In Her Own Voice by Saul Ostrow

BOMB 21 Fall 1987
021 Fall 1987

Saul Ostrow, NYC, May 1987

I was going to write this article myself, but realized that it would have been nothing more than
a report on conversations I have had with these women. Such an article would have had less to do
with what they said, than with what I had heard. It would once again be a man explaining women,
interceding on their behalf, describing and formalizing their ideas. Their individual identities
would have been homonogenized into a group of my construction.

Therefore, I asked a group of painters to write short statements covering these points:
1. What does it mean to say painting is a male language?
2. What does it mean for a woman to try at this point, to make a painting?
3. What do women do differently than men in painting?
4. Are women’s paintings different in methodology? In iconography?
5. Is there, in the Lacanian sense, no such thing as male/female art? Is it just a
cultural phenomena?
6. Is there the possibility for a painting that isn’t gender bound?
The following are the voices of these painters addressing
my view of the conditions of their production. They address my male understanding of what I
have heard said.

Ten years ago these questions, their language loaded, aggressively male and demanding (sexist),
would have elicited totally different answers from women who were feminist in their outlook.
The questions would have seemed neutral/natural and would have been answered probably in a
language that would have claimed a privileged position for women. A claim that what needed to be
developed was a woman’s culture based on what was to be a natural female psychology. A culture
which was to give women a new image, consciousness of themselves, taking this territory away
from men who had for so long claimed to do this for them.

This grouping cross section are the heirs to that earlier generation. They address a different set
of issues. Their answers cover a broad spectrum of the language. The language of their discourse
both in conversation and practice are no longer about redress or self-identity but about the
possibilities of what they do and why they are not heard more often.

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Deborah Kass, World of Wonders, 1987, oil on canvas, 63 × 84 inches.

Deborah Kass

Dear Saul, I found the best way to answer these questions was to invert their order.

6. “Is there a possibility for painting that isn’t gender bound?”

All culture is gender bound since this is a culture that has institutionalized difference and otherness, whose economics and terms of production are predicated on these ideas. I would ask, “is there a possibility for interpretation that isn’t gender bound?”

5. “Is there, in a Lacanian sense, no male/female in art?

Is male/female a cultural phenomena?” I defer here to another French thinker who is female, Simone de Beauvoir. “Women are not born, they are created.”

4. “Is there a women’s methodology or iconography different from men’s?”

Our methodology and iconography is still considered marginal by this culture. If this were not so as many women as men would be enjoying the fruits of their efforts, the economic rewards that culture bestows on its heroes.

Since we have so little information, so little representation historically, it is hard to compare methodology and almost impossible to compare iconography. In other words without the luxury of a history of our own, without six or seven hundred years of art and artists with whom we can identify, from whom we could draw conclusions, and most importantly from whom we could construct a critical language and identity, it is impossible to make a case for the difference between men and women’s iconography and methodology.

Clearly, we have never been in a position to represent this culture or ourselves. We have historically been relegated to biological not cultural production. Our representation has long been assumed by men, primarily as projections for their desire. These representations of the past to which we refer (that which we call history) have served to benefit the dominant class that constructs them (white men) and to exclude all Others (people of color and women).

We are now beginning, in the 20th century, to represent ourselves for the first time on a large scale. In this historical moment we are “a generation of women who have … the difficult task of entering a world that has refused to see us [represent us] as human beings with the same crises of development that has received thousands of years of expression [representation] on behalf of men.” The Hungry Self, Kim Chernin, Times Books p. 32]

3. “What do women do differently than men in painting?”

Given the history of our cultural participation, given the historical difference in the cultural position between men and women, given that women in this century are just starting to participate economically on a large scale for the first time, how can there be any assumption of sameness in cultural production between the sexes. It is assumed that men produce culture. This is the assumption of power and privilege. This is exactly what women have never had: the privilege and power to produce culture.

Women have no way of coming from this place of assumption. With no history to call our own we are at the forefront of an enormous cultural change that is still much embattled and not in the least secured. It is accompanied by an enormous backlash, reaction, and return to orthodoxy. We are being challenged constantly, even by questions such as these that demand an explanation from the Other and still consider the male position (that of power and privilege) as the universal.

If we are going to represent ourselves, if we are going to make culture, we will be addressing these very issues of this shaky position, either directly or indirectly. Our position is under attack. What is it? It is a position filled with doubt, precariousness, vulnerability. It is new and we don’t yet have the right to own the truth of these feelings publically because these feelings that are in fact central to all humaness, are not the values that are valued in this culture.

