A Manifesto for the Unsung Female Artist

Recent studies show that only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. This statistic is troubling, given that women comprise 80% of BFA graduates, and 60% of MFA graduates. In this series, The Sisterhood aims to shed light on this staggering gender skew in the art world. We will be interviewing different female artists, in order to discuss the way they navigate gender, sexuality, religion, family, and politics in their life and work.

Melissa Meyer makes bold paintings. Rich brooding colors share space with gestural marks of all sizes. They stare out at you, coyly, confidently. They speak, in a language that feels both comprehensible and just out of reach. Meyer is similar.

A thick New York accent, dark hair, and standing at barely 5’2’’, Meyer speaks softly, answering questions with stories, brown eyes smiling cautiously.

“I paint because I’m hooked,” she says, humbly, when I ask about her incredibly well-established career as a visual artist. “What other people think of you is none of your business,” she says, when I ask what it is like to have been doing Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s, during an era of pointed female exclusion.

Her relationship with her feminist politics are layered and ever-changing — one gets the sense that things that once moved her deeply have now taken a second seat to her true passion: Her work. Yet, although she doesn’t define her work as feminist, her life undoubtedly is.

Meyer is represented by Lennon, Weinberg Gallery in New York, and completely financially independent. She has had over 40 one-person exhibitions and her work is included in a myriad of permanent collections, including, but not limited to, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MOMA, The Brooklyn Museum, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Jewish Museum. She has designed public commissions in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai — and is currently working on one for a building in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She has also received many grants and residencies, including the Rome Prize, Yaddo, NEA and the Bogliasco Foundation.

In 1978 she co-authored the ground breaking essay “Femmage” — which became a manifesto for the unsung female artists throughout history, who did everything from dying fabrics for clothing, stitching devotional pieces, and decorating furniture—but received no accolades. Femmage, as a form of feminist art practice, is now a recognized genre of Fine Art, practiced widely by artists like Miriam Schapiro (the essay’s co-author) and Joyze Kozloff.

I sat with Melissa in her mid-town Manhattan studio, wide windows overlooking the street, her newest painting drying on the wall behind us. Surrounded by paintbrushes and canvases of all sizes, we discussed her long life as a painter, what it meant to be a female artist in the sixties and seventies, and why she ultimately chose art over politics.

I wanted to start from the beginning, ask you where you born and what your childhood was like.

I was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens. I had older parents and they were kind of odd. My mother was a head taller than my father, and when I went to Summer camp, my parents didn’t look like anybody else’s parents. My father was a very serious amateur photographer, and did self-portraits in costumes. He also taught himself Old English lettering and played the violin. My mother loved beautiful things, like the ballet. She could always pick the best painting. After my father died, she sewed expensive pocketbooks at Bloomingdale’s. I was always praised for my art-work in grade school, it has just always been something I’ve loved to do. I was left-handed, and in school they always made a big fuss about that, saying “oh, she’s left handed”. But I didn’t mind, I always liked being different.

What was it like to be a young female artist in the Sixties?

The first time I took an art history class, I went up to the teacher, and I said “are there any women artists?” She said, “ah a feminist!” and I said, “what’s that?” So I searched out women’s art, and learned about Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. I read Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” and thought it was incredible, and it got me started exploring, and getting very involved with the student riots in Columbia and things like that.

It was a time of great struggles for me. I don’t really want to go back there, but let me think…It was very hard. I didn’t know anybody, or have any connections. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I was young and I had a lot of energy and I guess I must have believed in myself on some level. I became very interested in feminism and got involved with all sorts of groups. I moved to Tribeca and met people there and tried out different things. But I had a lot of struggles and I think disappointed my mother in a lot of ways, because she thought I made my life too difficult. Because I didn’t make much money and was always struggling, and she just thought, why is her talented attractive daughter struggling like this. At some point I made a choice, that I had to develop my work, that I couldn’t be that politically engaged anymore. You can’t serve two gods.

Did you try to fuse them at all? Make work that was political?

