Lincoln "Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968" is the rare show that encourages you to rethink an entire period. Curated by Sid Sachs of the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where it premiered last winter, it is billed as the first-ever all-woman survey of Pop art. Affording us the opportunity to rediscover artists and see unfamiliar work, the show revisits the origins of Pop art and the influence wielded by popular culture internationally during the decade in question.1 In subject matter, content and esthetics, the work on view departs in surprising and significant ways from what one might expect of Pop art, and in so doing challenges much received wisdom about the movement.
In the early '60s, the term "Pop" was generally applied to art that depicted mundane objects or banal commercial products, and whose imagery and style referenced advertising or graphic design. Pop's defining exhibitions-"New Painting of Common Objects," curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum; "The New Realists," at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York (both 1962); and "Six Painters and the Object," organized by Lawrence Alloway at the Guggenheim Museum (1963)-were all-male affairs (though Marisol was included in the Janis show). Sachs reminds us that there is much more to Pop-to its artistic sources and objectives-than the critical and art historical canon would lead us to believe. Ideas about Pop art, right down to the roster of its principal proponents, have rarely strayed far from those set forth in Lucy R. Lippard's 1966 book Pop Art.
"Seductive Subversion" includes not only underknown Pop artists but also artists who are not typically identified with the movement. Marisol and Niki de Saint Phalle, both well known and associated with mainstream Pop, are present, but so is the Greek-born artist Chryssa, who is now fairly obscure but had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1961, when she was in her late 20s. (Having begun as a painter, she did pioneering work in neon in the '60s and '70s.) Other familiar figures in the exhibition are Yayoi Kusama, Martha Rosler, Vija Celmins and Faith Ringgold, who, while they are not identified with Pop today, were considered Pop-ish during the decade covered. Still others were (and are) better known abroad than in the U.S.: the Briton Pauline Boty (1938-1966), who was also an occasional model and actress of stage, film and TV; Jann Haworth, an American who participated in the British Pop art movement; the Swede Barbro Östlihn (1930-1995), who had a retrospective at the Art Museum of Norrköping in 2003; and, from Belgium, Evelyne Axell (1935-1972), a TV presenter, actress and scriptwriter turned artist.
The catalogue does a good job of documenting the systematic exclusions these artists experienced. They were treated as second-class citizens in the male-dominated art world of the period, and their work continues to be overlooked in most surveys of Pop. Yet neither the catalogue nor exhibition constitutes a feminist grudge-fest. While the timeframe covered coincides with the emergence of second-wave feminism, much of the work in "Seductive Subversion" seems at first to replicate the objectification of women, along with prevailing views of the feminine and domestic. As Sachs points out, the era's gender divisions, both in the domestic and public spheres, permeated the artistic and personal lives of the women surveyed. Nonetheless, we find in the representation of these themes an implicit proto-feminist attitude-though sometimes the work is more overt, as in the case of 10 photomontages by Martha Rosler focusing on what one might think of as the politicization of feminine domestic servitude and decorum. The women in Rosler's collages may go about doing their chores, sometimes in homes decorated with posters by famous Pop artists, but the world impinges in places as images of war taken from newspapers occupy windows or picture frames.
Helpfully, given the unfamiliar terrain covered, the catalogue is less a document of the exhibition than a stand-alone book [not yet issued as A.i.A. goes to press]. It provides information on the lives and careers of women artists identified with Pop and furnishes a context for both the period and the show. Essays by Sachs, Rosler, Linda Nochlin and Kalliopi Minioudaki address the issue of feminism, while individual case studies of some of the artists are supplied by Bradford Collins (on Rosalyn Drexler), Annika Ohrner (on Östlihn) and Sue Tate (on Boty and other women artists associated with British Pop). Patty Mucha gives a first-person account of her years of marriage to Claes Oldenburg during the beginnings of Pop; it was she who fabricated his early soft sculptures. (The essay is a reprint of an article first published in A.i.A., Nov. '02.)
While this might seem petty, I find the title "Seductive Subversion" misleading, tinged more with chauvinism than irony. The term "seduction" can imply what were once considered feminine wiles-guile, coyness and even deceit.
The work in the show is, if anything, antithetical to seduction in this sense. In fact, the exhibition lives up to its original working title, "Beyond the Surface: Women and Pop Art, 1958-1968," which is now the title of Sachs's catalogue essay-a response to the famous comment by Warhol that if you want to know all about him or his work, all you need to do is look at the surface. Sachs's efforts, by contrast, go well beyond a superficial reading of the movement. The artists in "Seductive Subversion" employ Pop motifs and styles, but they do not adopt the cool industrial look normally associated with Pop. Nor do they emphasize product labels and logos, or the esthetics of mass reproduction. While social and cultural commentary might arise in art using commercial techniques, formats and styles, the established artists here often turned to more hand-made means to convey their messages. They also make little or no reference to celebrities, glamour, glitz or kitsch (though Joyce Wieland does incorporate into her 1964 construction Young Woman's Blues a cheap dime-store Valentine's Day heart and a plastic model of a jet plane). Sachs's account embraces Pop's sources in craft, folk art, gendered imagery (particularly the representation of women's bodies) and individual experience as well as other contemporary art. All combine to give expression to highly personal approaches and points of view.