Some Great (Women) Artists

Head of PK12 Initiatives Erica Harper explores works by Barbara Hepworth, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, and Angela Bulloch.

The lede for Jackson Pollock’s 1949 LIFE magazine article reads: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Pollock is photographed in (an admittedly bad-ass) paint spattered leather jacket and jeans combo, his clothing a canvas against another canvas of his own. His stance is cool and casual, leaned back with his arms folded across his chest. His face is stoic, punctuated by the cigarette dangling from his mouth. The message seems clear—abstract expressionism is tough, complicated, and undeniably masculine.

(Left) Jackson Pollock in LIFE magazine; (Right) Helen Frankenthaler in LIFE magazine

By the time Helen Frankenthaler is photographed by Gordon Parks for her own spread in LIFE in 1956, her influence on the art form is undeniable. Parks photographed her barefoot, wearing a knee-length skirt and button-down shirt tied into a side knot, surrounded by her works. She sits, quite literally, as a stark contrast to Pollock (photographed by Martha Holmes). But Frankenthaler, much like many artists at the time who happened to be women, balked at the categorization of “woman artist.” She once said in the New York Times, “There are three subjects I don’t like discussing: my former marriage, women artists, and what I think of my contemporaries.”

So what, right? Perhaps Pollock was truly the greatest living painter in the United States in 1949, but who was even included in that conversation? What then of all the aspiring artists who didn’t fit the mold? I’d like to turn your attention to some great works in our collection which all happen to be outdoors, and all happen to be by women. I started to wonder if those women, like Frankenthaler, felt dismissive of the label or if perhaps “woman artist” meant something different?

Barbara Hepworth (born 1903, Yorkshire, England) was 46 years old when Pollock graced LIFE magazine. Her sculptures can be interpreted as being about relationships: between forms, between humans and landscapes, color and texture, and especially between people as both individuals and a part of society. Hepworth was truly a force in her time, a major international figure, showing her work in exhibitions all over the world. She took an active role in the way her work was presented and was particular about its documentation. That she was a woman in a largely male-dominated world did little to stop her.

Barbara Hepworth, Dual Form, 1965/cast 1966, Bronze height: 72 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired with the Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and additional funds from Natalie R. Abrams, Alan and Irene Wurtzel, and a bequest from Nathan and Jeanette Miller, 2006

Master weaver Regina Pilawuk Wilson (born 1948, Northern Territory of Australia) was one-year old at the time of Pollock’s cover. Her subject matter is based around weaving fiber art using techniques she learned from her grandmother who taught her where, when, and how to collect the right grasses, vines, and sources of natural color like flowers, berries, and roots. She perfected them over the decades and became an authority figure for her sense of familial and cultural identity. Most known for her paintings, printmaking and woven fiber-artworks, she paints syaws (fish nets), warrgarri (dilly bag), and yerrdagarri (message sticks). Her work has been shown in many Australian and international museums, collections, and galleries. Wilson’s work is markedly ancestral and matrilineal in origin, and divorcing it from “woman” feels almost sacrilege from my vantage.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson painting Yerrdagarri in the Hunter Courtyard, 2018. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Finally, there’s Angela Bulloch (born 1966, Ontario, Canada). She wasn’t even alive when Pollock appeared on the cover of LIFE. The world had changed so rapidly, and in so many ways that it’s no surprise that Bulloch’s work incorporates video, sound, light, installation, sculpture, and painting. In fact, her work that sits outside the museum was partly created with the use of a computer program. She is also part of the Young British Artists, a loose group of visual artists who first began to exhibit together in London in 1988. And, despite the cultural advances of the time, female artists were still a distinct minority among the male dominated environment of the Young British Artists.

Angela Bulloch with her sculpture. Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three, 2018, Powder coated steel, Made possible with support from Susan and Dixon Butler, Nancy and Charles Clarvit, John and Gina Despres, A. Fenner Milton, Eric Richter, Harvey M. Ross, George Vradenburg and The Vradenburg Foundation

Angela Bulloch with her sculpture. Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three, 2018, Powder coated steel, Made possible with support from Susan and Dixon Butler, Nancy and Charles Clarvit, John and Gina Despres, A. Fenner Milton, Eric Richter, Harvey M. Ross, George Vradenburg and The Vradenburg Foundation. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

I lament that I don’t actually know how these women would feel about being called a “woman artist.” I can imply but that feels wholly irresponsible and arrogant to do. But then I came across a quote from Hepworth that addressed this very subject. She gave birth to triplets in 1934, and, atypically, found a way to both take care of her children and continue producing her art. And though she likely wouldn’t want to speak for women as a whole, I’ll leave you with her words to consider:

“A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate)—one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one’s mind.”



In Conversation with Alyson Shotz

Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović interviewed Alyson Shotz in the artist’s Brooklyn studio on March 9, 2020; an excerpt is featured here. The full version is part of the Phillips’s major centennial publication, Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century, to be published in 2021. Shotz was an Intersections artist in 2012, and her work Allusion of Gravity (2005) is part of the permanent collection.

Alyson Shotz in her studio with her work Intricate Metamorphosis, 2020.

