PRINT April 2010


the women of Pop

Dorothy Grebenak, Two Dollar Bill, ca. 1964, wool, 30 x 73".

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, the generative investigation of the practices of women artists has yielded plenty of surprises—enough, certainly, to have an enormous impact on how we think about the past and make art in the present. One of the most recent revelations is among the most startling: To find the proximate origins of the feminist art movement, it seems, we need to look to Pop art. That’s right, Pop, the rubric under which Allen Jones’s seminude woman–as–coffee table is filed, the last blazing bastion of culturally sanctioned misogynistic art. This, at least, is the conclusion strongly suggested by the visibility lately afforded the distaff side of the genre.

“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958–68” was intended to counter the misconception that Pop had no distaff side. More than five years in the making, the exhibition—curated by Sid Sachs and on view from late January through mid-March at the University of the Arts’ Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery in Philadelphia—was the first to focus solely on the women of Pop. It contained more than fifty works by twenty artists, many of whom—Vija Celmins, Chryssa, Rosalyn Drexler, Yayoi Kusama, Lee Lozano, Marisol, Faith Ringgold, Martha Rosler, Niki de Saint Phalle, Marjorie Strider, and Idelle Weber—are familiar to devotees of contemporary art, if not necessarily to the average viewer. But a good portion of the artists here—including standouts Dorothy Grebenak, Joyce Wieland, and May Wilson—were likely new to most visitors. The latter category also encompassed several Europeans whose work has some visibility on the other side of the Atlantic but is rarely shown in the US: Evelyne Axell (Belgium), Pauline Boty (UK), and Alina Szapocznikow (Poland).

Distributing the work of these artists across three galleries, “Seductive Subversion” took a precise but insistent chisel to the monolith that is Pop art. As the show demonstrated, this was a group of artists working very much in tandem with their more visible, celebrated male counterparts. At least in facture, their art was not so radically different from that of the brand names of the period such as Peter Blake, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann. These women, too, experimented with the latest methods and materials while reveling in the absurdities and pleasures of daily life in the later decades of the twentieth century. Polyester resins, Plexiglas, enamel, neon, and various forms of mechanical printing augmented more traditional materials and were used to signal a shift from the epic subjects of Abstract Expressionism to the decidedly untranscendent concerns of Pop. However, despite the similarity in materials, the perspective of the artists of “Seductive Subversion” was palpably different from the privileged vantage point of Blake, Wesselmann, et al., who wryly observed domestic life from afar.

The hooked rugs by Grebenak are a case in point. Grebenak, one of the true gems of the exhibition, shared Warhol’s enthusiasm for the currency of American daily life: Her subjects included Tide boxes, baseball cards, and product logos. In Two Dollar Bill, ca. 1964, the artist tweaked Warhol’s cool, monotonous 192 One Dollar Bills, 1962, by taking the image of a single two-dollar bill and blowing it up into a very large hooked doormat. These simple modifications of material (screenprint/yarn), scale (actual size/magnification), and seriality (192 one-dollar bills/one two-dollar bill) result in a work that evinces not deadpan detachment but outright, frankly ludic sarcasm, illuminating the divergent spaces these two artists occupied in the world beyond their studios. If Warhol’s dispassionate reticence was shaped by a desire to extricate himself unscathed from working-class Pittsburgh, Grebenak’s comic effrontery can be read as an expression of resistance to the role of June Cleaver that society was forcing on her. As Sachs points out in the excellent exhibition catalogue, women Pop artists were in a nearly intractable bind. Positioned both as advertising “bait” and as the target audience of the engine of postwar capitalism, they were revered as eye candy and infantilized as consumers in society at large, and this was precisely how they were depicted in Pop art. The official (male) stance of the Pop movement—playfully ironic, morally ambiguous, and most of all sexist—left little room for female participation without a kind of self-negation.

