10:25 am Oct. 15, 20101
The intentions of the organizers of "Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968," which opens today at the Brooklyn Museum, are clear right from the beginning. The introductory wall text opens, "Much of the ribald humor that became synonymous with Pop art involved exploitative and misogynistic images of women." One of the show's organizers, Sid Sachs, asks in his catalogue essay, paraphrasing the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, "Why have there been no great female Pop artists?"
There are all the signs, in other words, to prepare us for a show we've seen before, another installment in the important, decades-long project of excavating the marginalized contributions of women to art history. These shows tend to portray those women in the way suggested by this Brooklyn exhibition's title, as subversives—creators of a counter-, or even anti-, narrative. The implication is that women have been left out of the official accounts of the history of art, particularly 20th-century art, not just because they were members of a systematically excluded group, but because their work was consistently threatening and subversive and strange compared to art in the mainstream.
How does this work, though, when it comes to finding an alternate story for women in Pop art, a movement that was defined by being ingratiating? What does it mean to be a subversive Pop artist, when Pop art was, at least superficially, opposed to subversion?
The show never really answers those questions. And while the catalogue is full of theories about why there haven't been any great female Pop artists, the main explanation is right in front of you: the work, while often smart and funny, isn't always that exciting. Neither is it that barnstorming: while the show's aims are proudly pugnacious, the work generally isn't.
Sure, there are some aggressive pieces, like Liz Lozano's paintings from the early '60s of guns depicted as limp penises, featuring lines like "I'll punch you in the mouth." And the main image in the show's marketing campaign is a Martha Rosler picture entitled "Vacuuming Pop Art," featuring a Tom Wesselman painting looming over a magazine cutout of a woman cleaning the floor.
But other than that Rosler, there isn't the feeling of much resentment in the work, or even much productive tension. Other pieces that reference art history—Niki de Saint Phalle's "My Heart Belongs to Marcel" and Evelyne Axell's "The Rape of Ingres"—may talk a big game with their titles, but they're pretty tame visually and even ideologically. The lack of hostility in the show is nice, I guess, but it keeps things rather placid, particularly since the work, in general, isn't full of visual or conceptual fireworks. The blandness is summed up by one of the most depressing sentences I've ever read in a wall text: "Kay Kurt has been creating hyper-realistic paintings of candy and candy boxes for more than four decades."
Even a few terrific, characteristic pieces by Yayoi Kusama look drab in this context, and a little disconnected—there aren't a lot of other organic forms to be found in the work on display, and Kusama's bizarre blend of high spirits and self-hatred is out of place in a roomful of more straightforward artists. It's only in a video of one of her party happenings, a wild clip of much nudity and and body paint and gyrating, that things come alive.
That Kusama's performance could be Pop art (a debatable point) demonstrates the degree to which the show participates in a more general widening of our conception of the work created during the sixties. Pop art is now recognized to be about more than surface sheen and Brillo boxes. Today's Warhol, for example, is appreciated for his painterliness, a quality that brings him more in line with Rauschenberg, whose interest in mass production was always characterized by a rough-hewn messiness.
Similarly, the show's curators emphasize their artists' deployment not of a standard "Pop" aesthetic—though there's definitely some Lucite and neon on display—but, rather, of traditional crafts like sewing. A couple of the best pieces are in that vein. Joyce Wieland made a series of assemblages in 1964 and '65 made to mimic film strips—sewn-together, brightly colored plastic squares filled with enigmatic objects. Dorothy Grebenek is perhaps the most overtly Warholian artist in the show. She's nearly unknown, but her wool rugs with droll images on them—a $2 bill, Ulysses S. Grant, the Bugati logo—are strange and lovable. (In the '60s, they sold them in the Brooklyn Museum store.)
There are some excellent Rosalyn Drexler paintings that superimpose little realist figures on richly monochromatic backgrounds and look forward to the "pictures generation" of the seventies and eighties. Drexler's exuberant but surprisingly melancholy image of Chubby Checker from 1964 may be the best thing in the show. (It really is good, but that compliment isn't saying much: the painting in the show is consistently mediocre.)
It's a difficult moment for feminist art curation. There is still so much to be done, so much to be added to the canon, such real injustices to rail against. But anger and indignation have been so universally debunked as an effective tone, particularly coming from women, that the resulting exhibits have become some bark and less bite. "Seductive Subversion" is a perfectly nice show, but in the end it's neither subversive nor particularly seductive.
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks