Vital portraits of forgotten women artists that aim to celebrate their lives and work and to establish their permanent standing within the canon of contemporary art.
With impressive research, Booklist editor Seaman (Writers on the Air: Conversations About Books, 2005, etc.) curates a fine retrospective on the history of women in the male-dominated world of 20th-century art. Inspired by the carelessness with which scholars would identify group photographs of artists—famous men named, women overlooked—the author chronicles her subjects’ lives in lengthy essays that fall gently between biography and scholarly criticism. Louise Nevelson, Gertrude Abercrombie, Loïs Mailou Jones, Ree Morton, Joan Brown, Christina Ramberg, and Lenore Tawney each led rich lives of passionate pursuit, all while managing the uneven expectations hoisted upon midcentury wives and mothers. This fine selection of artists lends the book both cultural and technical diversity. Jones, an accomplished black painter often associated with the Harlem Renaissance, studied under Rodin in Paris and embraced her African heritage while facing racial prejudice at home. Tawney worked exclusively in fiber, weaving tapestries in New York City while friends Agnes Martin and Robert Rauschenberg worked nearby. Abercrombie, queen of the Chicago jazz scene and painter of mesmerizing works, appears in photographs alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. Ramberg’s sensual graphics can be found not only in analyses of the Chicago Imagists, but also in the pages of Playboy in the 1970s. Seaman exuberantly portrays each highly accomplished woman as the inspirational force she was, and she does a service by bringing them back into contemporary discourse. Unfortunately, the author too often lets her excitement carry her away, running lists of adjectives and too many descriptions on top of one another. This results in clumsily executed passages—e.g., Brown’s “slapped, sloshed, slashed, layered, kinetic canvases” and Abercrombie’s “bewitching, enigmatic, elegant, awkward, eerie, funny, clever, sad, anguished, teasing and playful” paintings.
Seaman’s frequent thesaurus-leaning renders her portraits overpainted, but despite its awkward turns, this is a decidedly important and long-overdue showcase (two 16-page color inserts).