Personhood and Art

A response to Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum

by Megan Gafford


You might not be a person if enough people don’t consider you one.  Of course you will be human, but if you try to define personhood it becomes apparent that it is not the same as humanity.  For example, after your death your body will be just as human, but those who love you will say that you are “gone.”  Philosophers define persons as beings who are part of our moral community, but they continue to argue over who should be included.  What must one possess to be part of our moral community, to be deserving of our moral consideration?

Your opinions on vegetarianism, abortion, and whether or not to pull the plug on a comatose loved one, reflect which beings you include in your moral community.  In each of these scenarios and in many others, a societal consensus on personhood means the difference between life and death.  Questions of personhood come with high stakes.  You must ask yourself: Which animals count as persons, and are there any humans who do not meet the threshold?  Does personhood fall on a spectrum, so that one being might be less of a person than another?

Many people grant personhood to pets or intelligent species like elephants, while poachers and those who torture cats might disagree.  There appear to be conditions when a human is not a person, notably slavery, which has classified humans as property since before the invention of written records.  When criminals are executed, it is because the state has determined that they no longer deserve our moral consideration.  I believe that a woman has more personhood than a fetus, so I defer to her decision about whether or not to carry the fetus to term.  Someone who disagrees with me probably believes that the fetus has equal to or greater personhood than the woman.  Indeed, questions of personhood permeate feminism.

Curator Gwen Chanzit insists upon the personhood of women in Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum.  It is an historic exhibition, because it is the first major museum show to exclusively include paintings made by women in that most macho movement of modernism.  Over forty artists are highlighted in the accompanying catalog, and major works by twelve key artists are displayed: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher.  In presenting their paintings together for the first time, Chanzit posits that Women of Abstract Expressionism will, “challenge and correct,” the prevailing opinion that women were largely inconsequential to abstract expressionism, and, “insist upon… [their] individuality.”  Both the structure of the show (each artists’ paintings are grouped together and coincide with an insightful profile) and the essays in the catalog explicate the artists’ individuality – that is, their personhood.

In Chanzit’s introduction to the catalog, she reminds us how the “heroic machismo spirit” of the male individual became ingrained in the history of abstract expressionism, and concludes with the assertion that, “canvases by Abstract Expressionist women… express compelling points of view by individuals who were individual in every sense.”  The following essay by Joan Marter, “Missing in Action,” outlines the systemic discrimination against painting women in the 1940s and '50s, and how they were written out of history.  Artists’ relationships with their male colleagues – and lovers – is explored by Ellen G. Landau in “Biographies and Bodies.”  After the essays there is an interview with art critic and historian Irving Sandler, who was a contemporary of the artists in the exhibition, in which he maintains that, “there didn’t seem to be women of the stature of, say, Mark Rothko, Bill de Kooning, Jackson Pollock…  I don’t think they were of the same stature as the men.”  Subsequent pages are filled with images of paintings and artist profiles.

Women of Abstract Expressionism is Chanzit’s attempt to prove Irving Sandler wrong.  She tries to demonstrate how the women were just as good as the men: “Female artists exhibited paintings alongside their male colleagues…  Many studied in the same classes as men, taught by Hans Hofmann, Hassel Smith, Clyfford Still, and Esteban Vicente, among others.  They socialized and worked in studios near each other.”  This emphasis on participation highlights the discrepancy between what happened in the 1940s and '50s verses what is remembered about that period.  Remembering that women were active participants in abstract expressionism may diminish machismo connotations about that movement.  Chanzit wants to write the women of abstract expressionism back into history, and hopes that the catalog will live on as crucial new scholarship to that end.

Problems of personhood are central to the way humanity writes history.  The stories we choose to tell reveal priorities about which lives we deem important and influential enough for creating a legacy.  So, too, do the stories we choose to forget, and so few of our stories are about women.  Janson’s History of Art is infamous both for being assigned in most college art classes, and for failing to include a single woman artist until 1987.  If roughly half the population is treated as though her wisdom, accomplishments, and talent are too inconsequential to remember, it is because she is not given as much moral consideration as the other half – that is, she is not granted full personhood.

