Thread? Neon? Fur? Women artists who have questioned what art is — and from what materials it can be made

To mark International Women’s Day 2024, we celebrate the avant-garde oeuvres of six women who have challenged conventional wisdom on how art is created — all with works coming to Christie’s

To mark International Women's Day, we celebrate the avant-garde oeuvres of women who have challenged artistic conventions

Hannah Höch (1889-1978)

Between 1996 and 1997, an entire exhibition was organised around a single, specific part of Hannah Höch’s oeuvre: photomontage.

Touring from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the show examined how the German artist pioneered an audacious technique of cutting clichéd images of daily life from newspapers and magazines, then collaging them into layers of profound new meanings.

In Höch’s case, this meant reworking commercial fashion and advertising photography into subversive artworks that lampooned women’s social status during the first half of the 20th century.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978), Das schöne Mädchen (The Beautiful Girl), circa 1920. Photomontage on paper laid down on the artist’s mount. Sheet: 14 x 11½ in (35.5 x 29.2 cm). Sold for £453,600 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Höch was fiercely self-sufficient and believed in her right to be liberated politically, financially, sexually and artistically. In 1917 she became the only female member of Berlin’s Dada scene, joining a circle of men who made art that took aim at Germany’s bourgeois elite following the First World War. She participated in the First International Dada Fair in 1920, yet despite critical acclaim for her avant-garde work, her peers did not take her seriously.

‘Most of our male colleagues continued to look upon us as charming and gifted amateurs, denying us implicitly any real professional status,’ she said. The following decade, affronted by her feminist views, the Nazi regime banned her from exhibiting altogether.

Das schöne Mädchen (circa 1920) illustrates the potency of Höch’s early photomontages. Snipping and slicing print sources, she surrounds female forms with motifs of mechanisation to ask of Weimar-era progressivism: ‘Who is really deciding the role of the Neue Frau (new woman)?’

Tracey Emin (b. 1963)

Within 12 years of the British scientists William Ramsay and Morris Travers first isolating the noble gas neon in 1898, its application for illuminating signs had been patented. By 1915, neon lit up advertisements across Paris’s night sky in a rainbow of colours. In Britain, from the 1930s onwards, neon signs became synonymous with the amusement arcades and boardwalks of working-class coastal resort towns such as Blackpool and Margate.

Hailing from Margate, the British artist Tracey Emin has made neon signs a crucial part of her practice. ‘I like neon, because it’s moving constantly and like drawing. The chemicals going through the neon turns me on, really. It’s sexy.’

Tracey Emin (b. 1963), Love Poem for CF, 2007. Neon. This work is number two from an edition of three, plus two artist’s proofs. 177⅛ x 131¼ in (450 x 333.4 cm). Sold for £233,100 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Emin isn’t the first artist to have used neon (that was the Czech modernist Zdeněk Pešánek in the 1930s), but she has done more than most to establish it in the popular imagination as a medium of artistic expression.

Love Poem for CF (2007) was created for Emin’s takeover of the British Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. At 4.5 metres high, it is one of her largest and most important neon works — another from the edition of three is held in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The incandescent text is based on lines of poetry penned for her ex-boyfriend Carl Freedman in the 1990s, and offers a smouldering glimpse of her heartache: ‘Every part of my body is screaming’.

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985)

Across Meret Oppenheim’s long and diverse career, she experimented with ink, paint, bronze, glass, twine, suede and lipstick. Yet the artist came to be known almost entirely for a single work, Object (1936): a teacup, spoon and saucer covered in gazelle pelt.

Christened Le Déjeuner en fourrure (‘lunch in fur’) by André Breton, it was reputedly inspired by a conversation with Picasso and Dora Maar at Paris’s Café de Flore, in which the Spaniard admired a fur-trimmed metal bracelet the 22-year-old Oppenheim was wearing, which she herself had designed for Elsa Schiaparelli. Object was immediately acquired for the new Museum of Modern Art in New York by its first director, Alfred Barr, and included in his landmark 1936-37 show Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, becoming a cause célèbre for the Surrealists.

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), Tisch mit Vogelfüssen, 1939. Carved and gilded wood and bronze with gold patina, this work is unique. 25¼ x 16½ x 22⅜ in (64 x 42 x 56.8 cm). Sold for £529,200 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Three years after Le Déjeuner en fourrure, Oppenheim returned to the Surrealist object with Tisch mit Vogelfüssen, a table perched on elongated birdlike legs and stamped with a scattering of avian footprints. It was designed for the inaugural exhibition at Leo Castelli and René Drouin’s gallery on Place Vendôme in Paris in July 1939.

