Tuesday, August 14, 2007

His and Hers Unmatching Cups

In response to yesterday's post about the passing of Elizabeth Murray (see also this lovely "In Appreciation" in today's New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg), an anonymous commenter noted a double standard that I think is more than fair to consider here:

I didn't like her work, but also felt that she was dismissed in a very sexist manner, so I feel a bit like a gender traitor in not defending her work. But I just never liked it.

But she was absolutely right when she said that no one ever trivialized Cezanne's paintings of cups and saucers and apples as "domestic" or homebodyish, housewifely, etc., like they did with hers. I think, even as a woman, I am guilty of that too; when I saw her giant coffee cups flying around, I thought, ick, housewife in the kitchen, painting between the children's feedings and the housework, whereas when a man paints cups, one doesn't think that. We all have to watch those sexist assumptions.
Which got me to wondering, what exactly does one think when a man paints domestic objects?

Instinctively, for mostly non-narrative (and even for a good number of narrative) paintings/photographs, when a man is the artist I forget the subject matter and look at the paint/light/composition, etc. In fact, the only time I even think about whether it's appropriate for a man to paint/photograph something (anything at all) is when it's a young person in an overly sexual pose (something I give women, ironically, much more latitude in [see: Sally Mann]).

But I have to admit that Anonymous' response to Murray's subject choices had occurred to me as well. It made me slightly uncomfortable that many of Murray's choices were so "housewifely." Which is absolutely insane because many hundreds of years ago when I was an amateur painter, the thing I drew or painted most often (probably hundreds of times) was a tea cup. I totally understand the appeal of a cup as subject (color and light in a very straightforward form that's immediately recognizable as well-rendered or not, permitting you to focus on the paint). And yet never once did it occur to me that this wasn't a masculine enough subject (insert obvious gay joke here).

It sucks having to be so conscious of your subject choices, I'm sure, but in the end Murray was right to paint what she wanted to, regardless of our responses. Do yourself a favor (and pay Murray the respect), if you don't already, and focus on how she painted a cup the next time you see one of her works. I intend to.

Labels: inequality


Blogger Mark said...

A great deal of my work in the past 18 years drew inspiration from my incredibly fortunate role as, Dad, Mr Mom or the great and all powerful, Da'. The job is chalk full of metaphors and fodder for paintings, as in, the many hours of pushing my daughter in her swing, the first moments of letting her go free in this big bad world. It's not Guernica, but Mr. Picasso also took great advantage of the domestic. He saw the wonder and beauty, which made the outrage at the worlds folly more potent.

There is a fine line of sugar and sweetness that can't be crossed, I too have my limits. But more and more it's about the work, no matter who makes it, Eliz Murray had her share of success to prove it.

8/14/2007 09:27:00 AM  
Anonymous steadman said...

Maybe this is the question that Murray was trying to bring up with her work? Before her most "women" painters in new york desperately wanted to be the next Joan Mitchell- a master of pure form and color, unencumbered by visual cues of any kind. Murray picked the right time to break away from those worn out modes and helped to usher in a new figuration along w/ Moskowitz, Rothenberg, Jenney and others. She stated with her work that personality was inevitable and that maybe how WE respond to the image can be as debatable as what the artist intends...

8/14/2007 10:13:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I feel a bit like a gender traitor in not defending her work...

I really have trouble with this concept. Is the idea here that we're supposed to automatically respond positively to work by artists of our own gender? If that's the case, why bother even doing the work in the first place? Just write your gender on a piece of paper and hang it on the wall. Girls line up here, boys over there...

8/14/2007 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Elizabeth once made a assertive distinction between a delicate, (dainty teacup and the coffee cups she painted in her work.

This would never have occured to me if I was not, at this moment painting a coffee cup into my own painting), but to me, it is an ever-present symbol of drive. It keeps you going, keeps you in the studio when you might have collapsed from exhaustion long ago. Perhaps as a woman with a husband and several children, the coffee cup symbolized something similar for her. Or, as someone noted previously, perhaps painting stereotypically "domestic objects" was precisely the point she was trying to make.

As long as women's relationships to certain objects in the world remain different from men's relationships to the same objects, it seems ingenuine to try to look at the subject matter of their work in exactly the same way, however politically correct.

On the other hand, I think that sometimes artists are simply seduced by form and color, and the meaning projected onto paintings by art historians can be gratuitous.

8/14/2007 11:39:00 AM  
Anonymous pp said...

What does a woman artist think?

