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Old Women

by Jillian Steinhauer
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

Old Women

Jillian Steinhauer
266 Snaps

The best way to succeed as a woman artist is to be old. Not necessarily dead yet, but with the specter of death hanging over you. You’ve got to be past seventy, at least. Preferably you’ve been making art for a long time, and it’s either been gathering dust in your home, rarely if ever shown, or is exhibited mostly in alternative and educational spaces. This way, you arrive with a body of work intact: you’ve already found your voice and honed your craft. Your art is visionary—which means valuable—and you’ve resisted the odds, outlasted the forces of sexism, racism, and any other exclusionary isms that apply. You’re a safe bet at the same time as you’re a discovery.

The artist Pat Steir explains this dynamic in Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s documentary about her life and work, Pat Steir: Artist, which came out in 2020, the year she turned eighty. She’s now “an honorary man,” she says, because of her age. “The art world, it’s easier on older women because they feel like, you have the artwork they’ve never seen—because they’ve ignored it,” Steir said. The camera takes in the opening of her solo show at an Upper East Side gallery, a who’s who of the New York art scene. “So it’s like finding hidden treasure and then also bargain prices… they can get high-quality for less money than if you were a guy and had been famous for thirty years.”

The list of artists who’ve been subject to this dynamic is long. I started making one when I received a grant to write about the phenomenon last year. Carmen Herrera. Cecilia Vicuña. Lorraine O’Grady. Agnes Denes. Howardena Pindell. Luchita Hurtado. Diane Simpson. Gladys Nilsson. Betye Saar. Zilia Sánchez. These women come from vastly different backgrounds and have made widely disparate types of work, but they’ve often been treated the same way: as an archetype, like the wise crone in fairy tales. And though the old-woman artist has spent her whole life building her own agency, when she finally makes it to the mainstream, she gets presented primarily as an object of fascination.

“All too often the stories of women’s lives are forced into the age-old paradigm of the Genius Male Artist,” writes the critic and curator Ashton Cooper in a 2015 essay for Hyperallergic. “The ‘genius’ artist has toiled away for years until she is finally found or discovered by the boys’ club. Unsurprisingly, there is often no discussion of the forces of exclusion faced by the female artist.”

Nor is there enough discussion of the current forces of exclusion that keep these stories firmly grounded in the realm of myth. A fall 2019 report by the publications Artnet News and In Other Words found that despite much clamor over increased attention being paid to artists from long-marginalized groups, “just 11% of all acquisitions and 14% of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were of work by female artists.” The market is even worse: between 2008 and the first part of 2019, only 2 percent of the roughly $197 billion spent on art at auction went toward works by women. As if that weren’t bad enough, in the same period, more money was spent on pieces by Picasso than on those by six thousand female artists combined.

What to make of such appalling numbers? On the one hand, they give the lie to the liberal narrative of progress. Can there be real progress at institutions that are structured by white heteropatriarchy? What if our stories about marginalized artists are just feel-good fodder for a system designed to exclude them? I think here of Carolee Schneemann, who in 1999 declined a request to nominate someone for a MacArthur fellowship. “I am not the only woman artist with a distinguished history who has no way to sustain her work, nor provide for her future,” she wrote in a letter explaining her own bleak financial situation. Using a phrase that has stuck indelibly in my mind, she spoke of “being in dire straits while enduring a fantasy of success and achievement.”

A “fantasy of success,” even if it’s played out in public, does not guarantee personal stability.

I also think of Carmen Herrera, who sold her first painting when she was eighty-nine and had an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art when she was one hundred and one. Near the end of Alison Klayman’s short 2015 documentary about Herrera, The 100 Years Show, the artist remarks that she’s glad to finally be selling art, because the money lets her hire caretakers for herself. We see her in a wheelchair, chopping vegetables under the supervision of an aide. “Otherwise I couldn’t; I would have to go to a nursing home or…” She trails off, scrunching up her nose and making a face. “No, no!” The comment is simple and offhanded, but almost shockingly honest about the complicated realities of late-in-life fame. The system didn’t work for Herrera, until one day, it did.