Vesela Sretenović: It has been more than 15 years since we first met, and looking around your studio, I’m once again so surprised by your new work…

Alyson Shotz: Yes, this work is really different than my work of the past few years, but it’s related. In the past months, I really struggled over how I was going to remake my sculpture in response to the political climate. Making light, ethereal work was almost impossible and I wanted to make something heavier and darker. I became attracted to used bicycle inner tubes; I found some on the street, and then I asked the owner of my local bike shop if he could collect them for me. . . . I began by folding the inner tubes, getting a density that’s like a very dark, solid negative space. After that, I started adding copper that I had around the studio, creating an interplay of light and shadow. Then, suddenly, these new pieces started to feel more like my older work; the light moving across the copper . . . I see these as “21st-century icons” that encompass distance as well as light. There are many miles contained in the tires themselves, there are the hours in those miles, and there is light acting on them through time.

Alyson Shotz, Chronometer, 2020, Recycled rubber bicycle inner tubes, copper nails, punched copper, wood, 72 x 48 x 2 in., Image courtesy of the artist

VS: In addition to these heavy icon-like paintings, you have a lot of filigree-like sculptural pieces suspended from the ceiling. They feel light and almost ethereal. What are they made of?

AS: They’re made of plated steel. I design specific shapes that will fit together as a whole and have them punched industrially, out of sheet steel, then I connect the pieces with stainless steel rings. Each piece has to be individually folded onto the rings, and the whole thing, completed, becomes like a fabric made out of metal. The electroplating gives it its color.

VS: How do you get this kind of finish?

AS: Well, with all of my work, there’s a testing and refining process—which type of metal is best and which thickness is best, and which finish. There’s also a randomness inherent in the plating process that I really like: depending on the temperature and composition of the bath, as well as the temperature of the room, the color will vary. Because of that, I don’t do the finishing all at once—I send in pieces for plating and then connect them afterwards. The shape of the sculpture as a whole is greatly influenced by the material I’ve created and by gravity itself. I act as a kind of facilitator—guiding this new material into the sculpture it wants to be.

Alyson Shotz’s studio. Photo: Allan Northern

Shotz’s exhibition featuring this new body of work was due to open at Derek Eller Gallery in April, but has been postponed due to the covid-19 pandemic. See more of her work on her Instagram @alysonshotz.

Norman Lewis’s Abstract Works

Eliza Lafferty, an intern with the Major Gifts and Director’s Office, discusses the abstract works of Norman Lewis, an artist featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, on view at The Phillips Collection through January 3, 2021. This post is based on a seminar paper with Professor Elizabeth Prelinger at Georgetown University and was awarded the Misty Dailey Award in Art, Diversity, and Healing.

Norman Lewis (1909-1979) is one of the few African American artists who sustained a career in abstraction. Riffs and Relations features Lewis and creates space to integrate the work of African American artists into the Western canon. Lewis’s abstract works—which are forms of Black activism—must be absorbed into public memory surrounding his greater contributions to the style.

Riffs and Relations curator Dr. Adrienne L. Childs remarks how Lewis “was not absorbed into it [Abstract Expressionism] in terms of the history of the movement.” Riffs and Relations is in conversation with curator Dr. Ruth Fine’s Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2015, which uniquely highlighted Lewis’s abstract works. Dr. Childs recognizes that the Lewis exhibit “was a way of beginning to rectify the absences in the record.”[1] Procession noted Lewis’s activism, particularly as the founding president of the Spiral group of African American artists during the Civil Rights movement. Lewis used abstraction to chronicle significant moments and people in the fight for Black empowerment.

Norman Lewis, Processional, 1964, Oil on canvas, private collection

Featured in Dr. Fine’s Procession and also in a Spiral collective show, where all the work had to be in black and white, is Lewis’s Processional from 1964. Its interlocking shapes echo the “improvisational brilliance in undulating cadences, despite the twisting effects of the fight for human rights.”[2] With a black background, the vertical and diagonal brush strokes relay a sense of dynamism and movement. Lewis forms what appears to be a crowd of people moving forward. Stepping closer and examining the corners of the composition, viewers may seek to connect forms: a circle as the illusion of a head, the line as a body form, the sharp rectangles as protest signs. The shape appears to be moving forward—although it is not achieved without struggle among the crowd. As evidenced by Processional, Lewis’s work leverages abstraction as a means to elevate the struggle for civil rights.

Riffs and Relations exhibits Lewis’s Landscape (Land Echoes) from 1955. Landscape, created prior to Spiral’s founding, captures another form of inspiration for abstraction. Lewis employs patriotic colors with gray-blues, hazy whites, and muted red tones—all framed with deep black strokes. One of the categorical organizers of Dr. Fine’s Procession is the “Rhythm of Nature,” that reveals Lewis’s interest in the organic, natural shapes of the world.[3] Landscape, with the potential allusion to the America’s national colors, moreover demonstrates Lewis’s tendency to document the world around him through abstract figuration.

Norman Lewis, Landscape (Land Echoes), 1955, Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in., Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

Lewis’s work reveals an intersection, although sometimes subtle, between identity and abstract art. The paintings’ titles, political context for creation, and Lewis’s artist statements often confirm his intention to intersect activism and abstraction. As viewers, learners, and scholars, we must continue to honor the intersection between art and activism, and recognize their co-informative nature. Lewis’s accounts of the American Civil Rights Movement should contribute to the greater, Western canon of art.


[1] Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition (Washington, DC: The Phillips Collection; New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2020), 156

[2] Ruth Fine, Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 177.

[3] “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, accessed September 26, 2019.