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art: The Contenders

In the era before feminism, these seven female artists fought their way to recognition.


"True Grit" gathers work created between 1947 and 1976 by seven women artists, most of whom serve as role models for female artists today. The era in which the work was created is significant because of the level of unrest and change occurring at the time. Highly influenced by the turmoil, these seven started their careers before feminism had strengthened enough as a movement to bolster their efforts as artists. Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, Jay DeFeo, Claire Falkenstein, Nancy Grossman, Louise Nevelson and Nancy Spero each enjoy or enjoyed national reputations and are included in major collections, no thanks to encouragement by the established art community, society at large, or even fellow artists. They are contenders and survivors.

Building their careers while abstract expressionism and later pop art dominated the art world and turned New York into its hub, they were subjected to an ideology that promoted aggressive art-making and snubbed sissy smock-wearing artists. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning perfected a requisite macho swagger and were championed for it, while woman artists, no matter how they laced their combat boots, were hardly noticed. These seven women braved the prevailing culturati, perhaps to rebel against the "feminine" creative pursuits such as the decorative arts more than to be considered "one of the guys." The title "True Grit" not only describes the physical qualities of these artists' works but the attitude the creators assumed to work in such a climate.

The exhibition includes drawings, paintings and prints, but it is dominated by sculpture and sculptural assemblage/reliefs, many of which have been reproduced over and over again in contemporary art history publications. Two of Lee Bontecou's familiar biomorphic wall assemblages are included as well as a dynamic study drawn in pencil. Louise Nevelson's elegant "Dream House XXXV" (1972) and untitled wooden sculpture from 1955, and Louise Bourgeois' forceful brass sculpture and accompanying ink drawings also illustrate the power of indomitable spirits. Less recognized but equally forceful are Claire Falkenstein's boney or molecularlike sculptures, Jay DeFeo's minimalist paintings and collages, and Nancy Spero's dark paintings involving figures and words.

As Nancy Grossman sat before a small audience at University of Richmond to kick off this exhibition, she answered questions and commented on her career. Clearly still pensive about her art, she compares the leather she pieced together to form her dense assemblages to human skin. Indeed, in-person her work is sultry, sweaty and dusty at the same time, exuding a breathing presence that has been pushed to the ground and has risen in defiance more than a few times. One must wonder what the influential teacher and painter Hans Hoffman must have been thinking when, making a toast in Louise Nevelson's own home, he proclaimed "to art … Only the men have wings." S

"True Grit: Seven Female Visionaries Before Feminism" at the University of Richmond's Marsh Art Gallery runs through Sept. 29. 289-8276

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