2. “What does it mean for a woman to make a painting in this culture.”

1. “What does it mean to say painting is a male language?”

If a woman is dealing with her own identity and prospectively, it’s larger meaning, be it political, historical, or spiritual, and has only the tools of that culture in which she finds herself, and those tools in fact have regulated her to Otherness, but she still wants to communicate to and with this culture, she has no alternative but to use the available language of that culture, even though this language, like the culture—its meanings, myths, and history have been produced for and by men. When a woman makes a painting she is starting, necessarily, from a double-edged position, that of using a language that has denied her and been denied her, with all its history, myths, and significations, to do just what men do—speculate on cultural, social, existential, or spiritual questions. Her right to do this is still being challenged, because it calls culture into question in some way that it still cannot yet support, or support economically. But by making this painting, she is insisting on the viability of her expression, it’s right to exist on its own terms. She is insisting on her right to use this language to her own end, to describe her position and place in a way that this language has not been used before—to represent herself.

In using the only available language, be it in painting, writing, or any form of cultural production, a woman is taking power where power has been denied her. She is representing herself where she has been denied representation. In doing this she is of necessity then, opening up this language and this culture.

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Suzanne Joelson, Valve and Valve Knot, 1987, 21 inches at greatest width. Courtesy Wolff Gallery.

Suzanne Joelson

To make paintings at the end of the 20th century at the end of modernism is to enter a dialogue between the history of the form and the moment at hand. To imagine otherwise is to be unknowingly victimized. Once the code is understood it is possible to have freedom within its constraints. But we must understand that language presupposes expression. Not only is it a male language, its history in the west since the Renaissance is thoroughly Oedipal.

In the 20th century new generations of Oedipii replace their father with accelerating speed until it becomes a blur. Rather than add to the spin I paint its portrait. Still, our culture continues its blood thirsty infatuation with the new.

Women lack the killer instinct. We know too much about death. We bleed/die every month. For all her ambition even Lady Macbeth, according to Shakespeare, was unable to kill the King when she saw “he reminded her of her father as he lay.” Our bodies are designed to accomodate life. We are biologically disposed to synthetic thinking.

Women who paint seem to fall into two camps:

1. Those who ignore the circumstances of culture, narcissistically believing in the independance of their will to creation and their ability to win at the boys game.

I can express myself in male language only when I admit to the schizophrenia inherent in the situation and utilize its devices. Once we see the language synchronically we can enter it diachronically.

2. Those who react to the culture examining, challenging, or even wistfully loving the creative Father.

I cannot ignore culture but I no more want to spend my life reacting than I do continually reveling in the new. One avoids creation the other denies death.

It is not yet clear how women might paint differently. At this point it is important to take pleasure in the difference. We have spent too much time hating our creative selves.

So it is not the iconography but our relation to its meaning. Not the methodology but our relation to its use. More importantly, it is a synthetic relation to history’s dialectics rather than an enthusiasm for a succession of avant-gardes that separate not only women from men but responsible women and men of a self-conscious post-Feminist time from their predecessors and contemporaries.

Only men have the liberty to make a painting that isn’t gender-bound. As long as paintings are seen in this culture, women’s paintings will be seen in terms of the artists’ sex.

If we address rather than ignore this fact we can turn (what the tone of this questionaire suggests is) a liability into an asset.

Inherownvoice3 Body

Shelley Kaplan, The Woods, 1987, oil on plywood panel 38 × 75 inches.

Shelley Kaplan

The practice of art is not a gendered activity; the power structure is.

I am situated in a world where gender is only one characteristic of my identity—race, citizenship, kinship are others. Given the human condition why is it that artists who are women feel obliged to deliver woman’s art, as if; thousands of other possibilities, preoccupations, obsessions were inauthentic for women or invalid or worse yet deceptive.

I consider a landscape metaphorically. It functions for me as establishing a place in the surrounding world—a way to speculate visually on ideas I have about color, history, light, representation, abstraction, drama … After all, the practice of art is rooted in the imagination and imagination allows us, unlike the world of necessity and politics, to be free and autonomous. I can think myself into a male, a female, a stone, a tree, a mark … in the transitive moment I look for an unsupported gesture-statement where whatever props are used to generate a vision fall away and become secondary though not discredited. The vital and the useful reside in the experience of the crossing of boundaries.

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Freya Hansell, Ocean, 1986, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 × 48 inches. Courtesy Lisa McDonald.

Freya Hansell

2. What does it mean for a woman to try at this point to make a painting?

Change that question. What does it mean for anyone to try and make a painting now?

