Paths to the Press, Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910-1960.
Women Artists, 1910-1960
edited by Elizabeth G. Seaton
Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art,
Kansas State University, 2006.
Books on American women printmakers are still relatively few. The innovative graphic work of celebrated women artists, such as Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Blanche Lazzell (1878-1956), and Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911), are well documented in easily available publications. The careers of lesser known graphic artists are not as well known, however, and as they often are featured in monographs, articles, and catalogues issued by dealers and regional museums, they are not widely available. Paths to the Press, Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910-1960 competently addresses this scarcity with an admirably researched catalogue that features five essays; excellent biographical summaries for eighty-three artists, with illustrations for each and interpretations of one or two prints, and a selected bibliography; and an appendix citing 400 women printmakers active in the United States during this period. Anyone who has had difficulty obtaining information about under-recognized twentieth-century print artists such as Ida Abelman (1910-2002), Pele DeLappe (1916-2007), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Marion Greenwood (190970), Riva Helfond (1910-2002), or Margaret Lowengrund (1902-57), to name just a few, will applaud the achievement of Elizabeth G. Seaton, the editor and primary author.
Although this book is an exhibition catalogue of prints derived predominantly from the Chicago-area private collection of Belverd and Marion Needles, it is an invaluable, pioneering contribution to scholarship on women printmakers.1 One need only to consult this 261-page volume (with 67 color and 155 black- and-white illustrations), generously populated with detailed footnotes, to learn about American women printmakers--how they developed their careers, where they exhibited their prints, their participation in etching societies and print clubs, their vital role in teaching printmaking in different regions of the country, as well as how their prints contributed to depictions of daily life and abstraction. The entire book also contextualizes prints by better-known artists, such as Isabel Bishop (1902-88), Bourgeois, Cassatt, Dorothy Dehner (1901-94), Mabel Dwight (1875-1955), and Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), within a broader national graphic arts spectrum, and those by regional artists such as Caroline Durieux (1896-1989) of Louisiana and Janet Turner (1914-88) of California.
Seaton's introduction, "Connecting Paths, American Women Printmakers, 1910-1960," begins by citing the first major American institutional exhibition devoted exclusively to prints by women. In 1887, the Boston Museum of Art presented "Women Etchers of America," a display of 388 prints by twenty-three artists. Apart from an expanded showing in New York the following year, it was not until decades later that another American museum would undertake such a large-scale, national exhibition. Thus, Seaton develops a brief history of women's creative and technical role in American printmaking by connecting various personal and professional accounts. Many early women artists learned printmaking informally from another artist or by experimenting on their own, since formal classes existed sporadically until 1922, when Joseph Pennell established a printmaking program at New York's Art Students League. For example, in 1879, Mary Nimmo Moran (1842-99) was encouraged to try etching by her artist husband, Thomas Moran, and a year or so later, her proficiency was recognized when she became the first female member of the New York Etching Club. In the 1890s, Chicago-based Bertha Jaques (1863-1941) sought color etching advice from printmaker Helen Hyde (1868-1919), who later went to Japan to learn traditional color woodcut process, and whose Japanese-inspired color woodcuts subsequently influenced American printmakers. Despite this historical prelude, Seaton explains that "1910" was chosen as the formal beginning for the book's survey because it was the date when Bertha Jaques co-founded the Chicago Society of Etchers, which avidly promoted printmaking as a fine art.
During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration-Federal Arts Project (WPA-FAP) provided printmaking opportunities for many women artists, a number of whom are represented in this book (e.g., Ida Abelman, Riva Helfond, Claire Mahl Moore [1912-88], and Elizabeth Olds [1896-1991]). Outside the WPA, others like Wanda G[a']g (18931946) and Clare Leighton (1898-1989) managed to sell their prints and obtain book illustration commissions. The remainder of Seaton's text sets up the other essays, which further highlight the work and careers of dozens of twentieth-century American women printmakers, who are also featured in the individual entries.