Look at an interesting video of Polly Apfelbaum working:


To be brutally honest - she looks ... silly. She's silly, yet still I feel much sympathy to her. I like conceptual art. Frank Stella's talk perhaps would be more interesting to me. But that all depends on personal preferences. Polly Apfelbaum has some pieces I really like.

8/14/2007 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

David said: Is the idea here that we're supposed to automatically respond positively to work by artists of our own gender?

Well, that's ridiculous, but the theme of this thread is that women don't get the same attention, don't get the same opportunities that male artists get and have gotten. Of course some women, like Murrary,RIP, achieved greater visibility than many artists of any gender, but we all know how the art world is skewed.

I assume that the person who said she felt like a "gender traitor" was speaking with some irony. Speaking for myself, I can say that I don't want to buy into the art world's bias, or into anyone else's critical assumptions about artists's work, or an artist's oeuvre. I want to see the work for myself, think about it,let it resonate. In an exhibition I do look at how many women, how many artists of color, how many gay artists, how many lesbians, how many artists over 45--and all the various permutations of the preceding-- are in a show (to the extent that one can know these things if one doesn't already know them. The point is that I want to see that we're represented, and that we're being considered critically, and that there is a place for us.

Then, if the work doesn't appeal to me--and, yo, a lot of it doesn't--so be it.

8/14/2007 12:11:00 PM  
Blogger Henry said...

The other day I came across a local blogger's description of a sold-out Houston exhibition of painter Kelli Vance. If these paintings aren't "women's" paintings I don't know what are. But I never saw them that way. I saw them as cinematic scene paintings in the style of Eric Fishl, and I felt they were very good work, confident and mature despite the artist's youth. (I haven't seen them in person, so I can't speak to their skill up close.)

Is her "style" too masculine? What does that mean? She doesn't use soft shapes and pastel colors? I mean, look at Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois. Their work is of course very much from the woman's psychological point of view, but they are as intense and conceptually sound as the work of any other person, and there isn't a pastel color or soft shape anywhere to be found. (I wouldn't call Bourgeois's fabric works "soft".) Am I misreading the original question?

Another Houston painter named Francesca Fuchs does exactly the opposite. She intentionally paints "womanly" things, and even uses "womanly colors" -- it's as soft and pastel as painting can get -- but does it all in a real "in your face" way. If there's a such thing as being simultaneously subtle and "in your face", she's found it. Take a look at her Mom series. They look like "cute baby" paintings in the thumbnails, but when you look at the installation shot you realize they're six feet tall!

It was very interesting being a man in a gallery and seeing the sweetest and most "womanly" work in the world, but feeling uncomfortable by it. It's kind of interesting that these paintings, made from unabashed love, made me more uncomfortable at first glance, and posed far more questions in my mind, than Jenny Saville's paintings which I saw at Gagosian's a few years ago, and which were made from hate.

Fuchs is forcing people to look at the most intimate, womanly and warm things, but in an extremely close-up "in your face" way. (I own an older painting of hers, if that affects your judgment of my opinion.) She did the same thing for her recent show at CAMH. Again painting "womanly" things, but doing it in a very dramatic and conceptually sound way. These are very strong works in my opinion, without any regard to the artist's sex. I like to think of her work as a cross between Morandi and Alex Katz, with a sense of color all her own.

Angela Fraleigh is another woman who spent a little time in Houston, and in my opinion blurs the line between men and women -- if not obliterating it completely. Her paintings are self-portraits (with her boyfriend making an appearance in some of them). Her work seems photographic, but she paints directly onto the canvas, without finicky prep work. They're also large works like Fuchs's (6 x 8 feet), but the colors and shapes are very intense. (I studied with her for a semester before she moved away.)

Julie Mehretu also spent a couple of years in Houston, and I wouldn't call her art girly either. Maybe there's something in the smog down here....

8/14/2007 12:37:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

...the theme of this thread is that women don't get the same attention, don't get the same opportunities that male artists get and have gotten.

Joanne, I understand, and I emphathize with that. But since Murray has gotten more attention, and had more opportunities, than any of the artists I personally know (male or female), I think it's fair that she be vulnerable to the same range of criticism as anyone else.

Myself, I like her work. But if I didn't, I wouldn't want to think I was doing something wrong by saying so.

8/14/2007 01:21:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

So which major critics dismissed E Murray in a sexist manner? Or was it a whispering campaign?

Coffee is evil I am suffewring from withdrawal symptoms. That teacup behind me.

I was looking up Steven Hawking's "Brief History of Time" witht he teacup animation.

