The Shoes Under the Art World

Published in The Awl, October 12, 2015

It’s the hard, dirty secret—harder and dirtier for women: the art world loves men. Men are cool, big-swinging, hard-living; women, per GOP candidate Donald Trump, you’re never sure where they’re going to bleed from next, and this sanguinary fear extends to the world of canvases and museum wings. A woman walking into her opening in the same coat and jeans will never have the iconic swing of a man. The Art World—which can see so many things clearly—has monogender eyes.

It’s in our foundational painting and sculpting myths: Michelangelo staring down the marble block, liberating from it another slinky, lightly muscled dude. Pollock, Van Gogh, igniting everything in their lives for the canvas. What a woman might do—Louise Bourgeois, Mary Cassatt—comes as a flimsy afterthought. Webbing and tea-services. Even the salary angle works against it: woman artists, supported by men, were gaining skill in a pastime. Male artists gouge a living out of the arts for their families.

And there are other apprentice considerations: the knowledge, the tradition, has always been passed down man to man. Former apprentice to apprentice. Van Dyck studying with Rubens. Titian from Bellini. Basquiat emerging from the smoke and gossip of Andy’s factory. And with Basquiat, another consideration: a kind of fashion-ready comeliness, a swanky look we associate with brushes and turps. The male t-shirt and jeans uniform—Jackson Pollock (a kind of Brandoesque-looking painter) to Marlon. To be good-looking as an artist is essential. Question: what happens to the unattractive who chose to become artists? They get the picture, and quit.

From 1964 to 1968, when I was a graduate student in painting at Hunter—studying with the sculptor Tony Smith, who’d talked and drunk with Pollock and Mark Rothko—I didn’t get the other picture. That I was pausing at the threshold, standing in the cool lobby of a male world. But the weeding out started as we grew up through the years, towards the strange clipped-free harvest of graduation. Some grad students would be offered jobs: to stay on at Hunter, instruct the next crop. Tony liked me; we’d hung out together, he’d dined at my house, made the obligatory, Mad Men-era drinking-thus-nobody’s-fault pass. He liked my work. But those jobs would go to male students as they had in prior years, to Doug Ohlson and Ralph Humphrey, who’d cling on for life

Because in the worlds of the arts, where you bob and crest on a sea of opinion, the steadying effect is a teaching job: the dependabilities—salary, benefits, the teaches-at line on the resume—are one more way the discipline is passed down through the male line.

Part was payback for the evolutionary residue: the simple fact of brute male strength. Those boys had constructed Tony’s maquettes for him (these are to-scale first drafts of sculptures) or in some cases painted his paintings (Tony supervising), and also gotten him packed into cars and taxis and back to South Orange before dawn. Tony was a drinker—that’s another gendered aspect of the field. The big-shouldered man, paint on his t-shirt and belt loops, swirling and asserting at the party. These men would secure high-paying jobs in the university system, though none painted better than me.

It’s strange, in the years of Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer changing comedy, and Tina Fey making room in TV, and Hillary Clinton making her cicada-like, quadrennial return, to pan the camera across the rigid men’s club of the arts. From the Chelsea galleries to the spring and fall auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s (which offer the gender composition of a pro football team) to the museums where schoolchildren walk hesitantly on field trips to see the visual products the culture has treasured. Where every other aspect of American life has changed, the Art World offers this wonderful scientific breakthrough of time travel.

In that era, as Betty Davis clarifies in All About Eve—two great roles for women, written by a man—a female was defined as a Maine fisherwoman with a single catch: they were defined by the ability to land a man. The way I remembered it is telling: a drop in my stomach, as I heard, “Real women are made by whose shoes are under their bed.” Not buying the bed—not even, in that era, making the bed. But their achievement in that present pair of large, slightly abraded male shoes.

I had it wrong: memory preserving the horror stories of the time before every part of American culture began to change but the thin, glamorous slice in which I’ve painted and shown for four decades. What Davis’s Margo Channing actually said was: “And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner, or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.” Not: not a wife, not a girlfriend, not an obliging and disappointed mistress. Not a member of your sex.

In this particular denial career was icing. In the art world, it still is. The women who have done the acclaimed most—aside from Marina Abramovic, who had to create a new field that she could stand erect in — are those with that last-analysis artist him to share bed and dinner.

I did manage a university teaching job; there’s only so much that cultural obstacles can obstruct drive. I got a baby sitter to watch my two small boys. Unlike my male Hunter classmates, it wasn’t the subway, a job in the city: it was Rutherford New Jersey, doable via Port Authority. What I see most is the sun setting over the Hudson.

The other path: no children. Raymond Carver once wrote about the difficulty of raising kids while growing your writing talent—passing from workshop into writing alone and finding the editors happy to receive your envelope. A magazine had asked for an essay about his greatest influences: They expected to hear the patrilineal line; Hemingway, Cheever. What they got were his two children. He talked about having to learn to write in the front seats of parked cars, short stories, something he could do and take satisfaction in fast. He’d gotten through, Carver writes. “But I’d take poison,” he adds, “before I’d go through that time again.” And Carver was writing as a father.

