The Transverse Review of Books
An Independent Vision
More than a decade ago, Holland Cotter wrote a review, “Scaling a Minimalist Wall With Bright, Shiny Colors,” (The New York Times, January 15, 2008), about the exhibition, Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975-1985, at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York. In that review, Cotter made three salient points that I would like to revisit with respect to the context they provide for the paintings and drawings of Dee Shapiro.
First, Cotter stated that Pattern and Decoration might be:
“[…] the last genuine art movement of the 20th century, which was also the first and only art movement of the postmodern era and may well prove to be the last art movement ever.”
Second, Cotter posited why the art world soon lost interest in Pattern and Decoration:
“Art associated with feminism has always had a hostile press. And there was the beauty thing. In the Neo-Expressionist, Neo-Conceptualist late 1980s, no one knew what to make of hearts, Turkish flowers, wallpaper and arabesques.”
Third, Cotter characterizes Pattern and Decoration as follows:
“[…] P&D art isn’t beautiful and never was, not in any classical way. It’s funky, funny, fussy, perverse, obsessive, riotous, accumulative, awkward, hypnotic […]”
And not-quite-beauty is exactly what saved it, what gave it weight, weight enough to bring down the great Western Minimalist wall for a while and bring the rest of the world in. Let the art historical record show, in the post movement future, the continuing debt we owe it for that.
Although Shapiro’s work was not included in the exhibition at the Hudson River Museum that Cotter reviewed, his characterization of P&D fits her art to a T.
Shapiro’s connection to the P&D movement is her work from the early 1980s inspired by Middle Eastern rugs and geometric patterns. I would like to begin, however, at an earlier point in her career. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the paintings influenced by Persian rugs strike me as an extension of her long engagement with geometric patterns, the Fibonacci sequence, and the use of gridded surfaces to locate her marks. Abstract shapes rather than figurative elements populate them, and they downplay decorative elements in favor of geometric forms.
Contrary to Cotter’s description of motifs common to the P&D movement, there are no “hearts, Turkish flowers, wallpaper and arabesques” in Shapiro’s rug-inspired paintings and watercolors. Rather, she utilizes line and geometric shape, each defined by a different color, to establish dense, intricate patterns where asymmetry and symmetry overlap. The results are, to cite Cotter, “funky, funny, fussy, perverse, obsessive, riotous, accumulative, awkward, [and] hypnotic.”
In the painting, November (1984), Shapiro uses a dropper, which is attached to a tube acrylic paint, to apply the paint one drop at a time. Through this incremental, labor-intensive process, she atomizes as well as slows down gestural painting; the sweep of the arm becomes the squeezing of a tube. Compositionally, November consists of lines, chevrons, triangles, diamonds, and squares. The uneven, textured surface brings to mind the process of weaving and the loom’s resultant vertical and horizontal lines of fabric.
By bringing all these possibilities and associations into play, she took what she learned from her use of geometric patterns and merged it with aspects of her upbringing. As the artist recounted to me in an email (August 15, 2019), she “learned to knit from [her] mother at a very young age. Along with the craft it was important to count and learn numerical patterns.” In that same email, Shapiro also stated: “I did learn to sew from my grandmother who began working in the garment center when she arrived in the country in 1909. She was also a union organizer of the ILGWU. She sewed all her long life (105) and I still use some of the fabric that she had accumulated.”
Knitting patterns inspired by mathematical concepts likely led Shapiro to imagine the visual potential of Pi, symmetry, fractals, and the Fibonacci sequence. I would further point out that knitting, as the joining together of lines of fabric, is a way of simultaneously creating form and pattern. Early in her career, Shapiro incorporated aspects of these activities into her art, reconfiguring geometric patterns and using the Fibonacci sequence to determine her compositions. Despite the significant changes her work has undergone over the past half-century, one of the formal currents running through all of it is her use of line as a basic unit, a compositional device that has led her — in paintings, watercolors, drawings, and mixed media works — to an exploration of repetition, variation, symmetry, and pattern.