This problem pertained especially to the artists who had romantic relationships with their more famous male peers. In retrospect, the fraught intersection of life and art explored in their work became a germinal force: Throughout “Seductive Subversion,” there were intimations of the shift in consciousness that achieved full bloom in the feminist art of the 1970s, as women converted the media’s highly sexualized depictions of gender into something much more critically complex and even empowering. Artists in the exhibition mined the schism between peppy airbrushed advertising images and real life with works like Strider’s Green Triptych, 1963—featuring a bathing beauty who is rendered in two dimensions except for her pointy breasts and bulging butt, which literally protrude off the panel—and Wilson’s kaleidoscopic “Ridiculous Portraits,” circa 1965–72, which collage the artist’s aged face into all manner of syrupy magazine layouts. Szapocznikow used cast-resin sculpture to dig deep into female stereotypes—the siren, the black widow—coming up with something much darker and more primeval than anything Hollywood could dream up. Though their politics were more oblique than those of the artists whose work would be shown at Los Angeles’s Womanhouse or New York’s A.I.R. gallery, Pop’s women commenced a serious engagement of the links among scopophilia, sexuality, and the media that resonated in the practices of their immediate successors.

Among the artists of “Seductive Subversion” was one—the glamorous, witty Axell—who might function as a case study, allowing a closer read of the dynamics that the Philadelphia survey necessarily painted in broad strokes. Between the mid-1960s and 1972, when she died in a car accident at the age of thirty-seven, Axell created a sizable body of sexy, playful work: To study this compressed oeuvre in chronological order is to watch as an artist’s consciousness is raised. Axell’s earliest examinations of the female condition demonstrate a preoccupation with the prevailing mediated depictions of women but eventually morph into inventive explorations of her subjective experience as a woman. Although her paintings might be called protofeminist, Axell was not included in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” the 2007 museum survey of the feminist art movement, nor is her name to be found in the standard texts on feminist art. But this past fall, New Yorkers were given a rare chance to view her paintings in “Axell’s Paradise: Last Works (1971–72) Before She Vanished,” the artist’s first solo exhibition in America, presented by Broadway 1602 and containing eleven of her complex Plexiglas and enamel constructions.

By most accounts, Axell led something of a charmed existence. Born Evelyne Devaux in 1935, she came from a prosperous Catholic family in Namur, Belgium. In addition to receiving the convent education prescribed for young ladies of her class, she took art lessons and graduated from drama school. During her summer vacations, her godfather (the manager of Brussels’s Métropole cinema) squired the lovely young Evelyne around Cannes, France, introducing her to the star-studded culture of the film festival. At twenty-one, she adopted Evelyne Axell as her screen name, married Parisian film director Jean Antoine, and embarked on a career as an actress. Antoine, best known for his television documentaries on contemporary art, directed three films in 1964 on the emerging Pop and Nouveau Réalisme movements. The art Axell was put in contact with through these films—Dieu est-il Pop?, on the London scene; L’Aventure de l’objet (in Paris with Pierre Restany); and L’École de New York (featuring Marisol, Lee Bontecou, and Yayoi Kusama)—was to reverberate for years to come in her work.

Axell and Antoine were at the center of a rich social milieu, and when she decided to quit acting and begin making art in the mid-1960s, she was offered a great deal of enthusiastic support from the many artists and intellectuals in her circle, including Marcel Broodthaers and René Magritte, who helped her brush up on her painting skills. One of the most important and lasting influences on her thinking was the French critic Restany, who gave the Nouveau Réalistes their name in 1960. Calling their method of appropriation a “poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality,” he maintained that artists such as Arman, Christo, Yves Klein, Saint Phalle, and Jacques Villeglé were building on the heritage of Dada to create a “humanistic,” distinctly European view of postwar consumerism.

As Axell’s studio practice started to unfold, one gets the sense of an unself-conscious, almost joyful embrace of such influences, and to a great extent, you can trace her evolution as an artist by looking at these influences, particularly as they pertain to her choice of material. Axell’s earliest works—and, one might argue, her most straightforward iterations of the male gaze—are traditional oil paintings on canvas. Here, she mines the works of Blake, Rosenquist, and Wesselmann not only for their formal strategies (collage composition, areas of flat color, and graphic sensibility) but also for their depictions of the conspicuously consumable woman. Pulling on stockings, licking an ice-cream cone, legs open wide or coyly closed, Axell’s women in La Gourmandise and L’Oeil de la tigresse, both 1964, could easily belong to Mel Ramos’s bevy of willing babes. Perhaps because she started out in a profession in which a woman’s appearance and livelihood are intimately linked, the subjects of these early paintings don’t stray far from glossy cheesecake and other Pop conventions.

Evelyne Axell, L’Herbe folle, 1972, enamel on Plexiglas and Formica, 29 3/8 x 37 1/4".