I started exhibiting: that the painters Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell had already tilled the soil made planting easier. Helen and Joan had broken through in an even tougher time. Two qualities, not possessed by me—and maybe essential, in this world of painting, with its hopes and nightmares all leading to the cool hushed rooms of the museums. Any field is about what you bring, what you’ll do, what you give up. Joan and Helen were both rich. They were both childless. They didn’t have to worry or marry their way into support; and they didn’t have another project, always waiting outside the studio for them to put down the staple gun and canvas. That’s what Virginia Woolf meant: a woman who wants to write (or paint) must have an income. The room of your own is the room you’ve paid for with your own money, with no one needing you—the tug on your body—outside. You need that room, with money left over for art supplies.

There is a special museum for women in the arts. It’s called The Museum for Women in the Arts. It experiences a perpetual budget crisis. It’s not in New York, or London, or Los Angeles—the centers were the art world fight gets clawed, bloodied, and recompensed every day. It’s on a sedate block in Washington, D.C. When the major museums do a big-ticket retrospective of a woman, it’s with a tight air of social service, of a funding box ticked, of nobly pitching in and doing their part. It never feels quite on purpose; it’s like a theatre letting Sarah Bernhardt or Eleonora Duse play Hamlet or Lear.

From the Renaissance on, the female artist’s best friend, their most important agent was money: the Marchioness of Pescara, Vittoria Colonna, the poet Michelangelo had an amorous relationship with—she and Michelangelo exchanged sonnets; it’s known that Michelangelo kissed her corpse—is a case in point. Colonna already had one kind of power, and could naturally reach for another. Painting was different. It took training—rigorous and years-long, and not possible because studios would accept no female apprentices. The only women with a chance at painting were—oddly enough—nuns. Women who’d exempted themselves from sexuality entirely. Or daughter artists educated by artist fathers. Even here, training was limited: women—allegedly more delicate and modest—were not allowed to work from the nude. Until the nineteenth century, they couldn’t even draw from live models.

Lee Krasner was a painter who was around—around means showing, arguing with critics, standing with a great deal of agitated air around her at the sudden edge of a party—when I first became a professional. Lee was Pollock’s widow. She had black wreath power. We got together in two settings: her home in East Hampton; in Manhattan outside of summer. She met me on the porch of the couple’s famous clapboard house—in the working class part of East Hampton (a nearly impossible sentence to write now), on Springs Fireplace Road. Lee wore a bluish checked dress that struck me as oddly housewifey. Was this really the widow of the great painter? This small-seeming woman, dressed not as a kind of painting demon, but in a demure dress that you imagined at a screen door, nodding at words from the mailman.

She led me to the brown barn behind the house, where Jackson had painted many masterpieces.

The floor was covered over with linoleum then—Lee was painting in the studio. She also showed me the house with a built-in bookcase Jackson had constructed, so no one could see what he was reading. (He was a clandestine, devoted reader.) She told me the story of his death which I already knew almost by heart.

The word I craved—had traveled to East Hampton for—about how to be an artist in a male world, she did not pronounce it. The difficulty not just of learning your craft, of finding people willing to risk on it, the trick to doing it in a world where the bodies and voices were broader and deeper than yours: she didn’t share that. Just the bookcase, the studio. The visit was still about the shoes and the bed.

The second time—maybe due to the city location, with its appointments and the air in New York of deals being struck that you are not part of—was more about commerce. Lee did talk shop. She described how she was planning to get her work shown at a top gallery. She would be hard-bargaining. Offering a two-for-one deal that whichever space—Marlborough-Gerson, Pace, the bluest of chips—would take. Exhibit Lee’s work, and you would get the Pollock estate as well. A brilliant play of the hand she’d been given. You’re a famous man’s widow: do not resist it, be it. Instead of getting that—understanding what it meant about the world that still means everything to me—at the time I had another response. I had the gall to feel secretly sorry for Lee. It’s probably the way some young female artists feel about me now.

Four decades later I realize I had this wrong, too. Lee was successful even then—with tributes and exhibitions to come, and more attention than I’ve had at my similar age. It’s one of the ways we do age: Fates that look awful before becoming surprisingly rosy and best case, as time carries us to the spot where we understand them.

And Lee paid her dues—paid them differently than Helen or Joan did. She was middle class: you don’t get the same airy choice about not paying or finding a creative way. During the forties and early fifties, big shot critics, collectors and gallery people would come by to see Jackson’s paintings. They’d walk right past hers. She’d stand by while they raved about his work. The hard face you have to grow there. Now, they would have to rave about both. For a woman there’s always the factor of how well you choose.

And if you end up mid-level—with a moderately successful husband like painter Balcomb Greene, as his wife Gertrude chose—this will never work. Even if you stand hard-faced by while dealers look at his paintings and ignore your work. Because fate, death, and sales will never deal you that power.

Lee is buried in the same cemetery in East Hampton. Behind Jackson, with a smaller headstone. But from a different vantage point, it looks like Lee is buried in front of him.