If E murray was really worried about masculine tropes and stuff she woulda made the broken crockery thing more explicit so any IDIOT coulda figured it out, like Schnabel, who;s art for dummies is unappologeticly ugle.

Thats the problem with women, allways appologizing, concilliatory and working towards concensus. WHo needs it?

I feel like a gender traitor just thinking about it. WHats art? Ugly medicine for self deniers? Bromides for the oppressed? OR red meat with BBQ sauce for the warrior class?

Regular coffee please, hold the sugar and the milk.And put it in a regular cup, pastels give me hives.

8/14/2007 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Counter Critic said...

It's funny how people now have to wrestle with their own gender identity while interacting with art. AND YOU DO HAVE TO. That was inevitable once art become identity-political. If there is "feminist" art [as two major recent exhibitions tried to prove] then it came about as an oppositional way of making art. In opposition to what? To male-biased ways of thinking. To male-biased ways of creating. To male-biased ways of observing. So if an art is positioned opposite this, then observing such art has the affect of throwing our own gender identification onto the table--quite literally in Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party." There will always be exceptions to the rule, but by and large, until the later half of the 20th century, men had it their way across the board.

Even though certain folks have theorized that there is no longer a historically delineated art continuum, we cannot sever our own relationship to the very recent cultural past which included a gender revolution among several other identity revolutions.

I think all of these challenge us to look at surfaces in a new way. Should it matter what gender an artist is when appraising work? No, it shouldn't. But it does, fundamentally, because of our history, which we did not choose.

8/14/2007 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

Here's an excerpt from a post on this topic at Two Coats of Paint: "Elizabeth Murray is rarely credited with helping to forge a neo-feminist vision of the triumphant, uber-artist who is also a mother. Unlike earlier painters such as Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner, who felt childrearing would dilute their focus and diminish their ability to paint, Murray opted to have kids...."
Read more.

8/14/2007 03:42:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

...until the later half of the 20th century, men had it their way across the board.

This is most certainly true. But for any of us under the age of 57, that means that during our lifetimes men have not had it their way across the board.

Just by accident, I was born male. And if I had it my way across the board, all artists would have an equal chance, regardless of race, gender or any of those other things.

8/14/2007 04:33:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

This is an incredibly interesting post. Personally, I don't think the teacups and fruit baskets seem particularly "female." But I probably do (whether fairly or not) judge still lives against paintings by Cezanne, Matisse, etc., that have similar content. It's harder to catch a break when you're competing head on with art history.

8/14/2007 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I judge all still lives fairly.


8/14/2007 11:30:00 PM  
Blogger Pedro Velez said...

I never liked her work just because of how silly and happy it looks. And I can't enjoy Matisee but I do understand his importance and place in Modern art.

Now, some people might trash me just because Matisse is a master artist and I'm a fool for not undestanding his greatness....but my critic of Murray would be politically incorrect just because I'm a man and what the hell do I know of domestic Pop?

I think we've got to the point were everything is so damn correct that is boring to eveb look at stuff without unconsious guilt of hurting sensibilities.

8/15/2007 08:50:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

without unconsious guilt of hurting sensibilities.

Pedro, that's the problem with P.C. everything. It places a completely false and pointless value on guilt, as if whacking oneself upside the head and shouting 'mea culpa! mea culpa!' would make us a Good Person. It doesn't and it won't solve anything.

All this business with the 'male gaze' and 'identity politics' and all the other P.C. buzzwords are just clumsy attempts to address the fact that the vast majority of people in modern society still unconsciously give unquestioned weight to the statements of a person who could, at some point in his life, star as Jesus Christ in the made-for-TV movie. That's all. When a good-looking young man says to any random person, "I'm an artist," that person believes him. End of story.

Whereas when a female person, such as myself, says "I'm an artist," that statement just kind of slides away into the firmament and dissapates. Regardless of whether the person's verbal response is, "So, do you paint portraits or landscapes?" or "Nice. So what do you do to make money?" or "What kind of art do you do?" their inner, unconscious response is to dismiss you as a Sunday painter, a hobbyist, someone not to be taken seriously as a cutting-edge thinker and doer.

I have repeatedly had the experience of someone who has known me for ten years suddenly confessing that during the first nine years of watching me make and exhibit art continuously, it just didn't register. And these are the nice people. It's a thousand times worse when you are conversing with actual art professionals who look right through you. Present company very much excepted.

8/16/2007 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He doesn't get it. He never will.

Just think:

..all major religions do NOT have or want women at the top. The rest of the world follows...

8/16/2007 11:09:00 AM  

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