Mary Heilmann’s 1972 painting Landscape Cupboard (Landscape Closet) at Karma gallery is a knock-out. Collaged with fabric and loosely layered dark red paint over black

Mapping a Movement in 30 Artists’ Works

Mary Heilmann’s 1972 painting Landscape Cupboard (Landscape Closet) at Karma gallery is a knock-out. Collaged with fabric and loosely layered dark red paint over black, the picture is so fresh it looks as if it could have been made yesterday, not fifty years ago.  The work is in a group show curated by Ivy Shapiro, Painting in New York: 1971-1983that includes examples of 30 women artists during a period when they were reimagining the practice of painting amidst discussions of its relevance as a medium. Now 82, Heilmann attended the lively gallery opening and has created a T-shirt that is being sold by the gallery to benefit Planned Parenthood.

Elizabeth Murray, Table Turning, 1982-1983

Landscape Cupboard was made soon after Linda Nochlin famously asked, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In this Art News essay, Nochlin laid out various impediments to women artists’ success, framing her argument around institutional and structural artworld barriers. Yet, in spite of the decades that have passed, many women artists of her generation have only garnered significant attention and market success over the past ten years.  One 2017 Artsy article announced this arrival with its own question (and a particularly cringeworthy title): “Why Have Old Women Replaced Young Men as the Art World’s Darlings?” Part of the answer is that excellent work by women has been overlooked for decades by collectors, institutions and the market; it’s only now being appreciated and valued. Heilmann’s painting in the Karma show, which has remained in her own collection, is only available for sale to institutions who will now likely pay a full price. One of her works from 1983 recently sold at auction for almost $1 million.

Ivy Shapiro is an art advisor, but more importantly for these purposes, she is the daughter of sculptor Joel Shapiro and arts educator Amy Snider. Raised by artworld insiders during a tumultuous and fertile period, her firsthand knowledge makes her curatorial choices personal and relevant. She includes examples from her godmother Jennifer Bartlett – one of the few women who did reach artworld stardom – and Elizabeth Murray, a close friend. Shapiro’s mother was involved with the feminist art and politics collective Heresies, and works by artists from this group, including Emma Amos, Ida Applebroog, Joan Snyder, and Pat Steir, are presented. Lucy Lippard, who helped found the collective, has written for the coming catalogue.

Mary Heilmann, Landscape Cupboard (Landscape Closet), 1972

Involved with the second wave of feminism, these women confronted gender hierarchies while forging a new approach to the medium of painting. Heilmann has explained how she addressed the discussions around her practice: “[I was] trying to be provocative and to make some paintings that would be something like the critique of the practice of painting while at the same time making a painting.”

While she has only received widespread recognition over the past decade, her practice has consistently been admired by other painters. In December 1976, artist David Salle reviewed Heilmann’s show at Holly Solomon Gallery for Arts Magazine:

The paintings look like they have some sense of themselves as being involved in notions of reciprocity and bilateral symmetry, as well as some idea of primary action or gesture making, that is, they have the look of thought transmuted into the look of taste.

Nostalgia for New York of the 1970s burns bright, and this show certainly leverages a romantic notion of the era’s politics, art, and activism, which might resonate today. That the quality of the paintings is uneven doesn’t distract from the appeal of a group of innovative works reflecting a compelling and personal story of the times.

Faith Ringgold’s Juanita, Eddie and Caron, 1973, in front her Windows of the Wedding #5 and #16, 1974

Painting in New York: 1971- 83 is on view at Karma (188 / 172 East 2nd St, New York) through November 5, 2022. 

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