Women House: A Doll’s House

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Miriam Schapiro, Laure Tixier, and Rachel Whiteread use miniaturized depictions of the house and household objects to satirize stereotypical gender roles.

Miriam Schapiro, Dollhouse, 1972; Wood and mixed media, 79 3/4 x 82 x 8 1/2 in.; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Gene Davis Memorial Fund

Miriam Schapiro, Dollhouse, 1972

Miriam Schapiro (b. 1923, Toronto, Canada; d. 2015, Hampton Bays, New York) was a pioneer of the 1970s feminist art movement. Male-dominated art forms such as painting and sculpture were considered “high” art. Craftwork, traditionally created by women, was considered merely decorative. Schapiro and other feminist artists employed materials traditionally associated with craft into their art to elevate “women’s work.”

In 1972, Schapiro and Judy Chicago founded Womanhouse, a collaborative installation that challenged the dominant art historical narrative. Schapiro’s Dollhouse, first exhibited at Womanhouse, “combines the beauty, charm, and supposed safety and comfort of the home with the unnamable terrors existing within its walls.” In Shcapiro’s Dollhouse, a rattlesnake lurks in the parlor corner, men glower through the kitchen window, and a monster sleeps in a cradle. Schapiro turns a symbol of domesticity into a literal house of horrors. Schapiro also reverses the archetypal roles of male artist and objectified female model. In the artist’s studio, a nude male model stands on a wooden platform, while Schapiro herself assumes the role of artist.

Laure Tixier, Plaid Houses (Maquettes): Blue Japan House, Blue Art Deco House, Red Deconstructivist House, White Hut, Acid Green Dome House, Brown Usha Hut, Pink Tower, Turquoise Blue Colonial House (Barbados), Orange Breton House, 2005–11; Wool, felt, and thread, dimensions variable; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Les Amis du NMWA, Paris, France; © Laure Tixier

Laure Tixier, Plaid Houses, 2005–2011

Laure Tixier (b. 1972, Lichfield, England) combines childlike imagination with specific references to architectural history in her drawings, maquettes, and large scale sculptures of buildings. Plaid Houses is an eclectic neighborhood of miniature dwellings inspired by various cultures, including an art-deco house, a primitive yurt, and a minaret. In reference to blanket forts built by children, Tixier constructs her monochrome homes by stitching together pieces of fabric. Like blanket forts, these houses appear cozy and welcoming, despite the structural vulnerability of their textile walls. The drooping fabric makes the houses appear animated and alive, as if they “are bodies with a felt skin.” Tixier’s use of felt continues the feminist practice of blending craft with fine art, a practice now embraced by the contemporary art world.

Rachel Whiteread, Modern Chess Set, 2005

Using resin, metal, and plastic, Rachel Whiteread (b. 1962, London, England) creates casts of domestic interiors and furnishings. She often focuses on the negative space around and within objects and buildings to explore their physical relationships to the human body.

Rachel Whiteread, Modern Chess Set, 2005; Carpet, linoleum, plywood, beech, plasticized resins, foil, white metal, fabric, enamel, varnish, aluminum wire, brass, ink, chrome, gloss paint, metal wire, foam, and fabric handles, 26 3/8 x 26 3/8 x 1 1/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York; © Rachel Whiteread; Courtesy of the artist; Luhring Augustine, New York; Lorcan O’Neill, Rome; and Gagosian Gallery

Modern Chess Set was originally commissioned for a 2005 exhibition called The Art of Chess, which featured 10 unique chess sets created by contemporary artists, including Barbara Kruger and Yayoi Kusama. Whiteread created casts of her own childhood dollhouse furnishings for the chess set, turning a domestic space into a battleground where household objects are pitted against each other.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: June 26, 2015

ARTnews writer Ben Davis follows up Maura Reilly’s recent article by asking, “What will it take to finally put an end to sexism in art?” The limits of counting, conditions for success, the pay gap, and the representation gap are cited as contributing issues. Some of the article’s sobering stats and opinions are:

  • In the U.S. only 30% of all artists represented by galleries are women.
  • Today, female college graduates make about 22% less than men.
  • Interest in feminism ebbs and flows over the years.
  • Art sales constitute a fraction of how many contemporary artists make a living.

