Lists / Susan Best / Visual Culture

Women artists who should be better known

With women still not fairly represented in major collections, Susan Best, author of Visualizing Feelinglooks at five women that you should know about.

We’ve come a long way since the 1970s when standard art historical textbooks, like Gombrich’s The Story of Art and Janson’s History of Art, did not include a single woman artist. While Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock’s Old Mistresses (1981) highlighted Art History’s latent sexism, inequalities still exist as the Guerilla Girls and the Australian artist, Elvis Richardson, continue to demonstrate. Richardson’s blog ‘CoUNTESS: women count in the art world’ provides a useful corrective to the idea that women artists are equally represented in major collections and exhibitions. In the spirit of making women count in the art world, here are five short accounts of women artists who should be better known. There are of course many (many) more.

Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951)

Russian born Katarzyna Kobro is usually classified as a Polish Constructivist. She moved to Poland with her husband painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski in 1922, settling in Lodz in 1931. Together they elaborated a theory of artistic production called Unism that encompassed painting, sculpture, typography and architecture. Her airy sculptures from the 1920s are exquisite demonstrations of the main principle of sculptural Unism: sculpture should create a spatial unity with the surrounding space. Some of her most successful demonstrations of this principle use not just open form, but also colour contrasts to articulate and fragment the sculpture. These small-scale painted metal sculptures seem to dissolve into planes and surfaces almost like a three-dimensional painting with space as the ground. The interpenetration of sculpture and space is further complicated by the shifting relations between shapes and colours that unfold as you walk around her works.

Ruth Vollmer (1903-1982)

Ruth Vollmer, Pentameter

Pentameter, 1965, Bronze, image courtesy of the Tilton Gallery.

Ruth Vollmer was born in Germany, emigrating to the USA in 1935. She began exhibiting in the late 1950s and her career is often described as ‘belated.’ Not only did she have a late start, her sculpture was slightly at odds with the prevailing trends of American art in the early 1960s. Her work chimes better with postminimalist aesthetics that emerged later in the decade. She was part of the New York circle of artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse, and it is in the work of Hesse in particular, that one can see a similar marriage of geometric and organic forms. Her investigations of the sphere in the early 1960s, when the right-angle and the cube were the norm, was motivated by her view that it was the only fully three-dimensional form; the cube, she noted, includes planes. In 1966, she said she was concerned ‘not to destroy the mystery while exploring geometrically.’ A recent exhibition of her work at ZKM in 2006 — Thinking the Line — paired her work with another German exile to the Americas Gego (Getrud Goldschmit).

Marta Minjuín (1943-)

Marta Minujin, Parthenon of Books

Photograph documenting Marta Minujín’s public project Parthenon of Books, 1983, Buenos Aires; at MALBA.

Conceptual artist Marta Minjuín is often described as the Argentinian Andy Warhol. This characterisation is partly based on her appearance—her bleached blond hair—and partly to suggest a link to Warhol’s Pop Art sensibility. Famously, one of her performances included Warhol himself.  In 1985, during the Latin American debt crisis, she staged a happening in New York with Warhol called The Debt. She symbolically repaid the Argentinian debt to him by handing over what she called “Latin American gold,” aka corn on the cob.

With the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983, she constructed a large public sculpture about the banning of books during the dictatorship period. Parthenon of Books/Homage to Democracy, Buenos Aires was a full-sized model of the Parthenon placed in a public park in Buenos Aires and made entirely of banned books. The scale of the work pointed to the extremity of the censorship suffered. After three weeks, the work was dismantled and the public could take away the books that they were finally allowed to read.

Senga Nengudi (1943-)

Born Sue Owens in Chicago, Nengudi is a key figure in African American abstraction, conceptual art and performance art. Her work was included in important exhibitions of African American art such as ‘California Black Artists’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York in 1977 and ‘Afro-American Abstractions’ in 1980 at P.S.1, New York.

She studied dance and art in Los Angeles and her work combines performance with sculpture. Her performance objects, however, unlike most performance relics or documents, can stand as autonomous sculptures without the animating presence of the body. For example, her Réspondez s’il vous plait (RSVP) series begun in 1975, are sculptures made of stockings filled with sand, which are attached to the wall, and that can be stretched and reconfigured by the body of the performer. The title of the series calls for a response — initially the works could even be touched — but even without the performer’s body, they are able to evoke a sense of embodiment. As Nengudi put it: ‘I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body.’

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982)

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Passages, Paysages, 1978

Passages, Paysages, 1978, video stills, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Memorial Foundation

Perhaps better known for her novel Dictee (1982), Cha also made some of the most complex and exquisite videos of the late 1970s. She studied with some of the key French theorists of the cinematic apparatus — Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz, Raymond Bellour, Thierry Kuntzel — at the Centre d’Etude Américain du Cinéma in Paris. Her work, however, doesn’t have the overly theoretical quality this might imply. Her book, Apparatus, published by Tanam Press in 1980, brings together many of the key texts of French film theory.

In her brief exhibiting career, Cha made two extraordinarily fine, moving and engrossing video installations: Exilée (1980), which combines film and video, with the video nested inside the film projection, and Passages, Paysages (1978), a three-monitor video installation of approximately 11 minutes duration.  Both combine complex poetic texts interwoven with exquisite images to create carefully edited and layered visual and aural sequences. ■

Visualizing FeelingSusan Best is the author of Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde, winner of the AAANZ (Art Association of Australia & New Zealand) Best Book Prize for 2012, and Professor of Art Theory, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art, with a particular emphasis on women’s art, conceptual art and South American art.
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