No, I couldn’t. And anyways, politics, are all, essentially, about freedom. And, doing what you want to do, making the kind of work you want to make, seemed to me to be about freedom also. So, that’s political.

You spent a year studying in Rome, on the Rome Prize. How did that affect your artistic process?

Well I started to see large scale Fresco-size work — I hadn’t known it was possible to paint that big. Sometimes I think of the Wizard of Oz, it’s in black and white and then its in color? That was kind of my life before going to Italy. It was very exciting and I saw amazing things. I didn’t even know what Italian sounded like before going, so I studied every day, with private lessons. I think that’s when I decided to go into therapy, because I liked the kind of one-on-one thing. My Italian was terrible though, but it was a great year. My art got more ambitious.

I remember Mimi [Schapiro] visited me in my studio while I was there, and she said to me, “Melissa, you know what the problem is — you don’t let the monster out in you!” and I thought, do I have to be a monster to be successful? I still don’t know the answer to that.

Can you talk a little about your artistic process, how do you go about creating a painting?

It has evolved over the years, and continues to. It is very improvisational, which is part of its challenge. Each time, I don’t really know if I’m going to really do it.

First I gesso and sand the canvas, to get a nice smooth surface. Like paper. When that is done, I mix up some very near-whites and make a color field. I just do it. Then I put in some color. After that, I sit and look at the painting for a long time. I think of it like a rhythm, it’s a dance. I work on the floor and I walk around the canvas, just to get it going. I usually listen to jazz. Then I stand on the ladder and look at the whole thing in a reducing glass, or I photograph it and stare at it some more, until I decide what I should do. I think I once read that you have to ruin a painting in order to finish it.

I remember when I studied in Provincetown, they said that you should use colors you dislike, in order to learn to like them. Because color isn’t about taste — its descriptive, emotional. My black and white work, I think, comes out of dance and architecture and sculptures. For the color, it has more to do with nature. I think I’ve developed my work to the point where only I can make it.

Can you tell our readers about Femmage — what it is and how you came up with the idea?

In the late 70’s someone invited me to a “Heresies Collective” meeting at Joyce Kozloff’s, and everyone sat around in a circle, saying what they were interested in for the fourth issue of the publication. I said in my little voice, “I wonder why so many women make collages.” And then Miriam (Schapiro) came up to me and said, “I want to work with you on that!” I thought, “oh she’s going to eat me alive, she’s so scary”, but then at one point in our collaboration, I remember her saying, “Melissa, do you think that you could keep quiet for a minute so I could get a word in.”

We did a lot of research into the history of collaging, and we found that women made collage-like work that predates Picasso and Braque, in the forms of quilts, devotional pieces, scrapbooks, decorated painted furniture etc. We called it “femmage” — the work that women have done for centuries, in most cultures, that predates “high art” collage but receives no patronage. On my most recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, I saw a similar thing, the women there make everything, sewing together rugs and tapestries and clothing from all different kinds of scraps. I always tell my students that I consider collage the most important aesthetic contribution to the twentieth century, and they go why, and I say, just look around. Go to 42nd street. Look at websites, look at magazine layouts, it’s everywhere. Look at how you dress. We live in a collage culture. And women have been making this work for a long time.

What is your relationship with Judaism?

I guess I’m kind of a secular Jew. My father came from a very religious background, but we really weren’t. My mother, I remember, used to light candles on Friday nights, but that’s it. And we observed the Jewish High Holy days.

I’m proud to be a Jew, but am self-conscious identifying as one, because I don’t want everybody to think about everything I do in terms of being Jewish. Always through that sieve. It is similar to how I feel about being seen as female. I wish people could just look at my work, and that’s it. I’m a little sensitive, I guess. I don’t always understand the kind of politics that go on in Israel and I think Jews forget that there are so many other ways to think about being Jewish. We have contributed so much to science and art and music and culture, but I rarely hear about that.

Hannah Rubin is a writer and artist living in Oakland, California.

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