Front-Page Femmes

A pioneer in feminist art, Miriam Schapiro, passed away at the age of 91. Hyperallergic, Artnet, and The New York Times discuss her teachings, her work with Judy Chicago, and her pivotal role in the development and definition of feminist art.

Greta Gerwig talks to The Huffington Post about the problematic expectations of female characters in movies. Gerwig says, “I think likability is not just an issue for characters, it’s an issue for women in general. It can be a real straightjacket limiting life. It can feel like you’re operating outside of social norms when that’s your highest value: to be liked. I think it’s really tricky.”

Nina Simone is the inspiration behind three upcoming films and a tribute album. The New York Times says, “Fifty years after her prominence, Nina Simone is now reaching her peak.” NPR explores the songstress’s life and career through five songs.

ARTnews gets a glimpse into Barbara Kasten: Stages at ICA in Philadelphia.

Hyperallergic covers Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm at the Drawing Center. Frank focuses on the grisly and grotesque aspects of fairy tales in an attempt to recontextualize favorite stories from a feminist perspective.

Speaking Back at Goodman Gallery highlights various female perspectives on issues of race, culture, and gender. The show’s curator Natasha Becker says the exhibition focuses on “imagination and the right of black women artists to imagine, and the power in that.”

Conceptualist photographer Sarah Charlesworth’s works are on view at the New Museum.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Miriam Schapiro: Feminist and “Femmagist”

While the weather outside is cooling down, take a look at an artist born in November whose work is known for bright colors, exuberant patterns, and play on texture and form.

Miriam Schapiro has dedicated her life and career to bringing women artists to prominence in art and academia. Miriam Schapiro, born November 15, 1923, is a painter, sculptor, teacher, writer, and self-defined “femmagist.” She is often cited alongside Judy Chicago as a founder of the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. In 1972 the two artists co-created Womanhouse with twenty-one art students—this landmark collaborative art project explored feminist concerns about women’s place in the professional and art worlds. The transformation of a Hollywood house, previously scheduled to be demolished, allowed the artists to make traditionally female spaces, such as kitchens, into feminist works of art.

Miriam Schapiro, Mechano/Flower Fan, 1979; Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in honor of her mother, Betty S. Abbott

Miriam Schapiro, Mechano/Flower Fan, 1979; Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in honor of her mother, Betty S. Abbott

As her career progressed, Schapiro became interested in art and techniques that had been considered “female” or women’s work. These techniques included quilting and embroidery, and have often been ignored in canonical “high” art. Schapiro invented the term “femmage” to explain her process for creating art, in which she began to combine painting, textiles, and paper into collages. She transformed the collage, first brought into the realm of canonical art by male heavyweights Picasso and Braque, into a feminine exploration of pattern and texture, coupled with traditional artisanal elements such as lace, fabric, and needlework. Through this work, she calls for techniques once deemed mere “craft” to be brought into the realm of fine art. Her brightly colorful and busy compositions ushered in a new art form at a time when the art world and market was focused on Minimalist and Conceptual art.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts owns one such work, created in 1979. Mechano/Flower Fan draws upon the fan as an item traditionally created by, and used by, women. Schapiro’s bright colors and geometric planes, created from fields of paint and collaged fabric, refer to artists such as Picasso, who used the collage to explore symbols and the creation of signs in culture. With this history in mind, Schapiro argues against the fan as a traditional symbol of shy, demure women.

Schapiro’s legacy and artworks continue to inspire other artists. Her groundbreaking inclusion of items such as textiles in painted works advanced the realm of “craft” to a new, true art form.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.