Right now, the “correct” of the moment position is to not-make a painting. Art for the wall seen in the galleries is probably not painting at all. Xerox, velox, and printed glassware now smartly stand in for the “tired” brushstroke.

In the mode of pop-culture material world banality, the commercial is tapped to become art. This art then becomes the coin of a cool bankruptcy of “older” art values, coin of the new market—a sale to end all sales. To not-make a painting effectively short-circuits the dialogue that surrounds painting and eliminates a need to critique the medium in any relevant way.

I find this moment of negation frightening in that it beckons us towards a dead end. Dead end or deadpan as it is, the work can be and often is very handsome. On the other hand, to make a painting in the face of this oh-so cool opposition is to state a positive belief that painting, the culture, the universe, will continue, that there is a meaningful continuum that includes the past, the present, and the future, and that connections exist, that new (and old) issues in the painting medium do exist and are as important as books and music continue to be. Painting is a language. If to paint is to speak as a language, then painting expresses the sensuality, tones, and metaphors of our culture.

3 & 4. What do women do differently than men in painting? Is methodology, iconography different?

I think I see some differences. Men’s work in terms of subject seems head on (forgive the pun) more icon-like (more phallic?); sometimes more social in content. Women in their painting are more “sideways,” the surfaces, the layers seem more manipulated, the paintings are more social in process. Men in their paintings have a tendency to isolate. Women seem to need to integrate, to create harmony.

Perhaps there is a reason I perceive myself more in a male way. Culturally, we have learned to read adjectives as implying gender. Hard=male. Soft=female. Direct=male. Indirect=female. In terms of these cultural stereotypes it is harder for me in my paintings to see my own connection to the female, yet perhaps this is a reflection of the inadequacy of stereotypes in what is essentially a sexist reading. Always there is a desire to connect with what is powerful. If it means giving up one’s “sex,” if one’s art identifies more with the male connotations of that power, it is an indictment of our own sexist definitions, try as we may to deny them. There is art that appears more male. There is art that appears more female. Appearances may be lies. Culture does determine our definitions. More interesting and still quite mysterious yet is the biological question. How relevant to the kind of painting one makes is being born with girl (vagina) rather than a boy (penis)? From origin, in what way do we connect sex with brush?

Is there the possibility for painting that isn’t gender-bound? What matters more is painting itself—the challenge. Substitute the word “recognition” for the word “painting” in this question and you have an interview about politics I would like to enter.

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Lydia Dona, The Disjunction of the Molecular Unconcscious and the Synthesis of Desire, 1987, oil and acrylic on canvas 72 × 68 inches. Courtesy Luhring Augustine & Hodes.

Lydia Dona

1. As a result of a historical condition of exclusion and no admission into painting (being a “no-woman’s land”), the field remained a hermetic, almost homogeneous male discourse, with few examples of significant women painters breaking into it and being accepted in its centrality, not just as making paintings, but also making relevant paintings. Activated by a market condition, this aspect of painting became a male issue. What had happened as the result of a condition which, on the one hand is created through male protection of the language of painting as a canon, (being also a gestural macho heroic nostalgia) and operating as a signifier of “presence;” and on the other hand, reflects a desire of living up to the expectation of the power of the center and the protection of the safeness of the marginality as a condition generating the “relevant” work of critique in a photomechanical way. Women, who historically appeared as a subject matter where their bodies were symbols or signs for male desire, are in the inherent condition in the sexual formation of identity and unconsciousness of Absence or Lack. This presents a natural condition of a mechanism of discourse or aspiration of desire for the male power, approval from authority and consciousness of image and the mirage of this image.

2. The condition of Absence demanding Presence, forms a dialectic which interacts, at this particular point as an exaggerated need of reevaluation. Desire, being the signifier of power, creates for women an awkward space in which to activate the issue of painting. This space, in a discourse which refuses its natural idea of marginality, becomes in addition to that, a political one in the choice of making Paintings in 1987. Painting, as a failed romantic leftover, where originality clashes as an issue with the inability to make the last painting, becomes a strange state of consciousness and political choice through its IMPOSSIBILITY. In a polarity in which painting is the sign of a hand made object in a man-made environment, it almost becomes the operation and the screen of “the other” reflecting upon itself from its void. The synthetic space where claustrophobia and vacuum are the polarities of a technological artifical modified space, the effort of making a painting is through its collapse as the re-invention of its reality.

Its awareness to technological realities and its organic mode of operation (by being the last option of the hand in the tactile production or reproduction of an idea) makes painting in 1987 the ghost of the “hero” recreating space for its shadow. It is the artifice splitting and expanding its multiplicity of natures.