The table later entered the collection of the former assistant to Drouin, Jeanine de Goldschmidt-Restany, whose own Parisian gallery exhibited Claude Lalanne’s landmark cabbage-on-bird-legs sculpture, Choupatte, in 1964. Tisch mit Vogelfüssen is a unique creation that ranks alongside Le Déjeuner en fourrure as an icon of Surrealism.

Chiharu Shiota (b. 1972)

Chiharu Shiota’s work encompasses painting, sculpture, video, photography, drawing and set design. But it’s her woven installations, made using white, black and blood-red thread, that have come to define her output.

The Berlin-based Japanese artist began working with the material while studying at Kyoto Seika University in the 1990s, stating that she had been inspired by a dream in which she became trapped between the warp and weft of canvas. Shortly afterwards, she started creating thread webs that entangled her own body, buildings and objects such as dolls and shoes to map the cosmos of their relationships. She called the process ‘painting in the air’.

Chiharu Shiota (b. 1972), State of Being (Travel Guide), 2018. White thread, books and maps in metal frame. 59 x 19½ x 7⅞ in (150 x 49.5 x 20.1 cm)

In 2015, Shiota created an extraordinary web installation for the Japanese Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Titled The Key in the Hand, it consisted of more than 50,000 keys suspended from a huge wave of entwined red yarn above two boats, which she says symbolised hands trying to grasp at dangling memories of the dead. In 2023, she was announced as the creator of the label for Château Mouton Rothschild’s 2021 vintage.

Executed three years after The Key in the Hand, State of Being (Travel Guide) (2018) is 1.5-metre-high monolith that contains pages torn from travel guidebooks tangled in a web of white thread, a colour described by the artist as ‘pure and infinite’, and which she says represents life. The work is part of Shiota’s ongoing ‘State of Being’ series, which features suspended chairs, dresses, vintage photographs and pistols — artefacts of other lives, lived in other places — in complex webs inside totemic sculptures.

Tauba Auerbach (b. 1981)

In December 2021, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened a 17-year survey of work by the Californian artist Tauba Auerbach. The show’s wall texts listed each work’s media, and alongside expected materials like canvas, paper, paint and ink were aquarium sand, 3D-printed nylon, motors and soap. A keystone of the show was a work carefully constructed from wood, metal, leather, paint and felt — it was called Auerglass (2009), and required two musicians simultaneously to pump air through its pipes for it to function as an organ.

Tauba Auerbach (b. 1981), Embossment Painting #14, 2011. Acrylic airbrush on embossed paper. Sheet: 40¾ x 30¼ in (103.5 x 77 cm). Sold for £10,080 on 12 March 2024 at Christie’s Online

Auerbach is interested in the way structures and patterns operate in systems such as language, physics and geometry. Some of her other notable projects — which often operate at the borders of mathematics, science and craft — include Flow Separation (2018), featuring a boat painted in a contemporary version of ‘dazzle’ camouflage, and her series of marbled papers. ‘A person who spends their days marbling learns a lot about fluid dynamics — about viscosity, flow patterns, surface tensions, relative density — all through their fingertips,’ she has said.

Embossment Painting #14 (2011) is part of Auerbach’s exploration of colour, light, form and negative space — or what she has termed ‘working in the fourth dimension’. It was made by placing objects acquired from a hardware store — including textured Plexiglas, chicken wire and rubber mats — over sheets of embossed paper and running them through a printing press. The raised surfaces were then airbrushed from raking angles and left to dry. For the final stage, the paper was flattened, leaving only a visually complex, two-dimensional record in colour of the object’s undulating topography.

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Ana Silva (b. 1979)

For Untitled (2021), the Angolan artist Ana Silva put a modern twist on the ancient craft of weaving by incorporating Tyvek, a futuristic, 100-per-cent synthetic material made from high-density spun-bound polyethylene fibres. Its most common applications are in construction and the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE): it is breathable, while resistant to water, bacteria and ageing.

Ana Silva (b. 1979), Untitled, 2020. Embroidery and found fabric on Tyvek. 52 x 45⅝ in (132 x 116 cm)

Using free-hand embroidery, Silva stitched scraps of traditional fabrics to Tyvek to create a portrait of a young woman. Her interest in appliqué can be traced back to her childhood: growing up on an isolated coffee farm, she would create installations on the walls of her home from cut-up shoes. Her worried father took her to see a psychologist, who reassured him that his daughter just had an artistic sensibility.

Silva has also said that her use of found materials, such as leftover construction fabrics and raffia bags, references her country’s geopolitical history. ‘I cannot separate my work from my experience in Angola, at a time when access to materials was difficult as a result of the war of independence and the civil war,’ she explains. ‘My creativity was born from the exploration of my immediate environment.’

Led by the 20th/21st Century: London and The Art of the Surreal evening sales on 7 March 2024, Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art auctions take place in London until 21 March. Find out more about the preview exhibition and sales here

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