Navigate to Arts & Letters section

A Good Painter ... for a Woman

Lessons from a half-century in the art world

by
Pat Lipsky
November 14, 2022
Thomas Victor
The author in 1974Thomas Victor
Thomas Victor
The author in 1974Thomas Victor

It was 1970. My male colleagues didn’t know what to make of me. I was a new addition, a painter, possibly a competitor, who lived on the Upper East Side and had two little kids. And my work was selling like crazy. How did this happen?

Those young men came mostly from the Midwest. Looked at from their perspective, it’s clear that it wasn’t about the quality of my art, but rather a broader question of, “How do we get rid of her?” They had little experience treating women as equals. At the time the concept existed in only a few major U.S. cities: New York, LA, D.C. Not that it was practiced that much there.

My own experience had been limited to New York state: Lincoln High School, Cornell University, and Hunter College, where girls and young women were usually treated as equals. Only when we were about to leave school for the “real world” did the truth rear its ugly head. Despite our educations, the art world was not expecting us to apply for anything other than secretarial work. Although I’d been one of our professor’s favorites at Hunter, when he started assigning teaching jobs for the following year they all went to the guys who’d built his large wooden sculptures from cardboard maquettes. Having internalized the mores of that moment, I didn’t say a word. After all, who was I to take a job away from a man? Of course this made no sense, especially since I was the only grad student with kids who might really need my financial support.

I landed a job anyway by diligently cold-calling lesser colleges and universities in the area. It was a college teaching job in a hard-to-get-to town called Rutherford, New Jersey—certainly not as convenient a location as Hunter, 20 blocks from my apartment, would’ve been. All these years later, what I remember most is the vivid sunsets over the Hudson on my bus rides back home.

Soon after my pictures were taken on by André Emmerich Gallery. It meant they’d be mixing company with paintings by Hans Hofmann, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Ken Noland, and a few younger contemporaries. The gallery also provided a good vantage point from which to observe the rules of the art world. I noticed the guys in my generation promoting each other’s work, never mine. If an out-of-town art dealer was expected they’d set up appointments for each other. If a journalist needed input for an article, they’d suggest she/he contact one of them. They traded their work with each other, never me, implying my pictures were not up to their level. Once, at a party, a guy who’d been drinking let his hair down.“You’ve sold more paintings in a year,” he said, “than I’ve sold in five.”

At one point I was dating a poet who worked in publishing. He decided to pitch a book idea about my art to his boss. The most obstreperous painter from our group got wind of it and went crazy. “What?” he yelled, “You’re putting together a book about her? She’s nothing, her work stinks.” His words confirmed Schopenhauer’s worst thoughts about human nature: “Man in his unrelenting cruelty is in no way inferior to the tiger or the hyaena.”

It turned out many of my assumptions from college and grad school about the workings of the art world were wrong, which wasn’t fully a surprise, as they’d come mostly from an art history impressionism class. For instance, I thought the camaraderie that existed in Renoir’s picture “The Boating Party”—friends hanging out on a balcony, laughing, talking, drinking wine—would happen to me, perhaps in SoHo or the Hamptons. Not so. Even more significant, I’d managed to ignore the total lack of women, not only in impressionism, but before and after that movement. The only names of 19th-century women painters I knew were Berthe Morisot, Rosa Bonheur and Mary Cassatt, and the former simply because Manet had painted her a few times. I learned later he’d also critiqued her paintings and sometimes even painted on them. Still, when a mutual friend asked Manet what he thought of Morisot’s work he said, “She’s a good painter—for a woman.”

Soon I realized this situation extended into the 20th century. In a 1950s famous alumni photograph of Art Students League instructors there are about 30 men, and no women. In the noteworthy 1951 Life Magazine photograph of the abstract expressionists, one woman appears among 14 men. And it turns out Hedda Stern had just popped in a few minutes before and was asked to stay for the picture, feathered hat and all. Even in the late ’60s when I came aboard, the only contemporary women taken seriously were Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Frankenthaler, born in 1928, lived and worked in Manhattan. Mitchell, born in 1925, was based in Paris. Coincidentally, both were heiresses. It meant they’d never had to worry about selling their art.

Somehow it was arranged for the three of us to have drinks the next time Joan was in town. I remember a fancy rooftop bar in Midtown: Joan was wearing a tan cowboy hat and matching boots; Helen was dressed like a mannequin in a Bergdorf Goodman window. Once, right before an opening, I, myself, went to Bergdorf’s to buy my outfit only to realize later the blouse I chose was the same as one of hers. That afternoon, Joan had a macho, edgy vibe, whereas Helen spoke slowly as she looked right in your eye. Drinks went well enough but we never got together again. So many things are like that.

Perhaps one reason we never gathered again was that Helen and I were in the same gallery. And it turned out she didn’t like having another female around. In fact, we couldn’t even be there at the same time. One afternoon André and I were looking at slides of my new pictures—the strange sound-absorbing taupe carpet, the daylight and taxi noise from East 57th bouncing up through the windows; André kept looking at his watch and hurrying things along, and then all at once he turned to me. “I’m really sorry, Pat. Helen called and she’s en route; you’ll have to leave now.” And because there was some shared-elevator risk, I was asked, instructed and finally made to promise I would take the back stairs.

