It’s Time to Rewrite the Canon of Women Artists 

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It’s Time to Rewrite the Canon of Women Artists 

With the recent release of Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men (2023), I add another survey of women in Western art history to my bookshelf. It joins titles by Wendy Slatkin (Women Artists in History, 2000), Whitney Chadwick (Women, Art, and Society, 1990), Elsa Honig Fine (Women and Art, 1978), and a crop of similar projects from the golden age of gender lens revisionist art history: the 1970s. Despite the continued proliferation of these texts — some revolutionary, others repetitive — the landscape of “women’s art history” (if such a category exists) is more varied than it ever has been.

The closest to a definitive survey text remains Chadwick’s, which was revised and republished in its sixth edition in 2020. Although both The Story of Art Without Men and Women, Art, and Society cover the same ground, Chadwick’s book is the more interesting and complex of the two, as it spends pages giving social and political context to the artists later discussed, in addition to including many minor characters that Hessel omits. A quick glance over the footnotes of The Story of Art Without Men makes it clear how closely Hessel relies on Chadwick’s scholarship (as well as on the work of essential feminist art historians like Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock). Hessel’s book, however, is written in a more accessible and conversational manner. If this is her innovation, so be it. There is undeniable value in introducing the work to an uninitiated audience, though I hesitate to suggest that a more nuanced interpretation of art history is beyond the grasp of many readers.

E.H. Gombrich’s Story of Art (on which Hessel’s title riffs) was first published in 1950, and now in its 16th edition, remains a groundbreaking art historical text. In releasing a new feminist art history, Hessel’s publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, implicitly declares — despite nearly identical books already existing on the market — that there is no equivalent for women’s art history. While the lack of a universally considered foundational text appears to be evidence that the mainstream art world remains disengaged from the subject, feminist art historians should take this undefined terrain as an opportunity to refashion how we write about women’s art. 

If the 1970s were a golden age of feminist art history, we are in its silver age. With new texts being published monthly, now seems a good time to ask: What is the state of women’s art history? If Hessel is treading water, who is advancing scholarship? 

A notable recent book, and certainly one of the most innovative in form, is The Short Story of Women Artists by Susie Hodge (2020). Organized in four sections, it highlights major movements, individual works, “breakthroughs,” and the “themes” that unite artists across time. This circularity (the pages include arrows that direct the reader to related artists and movements, disrupting the book form’s linearity) is feminist in its non-hierarchical approach, though this format does appear to be largely accidental — the book is one of a series of pocket guides, which use a similar structure whether the subject is women artists, architecture, or photography.

Still, Hodges’ book is an introduction and one whose chosen artists don’t deviate from the accepted canon of women artists (yes, it exists!). If I think of the works that have excited me in the past decade, the ones that feel most like progress boldly contradict dominant structures of art history. I think of these authors collectively as a key turning in a lock — each book pushes a pin inside the mechanism, each a step closer to the revelatory revolution: an art history fully devoid of patriarchal value structures.

Some highlights, like Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women (2018), simply construct a thoroughly researched, nuanced picture, moving the stories of artists whose names we know from footnotes to fill page after page. Others, like Paris Spies-Gans’ A Revolution on Canvas (2022), which explores the window of time after the French Revolution in which women had unprecedented artistic freedom, take a historical moment and examine the way it transformed the arts, making it clear that the path towards equal representation is not linear. Some flesh out the stories that are still marginalized within texts that extol the marginalized, as Lisa E. Farrington does in Creating Their Own Image (2005), a survey of African American women artists, only a handful of whom ever get mentioned in books like Chadwick’s and Hessel’s (let alone Gombrich’s). Philip J. Deloria’s Becoming Mary Sully (2019), is refreshing in the way it complicates a story of Modernism by exploring the work of his relative, Dakota Sioux artist Mary Sully and her studies in abstraction through the lens of her native culture. It is not only a book on a woman artist, but even more, it uses her work to expand our understanding of the major art historical movement of the 20th century. 

And then, there is Nicole R. Fleetwood’s Marking Time (2019), which defines a system of “carceral aesthetics” in art made by prisoners, constructing a radically different rubric for assessing their work. Though it may not be women artist-specific, its framework for understanding what makes “good” art has the capacity to radically reshape how highly we value the work of marginalized artists (whether they are incarcerated, self-trained, BIPOC, or women). 

It is unfortunately true, however, that the choices authors make about who will become the subject of their book are idiosyncratic and often of a personal nature. Intrepid, almost always female historians can only dive into one subject at a time, and many women artists find champions in their relatives (such as in The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (2017), written by the painter’s niece). What results is a sparsely and sporadically populated landscape of serious scholarship on women artists and their contributions to art and culture. (There are two biographies of the photographer Vivian Meier, for example, but none of Margaret Bourke-White, certainly a more influential photographer.) There is, most egregiously, a dearth of biographies on the work of Black women artists, with many books on the subject written by the artists themselves (such as Barbara Chase Riboud’s 2022 memoir and Faith Ringgold’s We Flew Over the Bridge). 

The project that writers like Hessel have undertaken is to diligently fill in the holes of the art historical picture. But when I think of what thrills me about studying the work of women artists, why I have dedicated my career to thinking and talking about their work, it is the feeling that what is outside the frame is more interesting than what is within it. The canon of women’s art history was established in the 1970s. Fifty years later, it is now our job to disassemble it. 

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