O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York
February 18 - May 15, 2016
Introductory wall text and ID labels for entryway
Between about 1910 and 1935, modernists Georgia O'Keeffe, Florine Stettheimer, Helen Torr, and Marguerite Zorach all worked in New York. This exhibition examines their careers in parallel for the first time. Each of these women engaged with modernism in compelling ways and developed a distinctive aesthetic voice. None of them wished to be seen primarily as women artists; instead, they all sought to be recognized as artists. Nevertheless, their gender shaped the circumstances under which they worked, the forms their art took, and especially the way their pictures were understood by their culture, interpretations that still shape how their oeuvres are seen today.
The avant-garde art world in New York was a tightly knit community and brought these artists together in numerous ways. Zorach and Stettheimer were friends, and Zorach drew Stettheimer several times. Zorach and O'Keeffe attended Stettheimer's avant-garde salon, and O'Keeffe eventually gave Stettheimer's eulogy. Torr was more isolated, but she knew O'Keeffe well, and O'Keeffe admired her work. Torr also likely knew Stettheimer and Zorach.
These artists came of age in a period when the role of women was in flux. Cultural commentators spoke of a "New Woman" who was moving into the public sphere in unprecedented ways, attending universities, agitating for suffrage, and in general bypassing the boundaries of genteel femininity. Yet as women became more independent, worries that they would cease to fulfill their traditional roles as wives and mothers grew. The suffrage movement's success in 1920 made women's increasing freedom impossible to ignore, and the flapper's adoption of shorter hair and skirts made anxieties even more acute.
As part of a bohemian dedication to equality, New York's avant-garde community supported women's rights. Yet the art world treated women artists differently from men, especially as the market reorganized itself around an exclusive commercial gallery system, which gave women fewer opportunities. As anxieties about female mobility grew in the 1920s, many critics favored art that addressed the eternal feminine rather than the modern woman.
O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, and Zorach each suffered from having her work interpreted as an expression of her intrinsic femininity rather than her own artistic voice. Zorach's reputation suffered when she began creating pictures in the seemingly feminine media of embroidery and batik because she found the demands of oil painting difficult to balance with the responsibilities of motherhood. Torr and her husband, Arthur Dove, developed their modernism together, but critics described her work as imitating his. Stettheimer's paintings were easy to dismiss because she rarely exhibited them publically, refused to sell them, and used delicate forms and personal subjects that seemed archetypally feminine. O'Keeffe was the most successful of the four, but her art was characterized as embodying general female sexuality. These modernists' work was particularly open to such reductive understandings since it used degrees of abstraction, leaving its meaning open-ended. Such gendered interpretations were also especially frustrating for these artists since, as modernists, they sought to express their complex individuality in their art.
While their gender affected these artists' approaches to modernism, it was not the only defining factor. They expressed the entire range and character of their experiences in their work. This is why, even though they were all women working at the same time in the same place, their art looks so different. As critic Helen Appleton Read wrote about the New York Society of Women Artists exhibition in 1925, "Femininity can mean as many things as masculinity, not merely the traditional attributes." These many meanings disappear when O'Keeffe's, Stettheimer's, Torr's, and Zorach's creations -- and indeed those of the many other women artists working at this time -- are viewed in gendered terms. Only by exposing the limitations inherent in the initial interpretation of these artists' work can we appreciate women's crucial role in the history of modernism.
Organized by the Norton Museum of Art with the support of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation, Anne Berkley Smith, and Wells Fargo Private Bank, as well as an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
With additional support provided by the Mr. and Mrs. Hamish Maxwell Exhibition Endowment and the Priscilla and John Richman Endowment for American Art.
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