did you come to write about visual artists who deeply affected you?

A: I have been writing about books and writers for a long time with great ardor, but when I thought about doing my own writing, I wanted to try something different. As you observe, art has always been part of my life, and I wanted an excuse to spend more time looking at art than I usually allowed myself. I also wanted to try my hand at one of my favorite literary forms, the long profile or biographical essay. And I was haunted by Louise Nevelson, the first artist in the book.

Since girlhood I’ve been enthralled by Nevelson’s intricate, yet often monumental, sculptures, and she herself was such a provocative presence, a living work of art.  But her star faded quickly, and I found that mystifying and infuriating. I looked for Nevelson in every new book about modern art I came across and did not find her. I looked for her sculptures in every museum I visited, and was jubilant when I came across a piece that hadn’t been relegated to storage. I decide to channel my quest into an essay, and when “The Empress of In-Between” was published in TriQuarterly in 2008, I started a portrait of another woman sculptor, Ree Morton, whose work had also drifted off into the shadows, though her situation was very different from Nevelson’s. As I worked on the Morton essay, I realized that a series of profiles of twentieth-century women artists who were no longer receiving the recognition they deserved would be a worthy and exciting undertaking. I started a list.

Q: In your Ree Morton essay, “The Rebellious Bravo,” you describe one of her drawings with this declaration: “REALITY IS BAD ENOUGH WHY SHOULD I TELL THE TRUTH.” A word-loving artist seems perfect for you. How did you discover Morton, and do you think her work particularly resonates today?

A: I saw the posthumous 1981 retrospective exhibition curated by Marcia Tucker at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. I was swept up by Morton’s sculptures and paintings, her installations with their organic, ritualized, poetic use of space.  Every element of her work––from her radiant wit to her visual dynamism, the freshness of her perceptions, her inventive use of materials, her fluency both in nature and in ideas, her irreverence and her tenderness––is alive and provocative. That mind-expanding show stayed with me for years and years.  It resonated then; it resonates now.

I think we’ve caught up with Morton 40 years after her tragic death in Chicago at age 40. Her wise irony, her playfulness, the inspiration she found in wildly disparate sources, all are in sync with this era of mash-ups, allusions, and improvisations. Morton’s sense of both nature’s splendor and vulnerability is even more striking as environmental decimation continues unchecked and global warming accelerates. Her pleasure in observing, in motion, in the infinite possibilities of line and of language, and her whistle-in-the-dark humor all shape a point of view and an aesthetic that speak to the clamor of our world and our struggle for clarity, our sense of the absurd and our ability to discern beauty and wonder in the most unlikeliest of places.

Morton wrote, “Art can be a way of viewing the world, rather than merely an object to be viewed.”  She also noted: “The point in all cases is that / the deities must be made / to laugh.”

Q: I’m reminded by your reference to these women’s “ardent and arduous lives (and) bold visions,” and wonder whether they left any clues about their self-perceptions? Did they see themselves as having difficult lives? Or that their work had been overlooked?

A: All seven artists left evidence of their feelings about themselves and their lives.

Both Gertrude Abercrombie and Joan Brown were serial self-portraitists. Abercrombie painted highly stylized versions of herself in eerie landscapes and stark interiors rich in psychological implications. Her scribbled, piecemeal diary reveals her painful relationships with her mother and her second husband and her struggles with depression, alcohol, and illness. She was the first to admit in her later years that she was having a tough time. But Abercrombie did attend a major retrospective of her work at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center the year she died, and, concerned about her legacy, she willed a substantial collection of her work to the Illinois State Museum.

Joan Brown was Abercrombie’s opposite. Although she had a strangely wretched childhood, she never let it define her. In fact, she shaped her life in opposition to her mother’s neuroses. While Gertrude stayed holed up in her home, her castle, Brown swam in treacherous the San Francisco Bay, and traveled the world. She painted herself at different stages of her artistic quest with confidence, candor, and wit, addressing her sexuality, joy in motherhood, and spirituality.  She valued a life in art for the freedom it engendered, and in her final phase of art-making she built monumental outdoor sculptures to share her vision with the largest possible audience. Brown was more concerned with expressing her beliefs than in securing her fame. Alas, she died while erecting an obelisk in India at age 52.

After extracting herself from an unhappy marriage that began in wealth and ended with the 1929 stock market crash, Louise Nevelson devoted herself in her thirties to art, enduring poverty, isolation, depression, and rage as she was cavalierly dismissed by male artists and critics. She stuck with it, and eventually had her revenge, reveling in her hard-won fame. Though her close friend, Edward Albee, poignantly captured just how fleeting her recognition was in his play, Occupant.

Lenore Tawney came to art out of sorrow in the wake of her husband’s death after they had been married for less than two years. Tawney became deeply spiritual; for her art was a form of meditation and prayer.  She was happy to exhibit her work, but she also devoted herself to creating private works, including the hundreds of collaged postcards she sent to friends. Tawney did make sure her work and studio would be preserved by setting up a philanthropic foundation that also offered educational support to aspiring fiber artists.

Loïs Mailou Jones was a consummate professional throughout her long, creative, productive life, but she did harbor anger over the racism and sexism she faced. She often said that what she wanted, above all else, was to be recognized as an American artist, not a black artist or a woman artist.

Ree Morton worried more about the impact her artistic fervor had on her children than on how she would be remembered. She felt enormously lucky to be able to live as an artist.  Christina Ramberg felt the same way. She began exhibiting her work while she was still a student, and anchored her artistic pursuits to her position as a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ramberg brought radiance to all who knew her, even as she created exquisitely disquieting images. Like Morton, she died tragically early.