Despite the formal character of her work, I think it is important to provide some further biographical details about Shapiro, as they reveal the prejudiced definitions of an artist that the art world continues to maintain, especially about women.
Shapiro was born in Brooklyn in 1936, the oldest of three children. Her father was a glazier who served as a civilian worker in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. Her mother was a hosiery model and later a packager but stopped working after a few years of marriage. After the war, Shapiro’s father went to night school to earn a license as a Certified Public Accountant while working two jobs. After he obtained his degree, he quit his job as a glazier and opened up his own office. Successful in his practice, he was able to move his family to Queens and then to Long Island.
Shapiro remembers that her mother was often sick and hospitalized during her childhood and that, as the oldest child, she had to take care of her siblings. She worked every summer at different jobs, including a counselor at Catskills hotels. After graduating from high school, she attended Queens College (1954-1960), majoring in art, studying with John Ferren and minoring in psychology, and received both BA and MA degrees. In 1956, she studied for a semester at Universidad de Mexico in Mexico City, after stopping in Cuba for a short visit. It was in Mexico that she first encountered bright patterns and colors, as well as the murals of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Between 1960 and ’68, she taught, married, raised her two children, and supported her husband. During this time, she also took painting classes at the Brooklyn Museum with Richard Mathew. In 1968, after Shapiro and her family moved to Great Neck, she started Central Hall, a co-op gallery, and began drawing and painting seriously with a few other artists. This was when she began using line as the basis of her art.
It is out of this reductive decision that her work evolved, always guided by line. It seems to me that when Shapiro decided to discover where line could take her, she was sharing something with artists as disparate as the conceptualist Sol LeWitt, whose wall drawings are accretions of individual marks, and the West Coast abstractionist Ed Moses, who began working with a diagonal grid in the mid-1970s and returned to it throughout his life. Despite their different affiliations, geographic locations, and ages, these three artists are deeply engaged with line, repetition, and patterning.
The reason for citing these biographical details is to establish a context in which to consider Shapiro’s career. In contrast to many other women artists of her generation, she raised a family while maintaining an artistic practice. As history has taught us, it was difficult enough to be a woman artist during the rise of Minimalism, Pop Art, and Conceptual Art – movements overwhelmingly dominated by men – but to be a mother living in a suburb of New York City made it even tougher. While Shapiro has never publicly stated that these details might have presented obstacles she had to face, her biography helps explain why her work might not have received proper attention, beginning in the mid-1970s.
The other difficulty she faced in terms of recognition was her refusal to settle into a signature style. This is why I have emphasized the importance of line in her work, the one constant amid radical changes.
For this exhibition, Snatched and Reworked, the David Richard Gallery has selected examples from three distinct groupings spanning the past 35 years of Shapiro’s work: P&D paintings and watercolors (1983-84), erotic abstract drawings in ink and paint on paper (2010-2012), and mixed media works on paper based on well-known art historical depictions of women (2018-19).
One of the striking traits these disparate bodies of work share is the implicit trust that the line or geometric element will be able to stand on its own while contributing to the overall composition. Her incremental method of adding one element to the next seems of a piece with learning to knit when she was a child. This connection infuses the work with a biographical current that never becomes overt: it is simply there, unobtrusively, to remind the artist of her origins and culture.
This biographical fact also suggests why Shapiro decided, as a compositional starting point, to move from geometric patterns based on the Fibonacci sequence to the symmetrical format of the carpet. In her erotic drawings, the repetitive, thread-like lines add a note of obsessiveness and humor to these brash, frank images. Finally, in the mixed media works, in which Shapiro recomposes such well known paintings as Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1485-86) and Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), she uses fabrics that her grandmother had accumulated, and in the process makes a connection between historical depictions of objectified women and the very real experiences of a union organizer and lifelong seamstress working in a sweatshop.
