Older Women Ruled the Artworld in 2016

Carmen Herrera, one of the older women celebrated by the artworld in 2016
Photo: Camilo Fuenteable / via

For most of October 2016, Alma Thomas, Carmen Herrera and Agnes Martin * each had monographic shows on view in major New York City museums. That’s three diverse women, all abstract painters, who were all born before 1916. Thomas was born in the 19th century; Herrera, the youngest, is still alive at 101 years old. These three concurrent shows represent just one robust moment in what has been a welcome and important year for the profiles of older women artists with brilliant artwork, but under-appreciated careers.

Women of a certain age were very hot in 2016!

I know we all were hoping for an older woman, outside the artworld, to be in the White House—I assume that if you’re reading this post laying out a feminist appreciation of works of art by mature, racially diverse creative women, you’re not a Trump partisan (Although, if you are, please get in touch! I’m fascinated/horrified and want to know more! I cannot promise I’ll be respectful.)—but, since that fell apart catastrophically, I’m focusing on a legitimate bright spot in American culture as I look back at 2016. In one year, there were enough serious exhibitions of the work of women artists born before 1950 to stand out as the primary artworld trend that needed to be noticed, celebrated and, most of all, remembered as we head into a more sinister 2017.

Alma Thomas - snoopy
Alma Thomas, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970
Photo by the author.

Being less rigorous than the three abstract painters with whom I started, I’m going to cheat a little and bring up a show from 2015. I chose 1950 as a cut-off birth date more or less for the elegant roundness of the number and because that puts the youngest of that generation just older than retirement age. Some of the artists I’m going to discuss were born much, much earlier than 1950. And, a last methodological note: my examples will be largely (but not exclusively) New York-centric, as am I. This is by no means a thorough roundup; I’m writing about shows I managed to see and news coverage I happened to read. There is plenty more work by plenty more women around the world. Women of a certain age were very hot in 2016!

There seems to be some momentum around these artists that I hope we can all sustain during the incoming misogynistic Trump regime. Among the myriad-bordering-on-infinite reasons the results of the 2016 election are so frustrating and disappointing is that this progress—simply the chance to discover so many amazing female artists—is in danger of evaporating. It’s not as if the artworld did not still have miles and miles to go when it came to correcting the historical lack of diversity among artists receiving solo museum shows, but movement was in the right direction (if too slow…). Now, it is too early to tell whether the art establishment will continue to see diversity a desirable goal and a central value. The summary cancellation of a planned anti-Trump art project in Miami around Art Basel is, it’s hard to argue, a worrying sign.

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It is remarkable that so many of these older women being celebrated this year are abstract artists. The narratives surrounding the emergence and ongoing practice of abstraction have been overwhelmingly focused on men. From around 1914, when several artists seem to have invented abstract art separately, but simultaneously—this is the generation of Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian—through the butch swagger of the Abstract Expressionists to the cold aggressions of the minimalists—Anna Chave wrote the classic essay on that—the connection between masculinity and abstraction becomes overdetermined. And specious.

An abstract painting by Hilma af Klint
Photo by the author.

In May, London’s Courtauld Gallery showed breathtaking, multi-layered abstract paintings by Victorian spiritualist Georgiana Houghton (b. 1814) from the 1860s and ‘70s—decades earlier than the canonical invention of abstraction. The Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (b. 1862) had a solo show this year at the Serpentine Gallery, also in London. She was also prominently featured in the New Museum’s fantastic show about collecting, “The Keeper.” She began to paint her gorgeous, semi-geometrical abstract canvases in 1906, almost a decade before the famous men, but she’s never part of the history. Kate Kellaway notes in The Guardian that MoMA had a show in 2012 called “Inventing Abstraction: 1910–1925” that did not include af Klint’s work.

Thomas, Herrera and Martin all worked well after abstraction’s ascendency, but approached their work in novel and exciting ways. Thomas (b. 1891) adapted and expanded the concerns of her fellow color field painters to develop an ecstatic personal style. My full review of her show at the Studio Museum in Harlem is here. Herrera (b. 1915) and Martin (b. 1912) share a lot with other minimalist(-adjacent) artists, but they, too, take the style in unique directions. Herrera’s use of line, shape and signature colors in series has the effect of energizing the space of the room around the paintings; Martin’s meditations on grids and the act of mark-making have made her a quiet icon. She is probably the most famous of these female abstractionists, and is also extensively included in MoMA’s 1960s installation of their permanent collection. Nasreen Mohamedi’s (b. 1937) revelatory show at the Met Breuer showed off a profound sense of composition and space using just the simplest pencil lines.

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Not all of the mature women artists enjoying the recent well-deserved attention are abstractionists. Yoko Ono’s (b. 1933) exquisite “One Woman Show: 1960–1971” at MoMA (in 2015—she’s here because I love her work and couldn’t bear to leave her out) brought together her drawings, writings, sculptures, participatory installations and everything else to show visitors a truly avant-garde mind at work. I always think of John Lennon as some musician or whatever whose life finally had meaning when he quit his band and began collaborating on artwork with his genius Fluxus-artist wife, whom he had the good sense to be captivated by.

One of the most arresting images of 2016.

On a different floor of “The Keeper” than af Klint, Ydessa Hendeles (b. 1948) created one of the most arresting (and delightful) images of 2016 (see below). Two large galleries at the New Museum, with catwalks to allow full use of the walls, were covered floor-to-ceiling and then some with 3000 framed images, each showing a teddy bear. The early-career survey of the photographs of Diane Arbus (b. 1923) at the Met Breuer shed light on her artistic formation and celebrated her unique observational skills. The centuries-overdue show of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s (b. 1755) portraits at the Met provided the opportunity to reevaluate her career and discover scintillating, rarely seen images. My review of the Vigée Le Brun show is here.

All these shows are merely an incomplete sketch of the proliferation of exciting artwork by older women produced or exhibited at the top of the artworld in 2016. And this is when I turn dark: I very much want to see the respect paid and interest devoted to these effulgent, creative women as a hopeful trend. I worry that the progress these artists have made is bittersweet, however. Regrettably, I don’t expect anything good for the arts or for women during the Trump era. I genuinely want to be wrong about that, but, in any case, as 2016 ends, I’m grateful for Thomas and Herrera and Martin and all their colleagues and all of their work for what I’ve learned about the world through art—an education I’ll take with me through any political regime.


* Herrera’s and Martin’s shows are still open until the second week of January, 2017, at the Whitney and Guggenheim, respectively; seriously: do yourself a favor and see both!