Catalog/essay review: American Women Modernists (BYU)

Wanda Gag, “Moonlight” (1926)

Thus it could be argued that while modernism theoretically protected the values of individuals, those individuals were required to be of a particular race and class in order for society to reach its pure objectives. While modernism theoretically protected the expression of an individual, that expression would only be accepted if it supported the prevailing social march. And while individualism was the source of style and substance in art, it was often only recognized if it was in accordance with the prevailing practice or the emerging form that was its contradiction. (Campbell B. Gray, Preface)

Before I started reading American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, I was a little appalled that the title of the catalog seemed to imply that some dude named Robert was the sole influence in the artistic careers of a number of women, or that their success was completely dependent on him. However, as soon as I saw that this catalog was published in 2005, I realized that there is no way that the scholarship included would paint such a picture (especially Erika Doss, who once called out someone I know on a particularly crass joke about finding a penny versus caring about women’s basketball). While Robert Henri is ultimately at the heart of this catalog, since the women artists discussed/exhibited were his students, it is more about how women and Henri’s beliefs about true modernism changed the course of modern American art history. 

Margaret Bruton, “Acacia” (1927)

This catalog has been a valuable addition to my comps/thesis reading list. Not only is it about women artists in modern America, it examines a lot of key issues relating to regionalism and minor history. It takes a look at some of the many women who have been excluded from modernist art history and how these women participated in modernizing women’s roles, how their artwork relates to women’s involvement in other sects of American culture, and how gender controlled art, sales, reception, and productivity. These women lived all across America, dislodging the idea that New York City was the only place in which an artist could be successful or productive. The catalog proposes that there were two courses that Modernism took: the mainstream course, in which artists catered to what was expected of their work, and the theoretical/ideal course, which was all about individuality of expression and the elimination of hierarchies. This latter course sometimes resulted in lack of monetary success, but to Robert Henri, that was not important. He encouraged his students to make art that was rooted in personal feelings and lived experiences, which produced a wide variety of styles, subjects, and media. Women were particularly exemplary of his modernist ideals, and the lack of a fixed aesthetic or subject matter at this time has shifted our perception of modern American art history.

One of the biggest questions the essays in this catalog raise is about Henri’s relationship with his students. While he may not have been outright sexist– he supported women’s suffrage, taught many female students, and socialized with women– he did not treat his students equally. He was very supportive of all of his students, which is particularly evidenced by his countless pieces of correspondence with many of them, but he tended to be on friendlier terms with his male students. He even gendered art male, as is evidenced by his statement that artists should “be a man first… an artist later” (5). His male students also tended to find more monetary (i.e. mainstream) success. He may not have treated his students’ budding careers equally, and it is implied that his female students may have been the perfect candidates to create his ideal modernism: was he encouraging his female students to embrace the individualism (which included regional aspects) theoretical modernism proselytized so much in order to create more powerful and relevant work? Or was he tactfully keeping them out of the fiercely competitive, male-dominated avant garde? The essays in this catalog seem to lean more forwards the former, and not only because it would be fruitless to paint Robert Henri in an unflattering light.

Elizabeth Olds, “Harlem Musicians” (1937)

The catalog claims that American modernism in art was an ambivalent response to modernization, which embraced new technologies while condemning dehumanization, and that modernism sought to bridge the gaps between classes, races, and genders. It was a rebellion against Victorian beliefs, a revolution in diversity of media, and an open embracing of new experiences. However, realistic application of these ideals was more complicated, and women were faced with obstacles not typically encountered by men. Artistic opportunities were even further complicated by race, class, and regional factors. Still, this catalog reiterates that in spite of these obstacles, women found a freedom that added to a “pervasive feeling of threat to male systems of power” (15). Though modernism both opened up and limited opportunities for women artists, this “new woman”– one who was at last able to express herself on her own terms– was vital to modernism as a whole.

Robert Henri’s painting class (1912)

… let [an artist] find through [his] training the utmost freedom of expression… and without question, his art will be characteristically American, whatever the subject (Robert Henri, 1909 [19])

I was especially interested in Gwendolyn Owens’ essay, “Hidden Histories: Robert Henri’s Female Students and the Market for American Art,” as I am currently on a quest to figure out why some art (such as art by many Colorado artists) does not seem to matter to a lot of people. Owens proves that women were given more opportunities to exhibit modern art (and many of them exhibited frequently and all over the place), yet so many of their stories remain untold and are therefore largely excluded from the modern art historical canon. The assumptions that art dealers were sexist or that collectors preferred work by more mainstream male artists are not always true– many male artists are excluded from art history as well. Oftentimes, the artists’ social situations, tenacity, the economy, and just plain luck could play a role in the recognition (or lack thereof) of artists. There was a surprisingly large number of artists creating work– the 1920 census  showed that 35,402 reported being artists, sculptors, or art teachers– and the numbers of art schools teaching students and galleries exhibiting work were always growing. Our knowledge of the modern art market is fragmented, and because not all documentation has survived, our view of modern American art history will always be incomplete (or at the very least skewed).

Henrietta Shore, “Women of Oaxaca” (1927)

Owens emulates Robert Henri’s beliefs that individualism is more important than making money, because money does not equal value. Not all artists made money off of their work– oftentimes artists could not sell their work due to social reasons (ex. some women could not damage their husband’s status in the community by outshining him through art sales)– therefore sales records are not the only gauge for an artist’s success. Henri taught his students to not be discouraged by rejections, because everyone has received a rejection at some point, nor by lack of sales.

How to reconcile all of this information to my benefit? Modernism is currently being re-evaluated, and women’s roles are finally seen as crucial in reshaping (in this case) American modernism. These women did not have to be widely seen in the art historical canon in order to have a contributory role; their individualism seen in their variety of styles, subjects, and media demonstrates that there is no single way to look at art. In other words, it is being proven that minor histories inform the major, even if an individual artist’s work is largely unknown.


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