But by the late 1960s, Axell had become much more adventurous in the studio, finding her own, exuberantly material mode of broaching “urban, industrial and advertising reality.” In keeping with the experiments of her contemporaries, she started to add a whole range of materials to her practice, including auto enamel, aluminum, and industrial readymades. Plastics held a particular appeal for her. In 1967, Axell started using Clartex, a locally produced plastic, and spent many days at the Brussels factory, dipping canvas cutouts into hot polymer and painting them with enamel. This newfound inventiveness coincided with Axell’s excitement about and involvement in the burgeoning women’s-liberation movement. These simultaneous trajectories that seemed to bring together all aspects of her life—creative, professional, political, and personal—made for interesting collisions in her work. As Axell cycled rapidly through sets and subsets of materials and processes, she would often discard or disregard the original connotations attached to a particular medium. For example, during the ’60s, the presence of raw canvas usually signaled an artist’s interest in painting’s degree zero (i.e., the subject of all painting is painting). However, a similar expanse of unprimed canvas in Axell’s work raises a host of psychological readings that would be entirely unwelcome in just-the-facts-ma’am painting. In Le Beau Châssis, 1967, for example, the stencil of a female nude on the backside of a canvas transforms the stretcher bars into a window frame and the viewer into a voyeur.

Axell’s later works often deploy a combination of screenprinting and graphic-design methods popularized by contemporary psychedelia and supergraphics. While the typical result of these techniques is to erase the “hand” and homogenize the image, in Axell’s work they function the opposite way. In “Les Opalines,” her group of female portraits from 1969, interlocking shapes of flat color look as if they have been roughly drawn, cut out, and then sandwiched between layers of Plexiglas. The resulting pileup of milky polymer evokes the creaminess of skin and gives the entire series a kind of industrial-strength poetry. In 1970, Axell started using fake fur instead of enamel paint to demarcate the pubic area in some of her nudes. The effect is wonderfully bawdy—especially today, when Brazilian waxing and completely bald genitalia are all the rage. Petite Fourrure verte, 1970, takes the beaver shot, beloved by artists through the ages (see Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, 1866, and Duchamp’s Etant donnés, 1944–66), and carpets the core of the image with a dense green fur.

In the last years of her truncated career, Axell was in the process of reimagining paradise. Utopia, in its many manifestations, was certainly part of the zeitgeist in the late ’60s. The May ’68 protests are the subject of Le Joli Mois de mai, a 1970 triptych. One of the artist’s best-known works, it shows a circle of long-haired men and women sitting naked on the grass. Flanking them, Axell depicts herself and Restany as charismatic patrons of the revolution. However, large social gatherings are not a common subject for Axell—the version of utopia that really interested her was far more intimate. A number of her later works portray a voluptuous nude woman reclining or literally melting into a lush synthetic landscape. When the woman is not alone, she is depicted communing or having sex with animals, including lobsters, monkeys, and a variety of birds. (Animals are often pictured as comrades and lovers in the paintings of Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and Remedios Varo. One has to wonder whether this is Axell’s way of acknowledging some of the few well-known women artists of the twentieth century.) L’Oiseau de paradis (version bleue), 1971, resembles a 3-D poster; the central figure lifts off her dress, thrusting her arms up and off the edge of the canvas. In the center of the picture, a gaudy hummingbird zeros in on the tiny slit buried within a yellow cloud of pubic hair.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all are Axell’s last self-portraits. With an unabashed clarity, these works draw the connection between artmaking and sexual pleasure. Le Peintre I and II, lithographs from 1971, present Axell as a statuesque goddess with round granny glasses and a mass of dark hair. In a sly imitation of Lady Liberty—here, liberty clearly includes sexual autonomy—the artist stoically holds up a bright red brush in one hand while the other grips a bucket of paint. Le Coup de brosse, autoportrait au pinceau no. 2, 1971, makes the autoerotic connection even more explicit. Axell shows herself with her eyes closed and trademark glasses tossed off to the side, humming with ecstasy. Splayed out against a red ground, the artist is happily pleasuring herself with a loaded paintbrush. Nothing could be further from the clammy yet vacant images of sexualized women culled from cheap advertising and girlie magazines for which Pop art is so well known.

Carrie Moyer is a painter and writer living in New York.