Q: I’m reminded of a passage in Identity Unknown when you eloquently write: “All seven of these twentieth-century artists dedicated their lives to making daringly original art without the guarantee that anyone else would ever appreciate any of it.” Did you have the sense that any of them cared about connecting with an audience, or was their passion really in the creation itself? Did they care about social change?

A: All seven made art out of a deep need for self-expression, and the act of creation was what they lived for. But they did care very much care about communicating with other artists, about being part of the art continuum, and about reaching an audience beyond the art world. They wanted their work to be seen and to affect those who experienced it. All seven artists were very aware of and concerned about the larger world.  Louise Nevelson built sculptures to pay homage to those who were murdered in the Holocaust. Gertrude Abercrombie was acutely aware of racial injustice and violence.  Her painting, Design for Death (1946), depicts a setting for a lynching, and was renamed Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting in honor of the seminal jazz saxophonist and composer’s high regard for its stark protest. Abercrombie broke the segregation barrier by opening her home to African American jazz musicians.

Loïs Mailou Jones was inspired by the embrace of black culture and life that catalyzed the Harlem Renaissance. She painted her first African-themed work, The Ascent of Ethiopia, in 1932, andwent on to contribute illustrations to periodicals and books published by Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, who is now known as “the Father of Black History” and Black History Month. Later she created works celebrating the civil rights movement. Jones’ embrace of diverse African arts traditions and Haitian culture was part of her quest for racial equality in the arts and in society. From a very young age, Jones was also involved in volunteer community activities, working with younger children, running a theater club for girls, and later establishing a salon in Washington, D. C., for public-school art teachers to help them develop and exhibit their work.

Ree Morton saw herself as part of art’s ongoing investigation into the human condition. She was as creative and enthusiastic as a teacher as she was an artist, and her work was all about forging connections, whether she was making art inspired by her deep literary passion, or seeking to recalibrate our perception of nature and our place within the living world.  She pushed back against gender discrimination and the elitism of the art establishment.

Lenore Tawney created works inspired by Native American art and in response to the American Indian Movement during the late 1960s. Her outrage over Watergate and other political failings gave rise to her American flag series, including woven “reversed” protest flags, and the collage, Adulterated Flag (1975), in which the phrase “of the Decline and Fall” appears. Christina Ramberg’s work provokes viewers to think about gender roles and sexuality, and her wounded, triaged torsos stem, in part, from her concern about war and nuclear weapons, which led to her antinuclear activism.

Joan Brown took the radical step of elevating the story of a woman’s private life to a subject worthy of fine art.  Her visual diary documented her visions of love, family, and adventure, and forthrightly tracked her spiritual evolution. She was very aware of and angered by the discrimination women faced and encouraged students to push back, to refuse to define their lives by narrow expectations and outright inequality.

Q: Donna, we forged a bond through criticism – debating books at National Book Critics Circle meetings, and of course your distinguished literary criticism, and I know you and your fine work in that way. You’re clear that Identity Unknown is not a work of art criticism, but I wonder how you think your work as a literary critic shaped this book?

A:  Identity Unknown is firmly rooted in my work as a literary critic, an endeavor which has taught me to cultivate a heightened, inquisitive, and analytical form of attention and response. I’ve learned to be at once receptive and critical when encountering a work of literature, to pair careful observation with a contextual inquiry, followed by the effort to precisely articulate one’s thoughts and impressions. I am committed to critiquing literature with rigor and respect. I applied this mindset and used these tools in my study of the lives and art of the seven artists in my book.  My passion for reading and interpretation fueled my joy in the research I conducted for the seven profiles, which at times led me to works of literature, including Raymond Roussel’s surrealist novel, Impressions of Africa, a favorite of Ree Morton’s; novels by James Purdy, who created characters based on his friend, Gertrude Abercrombie, and works by W. E. B. Du Bois, which illuminate aspects of Loïs Mailou Jones’ oeuvre.  My literary habits of close reading and, I hope, energetic critique, along with my love of language, carried me through every stage of writing Identity Unknown.

Q: Your mother is a visual artist, and I wonder whether she had particular insights or perspectives that shaped your own work on these seven women artists?

A: Everything about my amazing mother, Elayne Seaman, has shaped every aspect of my life; the same can be said for my wonderful father, Harold Seaman, who has always been fully supportive of my mother’s work as an artist, and shares her commitment to community work.

As for Identity Unknown, I began the book fully conscious of the challenges and conflicts my mother faced as an artist and homemaker. I’ve always been impressed by and grateful for my mother’s ability to create her exquisite, demanding incised ink paintings––which, as a recent retrospective exhibition at Vassar College confirmed, form a dazzlingly large and varied body of work--without ever compromising her extremely high standards for what it means to be a wife and mother. You asked earlier whether the artists in my book cared about social change; the answer in my mother’s case is a resounding “yes.” Elayne Seaman has volunteered and worked for not-for-profit organizations which advocate for equality and justice, and which aim to ensure that people have access to art and that artists have opportunities to share their work with the public. My mother also founded, 35 years ago, a still-thriving artists’ coop now known as LongReach Arts. My mother’s insights into the full meaning and resonance of art inspired me at every stage of writing my book.

Witnessing my mother’s dedication and struggles sensitized me to the conflicts and quandaries Nevelson, Abercrombie, Jones, Morton, Brown, Ramberg, and Tawney faced, as well as the ongoing need for women to fight for the recognition and compensation their male counterparts more readily receive. My mother’s work also cued me to how profoundly an artist’s sensibilities are shaped by every element in her life.  I grew up acutely aware of and enthralled by the inquiry and power of art, the provocation and the solace.