The second essay, "Color and Line, Early Twentieth-Century Printmaking and American Women Artists" by Belverd E. Needles, Jr. and Christopher Mack, addresses America's revival of printmaking as a fine art. The authors summarize previous scholarship on the revival of etching and color woodcut processes, including the aesthetic influence of traditional Japanese prints and Arthur Wesley Dow's inspired teachings and writings. Their historical account emphasizes the graphic innovations by Moran, Cassatt, Jaques, and Hyde as well as Edna Boies Hopkins (1872-1937), Bertha Lum (1869-1954), Peggy Bacon, the Gearhart sisters (Frances [1869-1958] and May [1872-1951]), and the group of women artists active in Provincetown, Massachusetts, from around World War I to the 1930s--all of whom helped to increase the visibility of women printmakers.
Mark B. Pohlad's essay, "Workmates and Soulmates, American Women Printmakers and their Relationships with Men" begins by asking, "What is to be gained by examining women printmakers' relationships with male peers, teachers, lovers, and spouses?" Since printmaking is fundamentally a collaborative process, Pohlad argues that undertaking such an examination is essential for understanding women's participation and history in the medium. Among the notable women artists who benefited from male mentors, he cites Cassatt and June Wayne (b. 1918). Cassatt learned intaglio processes from Edgar Degas and Marcellin Desboutins starting in the late 1870s and went on to make admirable drypoints and color aquatints. Beginning in 1948, Wayne's professional relationship with lithography printer Lynton Kistler provided the creative and technical support for her own lithographs. She went on to found the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960, later renamed the Tamarind Institute (which relocated in 1970 to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque). This printmaking studio played a key role in revitalizing contemporary lithography by inviting painters and sculptors to work in the medium, as well as training many of today's leading master printers. In between, through the WPA-FAP, approximately 200 women artists gained access to printmaking workshop equipment in several major cities, where they were able to share technical information with male artists and be financially supported as equals.
The second half of Pohlad's essay examines the impact of marriage on the careers of women printmakers. Some, like Wanda G[a']g, believed that "two [married] artists would get along just horribly .... Why, we would be forever criticizing each other 's work" (39). Peggy Bacon spoke charitably of her twenty-year marriage to fellow artist Alexander Brook, declaring, "We helped each other a great deal in our work .... [W]e worked together and we pooled our resources and we brought up the kids together" (39). Others, including Jaques, Helfond, Hopkins, and Gene Kloss (1903-96), enjoyed the support (financial and emotional) of husbands who understood their artistic needs and even, on occasion, assisted in their printmaking efforts.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Pohlad describes the collaborative art partnerships and marriages of Elizabeth Catlett (born 1915) and her second husband, Francisco Mora, a Mexican painter and printmaker; the Chicago-based printmakers Eleanor Coen (b. 1916) and Max Kahn; and Bernarda Bryson (1903-2004) and social realist artist Ben Shahn. Bryson-Shahn's experience is a typical one. Prior to the 1936 birth of the couple's first child, she had capably managed the lithographic workshop for the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. Afterwards, she managed to continue her own creative pursuits but only after helping her husband with his art projects and caring for the children (43-45). While Bryson-Shahn's work recently has had some attention, Ben Shahn's career has been amply documented.