That August, when gallery sales were tallied up, Helen was upset by the number of paintings I’d sold. She demanded that the director helicopter in from the Jersey Shore to explain how this had happened. (Apparently she felt there was some connection between my success and her lackluster sales that season.) I didn’t realize you could be disliked by someone you looked up to; this was something you couldn’t predict: a mark of success that felt bad in the shoulders. I had entered a new realm where nothing could be anticipated.

Although I’d studied art from age 7, there were countless other things I didn’t get. For instance, there was a widespread tendency to consider paintings by women as separate and inherently inferior, as if we were not only a different sex but a different species. This tendency has only gotten worse over time, so that now there are whole shows like Women Painters from the Hamptons, Women Abstract Expressionists, Women This, Women That, further ghettoizing the art of painters who happen to be women.

This was all so different from attitudes I’d learned in my secular Jewish home, where women were often as powerful if not more powerful than men. As a child it was never suggested that I’d be less intelligent or creative than any boy my age.

Ironically, when I later observed Frankenthaler, who shared the same ethnic background, she didn’t appear to be cowed either. Au contraire, she always appeared to function with power. Helen’s credentials were impeccable—Park Avenue, Brearley, Dalton. The family was so well-heeled that in 1958 when her father, Justice Frankenthaler, died, the governor and mayor of New York were his pallbearers. Right after college Helen got involved with Clem Greenberg. who then introduced her to Pollock and other trailblazers of that moment. A few years later he proposed. Helen didn’t answer immediately. Some days later she got around to replying by telegram. It read, “The answer is definitely no.” When Greenberg told me about this he said, “I was so relieved I danced all night.”

She then moved on to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Robert Motherwell—the only abstract expressionist to have had an independent income. But after they were married for a while, things got competitive. A gossipy friend told me, “When Bob informed Helen she couldn’t use ultramarine blue anymore she thought maybe. But when he extended that to yellow ochre she said no.” I remember the elevator guy at Hahn Brothers art warehouse describing Motherwell’s response when, by mistake, a painting of hers landed in his storage space. “Get that picture out of here,” he yelled, “and don’t let it happen again.”

Some women tried to break into the scene through more unorthodox methods. Hannah Wilke and Lynda Benglis were two of my contemporaries in SoHo. The former, at the time Claes Oldenburg’s girlfriend, started out sculpting vulvas out of chewing gum. Benglis continued her vulva theme. In her first exhibition, she arranged to be photographed nude with a double-pronged dildo coming out of her vagina. Then she placed this photo in an Artforum ad to announce her opening. I was stunned when people actually went for it. Other women, Charlotte Moorman for one, followed suit, in one exhibition “lying naked on the stage of the New School … her cello on top of her.” Finally, in her “Opera Sextronique,” performed at the Filmmakers Cinematheque, she managed to get herself arrested, leading to a front page New York Times story along with a photo of Moorman being escorted in the snow by two cops to their paddy wagon.

Meanwhile, fully clothed, I kept painting abstract canvases in my Wooster Street loft, not only ignoring what was going over in galleries and art magazines but also what Susan Sontag had called for, “an erotics of art.”

That was over half a century ago. More women are now supposed to be getting attention and succeeding in the field. But if you look closely it’s often still in compromised and sexualized circumstances. Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose. Just recently, I saw that one of the works by Lisa Yuskavage who paints pulpy pictures of naked or seminude women, masturbating or awaiting rape, is now a “promised gift” to MOMA.

To this day, it also still doesn’t hurt to have a famous male connection. On many gallery bios if you look down to the fourth or fifth line you’ll see, “wife of,” “partner of,” and then the guy’s name. This goes back of course to Stieglitz’s early photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe nude, which were first shown in 1921 and made her instantly famous. Then there’s Frida Kahlo who in her 1949 canvas “Diego and I” painted herself with tears running down her cheeks and an insert of Diego’s head between her eyebrows. The work recently sold at Christies for $34.9 million, proving when you buy a Kahlo, one way or another, you’re getting a Rivera too. An amusing recent star is the 25-year-old realist, Anna Weyant, whose prices, after only a few years of showing, have reached the low millions. Turns out she’s the girlfriend of the 71-year-old international art dealer Larry Gagosian.

These sagas are just a continuation of the 800-year span of art history, in which you’ll find the names of thousands of male painters, many of them mediocre or worse. At the same time there are hardly any women listed. Many of those who managed to break into a field which consistently excluded them, were canceled after their deaths and their art work either attributed to male counterparts or destroyed. Case in point: the golden age, 17th-century Dutch painter Judith Leyster. During her lifetime her paintings were exhibited and acquired. But after her death, when work with her signature—the initials J.L—arrived on the art market, they were diligently erased and Franz Hals’ initials—F.H.—were superimposed over them! Two hundred years later, in 1893, the ongoing “mistake” was finally noticed and rectified.

So it is, and so the “rectification” goes. I knew none of this when, as a teenager, I naïvely decided to become a painter.

Pat Lipsky is a Color Field painter and writer.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.