As part of their report, Artnet News and In Other Words asked women in the art world to react to the findings. “It’s like we’re crabs: if one or two of us gets out of the bucket, it feels so exciting,” the artist Mickalene Thomas observed. “But what are we cheering? We should be protesting!… We got so settled after a little bit of growth instead of getting infuriated about the fact that it has not really changed.”

I wonder: Do we have to choose? How can we learn to cheer and protest at the same time?

Tropes and euphemisms abound for describing the old-woman artist. One of them has to do with time, specifically the idea that she went un- or underrecognized for so long because she was somehow out of sync with her moment. “Like so many women artists in postwar America,” art critic Laura Cumming writes in The Guardian, Herrera “seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Agnes Denes was, according to critic Anne Midgette of The Washington Post, “miles ahead of her time.” Even the artist Betye Saar, when asked by The New York Times why she thought she was getting major attention at age ninety-three, simply answered, “Because it’s about time!”

In this context, time means something close to a zeitgeist, and given that this is America, the mainstream, moneyed zeitgeist is almost always white, male, straight, able-bodied. By definition, women, especially women of color, never fit into their times, because the times are not made for them. Instead of confronting this fact, journalists and critics—especially white ones—tend to explain it away.

Not only that, but one’s relationship to time depends on where you are within it and in what direction you’re looking. You could see the portraits that Alice Neel made beginning in the 1930s as visionary, in the way they presaged the current revival of psychologically charged realist painting among artists like Jordan Casteel. Or you could view them as they were considered at the time: as retrograde, clinging to figuration when abstraction was the avant-garde. Either way, Neel’s moment didn’t come until she was in her sixties, after decades spent living in poverty. She had her first retrospective when she was seventy-four. The following year, she started working on a self-portrait that would take her five years, until 1980, to finish.

The painting shows her nude, holding a brush and a rag. She sits in the blue-and-white-striped chair in which she posed so many models. Her posture is a mix of alert and relaxed: she leans forward and hunches her shoulders, while her breasts droop and rest on her protruding belly. Perhaps her most striking feature is her face: she confronts the viewer with a defiant gaze. One eyebrow is cocked over a pair of glasses, disappearing into a hill of white hair. Her expression reads like a challenge.

By 1980, it wasn’t uncommon to see women depicting themselves naked in their art. The second-wave feminist movement had opened up a space to reclaim nudity from the male gaze. Artists like Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, and Joan Semmel used their bodies as material and inspiration. But none of them was even close to eighty years old. Their bodies were, in certain ways, normative, even if they were doing things like pulling scrolls out of their vaginas. Neel took the ethos of empowerment and extended it by daring viewers to look at her aging, naked, female self—in the process bucking one of the firmest and most stifling taboos in American culture. She took the traditional medium of portrait painting and stretched it to fit her presence.

Neel was white. In that crucial respect, she upheld the standards of the mainstream. And since she was old and, finally, successful, she’d earned the right to do what she pleased. The problems Neel was confronting—of subjectivity, visibility, age, and body image—have always been far more complicated for women of color.

The Black artist Emma Amos spent much of her career addressing these problems. In her prints and paintings, many of which are bordered with African fabric, she tackled the complexities of identity, the ways we make and place ourselves in and against a world that uses definition as a form of oppression. Her 1994 painting Work Suit is a particularly trenchant example. It depicts Amos wearing a skin—the “work suit” of the title—that’s not her own but rather that of a white man. She holds a palette in one hand and a slender brush in the other, wielding the latter as something of a weapon. Down at her feet, a young, white, female nude lies, her body twisted, with a look of surprise. The scene is set against an expressionistic eruption of yellow and reddish-brown that gives it a mysterious, metaphorical air, as if Amos were some sort of messenger standing amid righteous flames.