Other women featured in the book struggled similarly to balance art careers with traditional expectations of a wife and mother. The talented wood engraver Grace Albee (1890-1985) managed to evolve her art career despite the encroachment of motherhood--she had five sons--and household chores. Barbara Latham (1896-1989) (married to painter Howard Cook), and Marguerite Zorach (1887-1968) (married to sculptor William Zorach), each produced a striking body of prints, albeit in the shadow of her husband's career. Minna Citron (1896-1991) opted for divorce in order to devote herself more fully to her work. Generally, though, Pohlad conveys that women's interactions with male colleagues, teachers, printers, and partners often provided them beneficial access to the professional art world. Helen Langa's essay has a tantalizing title, "Bold Gazes, Lively Differences, Women Printmakers' Images of Women," and she opens with some intriguing questions:
What does it mean to be a woman artist? Are there obvious or subtle gender-inflected ways in which women encounter the world around them differently than men? If so, how might such differences shape the way women artists record their perceptions? ... To what lengths did they have to go to demonstrate professional equality with men? And in what ways could they, at the same time, revel in the positive qualities that marked them as both female and feminine in a gender-divided culture? (51)
This author identifies provocative thematic categories exemplified by women's prints: "women's faces as social symbols," "representations of motherhood," "artists at work and other workers," and "aspects of modern social life." Anticipating a vigorous discussion of various approaches and answers to her questions, this reviewer was dismayed when Langa's text failed to grapple with the issues she raised. Additionally, some of the prints she cited--selected from the 104 catalogue entries in the book--did not serve well to illustrate her themes and points. For example, Langa only partially explores representations of motherhood, a topic which has been richly represented by many printmakers, both female and male. She interprets several prints, including Hyde's color woodcut The Bath (1905), showing a Japanese mother tenderly holding her infant above a wooden tub, Dorothy Rutka's (1907-85) Striker's Wife (c. 1937), and Blanche Gramb's (b. 1916) Mother (1936), both bleak black-and-white portrayals of poor working class women (55). Langa does not allude to the broader context of prints depicting mothers and children, notably by Cassatt, other images by Hyde, or Catlett, each of whom created iconic images of maternity; neither does she offer insights into what is distinctive about women printmakers' depictions of motherhood. In the category she designated as "aspects of modern social life," Langa cites an atypical pair, Cassatt's In the Opera Box (1878-80) and Maud Hunt Squire's (1873-1954) In a Beer Garden (c. 1910), to exemplify images of women alone in a public setting; both depict a past era, so neither truly characterizes how later women printmakers portrayed modern women. For images depicting groups of women, Langa discusses Barbara Latham's 1943 print of Red Cross volunteers folding bandages, Doris Lee's (1905-83) 1942 print showing women preparing Thanksgiving dinner in a rural kitchen, and Minna Citron's lithograph, Dress Circle, Carnegie Hall (1936), among others (59-61). Again, many other prints by Bacon, Bishop, Citron, Durieux, Mabel Dwight (1875-1955), and others--for example, Pele DeLappe's 1937 Street Scene (Fig. 1)--would have conveyed more convincingly how women artists vividly capture (or evoke) scenes of modern life. Moreover, it would have been instructive to compare women's prints on various subjects with specific prints by their contemporary male artists such as George Bellows, Adolf Dehn, John de Martelly, Reginald Marsh, John Sloan, or Raphael Soyer. It is left to future scholars to explore these questions further as well as the contributions of women printmakers to the graphic arts history of landscape, city views, or satire (all subjects amply represented in this book).