Lee got the posthumous retrospective at MoMA. To see what that means—what it represents, to any young woman paying the twenty bucks and walking under that giant, tribute-to-modern-design helicopter—let’s look at MoMA’s record. After the 2004 reopening of the Museum of Modern Art, of 400 objects exhibited from the permanent collection, only sixteen were by women. The Metropolitan has an excuse: it faithfully reflects the biases of history. In that way, a walk through the Met (along with every lovely sensation and moment it gives) is a mobile Virginia Slims ad: women are subjects, rarely creators, even less innovators. Until 2008, four women had been given MoMA retrospectives: Lee, and Helen, and Elizabeth Murray and Louise Bourgeois. Of these four, three had made famous marriages: were the arm and arm of an artistic couple. Krasner/Pollock, Frankenthaler/Robert Motherwell, Louise Bourgeois/Robert Goldwater. If the shoes weren’t still under the bed, they’d been there long enough. With a double irony—the museum was founded by three room-of-their-own women; Lillie P. Bliss (God, the names of the past), Mary Quinn Sullivan, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

Straight-up celebrity will do the job too. Those shoes under the bed. Yoko Ono’s work was just the subject of a MoMA exhibition. Ono—out of all the female artists in the world being favored on those walls? And what a varied career—with her music, videos, her three marriages, her pricey bag of nails (exhibited in London when she first met Lennon). We can have an honest debate about her art; I’ll just speak as an artist—to me, her body of work looks slim. But we can’t debate about her position. Her Wiki says it all: “She is the widow and second wife of John Lennon and is also known as a multimedia artist, singer and peace activist.” The “is also known” is from the lips of Margo Channing, of Joe Mankiewicz writing words for Bette Davis; what you must know to understand, the first square on the board, is she was the wife of this famous man.

There’s Frida Kahlo. Again, we can debate the work. My sense—walking past walls of Bellini, Cezanne, Rothko (and how awful, to love a field, and to find the names for that love come out male)—is that it’s hard to understand how anyone with an eye could really be interested in her painting. (My sense is the work is admired most not in museums but in library carrels, by the PhD candidates. Their theses have titles like, “Frida Kahlo— Beyond the ‘Painter of Pain.’” As if she’s less painter than experimental neurologist.) What’s constantly rehashed is the saucy stuff, the narrative stuff, the rooms with arguments and disarranged bedclothes. In essays and reviews her marriage, divorce, and remarriage to Diego Rivera. There’s the pet monkey, too, the gardens. But the story is the marriage: the aspiration, of life lived upright and asleep in the arts. That is, it isn’t art being written about, it’s Kahlo’s messy-glamorous life.

The last is Georgia O’Keeffe, who also made the connection to a powerful man.

In the early part of the twentieth century—reading her chances like a successful Edith Wharton heroine—she’d known to align herself with a male star. O’Keefe’s first successful watercolors, like the lovely Evening Star—which she sent her future lover Alfred Stieglitz—even use star imagery. It’s like she was painting the figure she understood she’d have to catch. Stieglitz responded: with the offer of a year’s stipend to paint in New York City. The rest is pretty predictable. She became the (token) woman painter of her time. You’d reel off the men—Edward Hopper, Arthur Dove—and then, if you were in mixed company, and if your impression mattered to you, you could add “and of course those great flower paintings and parched landscapes of Georgia O’Keefe.” But even to go token, to sink your fingers into the one available spot, the deal was to find it with an escort, as a plus-one. It hasn’t changed much since: for all of the non-sexual, higher-self, best-angel pleasures of a wall, good lighting, and a frame at the level of your eyes; for a woman, who you’ve slept with is still one of the best seating guides to where you’ll be placed, how to move ahead in the art world.

And if it’s not a penis that shares your last name, it’s the ability to wield one. This was Lynda Benglis’s protest and innovation. Lynda and I are the same age, lived the same locations—both of us, in the iron-front warehouses and cobbled streets of 1970’s SoHo. Lynda needed to get attention, as a woman artist. She pulled together three thousand dollars, invested in a full page Artforum ad. The artist with a dildo. It worked; as if the penis, proximity to one, or a reproduction of same, absolutely situates art world attention. As performance art, and critique of the effect of the performance, it remains one of the great pieces of criticism of the art world, and perhaps the best advertorial ever. It made her famous, and that distant fire continues to spark her career, embering all over the world. Her Wiki is the artist’s dream of travel: “She currently lives between New York City; Santa Fe; Kastelorizo, Greece; and Ahmedabad, India.” It’s what can happen to a woman, when you find a way to wear the shoes.

One day, in the mid-seventies, sitting in the back room at my gallery, the famous AndrĂ© Emmerich, I heard a conversation between the gallery director Bob Miller and a collector he was trying to woo. There’s a great phrase, from Samuel Butler: “Any fool can paint a picture but it takes a wise man to be able to sell it.” Bob was trying to pitch one of mine—it wasn’t a wallet-cruncher, four thousand dollars. From that back room, I paused, and listened. Here was the heart of the art world. Bob talked about “a Lipsky” and “a Lipsky on your wall,” and sometimes he said the name “Pat.” It was gratifying. You felt name-brand. And then I noticed—he never said “her” or “she.” My gift, in my name, was androgyny. You could buy without knowing you’d be going home with something female.