3. Women are redefining their being as a dialectic condition in the fracture between desire, lack, and their codes. This kind of split tends to make their work more oriented toward fragmentation rather than iconic models, textural multiplicites, or camouflage rather than unification and a mimetic tendency of the look of gesture.

4. The iconography in women’s painting seems to be no different in its metaphoric structure of the regeneration of discourse than male paintings.

In methodology, women painters seem to have a more obvious orientation toward poetics and criticality, or the displacement of organic material in a spatial reconstruction. The methodology of geometry and its equivalents, or the merger and fusion of multiplicites of styles and their self-cancellation, seem more apparent in some women’s paintings as it lends itself more toward fragmentation. It might be the androgyny anticipated by Duchamp of anti-stylistics or hybrids containing, in a strategic way, the ideas of transformation as a methodological issue.

5. There is no such thing as male/female painting unless someone tries very hard to redefine the criteria or the key for painting itself. As painting itself has its own impossibility, its “name” and its “biologies” are re-examined and deconstructed by artists as a generic mode and not connected to the gender of its producer. The gender that it addresses is the general issue of sexuality as a cultural frame of mind. There are feminists who make paintings, there are women who paint pictures, and there are women painters who incorporate their politics in the general discourse and its generalities.

6. The only connection that can articulate the substitute for thinking about a gender-oriented painting is the approach of synthetics, which incorporates paintings which are more unified in their scopic field and those which are more fragmented. As the painting becomes the subject outside its own objectiveness, it is self-reflexive and lends itself towards self-cancellation.

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Shirley Irons, Florida, 1987, oil and wax on canvas, 38 × 70 inches.

Shirley Irons

Women in truth are not only intelligent; they have almost a monopoly of certain of the subtler, more utile forms of intelligence. The thing itself … a femaleness as palpable as the femaleness of cruelty, masochism or rouge.—H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women

It would have been interesting to grow up with a gender-based language: “The pen, she moves me.” But the typewriter moves me faster. These questions (Saul’s) are comfortably put aside in the studio. To address them is to acknowledge a separation. Yes, paintings have a gender bias. It’s not inherent, it’s contextual. The class- and male-dominated art history selects that which reflects its own values and concerns. These selections tend to favor the “great artist” (the intact ego) over the “great” work of art, and this unfragmented ego lies in a masculine domain. Fragmentation is unsettling, disjunctive.

Occasionally they spoke of a common occurrence The space in between Occasionally it was of interest

The political and cultural biases that include women also don’t restrict them. Being marginalized one can pick and choose with relative impugnity. It’s slower trying to read a text one letter at a time, but the possibility of new words occurs. The strategy can become a guerilla tactic, mimicry to infiltrate; the voice of authority used to subvert.

Read my lips, they offer illogical cohesion.The art that interests me lies on the margin. It’s circular, the balance slight; an appearance of normalcy amidst disjuncture, the inside out. I think about edges, literal and psychological, seams, frayed boundaries, lack of closure. Work that explains itself on the periphery, but reflects in the end that all things are opaque and unknowable. I use a reserved manner to probe nature: push/pull, come close/stay away. A nature that represents death but not madness. If I weren’t a woman, I wouldn’t think this way, nor would I exist.

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Marilyn Lerner, Whistling for the Wind, 1986, oil on plywood, 46 × 70 inches. Courtesy John Good Gallery.

Marilyn Lerner

1. What does it mean to say “painting is a male language?”

It means that because historically women were not given the same opportunities to make paintings as men the fiction was developed and nurtured that “Painting is a male language.” We are all familiar with the various belief systems and caste systems worldwide that discouraged and excluded certain members of a group from participation in specific rituals and activities. These activities range from the Western European tradition of painting being a male language, to the Sumatran Batak tradition of taking of heads being a male language.

2. What does it mean for a woman at this point in time to try to make a painting?

It means giving voice (using a male language in some minds) to the issues and ideas that serve to express ones’ own personal convictions. Paintings are made in the studio—an intimate conversation with oneself. Painting careers are made outside of the studio; part two of the conversation.

3. What do women do differently than men in painting?

The greatest difference I see between men and women in regard to making paintings is one of attitude. Women have fewer self-delusions of grandiosity concerning the overwhelming importance and timely relevance of their work than men. This has no genetic foundation but is simply a manifestation of certain behavioural patterns allowed and encouraged according to gender. The importance that men give to their accomplishments and activities and the lesser importance usually given to women’s accomplishments and activities is an attitude developed by society.

