Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists [excerpts]
by Cindy Nemser
United Kingdom, 1903-1975
Barbara Hepworth (BH): Well you need to know what to do and discipline yourself. I mean my home came first but my work was there always.
Cindy Nemser (CN): Don’t you think it would have been easier for you if you hadn’t been that way?
BH: No. No, I was made that way—to incorporate family, children, and everything. I hadn’t much patience with women artists trying to be women artists. At no point do I wish to be in conflict with any man or masculine thought. It doesn’t enter my consciousness. I think art is anonymous. It’s not competitive with men. It’s a complementary contribution. I’ve said that and I do believe it, that one does contribute to art and that’s nothing to do with being male or female.
CN: I noticed that when Adrian Stokes was writing about your art he said something about its being feminine.
BH: It’s inevitably feminine because it’s my experience.
CN: But then we have to get into the problem of what the word feminine means.
BH: We do, yes, because I don’t think a good work of art can just be said to be feminine or masculine and I’m sure men would be very annoyed if they were called masculine.
CN: Some would and some wouldn’t. There was a big cult of the masculine at one point.
BH: But art’s either good or it isn’t.
CN: In our society masculine has always been the higher good and feminine the lower.
BH: That’s a stupid thing because the scales are out of balance. As far as I’m concerned, in my work and in my life, the scales are in balance.
CN: Ultimately, we know that’s true, but still I noticed that Stokes also used the word complaisant in reference to your work. That’s a word that’s also very often applied to women’s art. I did an article where I put together a whole collection of words I call stereotypes which are often used to describe women’s work. I think these categorizations are nonsense and I’m out to break those stereotypes.
BH: Well, that is marvelous. It has to be done but you have to back up a hundred years to George Eliot. Come to think of it I noticed from time to time that people look me up and down and say, “Oh we thought you’d be a very large, hefty woman.” This irritates me vastly. The same way when I’ve been teaching, I’ve found opposition to my teaching because I said it’s not the strength which does it, it’s a rhythm. You don’t need huge muscles, great strength. In fact, if you have that and misuse it, you’re going to damage the material. It’s absurd. It’s a rhythmical flow of an idea whichever sex you are.
CN: Linda Nochlin wrote a piece called “Why There Are No Great Women Artists,” and I think that’s a terrible title for an article about women artists because I don’t think it’s true at all.
BH: But it isn’t true. Looking back, women dancers and entertainers, singers, actresses have been accepted because they were entertaining. It’s been hard for women architects, engineers, lawyers, sculptors, and so on to be left free, but I never accepted this point of view—never.
CN: Right from the beginning of your career, you’ve done what you wanted to do?
CN: I read that you went to Florence on a scholarship and spent the time looking and didn’t come back with any concrete work. I thought that was marvelous to have the nerve—the courage to have done that.
BH: I was in terrible trouble because the committee of men said that they would never again give a scholarship to a woman. But if I’d done a lot of work and got married, they would have done the same.
CN: They assumed it was because you got married that you didn’t do any work?
BH: They put two and two together—“Women are hopeless.”
CN: It was amazing that they gave you the scholarship in the first place.
BH: Well, I was a bit of a fighter. Yes, it was really amazing looking back. Nevertheless, I’ve never been disturbed by this.
CN: What about the whole community of men artists that came in the 1930’s, Mondrian, Gabo?
BH: They were marvelous. They were all my friends.
CN: And did they treat you like an equal?
BH: Absolutely. They did. You see it was the English who are terribly patriarchal in this country.
CN: What about the English men artists, were they the same? Patriarchal too?
CN: It’s for posterity. The truth has to out.
BH: I’ll say yes.
CN: Didn’t you work with the men on a magazine called The Circle?
BH: It’s been reprinted and it’s now referred to as a classic. Well it is. But that was done by Ben Nicholson, Sir Leslie Martin, Gabo, and Leslie Martin’s wife, Sadie Speaight, and me. We were sitting round the fire and we said, “Why shouldn’t we do a book?” And so we started and now it’s a classic and referred to as such. But we worked on it equally.
CN: Yet, I noticed they didn’t put you down as an editor.