"Running the Presses, Women Printmakers as Teachers, 1945-1960," an outstanding essay by Cori Sherman North with Susan Teller, recounts for the first time women's major role in disseminating printmaking knowledge in various regions of the country. As the authors note, nearly three-quarters of the women represented in the catalogue taught art, and approximately half taught printmaking, including some who founded printmaking departments. For these women, teaching was either integral to their careers or provided income to support their own creative pursuits. Prior to World War II, there were few places outside of New York where printmaking was taught. Among these were Rhode Island School of Design, where Eliza Draper Gardiner (1871-1955) taught, and Cleveland School of Art, where Bryson-Shahn studied. The authors emphasize the WPA's role in encouraging women to learn printmaking, particularly lithography and screen printing. In the 1940s, Stanley William Hayter's Atelier 17 workshop, which had relocated to New York from Paris, became a center for both men and women modernists--including Sue Fuller, Worden Day (1916-86), and Louise Bourgeois--to learn and experiment with intaglio printmaking. Fuller went on to teach printmaking at universities in Minnesota and Georgia as well as in New York at Pratt Institute and Columbia University Teachers College; Day taught in various educational institutions in Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wyoming. North and Teller describe the influential graphic arts teaching of, among others, Blanche McVeigh (18951970), who promoted printmaking in the Fort Worth area; Constance Forsyth (1903 -1987), who established the print department at the University of Texas; Caroline Durieux, Louisiana's WPA-FAP supervisor, who later introduced printmaking classes at Louisiana State University; Janet Turner, who established the printmaking program at California State University-Chico; and Sister Mary Corita (Kent) (1918-86), who taught printmaking in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. "The women in this exhibition [and catalogue] have had a remarkable influence on those who came after them through their teaching of printmaking and their creating new printmaking environments for artists," the authors write. "These women forged new paths to the press for others, earning their places in the pantheon of American printmakers and art educators" (78).
While my overall response to this ambitious publication is definitely positive, I do have some quibbles. Although the title indicates the start of the survey as 1910, the book includes biographies of and works by several women printmakers active before that date (Seaton's game explanation to justify their inclusion withstanding). Coordinating essays and biographical material by multiple authors is always a challenge, so it is not surprising to find instances of repetitious overlap. The catalogue would have benefited from more rigorous editing to eliminate repetitions as well as to correct a number of factual errors and inconsistencies. (2) Overall, however, the general factual and art historical reliability of the text is not in dispute.
The addition of certain types of information would have enhanced the biographical entries, for example, the total number of the artist's prints (if known), whether the artist made her prints over the course of her career or during a specific period, and whether the artist was a prolific printmaker or made a few prints or small editions. Such additions would have augmented our understanding of the overall "population" of American prints.
The overall reproduction quality is good, although most of the prints are reproduced as a half page or smaller. Of nine full-page illustrations, six are feature details and three are photographs of artists at work. It was disappointing that, since so few of these prints created by women are known, there were not more of the larger reproductions, which could better have conveyed the creative achievements of individual artists, as well as providing a stronger visual survey of American women's printmaking history.
Despite these relatively minor criticisms, this informative book will long stand as a significant resource. It also provides a strong contextual foundation for future studies, especially on the hundreds of American women printmakers active before 1960 who were not discussed. Among those women artists whose early prints are featured in Paths to the Press are some whose impressive creativity helped to define contemporary American printmaking since 1960, including Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Catlett, Ynez Johnston (b. 1920), Clare Romano (b. 1922), Ellen Lanyon (b. 1926), Deborah Remington (b. 1935), and June Wayne. I look forward to a similar, comprehensive history of women's contributions to printmaking post-1960.
(1.) Between September 2005 and March 2008, the exhibition traveled to the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois; Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio; Louisiana State University Museum of Art, Baton Rouge; the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, Manhattan, where the exhibition was organized and the catalogue published; and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York.
(2.) For example, the subject of women printmakers involved in the WPA-FAP is discussed in four places (in the essays by Seaton, Langa, Pohlad, and North with Teller); also, similar information about several artists appears throughout the text (e.g., Moran's beginnings as an etcher intertwined with her duties as artist's wife and mother is covered in both Seaton's and Pohlad's essays, as well as in Moran's biography; likewise, similar information about Bryson-Shahn and Zorach appears in several places). Among the "oops" errors to be corrected: Ilya Bolotowsky (a man) is cited in the "Appendix of Women Printmakers active between 1910-1960" (251); and in Pohlad's essay, the name of a writer on Jackson Pollock is cited as married to him, instead of Lee Krasner (39).
Marilyn Symmes is Director and Curator of the Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She has organized numerous print exhibitions, authored important graphic arts publications, and is preparing a retrospective exhibition of Joan Snyder's prints for 2010.
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|Publication:||Woman's Art Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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