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Feminist art cracks the market’s glass ceiling

Historical trends of male art selling for more are being challenged

Last year’s US International Association of Art Critics award for the best monographic show was “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” of black, feminist artist Kara Walker at the Whitney Museum in New York. This year, “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” was heralded by the Washington Post as a “landmark”. That show opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007, transferred to PS1 in New York this spring and is now on its way to the Vancouver Art Gallery (4 October-11 January 2009). The Serpentine Gallery in London is currently devoting a solo show to veteran Viennese artist Maria Lassnig, now nearly 90, while the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève’s summer show is on Joan Jonas (until 29 June). Meanwhile, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía in Madrid have teamed up to organise the largest ever retrospective of artist Nancy Spero (until 31 August). Feminist art has never been so popular among museum curators.

Here in Basel, the Schaulager’s annual exhibition, timed to coincide with Art Basel, features work by two women artists—Andrea Zittel and Monika Sosnowska. Of these two, Zittel in particular is known for work that engages with women’s domestic lives and feminist issues. “It is an issue I feel very conflicted about,” Zittel says. “We were the generation on [from the pioneering activist artists of the 1960s and 1970s], who went to school in the 1980s. The general attitude was that, because of the progress feminism made, we didn’t think things were that difficult for women artists, we could make the same work as men.” Yet feminist artists are those she identifies with: Louise Bourgeois, Anni Albers, Natalia Goncharova. “I’m really interested in periods when it is not possible to change external situations, so the form of the work itself has to change; like Anni Albers, who wasn’t able to paint so she joined the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus instead,” says Zittel.

But although many artists, curators and academics are convinced of the value of art that responds to feminist issues, does the market agree? Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who has just produced a book with Nancy Spero, says: “One thing I find stunning is the extent to which the art market is very male…There are very few female artists at auction.”

In Art Basel, 39 of the 110 artists in the “Wack!” show (several of whom, it should be noted, are uncomfortable with the “feminist” label) are represented, although perhaps some artists won’t entirely welcome the market attention. Many artists of this era, both male and female, set out to make works that question the commodity of art, or actively resist it.

Anthony Reynolds (2.1/C3) has brought work by female activist Sturtevant and Nancy Spero, including the latter’s large-scale drawing Bodycount, 1974, and silkscreen Who Needs It… Hanging II, 1994. “These are both artists who have never been neglected. There have always been die-hard loyalists and different periods of greater recognition, but the interest in both has broadened massively over the past few years.” He says that works by Sturtevant used to sell for around $35,000 a few years ago, but last month a piece, Warhol Marilyn, 1966, sold at Christie’s, New York for $409,000, five times its upper estimate. “Prices for Nancy Spero’s work have also risen dramatically, particularly for key works. They have gone stratospheric.” However, he feels the feminist tag is irrelevant. “The whole feminist issue for me is a complete red-herring,” he says. “I don’t specialise in women artists, I specialise in good ones.”

At Sean Kelly gallery (2.1/T5), director Denis Gardarin says that the artists he represents—Marina Abramovic and Rebecca Horn—have always attracted a dedicated following. “I haven’t noticed a particular change,” he says. Kelly is showing works including Abramovic’s Carrying the Skeleton, 2008 (E75,000) and Rebecca Horn’s large drawing In Den Wind Geschrieben, 2005, E150,000. However, his colleague Maureen Bray does note that more people seem to responding to these types of work. “I think there is a broader range of interest, among museums and private collectors,” she says.

John Cheim of Cheim & Read (2.0/B1), who represents Lynda Benglis, Jenny Holzer and other artists creating political and socially-engaged work, says: “Awareness of feminist art has been building since the 1970s but in the past five to ten years interest in the market has bloomed.” He has sold a Louise Bourgeois composite watercolour, The Birth, 2007, for $450,000 to Swiss collector Ursula Hauser. He has also brought classic works by Lynda Benglis from the 1970s, and sold Jenny Holzer’s True Ribs, 2008, for $350,000 to a US collector.

“Things are changing for the better,” says Iwan Wirth, of Hauser & Wirth (2.0/D1), and credits museums for lifting artists’ profiles. “The Moderna Museet in Stockholm managed to get government funding to increase the women artists in their collection and have been able to buy a major Bourgeois piece and some Lee Lozano works.” At Basel the gallery is showing works by Isa Genzken ($35,000-$250,000 for wall works), Roni Horn and Maria Lassnig.

But he acknowledges that there is still some way to go. “Female artists as a whole are shockingly undervalued by the market,” says Mr Wirth. “In May, Lucian Freud became the priciest living artist at $33.6m and Louise Bourgeois became the priciest living female artist at E2.9m [$4.6m—at Christie’s, Paris, on 27 May]. It is not my mission, but it occurred to me again, on the back of these records, how far female artists have to go.”

Appeared in TAN Daily - Basel , June 2008