New York

Miriam Schapiro

Vassar College Art Gallery, Taylor Hall

Although this Vassar retrospective spans almost 30 years of Miriam Schaoiro’s work, it is the work of the past ten years that must be seen as historically significant. To view her career retrospectively is to witness Schapiro’s personal struggle with history. In the oft-noted tension between the formal and the florid in her “femmages,” Schapiro ceases to be at the mercy of stylistic fashions by forging her own: her Abstract Expressionist canvases of the ’50s, ravishingly painted but corning too late to be her own invention, mate with her hard-edge canvases of the ’60s (also expert, but again not something she could call her own). One guesses that Schapiro never wished to abandon an evolutionary line of art; she wanted instead to bring the previously ahistorical into it, to merge the two so that they might travel into the future as one.

Clearly, these are didactic works. There is a certain self-denial in the way that Schapiro has exchanged paint for fabric as the activating, expressive element in her compositions, since her painted gesture had been so virtuosic, while collaged fabric is neither fluid nor immediate. Paint actually begins to seem the enemy, relegated to the background, thinned and flattened. But, as others would “feminize” paint by, say, pushing it through pastry tubes, Schapiro quite often does the same by using paint to depict a centered rectangle, an oracle/orifice surrounded by cloth swatches. If, in addition, Linda Nochlin is right about these framed areas representing art boundaries and picture space, then Schapiro has, remarkably, subsumed the easel painting tradition under an archetypal token of the female body.

Shapiro’s didacticism is generally a strength, occasionally a weakness. Her gift is for the bold stroke, not the subtle concept. She started out as an action painter—things still blow out, spin, recede and come forward in her work. She is also smart to monumentalize, heroicize her symbols. However, her choice of symbols is sometimes less than ingenious. The fans and kimonos are great. as forms, as monuments and as movement. Anatomy of a Kimono, 1976, (unfortunately not available for this exhibit) is probably the apex of Schapiro’s work not only because of its ambitious formal complexity but also because it progresses through both time and space. Finally, though, fan and kimono are successful as icons thanks to the gap between their literal and metaphorical qualities. They are public, indeed ceremonial, objects representing private emotional states, outward signs of the inward. As with good fetishes (and how different are symbols from fetishes?), something connected with the body, but not part of it, comes to stand for the body.

The problem with emblems in Schapiro’s latest output, like the house and heart, is that one is not actually in contact with the body and the other is inside it; together, each remains sealed off from the other. Apart, they are tautologous, images of the private that refer to the private, with no esthetic distance, no dialectical movement. On the contrary, works like Lady Gengi’s Maze, 1972, step lively by bouncing the outer off the inner. An exterior maze, for instance, is actually less intricate than the maze of patterns on the scarves that are personifications of Lady G. A tear in one of these reveals a section of Lady G’s environment (a stair), also readable as part of the surface pattern of the cloth, resulting in a phenomenological dialogue between subject and object. The same is true for Nightsong, 1973 (not in the show), which acknowledges its own fiction by presenting on a folding screen Schapiro’s implied drama of escape from the domestic-architectural. But the heart and house pieces don’t move even visually. There’s sometimes a throbbing in the passage of flowers across the heart, but like corpuscles, they’re locked in a closed system.

This may be caviling. Perhaps, like Shapiro’s egg—another too obvious symbol that preceded but informed her breakthrough “femmages”—these images will turn out to have been a necessary transition to something better. Meanwhile, Schapiro has undoubtedly built the foundation on which both she and others are now free to erect the subtlest of edifices.

Jeanne Silverthorne