BH: There was no acknowledgement to the women who did the dirty work.
CN: I noticed that right off.
BH: We did the layout, we did the corrections, proofing, everything.
CN: And the research and helped to write it too?
BH: Of course.
CN: That’s the sort of thing I’m trying to pick up on.
BH: Men don’t like being beholden to women. I quite like being beholden to men. I’ve no resentment. In fact I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t respect my husband or my men friends. I acknowledge that.
CN: The point is that women really don’t want to destroy men. We just want them to treat us with the same respect that we have given to them.
BH: Precisely, I’d hoped I would live long enough to see a balance maintained without any friction because I can’t see any point in it.
United States, 1908-1984
Lee Krasner (LK): While I was doing this kind of work I became a member of the American Abstract Artists, a group that was formed for the sole purpose of exhibiting, although we did meet to have discussions on art as well. One winter during the period that I was a member, Mondrian and Léger were invited to participate in our exhibitions and they accepted. Mondrian asked me to accompany him to one of these exhibitions in which each artist was represented by three or four paintings. We started to go around the gallery and I had to identify the work of each artist for him and he made a short comment as we moved from one to another. When we got to the Léger, he walked by with no comment. Pretty soon my paintings were coming up and I was getting plenty nervous. Then there we were and I had to say, “These are mine.” His comment was, “You have a very strong inner rhythm. You must never lose it.” Then we moved on. Mondrian had said something quite beautiful to me. Hofmann was also excited and enthusiastic about what I was doing at this time but his comment was, “This is so good that you would not know it was done by a woman.” His was a double- edged compliment. But Mondrian’s evaluation rides through beautifully. […]
Cindy Nemser (CN): Well it seems that both you and Pollock were into the exploration of the inner self, the unconscious or whatever one wants to call it, but certainly you are very different in your approach. Your heavy crusty surfaces are much denser than his thinner, looser applications and your field never thins out at the edges as his does. Besides, the scale of your paintings is entirely different. The investigation of your relationship with Pollock is closely allied with the attitudes of the art world toward women artists. There is the idea that women artists are not innovative and are only capable of imitating male art. It’s possible for some man to be influenced or activated by another man without being called a follower, but if a woman is in contact with a man—well she is his disciple forever.
LK: The cliché is that Lee is overshadowed by her husband and that’s easy and we don’t have to think about it. It is outrageous. The people who use this excuse, and they still use it today, are talking about their own shortcomings. […]
CN: It must have been hard for you to have been married to an artist like Pollock who was getting so much attention and then to have people seeing you, a serious painter in your own right, as the wife who was supposed to stay in the background. You must have been torn between wanting him to succeed and reaching out to discover your own identity.
LK: If you remember my family background, I didn’t get much encouragement. This was another tough nut to crack. It was self-imposed and I’m aware of that. Since no one asked me to live with Pollock, and since I wanted my independence as well, I damn well have to deal with it.
CN: Many people have told me that you gave Pollock a great deal of your time and attention.
LK: Of course and I continue to. Right up until today Pollock takes a lot of my time.
CN: How much did it take out of you?
LK: I wouldn’t know. And while you ask, “How much did it take out of me as a creative artist?” I ask simultaneously, “What did it give?” It is a two-way affair at all times. I would give anything to have someone giving me what I was able to give Pollock.
CN: Since you didn’t have an exhibition of your paintings, was there a response to them?
LK: There was a response. I didn’t feel as though I were isolated. John B. Myers admired my “Little Image” paintings and I can remember Clement Greenberg saying about an early one, “That’s hot. It’s cooking.” I considered it as a compliment. John Little, Jim Brooks, Linda Lindeberg, and Tomlin were others who saw the works and admired them. There wasn’t time to do anything about the fact that I wasn’t getting public recognition and showing. I was painting, Pollock was breaking through. We had our hands full. I couldn’t take time off and say, “Look here. Why am I not being seen?” I didn’t function that way.
CN: You also didn’t have the support you needed. At that time there was no women’s liberation movement.