Crucially, Amos’s work suit isn’t just generic white-guy flesh; it’s photo-transferred from Lucian Freud’s 1993 Painter Working, Reflection. Freud’s painting, which he made just after his seventieth birthday, owes something to Neel’s groundbreaking self-portrait. Both artists depict themselves naked and facing the viewer in their studio. But whereas Neel is clear-eyed, with an aging body, Freud is fit, with a faraway expression. Perhaps he’s caught up in the throes of male genius. 

It makes sense that fifty-seven-year-old Amos would have donned the seventy-year-old Freud’s skin as a symbol. Unlike some other Black women artists, Amos did not spend the bulk of her career in obscurity. She was the only female member of the historic Spiral Group, a collective that, during its brief life in the 1960s, asked and argued over what Black art should look like and what its relationship to politics should be. Amos showed her work regularly from the ’70s on. A survey of ten years of her work opened at the College of Wooster Art Museum in 1993 and traveled to several more venues. But the attention of large and largely white institutions, as well as of the art market, eluded her.

Freud’s career, by contrast, checked all the boxes of success. At thirty-one, he was tapped to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. His first retrospective opened two decades later, in 1974—incidentally, the same year as Neel’s, though he was almost twenty-three years her junior. He was touted as “the greatest living realist painter” by a leading critic, and made a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, for which she agreed to pose. In 2008, one of his pieces sold for $33.6 million, then the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.

Freud enjoyed the kind of fame and fortune that only a man can receive. His predatory sins—pursuing the artist Celia Paul when she was eighteen and he fifty-five, fathering at least fourteen children with several different women—have long since been forgiven, even justified, on account of his art.

Yet if I had to choose, I’d take Work Suit over Painter Working, Reflection. With its multimedia elements, its multiple figures and associations, Amos’s piece contains a level of insight that Freud’s lacks: a sense not just of the uncomfortable realities of one’s own compromised existence but of the social and political context in which they’re forged.

Amos was keenly aware of that context. In 1993, in an interview with the feminist scholar bell hooks, published in hooks’s 1995 book Art on My Mind, she responds to a question about how she continued to affirm herself in the face of marginalization, saying: “I think that I’ve had to learn that success is not going to come to me the way it came to the blue-chip artists, and that only a small number of artists are really successful in the marketplace, anyway. And it’s not going to be me, or, if so, it’s going to be a late splurge on the order of what happened to Alice Neal [sic], Elizabeth Catlett, or Faith Ringgold.” She’s not especially fazed, though. “I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do, and that’s what keeps me going,” she explains. 

Amos’s matter-of-factness—the way she casually sees and accepts, rather than bemoans, her fate—has haunted me since I first read this passage. But I found myself returning to it in further awe when Amos died, in spring 2020, because as she approached her life’s end, her prediction came to fruition. Her work had recently become better known thanks to her inclusion in several high-profile exhibitions. A retrospective of the full breadth of her career opened in January 2021 at the Georgia Museum of Art, but she didn’t live to see it. I don’t know if she was even aware of the changing dynamic—she had Alzheimer’s. 

In 2011, in a far cry from the accepting tone she took with hooks, Amos lamented to an interviewer for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art: 

Here I am at 73, and I wake up in the morning and say, “I have one piece at the Museum of Modern Art. I wonder, is it still there?” You know, I wonder if I’ve been deaccessioned. And I wonder how come there’s nobody who knows who I am. In other words, you know, I am not the top artist in this city at all—woman artist. I would have thought that I would have done better, you know. I really thought that I would have done better.

I wish I could remind Amos that it was never a question of doing better, at least not by her own hand. I wish I could tell her that, yes, MoMA still has her work, and that it happened for her the way it has to countless others. I wish I could say she was right, and that it took too long, but there are many of us now who know very well who she is. 

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