Through her eyes: A spotlight on female artists
Shunned by art history, female artists are at long last staking their claim as some of the market’s most significant players. Here, our experts explain why — with works from our upcoming Post-War and Contemporary Art sale in New York
That the work of female artists is as diverse, individual and accomplished as that of their male peers goes without saying. Yet art history has long subordinated their practice: in 1723, Dutch painter Margareta Haverman was expelled from the Académie Royal in Paris when the painting she submitted was judged too good to have been done by a woman. More than 250 years later, in the late 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls — an anonymous collective of female artists — famously asked why fewer than five per cent of artists in the Met’s Modern Art sections were women.
Today, however, several women artists are deservedly claiming their place as market leaders. While our Post-War and Contemporary Art sale presents them as equals to their male peers, our all-female team of specialists — Vivian Brodie, Rachael White and Kathryn Widing (with a special guest contribution from Head of Photographs, Darius Himes) — has nevertheless chosen to acknowledge their rise to prominence with a specially dedicated section, Through Her Eyes. Here our experts explain why, for smart collectors, these seven artists are most definitely worth watching.
Vivian Brodie: ‘Born in 1945, American artist Barbara Kruger spent her early career working as a designer for some of the biggest magazines of her era — an experience that had a visible impact on her later practice. Over the course of four decades she has produced political works that confront themes including consumerism and feminism, in a style that is quickly identifiable and highly authoritative.
‘Today, she is best known for photographs featuring bold, overlaid text, conveying slogans that question understandings of gender and propose the female body as a battleground. It was imperative that Kruger feature in Through Her Eyes, not only because of the international recognition she has received as an artist, but for her ongoing commitment to gender and identity politics, and the directness with which she confronts viewers with these issues.’
Vivian Brodie: ‘Jenny Holzer is best known for her ‘truisms’ — large statements including “Protect Me from What I Want” and “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”, which have appeared on billboards, as LED signs in galleries and museums, and in large-scale projections mounted around the world. These one-line phrases touch on issues including feminism, oppression, power and sexuality, making visible and prominent that which too often goes hidden or unsaid.
‘In 1989, Holzer became the first female artist to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale. A key voice in the dialogue surrounding women and contemporary art, her work has returned to feminism and sexuality throughout her career — and is remarkable for doing so in such a public and direct way. Often associated with the Pictures Generation artists of the 1980s (Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Louise Lawler), unlike her contemporaries she works across an extraordinary range of media, from light installations to painting.’
Rachael White: ‘Until recently, Elaine de Kooning’s talent as an artist was recognised almost exclusively within select circles, and she spent much of her life in the shadow of her husband, the acclaimed artist Willem de Kooning. The significance of her practice, however, was enormous: she made her first abstract paintings in the mid-1940s and quickly moved to portraiture, combining the tenets of Abstract Expressionism with figuration — in doing so, carving her own niche within the movement.
‘Today, Elaine de Kooning is justly prized by the art world, both for her gestural portraits and for brilliant abstractions (such as Bull Abstraction, above) — each energetic, gestural and luminous in colour. In 2015 she was the subject of a solo exhibition at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and, in 2016, featured in the landmark exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism, held at the Denver Art Museum. Our team was keen to celebrate her work because of this revival, and as interest in her career increases we expect to see a heightened market as well.’
Rachael White: ‘Helen Frankenthaler came to prominence at the denouement of Abstract Expressionism, creating works that paved the way for the development of Colour Field painting — a new style of abstraction that came to dominate the contemporary arts scene of New York in the 1950s and 60s. Moving away from brushstroke and gesture, Colour Field focused on large areas of solid colour, as seen in the works of artists including Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and, later, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.
‘Frankenthaler’s “stain” technique — in which she poured turpentine-thinned paint directly onto raw canvas — bridged the gap between earlier works by Jackson Pollock and the later Colour Field painters. While she was averse to gender differentiation, her works of the period are visibly more fluid, gestural and harmonious in style than those of her male peers. Painted in 1986, Regatta is a late example of this style with tremendous visual impact.’
Kathryn Widing: ‘Lee Bontecou was one of the few female artists to receive recognition in the 1960s, attracting the art world’s attention with profoundly original works that defied easy classification. Sculptures such as Untitled, above, are a prime example, featuring a metal frame filled with scraps of canvas and other materials that gather around a large, central circular opening.
‘The motif is one that recurs across Bontecou’s practice until the 1970s, and the artist has suggested that these voids relate both to a fascination for the technology and mystery of space travel, as well as the dark emotions associated with fear, violence and the unknown. Early works by Bontecou, such as the one above, are rare and don’t often appear at auction.’
Kathryn Widing: ‘In the 1960s Minimalist art was sleek and male-dominated; Lynda Benglis, however, pioneered a new form of abstraction focused on materials in action. She became renowned for works created from liquid wax, latex and foam, poured directly onto gallery floors, where they hardened to form brightly coloured quasi-volcanic masses.
‘The undulate forms that resulted are a nod to the feminist roots of Benglis’s practice, which has proved enormously influential in discussions about women in art. As MoMA curator Laura Hoptmas comments: “Anybody who is using that bodily biomorphism is Benglis. Anybody who is being very out with her sexuality is Benglis.” Metal sculptures such as Circinus (above) echo these forms, and have attracted considerable interest at auction, with a group of metal sculptures setting a record in 2014. Benglis’s output is diverse, and she has also produced videos and photographs.’
Darius Himes: ‘Diane Arbus is recognised as one of the seminal image-makers of the 20th century. In 1967 her work received both critical and public acclaim when it featured in the MoMA exhibition New Documents, featuring alongside photographs by Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Arbus’s images were significant, clearly signalling that she was a photographer with a new way of seeing the world. As a portraitist, Arbus had a unique ability to connect with her sitters, entering into an intimate emotional space with many of them. Her 1972 MoMA retrospective, and her 2005 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, did much to cement her place as one of the most iconic portraitists of the 20th century in any medium.
‘Both the artist’s primary and secondary markets are strong, and a new world auction record was set in Christie’s salerooms in spring 2015. The breadth of her work is remarkable, and serious collectors recognise her importance in the history of art. Lifetime prints are rare and command the highest prices; estate prints are also highly desirable and are also collected by museums, conferring a level of confidence in her market position.’