In 1971, Linda Nochlin tried to deal with the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?”  She described the institutional and social barriers that prevented women from achieving and being recognized for greatness.  Women were simply not allowed to be great.  I wonder if Nochlin is unimpressed with Women of Abstract Expressionism, because a passage in her essay seems to suggest that it should be received with skepticism:

The feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: i.e., to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to ‘re-discover’ forgotten flower-painters or David-followers and make out a case for them; to demonstrate that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent upon Manet than one had been led to think – in other words, to engage in the normal activity of the specialist scholar who makes a case for the importance of his very own neglected or minor master.  Such attempts… are certainly worth the effort, both in adding to our knowledge of women’s achievement and of art history generally.  But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’  On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.

I worry that all-women shows are in effect a junior league.  Women may compete for the title Best Woman Artist, but rarely Best Artist.  My concern was shared by Georgia O’Keeffe, who stated that, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter.  I think I’m one of the best painters.”  In 1976, she refused to lend her work to Women Artists: 1550-1950, the very first international exhibition of art by women artists.  Nochlin was curating the show (did she swallow the bait just five years after writing her famous essay?), and she borrowed an O’Keeffe painting from another source so she could include her anyway.

Ethel Schwabacher, who lived from 1903-1984, agreed with O’Keeffe.  Her children were interviewed for a short documentary that Chanzit screened within the exhibition about Women of Abstract Expressionism, and the film ends with Schwabacher’s daughter relating that, “She hated when people referred to her as a woman painter.  She wanted to be a painter.  Period.”  Chanzit included her anyway, not just in the more expansive catalog but as one of the twelve artists profiled in the exhibition.  It is normal for curators and historians to contextualize artists, especially after their death, in ways that artist might protest against, but it is ironic for feminists like Nochlin and Chanzit to include women who explicitly deny consent.  Contemporary feminism is deeply concerned with consent, because agency is prerequisite for personhood.

Issues of consent are central to the most life-threatening aspect of women’s diminished personhood status.  In her 2014 essay, “The Longest War,” Rebecca Solnit lists a stomach-turning variety of statistics about violence against women, such as: “in the United States, there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, but the estimated total is perhaps five times as high;” “a woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country… it’s the number-one cause of injury to American women;” “Spouses are the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States;” and, “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.”  Solnit tells the story of an incident that occurred in San Francisco in January 2013, when, “A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man’s sexual advances…  The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her…  When she rejected him, the man became very upset and slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm.”  On my walk to the Denver Art Museum to see Women of Abstract Expressionism, a man whistled at me from a passing car; on my way home, someone hollered, “Nice legs!”  How much of a person was I to those hectors?

Sometimes I think about these statistics, or the ones that tell us that by most measures women only make up about 30% of the art world (gallery representation, museum solo shows, ratio of MFA graduates to professionals, etc), or how there are zero women in the top echelon of the highest-earning artists, and my throat tightens with fear for my future.  I have it better than O’Keeffe and Schwabacher, because feminists have accomplished a lot since the abstract expressionists sat around the Cedar Bar.  But continued progress requires continued effort, and we are all culpable for women’s inequality.  Chanzit is continuing the effort, even if she is also tacitly reinforcing the negative implications of the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” because she is telling the story of women of abstract expressionism.  She does those artists the dignity of being remembered.

Women are still being written out of history.  For example, Jerry Saltz conducts an annual ritual of analyzing Artforum magazine, and consistently calculates that merely 15-25% of its pages are about women artists; he concludes that, “Nearly a half-century on from feminism, simply being a woman artist is still a revolutionary act.  And getting one’s work shown continues to be met by enormous inbuilt resistance.”  This discrimination will continue until the art community actively ends it.  If you are a gallerist, museum director, curator, art collector, arts writer, or artist, then you are culpable for this inequality.  What are you going to do about it?