LK: That’s right. I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspects of the art world, continue my painting, and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. I just couldn’t do that much. What I considered important was that I was able to work and other things would have to take their turn. You have to brush a lot of stuff out of the way or you get lost in the jungle. Now rightly or wrongly I made my decisions.
CN: Do you think it was easier for women like Frankenthaler, Mitchell, and Hartigan?
LK: They are the next generation and it is another scene—another story. You forget that in my generation Paris was still the leading school of painting and this situation was being changed by a tiny handful of artists to a scene called New York, America, which never before had a leading role in the art world. That didn’t happen just by reading a newspaper. Now the next generation comes in and they may think it is rough for them but it is pie compared to what we went through. We broke the ground.
CN: It was still rough for women then but you had to fight for everything—being an American artist and a woman artist at the same time.
LK: And as Mrs. Pollock it intensified that problem. Let’s put it this way: Pollock being the figure he was in the art world it was a rough role seen from any view.
CN: How about the running of your household? Was that all on your shoulders?
LK: No. Jackson shared a lot of it. Certainly I took the bulk of it but I did not have a husband who had to be waited on at all times. He perhaps favored the outdoor work and I had to do the indoor. But I think we shared. And if I needed special assistance, I asked for it, and as a rule, I got it.
CN: How did Pollock react when you asked him to come up and look at your work? Did he act as if he were doing you a favor?
LK: No. It wasn’t like that, “Not now, later.” But he is the one who would pull me out of a state when I would say, “the work has changed and I can’t stand it. It’s just like so and so’s work.” Then he would come and look and say. “You’re crazy. It is nothing like so and so’s work. Just continue painting and stop hanging yourself up.” We had that kind of rapport.
CN: Then Jackson wasn’t afraid of your being successful? He didn’t see you as a competitor?
LK: On the contrary, he asked Betty Parsons to come and see my work and she gave me my first New York solo show in 1951.
United States, 1922-2008
Cindy Nemser (CN): I am interested in your experience as a woman artist.
Grace Hartigan (GH): I can’t talk anonymously about being a woman artist. All I can talk about is my own experience. To be truthful I didn’t much think about being a woman. I thought about how difficult it was to paint. […]
CN: The most important thing that women can do is create. It has always been said that there haven’t been any great women artists.
GH: We have had great precedents for women novelists and women poets. We just have to have enough backlog for great women artists.
CN: There were women artists of the Renaissance who did marvelous work. In the sixteenth century many of them were apprentices to their fathers and also attended the academy. They had opportunities and they used them. You yourself have created a body of work which is like a signpost to the young women who will come after you.
GH: I’d like to think that, but I don’t think about it too much because I think about the work that has to be done. I don’t want to get self-conscious about it. You know you don’t go into the studio and say, “Oh here I am this marvelous heroine, this wonderful woman doing my marvelous painting so all these marvelous women artists can come after me and do their marvelous painting.” There you are alone in this huge space and you are not conscious of the fact that you have breasts and a vagina. You are inside of yourself, looking at this damned piece of rag on the wall that you are supposed to make a world out of. That is all you are conscious of. I simply cannot believe that a man feels differently. I don’t think a man goes striding into the studio thinking, “Here I am this marvelous man with this great power of the male figure and all these young men are going to be inspired by me.” Inside yourself, you are looking at this terrifying unknown and trying to feel, to pull everything you can out of all your experience, to make something. I think a woman or a man creating feels very much the same way. I bring my experience, which is different from a man’s, yes, and I put it where I can. But once that is done, I don’t know if it’s a woman’s experience I’m looking at. If you take, for example, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, if you didn’t tell me who wrote which, I would be very hard put to know which was the woman’s work and which was the man’s. They are both great writers. […]
GH: You live humanly and you have certain series of experiences. You use those experiences to express what you have to say.
CN: I believe that it all goes back to the individual. Each individual has another unique thing to say, is another voice. The total comes from the addition of many, many voices. You became part of that total when you delved into art history and with an Abstract Expressionist approach created a new reality out of it. You took universal subject matter, images of daily life, and presented it in a new way. You gave us another view of human life.
Source: NEMSER, Cindy. Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975, pp. 15-18, 85-92 and 150-171 [excerpts].