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"Mariam Shapiro: Works on Paper, A Thirty Year Retrospective"
2000-02-19 until 2000-05-07
Brevard Museum of Art and Science
Melbourne, FL, USA United States of America

It is a rare feat for an artist to have a career that spans 45 years, especially a career that continues to grow and evolve. Miriam Schapiro has been making art for most of her life. Through her art, she has created her own vocabulary, searched for her identity, and has elevated and rescued other women artists from obscurity. In a determined, steadfast way, Schapiro has been a pioneer in art history, but one does not have to be a scholar or even an artist to appreciate her exuberant approach to art: bold colors, large scale work, frequent use of collage and patterned fabrics.

Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1923, Schapiro’s life in art started early. Her father, Theodore Schapiro, was an artist and raised his daughter to become one. He taught her drawing at age 6 and enrolled her in a life drawing class at 14 -- though he had to lie about her age to get her in. She received her B.A. in 1945, M.A. in 1946, and M.F.A in 1949 from The State University of Iowa in Iowa City. Also in 1946, Schapiro met and married artist Paul Brach. Brach taught at the University of Missouri for two years, but few teaching positions, other than ceramics or weaving, were open to women. Schapiro was stuck as a faculty wife. Happy with their chosen lifestyles, being artists and teachers, but not with their positions, they moved to New York in 1951. This was the heyday of the Abstract Expressionists. Their first home was in the 10th Street Studio building. They frequented The Club and the Cedar Street Tavern, both renowned hangouts for the Abstract Expressionists. In the male-dominated art world of the fifties, women artists were not taken seriously; they were considered hobbyists.

During the fifties, Schapiro and Brach both exhibited in group shows at artist run galleries. In 1957, Schapiro had her debut at the New Talent Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Andre Emmerich saw her work and asked her to join his gallery, where she showed with him regularly until 1976.

With the birth of their son Peter in 1955 came the end of their night life. Schapiro was juggling child raising and art making. Living in a small walk-up apartment, Schapiro claimed the adjoining central rooms (15 x 30 feet) as her studios; Brach said, we lived in the corners around her working space. Meanwhile Brach was busy teaching at the New School, N.Y.U., Cooper Union and the Parsons School of Design.

Where is the mirror in the world to reveal who I amNULL—Miriam Schapiro, 1970

By the late 50s, Schapiro was experiencing a crisis: she could no longer paint. Finding little literal or symbolic support for her ambition and creativity, Schapiro felt constrained by her social and cultural identification as mother, wife, and daughter. Isolated from the artistic community which did not recognize women artists, Schapiro struggled to find her identity through her work, her lifeline. She moved away from the lyrical, abstract expressionistic paintings she had created since graduate school, introducing geometric structures and symbolic imagery. Experimenting with new formal and thematic possibilities, Schapiro seemed to be grappling with her own conflicts between the freedom to create and the entrapment of domesticity. The tower/house series, her visual responses, were articulating what she could not yet express verbally. (Not until much later, during the feminist consciousness raising sessions of the seventies, did Schapiro have the language to understand her isolation and alienation.)

The Shrines were Schapiro’s first fully realized autobiographical paintings. These paintings provided the thematic context and formal order Schapiro had been searching for. Her new and original artistic vocabulary allowed her -- albeit covertly -- to name the unspoken, the story of her life. The Shrines were symbolic of Schapiro’s body and soul, each compartment containing an aspect of the creative woman artist. This series briefly answered Schapiro’s deep felt need for a unified self.

If I repeat the shape of my being enough times will that shape be seenNULL—Miriam Schapiro, 1970

In 1967, Brach became the first chairman of the art department at the University of California, San Diego. Schapiro taught as an acting assistant professor and painted in a studio on campus. Schapiro met David Nalibof, a young physicist who would design computer programs that would plot and alter her drawings into a variety of points of view. This was the origin of Ox, 1968, her first feminist work.

Brach left the university to become the first Dean of the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts; Schapiro was the school’s only female faculty member. In 1970, she and artist Judy Chicago pitched the idea of a university-based art program open only to female students (inspired by Chicago’s program at Fresno State College) to the faculty and received unanimous support. The Cal Arts Feminist Art Program’s first project was Womanhouse in 1971. The students in the new program transformed a ramshackle 17-room house in Hollywood into a work of art in which each room reflected a different female point of view.

Never before had an art project depicted the interior and exterior life of a woman so straightforwardly. Because this collaborative environment introduced a set of woman-centered images unknown to the art aesthetics of the day, it was seen by the male-defined art world as highly confrontational. Reporters from Life and Time magazines, PBS and thousands of visitors flocked to the controversial installation, open for only a brief period in 1972. Schapiro and her assistant Sherry Brody created a six-room doll house as part of the project; this mini space allowed Schapiro to indulge in her fantasy projections of domesticity—so much a part of her inner life, but until now absent from her art. Schapiro has said this was the greatest epiphany of her life: her first connection with the other half of the world, women.

She realized that she could tap into a new culture. This breakthrough occurred at age 48. Courageously, she embarked on a new artistic journey, jeopardizing her hard earned acceptance in the art world, transforming from a private artist into a public person, traveling around the country, championing women’s work, old and new, and collecting examples of crafts which began to show up in her own work. Schapiro coined the term femmage to refer to the work of anonymous women, those who have been excluded from high art. Schapiro’s entire oeuvre from the seventies until the present has been a rally to rescue those marginalized images from women’s culture and women artists from invisibility.

For me the fabric of my art and the fabric of my life equate each other.—Miriam Schapiro, 1976.

Schapiro’s new found freedom opened her work to her feminine side. Free to embellish, she taught herself new techniques and moved into collage. This patterning impulse became known as the pattern and decoration movement. She has invented a series of new themes and has called them her lexicon of imagery, using them as single motifs or in combinations. A commonality to the themes is a strong formal presence as well as associations with women’s physical and interior lives: the kimono, the costume shapes, handkerchiefs, aprons, hearts, houses and fans. Including the multiple layers of reading, these recognizable shapes supply an armature for Schapiro to conjoin pictorial architecture and opulent decoration.

In the eighties, Schapiro reintroduced the human figure into her work. Exuberant dancing figures explore Schapiro’s relationship to her male and female prototypes. Schapiro uses dance as a metaphor; dance expresses Schapiro’s desire to move effortlessly with elegance with respect to the creative act.

As the works in this show demonstrate, Schapiro has had a long and varied career and continues to reconstruct and define her identity through her art. She has championed women’s work and women’s history, turning her longing for community into visual collages that gather the past and the anonymous together for public communion. These collaborations with female artists of the past illuminate her lineage and reclaim the richness of women’s history -- for all of us. She has honored millions of nameless women by bringing craft techniques -- costume, weaving, needlework, collage, visual diaries, and all the creative forms in women’s culture -- into the realm of high art, forever, expanding the vocabulary of artists and viewers alike. The process of her journey informs ours as well.


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