4. Is the idea of male-female a cultural phenomena?

Women are the child bearers and for the greater part of our history were responsible for the initial feeding/survival of the child. A distinction between male and female roles developed in regard to such issues as nurturing and aggression. Yet, male and female mental processes are not fundamentally different. The greater part of our behavior is determined not by genes but by what is thought to be appropriate to our sex and role in culture.

5. Is there a possibility for a painting that isn’t gender-bound?

There do exist activities that are truly gender-bound, such as child bearing. Painting is not a gender-bound activity, therefore painting may exist without the distinction of gender for both men and women. It is only because our cultural traditions create male and female roles that questions such as the above exist.

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Georgia Marsh, Pair, 1987, charcoal on bark paper, 15 × 22½ inches each.

Georgia Marsh, May 1987

Some Notes Addressed to the Painters Asked to Respond to This Questionnaire:

The sexist bias of these questions struck me immediately. To respond to them would be to submit to the controlling mechanisms that these verbal constructs impose. My refusal of the exclusionary, binary, oppositional differentiation between the sexes posed by the (obviously male) speaker is categorical. What a stultifying view of what it means to be both in a body andmaking things!

As people deeply involved in a practice, we must ask ourselves a few questions. Does this questionnaire address the question of painting to its practitioners? Are these questions as “neutral” as they would seem? Who is asking what of whom? Would the author (or more to the point, DID the author) pose these binary questions formulated in these terms to persons of his own sex? Indeed, are these really questions at all, or are they in fact determined, already sexualized statements which reduce any possible response to a position of collusion with a pernicious patriarchal discourse in domineering opposition to diverse, complex, and multiple realities? The use of the “cool” properties of what is apparently a neutral questionnaire cannot fully dissimulate the discourse of phallic mastery inherent in their construction.

To build an inquiry on the practice of painting along the strictly defined lines of the sex of its practitioners is as anachronistic and offensive as separate toilettes for people of different colors. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Brown vs. The Topeka Board of Education, abolished this practice and rendered it unconstitutional. The doctrine of “separate but equal” had been used as the legal basis to deny equal access to not only hygenic facilities but to public institutions, transportation, services, housing, and education, in short, to power, in this country. I received a little unexpected help this weekend from the NY Times Book Review and Alison Jaggar. In her review of Catherine MacKinnon’s Discourses on Life and Law she said that for MacKinnon, dominance is the basis of the argument for diferentiation. “Men assume the power to define both difference and the “difference gender makes” … Current understandings of sexual difference are masculine constructions (though typically presented as objective discoveries).” Jaggar adds, “The dominance principle perspective sheds light on often neglected aspects of the complex and contested relation between individual autonomy and social construction, as well as the relations between knowledge and power, speech and action, ideas and reality, equality and difference, freedom and coercion, and collusion and resistance.”

Indeed, what does it mean for a WOMAN at this point to TRY to make a painting? The form of these questions suggests the insidious voice of phallic authority with its false unity of values. I believe that this questionnaire, in the guise of supporting the activity of certain painters, is actually a reiteration of the controlling discourse of phallocentric domination over the diverse productions of women. Like modern capitalism, modern patriarchy has a way of assimilating subversive discourses, diverting their creative energies to its own ends. In After Babel, George Steiner said, “Men use language to conceal the true, sexually aggressive energies of their lips and tongues.”

The Freudian theory of sexuality, developed and expanded by Lacan, posits the primacy of the phallus as its theoretical foundation. Lacan predicated the exclusion of woman from the domain of the “symbolic,” from the Law (of the Father) and from language. Certainly women could only be eavesdroppers on this exclusive and exclusionary club and not of it, for what being functions solely in negative terms? Luce Irigaray wrote a critique of this theory in her 1977 books, recently translated as This Sex Which is Not One and Speculum of the Other Woman. Similarily, Debax, in Et Voila pourquoi votre femme est muette (And That is Why Your Wife is Mute) says, “And thus the sleight of hand is performed: a difference of behavior, of sex, of appearance, etc., is interpreted in terms of oppositions and contraries. And so was created an image of woman as a negative of that image which man was forging for himself. We are here at the heart of the dynamic of racism.”

Georgia Marsh by Betsy Sussler
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We listen in as two painters talk painting, studio practice, and the way their works live out in the world.

Originally published in

BOMB 21, Fall 1987

James Rosenquist, Julian Barnes by Patrick McGrath, Diane Kurys, Richard Greenberg, and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe.

Read the issue
021 Fall 1987