BOOK WORLD: 7 fe­male artists come alive in Donna Sea­man’s “Iden­tity Un­known.”

Book about lit­tle-known fe­male artists ex­plores their dif­fi­cul­ties and their cre­ativ­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - Elaine Mar­golin is a writer and critic in New York. BY ELAINE MAR­GOLIN book­world@wash­post.com

Fe­male creators rise in all their splen­dor and de­fi­ance in Donna Sea­man’s won­der­ful new book that chron­i­cles the lives of seven Amer­i­can artists. These women, one of whom died only in 2007, have al­ready been mostly for­got­ten by the art world, which Sea­man sees as in­ex­cus­able and here does her best to cor­rect. She claims her book, “Iden­tity Un­known,” is not a work of art crit­i­cism or a fem­i­nist man­i­festo but her own ex­plo­ration of the forces that pro­pelled these women to cre­ate while fac­ing ob­sta­cles their male coun­ter­parts didn’t have to con­sider.

Sea­man’s in­ter­est stems from long per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Her mother, Elayne Sea­man, pro­duced el­e­gant ink paint­ings. Watch­ing her work as a lit­tle girl gave Sea­man an early un­der­stand­ing of her mother’s pas­sion­ate need to cre­ate. Sea­man went on to be­come an art stu­dent her­self and flirted with the idea of pur­su­ing the field pro­fes­sion­ally but got side­tracked by her love of writ­ing, par­tic­u­larly bi­o­graph­i­cal pro­files, which she ap­proaches with em­pa­thy and am­ple cu­rios­ity.

Among the seven artists ex­plored in “Iden­tity Un­known” is Louise Nevel­son, who built large and in­tri­cate black wood sculp­tures that re­sem­bled an­cient tem­ples. A Rus­sian Jewish woman who was born in 1899, Nevel­son grew up in Maine us­ing wood scraps and other dis­carded ob­jects for her cre­ations that were al­ways painted black. She also loved to make open-faced boxes, which she felt brought or­der to chaos. Sea­man be­lieves Nevel­son’s affin­ity for trans­form­ing old and bat­tered pieces of wood into new forms was in­spired by her own bro­ken­ness. She came to Amer­ica with her par­ents to es­cape the pogroms, and her mother was of­ten be­set by de­pres­sion. She cre­ated “Sky Gate, New York,” a gi­gan­tic black wood wall that stood in the mez­za­nine of 1 World Trade Cen­ter be­fore its col­lapse. She also cre­ated two Holo­caust me­mo­ri­als in Is­rael and Ja­pan. Sea­man de­scribes Nevel­son’s great walls and tow­ers as “wooden po­ems, each box a stanza, each piece a word, yet they are not teth­ered to any one lan­guage. They speak to ev­ery­one.”

An­other of Sea­man’s sub­jects is Gertrude Aber­crom­bie, who painted stark land­scapes filled with re­gal fe­male fig­ure with fe­line eyes. A tele­phone ap­pears in her work as a re­cur­ring mo­tif. Sea­man be­lieves her por­traits sug­gest her fear of en­trap­ment and her si­mul­ta­ne­ous de­sire for se­cu­rity and safety. Her paint­ings con­tain ivory tow­ers, blocky houses and empty rooms that some­times re­sem­ble cells. “Split Per­son­al­ity” shows the lower half of a woman stand­ing in a long skirt while the up­per half of her body hov­ers nearby. Aber­crom­bie suf­fered from in­se­cu­rity and drank too much. She found the de­mands of moth­er­hood and mar­riage ex­as­per­at­ing. Based in Chicago, she never had a ma­jor gallery show, and her renown was short-lived. Sea­man laments her dis­ap­pear­ance, be­liev­ing that in her paint­ings “we see a flat­land, an open-air stage un­der the moon’s eye.”

Sea­man’s list of artists is sure to in­tro­duce most read­ers to fig­ures they don’t know. Loïs Mailou Jones was a black artist who painted lux­u­ri­ous im­pres­sion­is­tic watercolors and oils with a pal­ette knife. She was drawn to the busy mar­ket­places of Haiti for in­spi­ra­tion. She later be­came fas­ci­nated by African cul­tural mo­tifs and cre­ated in­tri­cate tex­tile de­signs that she il­lus­trated in stun­ning watercolors. Ree Mor­ton worked as a sculp­tor us­ing twigs and branches while living as a Navy spouse and rais­ing three chil­dren. Joan Brown cre­ated swirling ex­pres­sion­is­tic paint­ings.

