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Women Artists Who Made Modern Art History Extraordinary

Women Artists have always had room to be fearless in their approach to art-making. After centuries of being relegated to the periphery, the twentieth century finally offered a long overdue shift in perspective – giving women artists a platform to create and be celebrated. While women artists still struggle to gain the fine art market share afforded to their male peers, more opportunities are created every day for women to advance, pushing ahead in the art market (think Yayoi Kusama) and innovating artistic creativity on a global level (think Nicole Eisenman, Hito Steyerl, Rachel Rose and so many more.) Here, we highlight women artists who have led the charge for innovation, social practice, and formal experimentation.

Women Artists Shifting Society Forward

women artistsWith innovative art movements kicking off the earlier half of the 20th century, from Dada to Surrealism, the irreverent and unpredictable took shape in the form of surprising juxtapositions in art and performance and installations taking center stage. Artists such as Méret Oppenheim and Hannah Höch defined what it meant to be a Surrealist or a member of the Dada movement as much as any of their male counterparts, pushing the envelope and creating new worlds of artistic innovation. 

Famous for her fur-covered teacup and saucer, “Object (The Luncheon in Fur)” (1936), Méret Oppenheim was a luminary of the Surrealist art scene alongside ringleader André Breton, who invited her to show in the first Surrealist exhibit. Steeped in the theory of Carl Jung, Oppenheim was a Swiss artist who straddled the Dada and Surrealist movements with a practice that sought to repurpose household objects as fetishized, idealized versions transformed into fine art. 

Artist Hannah Höch was a groundbreaking innovator who pioneered photomontage, interdisciplinary art and collaboration. Höch was an early adapter of the idea of appropriation art, creating a pathway for future scions such as Sherrie Levine and the wider Pictures generation. A German artist who became a proponent of the Berlin Dada group, she was not only a fearless artistic force for the Dada movement, she was unafraid to argue for women artists to have a larger role in moving the dial of art history forward. “Most of our male colleagues continued for a long while to look upon us as charming and gifted amateurs, denying us implicitly any real professional status,” noted Höch, presaging the ongoing struggle that women artists would have through the 20th century and into the 21st. 

Social Justice and Intersectionality

Women artists proved to their male counterparts that they were just as diverse as them, with interests as wide-ranging and inquisitive. Frida Kahlo, currently showing in a major survey at the Brooklyn Museum, took on all the trappings of an avant-garde, provocative artist of the times, including taking on multiple lovers during her tumultuous marriage to artist Diego Rivera. Arguably overshadowing her husband in our contemporary moment, Kahlo has been thoroughly recognized for her talents and was even offered an exhibition in New York City curated by Peggy Guggenheim during her period directing the influential Art of This Century gallery. While Kahlo’s work incorporated a wide range of influences and poignant observations stemming from her tragic yet rich lived experience, her personal life was just as legendary, as she was unafraid to be a nonconformist in any area of her life whether it be her sexual preferences, living arrangements or travel plans. 

Artist Adrian Piper also fearlessly addressed topics ranging from gender to the Civil Rights movement. A fearless conceptual artist whose wide range of multi-disciplinary work defining her practice also showed a fearless nature, echoing Kahlo, in her ability to address identity politics in a forthright manner in an art world trying to keep up with social issues of the 1960s and beyond. With art studies at the School of Visual Arts and a subsequent stint studying Philosophy at City College of NY before graduating with a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard, Piper integrates art and philosophy into her works. In addition to her groundbreaking work as an artist, in 1991 she became the first African-American philosophy professor to receive academic tenure in the United States. 

Uncompromised Feminism and Intersectionality

women artistsThere are more influential women artists than one can count that have positively impacted modern art history! Ranging from powerhouse international gallery sensations Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman to institution darlings ranging from Carolee Schneeman to Judy Chicago, women artists have proven the point that their work more than holds a well-earned place in the firmament alongside their male contemporaries. The wide range of artwork by women, from shock art and sculpture by Lynda Benglis, quilt works and paintings by Faith Ringgold, performance and installation by Ana Mendieta and the sweeping multi-disciplinary site-specific work, post-colonial practice of Kara Walker, only proves that women of diverse backgrounds and cultures can apply their genius to any field they have chosen to pursue. 

Modern women artists have shown us that ambition, resilience and a strong artistic practice go far when making strides toward cementing a place for oneself in art history. Despite setbacks that result from centuries of historic oppression and lack of educational access, women have always found ways to create and set their artistic expression out into the world. We only have more to look forward to as women artists continually emerge in the contemporary art world, moving history forward.

This sentiment was re-affirmed during a recent Women’s History month event that Donna Karan hosted along with ArtLeadHer entitled “Women Curating Women”, Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art curator Carmen Hermo noted the persistent disparity lying between women and success in the arts. “Data shows that more women than men graduate from MFA programs, and yet women can’t crack 40% of exhibits in the art world, while men continue to have ample opportunities to show their artwork.” Hermo noted that while the first solo show by a woman artist took place in the 1800s, we still live in a society where many women artists with solo exhibits are featured at a more advanced age than their male counterparts – while retrospectives for male artists in their forties and fifties are common, recent exhibitions by the likes of Louise Bourgeois (MoMA) and Carolee Schneeman, mentioned above (MoMA PS1), featured solo presentations by artists well into the average retirement age. These shows took place later in their careers, even despite these women artists creating their oeuvre on a similar timeline to their male counterparts. We can only hope that these incredible women artists who have led the way over several generations and multiple waves of feminism can continue to inspire and propel us forward to continue creating opportunities for women in the arts to succeed.

Know of any incredible women artists that the world should be aware of? Want to share your own personal list of favorite women making art? Share your insights in the comments below!

About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is an independent curator and art critic based in New York, NY. The founder of Antecedent Projects (2014), a sustainable urban curatorial consultancy investigating site-specific heritage, and is Editor-in-Chief, ANTE. Mag. Lambert manages ART360 by Orangenius, an immersive, 3-D art viewing experience, and serves as Managing Editor, Artrepreneur.

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