Done in ink and paint, with one line following the other, Shapiro’s erotic, semi-abstract drawings evoke male and female genitalia (sometimes simultaneously), plant life and sea forms, baskets, harlequins, cilia, microscopic creatures, and soft, knitted pillows. Composing incrementally with indelible mediums, Shapiro has developed a process in which, it would seem, she can neither revise nor go back and erase; every mark is permanent. This gives the drawings an improvised, performative aspect.
In the largely red, violet, pink, and orange drawing, Pomegranate (2011), Shapiro sexualizes this many-seeded fruit, undoubtedly aware that it features prominently in the Greek myth of Persephone, in which Hades, god of the Underworld, fell in love with Persephone and carried her off to his bleak domain. Mourning the loss of her child, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, refused to allow plants to grow. Zeus, Hades’ brother, commanded him to free her. However, because she had eaten six pomegranate seeds, Persephone was doomed to spend six months out of every year in the Underworld.
In Shapiro’s drawing, the open pomegranate’s skin seems to be sprouting purple hair evenly around itself. Divided vertically into two equal halves, the hairy oval exposes its central form — narrow red lips enclosing an orange slit — evoking female genitalia. There are 13 seeds, with six on the right side, and seven on the left. Is Shapiro consciously deviating from the myth? If so, what is she suggesting?
What I like about the drawing – and this is true of Shapiro’s work in general – is that it does not have a message, which is why any comparison to the porcelain plates in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79) seems misguided. While both artists allude to the female body, Shapiro ranges farther by including allusions to male genitalia. Rather than celebrating one gender over the other, she combines aspects of both and makes what I read as a hermaphroditic form. It is this merging of the sexes that helps distinguish these drawings.
It is clear from the drawings that Shapiro kept pushing herself in different directions. What are we to make of the solid crimson nipples protruding from the two breast-like forms in Specual Amoris (n.d.), a drawing whose surface is marked by repeated strokes, dots, and short and long lines? There is a knowing rudeness to these shapes, which Shapiro underscores through color; still, her palette could be appropriate for children’s books and fairytales.
In her most recent body of work, Shapiro literally and figuratively reassembles well-known paintings of women. Using sections of cut fabric, lines of poured paint, and collaged magazine illustrations, she creates a segmented image whose individual parts remain indistinct even as they contribute to the overall impression of a woman set within a particular space. The subjects’ faces are made up of different reproductions that have been fitted together, often with parts of the face hidden, suggesting that the viewer can never really know them or what they are thinking.
In her Olympia (2018-19), Shapiro focuses on the body of the prostitute and leaves out the black maid and hissing black cat. By fitting together pieces of fabric in clashing patterns, she dissolves the border between abstraction and representation. A section of dotted fabric or a distorted checkerboard pattern is both a decorative shape and a part of a body or a piece of a room. The instability between the two enhances the work’s meaning: we look at a portrait of a woman, something that, in Shapiro’s hands, is both general and specific. By partially obscuring the multi-part faces compiled from art history, while marshaling pieces of cloth, — and their implicit associations with women’s work, particularly sewing — to complete the picture, Shapiro has wrested her subjects away from their original male authors.
I think of these works as large bold collages, which, in terms of scale, move into a territory occupied by Robert Motherwell and Romare Bearden.
I think of these works as large, bold collages, which, in terms of scale, move into a territory occupied by Robert Motherwell and Romare Bearden. It also occurred to me that Shapiro’s relationship to the P&D movement shares something with Rosalyn Drexler’s relationship to Pop Art. While Shapiro has at times employed a vocabulary associated with P&D, just as Drexler has used, say, an image of Marilyn Monroe in Marilyn Pursued by Death (1963), both women stand apart from the respective movements with which they have often been associated. Instead of being members of a group, however loosely defined, they are outliers who have blazed their own path. We should praise them for their independence and for their determination to reclaim the image of women as a subject.
An Independent Vision, John Yau