What makes Sea­man such an en­chant­ing bi­og­ra­pher is her will­ing ness to em­brace un­cer­tainty, of­ten stop­ping mid-nar­ra­tive to pose ques­tions re­gard­ing an artist’s pos­si­ble in­ten­tions. She is in­trigued by Christina Ram­berg’s erotic draw­ings of bound and bro­ken women wear­ing tightly fit­ted un­der­gar­ments, of­ten with their faces hid­den or miss­ing. She con­sid­ers the pos­si­bil­ity that her work is a med­i­ta­tion on the eroti­cism of bondage, but her re­search leads her else­where. In a 1973 in­ter­view, Ram­berg said, “Watch­ing my mother get­ting dressed, I used to think that this is what men want women to look like; she’s trans­form­ing her­self into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fas­ci­nat­ing … In some ways, I thought it was aw­ful.” She goes on to spec­u­late about Ram­berg’s in­ten­tions: “Was Ram­berg com­ment­ing on the pe­cu­liar or­deals women sub­ject them­selves to in or­der to achieve body shapes deemed de­sir­able and fash­ion­able? Did she see women as cap­tives of a sex­ist so­ci­ety? Or could it be that her fe­male tor­sos are fit­ted with im­preg­nable corsets as ar­mor that mocks the iconog­ra­phy of sex­ual in­vi­ta­tion?” Sea­man brings this same in­quisi- to the work of Lenore Tawney, who spent end­less hours making enor­mous hang­ing struc­tures com­posed of thou­sands of threads painstak­ingly wo­ven to­gether.

Sea­man finds con­nec­tions that seem to tie these women to one an­other.

She no­tices how most of them rely on au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ex­pres­sion and how they like to use ma­te­ri­als oth­ers deem worth­less. She is im­pressed by their de­ter­mi­na­tion, de­spite the forces that threat­ened them, and their abil­ity to keep work­ing, of­ten with­out out­side nur­tu­rance or men­tor­ing. Most of them were open to chang­ing medi­ums as they evolved. Mor­ton grew ob­sessed with paint­ing dec­o­ra­tive bows, flags and ban­ners in de­li­ciously shiny col­ors. Jones be­came in­trigued by African masks, which she in­cor­po­rated into her paint­ings. Brown went on to cre­ate out­door sculp­tures filled with bright col­ors and bold geo­met­ric de­signs that re­flected her grow­ing in­ter­est in East­ern mys­ti­cism and later ex­per­i­mented with char­coal and graphite. When her work as a painter be­gan to trou­ble her, Ram­berg tem­po­rar­ily switched to sew­ing mag­nif­i­cent quilts, us­ing stacks of fab­ric rem­nants she found in Ja­pan. Aber­crom­bie, in her later years, switched her fo­cus to paint­ing ob­jects such as cof­fee grinders, shav­ing brushes and mugs us­ing jolly pinks and soft grays as her com­po­si­tions grew more for­mu­laic and less nu­anced than the gloomy self-por­traits she had pro­duced ear­lier.

When Sea­man was a young as­pir­ing artist at the Kansas City Art In­sti­tute, she would spend hours look­ing at old black and white pho­to­graphs of Max Ernst, Mar­cel Duchamp, Jack­son Pollock, Mark Rothko and other lu­mi­nar­ies sit­ting hap­pily in a cafe, en­gaged in lively con­ver­sa­tion. Usu­ally, there would be a woman or two among them with a dis­mis­sive cap­tion that read “iden­tity un­known.” She re­mem­bers feel­ing in­dig­nant at their ca­sual era­sure, but now, in this cap­ti­vat­ing book, she has re­sus­ci­tated their com­plex and ac­com­plished lives.

In pho­tos of male artists, there would usu­ally be a woman or two among them, with a dis­mis­sive cap­tion that read “iden­tity un­known.”

COUR­TESY OF BERNARD FRIEDMAN

“The Queen” by Gertrude Aber­crom­bie, one of the seven fe­male artists ex­plored in Donna Sea­man’s new book, “Iden­tity Un­known.”

IDEN­TITY UN­KNOWN Re­dis­cov­er­ing Seven Amer­i­can Women Artists Hard­cover By Donna Sea­man Blooms­bury. 480 pp. $35

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