five female visual artists you should know about
by cara alizadeh
In honor of Women’s History Month (and the National Women’s Museum of Art’s #5WomenArtists challenge, here are five women artists of the twentieth century you may or may not have heard of before. In spite of the hegemony that tends to dominate the art world, we present five women who lived and worked (primarily in North America) as artists. Whether they were recognized during their time or if they’ve been neglected from the textbook narrative, these women created works that deal with issues such as gender, identity, and culture.
Marisol Escobar, who went simply by her first name, was arguably a key figure in Pop Art sculpture. Born to Venezuelan parents in Paris, the family traveled around frequently before settling in New York. Influenced by pre-Columbian art and assemblages of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Marisol’s admission to the realm of Pop Art was highly contested. Her sculptures frequently referenced popular icons of the time, from the Kennedys to John Wayne, yet critics tried to designate her work as merely folk instead. Marisol also used elements of her own body to provide casts for her sculptures, which alluded to her uncanny sense of humor and keen observations of culture and society.
An aloof woman, Marisol’s persona and appearance likewise attracted admirers, with whom she initially couldn’t be bothered. (Funnily enough, Marisol translates to “Mary of solitude.”) After finishing up her studies in Los Angeles and New York, she became frightened by the success of her first solo show and fled to Rome for two years. When she returned she received high acclaim and was featured in several high profile shows. Friends with Andy Warhol, she appeared in two of his films (“The Kiss” and “13 Most Beautiful Women,” 1962 and 1963 respectively). After another two year stint to travel the world, it appeared that the art world had left her behind and she had fallen into near obscurity until recently. When asked in 1964 how she would like the public and critics to view her work, she replied “I don’t care what they think.”
-Jae Jarrell (1934-present):
Jae Jarrell came from a family of tailors, her grandfather passing his expert knowledge on to his daughter, who in turn, taught Jae. She showed her how to pay close attention to fabrics and different weaves and stitching styles. Having studied fashion and clothing design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Jae created custom fitting, one of a kind pieces.
In 1968, Jae, along with her husband and fellow artists, founded AfriCOBRA, a Black arts group dedicated to presenting Black culture in a positive light. It was a time of activism and artists wanted to respond and bring awareness to what was happening in Black communities. Wanting to represent the liveliness and joy of her people, Jae’s designs feature jaunty cuts, patterns, and “Cool-Ade” colors.
-Ruth Asawa (1926-2013):
“Sculpture is like farming if you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.” Ruth Asawa, whose Japanese parents worked as immigrant farmers in California, draws much of the forms for her work from nature. Amidst a crowd of white male artists working in abstraction during the twentieth century, Ruth stood out as a Japanese-American woman. In fact, in 1942 Ruth and her family were held in a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas. It was there that she would meet likewise interned Disney animators and artists such as Tom Okamoto who conducted art classes for the children.
The thin wire structures she has become famous for were initially inspired by basket weaving she saw on a trip to Mexico as a young adult.
She was an advocate for public art and has numerous installations around the world, with several located in San Francisco, along with the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, a public high school for art and performance. “Art is for everyone. It is not something you should have to go to the museums in order to see and enjoy.”
-Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012):
“No other field is closed to those who are not white and male as the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity.”
A sculptor and printmaker, she was a Black female artist whose work commented on society in the United States and Mexico for over half a century. Born in Washington D.C., she was the granddaughter of freed slaves. After being awarded a fellowship to travel and study in Mexico, she fell in love with the country, the people, and the art. She eventually gave her United States citizenship altogether, having to obtain a special visa in order to attend her one woman art show in Harlem in 1972.
Combining African and Mexican influences, Catlett’s contribution to Modern art was her depictions of the race, class, and gender. While sculpture was her initial primary art form, she later turned to printmaking as her main form, influenced by Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists.
-Romaine Brooks (1874-1970):
The oldest artist on our list, Romaine Brooks was born in 1874. Due to inheriting a large sum of money from her family, she was able to be independently wealthy and in turn pursue her art career during a time in which women were typically restricted due to their financial status. Dressing in what was considered a strictly manly fashion, she lived in Paris and Capri, painting portraits of the people of her circle, which featured wealthy aristocrats, writers, artists, and, more importantly, other lesbian and androgynous women. She rejected monogamy (and men) and had a three way partnership with Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont, the former with whom she had a several decade long relationship up until her death.
With a monotonous, reserved palette, she preferred to stick exclusively to grayscale with subtle expressions of red. The best example of this style, and for which she is most famous for, is “The Red Cross,” painted during WWII as part of a fundraising effort for which she was later awarded the cross of the French Legion of Honor.
So what do the stories and works of these women tell us? If anything, they allow us to reflect on the lives of women artists during the twentieth century, a time of great change, particularly concerning changing ideas of women’s and civil rights, as well as theories of art. Their place in historically may unfortunately not be as celebrated as it should be, but their contributions and success continue to inspire generations of women artists--hopefully, just like you.
“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Linda Nochlin
“An Illustrated Guide to Linda Nochlin’s ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’” Hyperallergic
“Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms.” Edited by Elaine O’Brien, et al.
“Ruth Asawa Reshapes Art History,” Andrea K. Scott. The New Yorker, October 9th, 2017.
“Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor with Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96,” Karen Rosenburg. NY Times.
“Painter Romaine Brooks Challenged Convention in Shades of Gray,” by Susan Samberg. NPR
“A Lesbian Artist Who Painted Her Circle of Women in the 20th Century,” by Bridey Heing. Hyperallergic.
“Marisol, Innovative Pop Art Sculptor Written Out of History,” Jillian Steinhauer. Hyperallergic.
“Marisol, an Artist Known for Blithely Shattering Boundaries, Dies at 85,” William Grimes. NY Times, May 2nd, 2016.
Author, Cara Alizadeh
Cara Alizadeh lives in OKC, caught as a traveler of the present. They received their BA in Art History from the University of Oklahoma in 2017. A curator and writer, Cara is concerned with issues such as sustainable fashion, human rights, and presenting a fuller understanding of history. They are frequently found feeling nostalgic and thinking/reading/looking at/making art. They identify as nonbinary/gender non-conforming and enjoy traveling, trains, and alliterations.
Graphics, Jae Vyskocil
Jae is a member of the Gold Hand creative team.
Jae Vyskocil is currently a student at Portland State University in Oregon. She is majoring in international studies with a regional focus on the Middle East and minoring in graphic design and conflict resolution. Her illustrations use patterns and textures to explore a range of themes. When she’s not drawing you can find her skiing on Mt. Hood or knitting.