Contemporary women artists who meet the moment
From Charlotte Perriand’s avant-garde bookcases to Claude Lalanne’s floral jewellery, leading women artists feature prominently in the upcoming contemporary sales at Christie’s in New York
Etel Adnan was a poet before she was a painter. Born in Beirut, she received a French education and spoke only French from the age of five. The outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence in 1954 presented Adnan with an existential crisis: she could only write in the language of those she considered her oppressors. As she put it, ‘I couldn’t write freely in a language that faced me with deep conflict.’
She turned to abstract painting, which allowed her to communicate without words. Working with a palette knife rather than a brush to form bold blocks of colour, her paintings are succinct like her verse, communicating through rhythm and colour.
Adnan studied, lived and taught in Northern California for over 30 years. This late work suggests the Northern Californian landscape, specifically Mount Tamalpais, which she painted frequently and described as ‘a poem around which I orientated myself’.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons has a diverse multimedia practice that, as she says, explores ‘what it means to be a Cuban woman who happens to be black, happens to be born in that particular period of time ’. Her examination of gender, ethnicity, history, and the fragmentation of identity through exile all come to play in Soy una fuente (I am a Fountain). Six sculptural reliefs painted with oil on panel depict female bodily functions.
Campos-Pons has articulated her guiding artistic principle, saying in an interview, ‘I believe that it is something that comes from very deep inside me about telling a story that has many parts, that comes from many sources of origin, and trying to join it into one to create a totality.’ She rebuilds these fragments into a new form — the shape of a heart — and in doing so, reclaims them as entirely her own.
Shortly after the Romanian-born, Paris-based designer Maria Pergay received a commission to work with steel in the 1960s, she had a dream: ‘when I woke up I remembered the object clearly. When I told my assistants I wanted a flying carpet, they thought I was mad. I drew a flowing, undulating, 3 meters long line in chalk on the wall.’ The flying carpet daybed of 1968 — her first original steel work of furniture — would go on to become one of the most iconic furniture designs of the 20th century.
Inspired by steel’s materiality, Pergay went on to create other famous designs using the material, such as the Ring chair in 1970, and continues to do so today while incorporating lacquer, wood, and mother-of-pearl.
Genesis Tramaine’s abstract portraits have challenged the white-washed tradition of devotional art, representing Black and queer people who have gone unmentioned in Biblical narratives and unpictured in Old Master paintings, as the subjects of the Gospel. By displacing and exaggerating her subjects’ features she creates an effect of motion, which not only echoes 1980s Neo-Expressionism but conveys the activated spirit of the people she paints. As she put it, ‘In painting, I think we often try to capture the attention of those who are staring at us. I also want to capture the story behind those eyes. I want to include the entire narrative in the gospel.’
French furniture designer and sculptor Claude Lalanne initially rose to fame for her work in the collaborative duo Les Lalannes, which she formed with her husband in the early 1950s. Her own sculptural work was inspired by Surrealism and Art Nouveau: she used impression, moulding and electroplating techniques to bend copper and gilt bronze into branches, flowers and leaves for her jewellery and furniture designs. Lalanne’s pieces have been acquired by some of the world’s most respected collectors, including Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé, Peter Marino and Jacques Grange.
This galvanized metal cuff evokes unfurling autumn leaves and wind-swept stems, characteristic of her work’s natural forms.
Sarah Crowner makes paintings out of canvas and cloth like other artists make mosaics out of tiles. Playing on the interaction between elements and the whole, she sews together pieces of cloth and linen on canvas and hand-paints them.
Her geometric compositions and solid fields of colour seem pristinely impersonal when viewed from afar, recalling the hard-edged abstraction of the 1950s and 60s. If one looks closer, however, the individual parts convey the nuances of human touch — in this case, visible stitching and the imprints of hand-painted oil and gouache. Crowner’s work has expanded the field of painting, breaking the bounds of the canvas.
Charlotte Perriand was one of the most influential avant-garde designers of the early 20th century. Inspired by machine-age technology, she experimented with steel, aluminium and glass, and developed iconic furniture like the Chaise Longue LC4 whilst working in Corbusier’s studio.
In 1940 the French designer travelled to Japan, where a floating bookcase at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto caught her attention. She described it in her diary, ‘arranged on the walls, in the form of a cloud. A free form that gives rhythm to space and enhances the objects it supports.’ Nearly a decade later she unveiled Nuage — a cutting-edge modular bookcase that could be rearranged in different configurations by sliding panels, trays and shelves.
The first renditions were wood, but by the time she made this important model in 1955, she was incorporating aluminium. She officially debuted the collection the following year.
The Cuban-born artist Carmen Herrera told the New York Times, ‘There’s a saying that you wait for a bus and it will come. I waited almost a hundred years.’ Working in Paris and New York, Herrera went largely unnoticed until she was 89, when she soared to international fame. At 101, she had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Observer of London called her work the discovery of the decade.
This diptych encapsulates her signature geometric abstractions. Her work embraced Minimalism and Op Art, as well as Modernist South American movements like Brazilian concretism and the Venezuelan Los Disidentes. With vivid colours and striking juxtapositions, she transformed shapes, imbuing them with emotion and movement.
South Korean artist Anna Park is known for her frenetic charcoal drawings, detailing pandemonium-like party scenes, flurries of bodies and moving limbs, as well as her more abstract drawings. Whisper to Me Your Woes highlights her ability to capture stillness and silence just as effectively.
The snapshot effect of her action-packed images is potent here as well: a passing moment of human connection and the contemporary experience is brought to life, the page dense with shading and intricate detail. The fragmented light also evokes her abstract work and its cubist influences.
Lygia Clark was one of the giants of Brazilian post-war art. A founding member of the Neo-Concretist movement, she asserted that a work of art should be understood not as a separate object, but as a ‘quasi-corpus’ — a body that is brought to life by the viewer’s experience.
The artist’s Bichos — Portuguese for ‘beasts’ or ‘critters’ — can be manipulated into multiple variations and do not have one static form. These sculptures were pioneering works in the field of participatory art that shattered the established relationship between art and viewer.
Miyoko Ito was born in California to parents of Japanese descent. One month before graduating from U.C. Berkeley, she was sent to an internment camp in California in 1942, when the United States imprisoned more than 120,000 Japanese Americans upon the US entry into World War II. After the war, she moved to Chicago, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Yet the experience of being cast as an outsider stayed with her and reverberates through her oeuvre.
Her abstract paintings, influenced by surrealism and synthetic cubism, frequently evoke bodies, interiors or landscapes. This painting is characteristic of her work from 1970 onwards, which tended to be both topographical and autobiographical — mapping the psyche. Structurally precise, with painstakingly yet never-quite-symmetrical layers of brushstrokes, it evokes both a technical rendering and a dreamlike haze. Another world, perhaps internal, that is Ito’s own. As she put it in 1978, ‘I have no place to take myself except painting.’