As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Sculptor Judith Shea curates an archive of self-portraits by women members at the National Academy Museum.
Entering Her Own Style: An Artists Eye with Judith Shea, at the National Academy Museum last fall, one was greeted by an unusual crowd: a selection of self-portrait paintings by the rare 19th-century female members of the Academy. It was like a parallel universe of pioneering artists, poignant in their struggle to strike poses balanced between unabashed confidence and traditional femininity, between “I’m part of the club” and “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me.” Upstairs galleries of 20th and 21st-century members’ self-portraits surrounded Shea’s three incandescent life-size portrait sculptures.
There was tremendous energy in this gathering. Shea’s work embodies the elegance of restraint: each sculpture feels paired down to its essential form—confident, solid, precise. The figures staring out of the paintings and sculptures seemed to send out shivers of delight at being released from the storage rooms where most had languished for so long. I wanted to ask Shea about this act of wildly inclusive generosity: her choice to mingle barely known, hopeful fore-bearers amongst the famous few. I seized on this opportunity to draw her out about the ideas of solidarity and femininity in this exhibition, and about the trajectory her work has taken over the years, from the ethereal early clothing deconstructions to these imposing portraits.
Jane Dickson How did the idea for this exhibition evolve?
Judith Shea The Academy made an overture about curating something from their collection, which I didn’t know very well. I did not have an agenda. I began by looking at photographs before I began to look at real work; there’s a book that covers the collection up to 1920s. The thing that stood out right away was this extraordinary collection of self-portraits by the member artists. Submitting a self-portrait used to be a requirement of membership.
Artists don’t often get into the back rooms, or the storage rooms of museums. It’s this incredible thing. Like any comprehensive collection from this period (the 1820s to the present), for the first century it’s pretty much paintings of men—great men, men with names. The women are usually nude and nameless, or called The Muse, or Liberty, or Naptime.
JD Yet one of them gave the building the Academy is in. What’s her name?
JS Anna Hyatt Huntington. This wasn’t unique to the National Academy; in the 19th-century so few women were recognized for their work. In the 20th-century there started to be many more.
As I started looking through the collection, I felt that there were stories being told in the women’s portraits. It was a big deal for women to be elected into this organization in the earlier days. This was an opportunity to portray themselves to be remembered; these portraits would be archived. The more I looked, I saw they were loaded with symbolism and references.
With the help of the Academy’s senior curator Bruce Weber, and assistant curator Diana Thompson, who was doing research on these artists, I decided to bring these women forward again. We were surprised by what we uncovered. For example, I had photographed one of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s equestrian monuments in Central Park when I was researching my own equestrian project for the Public Art Fund, but there was no plaque or anything, so I didn’t know it was hers.
JD The exhibition made me think of the French Academy. In Versailles there’s a whole room of self-portraits by every artist who worked there: the architect, the plaster carver, etc. It’s a huge room covered from floor to ceiling with self-portraits. There are a few artists you’ve heard of, but most of them are unfamiliar. Yet they’re so proud posing for history. As an artist, it’s humbling.
JS Oh wow, I’ve never seen it. Many of these women had amazing careers, particularly the sculptors.
JD Around the 1890s there was a big boom for women sculptors.
JS The 1890s, the Depression era, and obviously the ’20s were a very liberating period. There’s one woman in the show named Katherine Lane Weems, she got several commissions from Harvard during the depression years to do reliefs and sculptures for the Biology Lab building. She did a lot of animals and nature subjects, including these two magnificent, huge bronze rhinos at the gateway.
JD Sort of like the work of Rosa Bonheur.
JS Yes, that amazing picture of the horse fair.
There were a number of women who had fabulous careers. Ellen Emmet Rand, a painter in the show did the official White House portrait of FDR. During the Depression, her husband was in finance, so he was in trouble and she supported her family. In 1930 alone, she made $75,000, which was a lot of money in those days. That’s success on any terms.
Some of the artists are lesser known, but I felt that the portraits were so touching, so revealing, so personal in some cases. Some, like Ellen Emmet Rand for instance, portrayed themselves in a way to downplay their femininity—
JD I thought she was Edward Hopper for a minute. (laughter).
JS Same era. It was a way to say, hey take me seriously.
On the first floor there’s a woman named Mary Fairchild Low, obviously a beautiful woman. She went to Washington University. They created a scholarship to send her to Paris because she was so talented. She spent many years in Paris. She married the American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies there. She paints herself in a French Baroque costume; she’s got this enormous necklace that’s like an arrow pointing right towards her cleavage.
JD It looks like she was looking at Vigée Le Brun.
JS She’s saying, I’m a beautiful woman and I’m not going to hide it. She was having fun with the viewer. When I saw it I thought, this is defiant. After all these years living the Bohemian life of an artist in Paris, she gave a little poke to the American puritanical streak.
Across the wall from her is Louisa Matthíasdóttir. She was Icelandic by birth, but basically spent her professional life in New York.
JD What date was that painted?
JD With that bandana, it’s reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter.
JS Right, except it’s much lighter.
JD A touch of the Alex Katz style.
JS Also, there are two sculptural portraits in the collection that I included in the show: the portrait of Louis Dodd by Ann Arnold—a wonderful piece—and a self-portrait by Rhoda Sherbell.
JD Were you already making your own portrait sculptures? Was that part of why you were attracted to these portraits? Or did you make your pieces in response to them?
JS These portraits were made for the show. I was missing the presence of sculpture. The Academy members’ self-portrait submissions were dwindling by the ’70s, so they eliminated the requirement. The ’70s brought the next wave of women elected into the academy, and again in the ’90s. So there were portrait-less, hall of fame women who were not going to be in the show. I thought, I can tackle this. I made a proposal to do some portrait sculptures of members to represent the membership moving forward. I made a portrait of Louise Bourgeois called Louise Monument, and one of Elizabeth Catlett titled Elizabeth Tribute.
JD And you.
JS And me. (laughter) I made two versions of myself for the show, but Bruce Weber managed to get me to divulge that, in fact, the head, the hands and the feet had come from life casts of me done years ago to use as carving models for proportion, when I first started carving wood. My proposal was to make portrait busts. I thought maybe I could make three, four, five. Very quickly, I concluded that they had to be full figures.
JS Right, my premise for the show in general was the feeling that these women were using things within the conventions of portraiture that changed those conventions—just as the inclusion of more women in contemporary art has changed the trajectory of art. Colleen Browning for example, used that brilliant salmon pink background.
JD She looks so Mad Men in her portrait.
JS Totally! When I researched it, I realized, Oh it’s not wallpaper. Each one of those is a study of a plant—because she was really into gardening. She’s holding Queen Anne’s Lace, whose seeds used to be believed to have contraceptive powers. She had no children. She was very close to her husband, and they kind of were in their own world.
She knew what she was saying here. Flower painting was one of few “acceptable” genres for women—like, we’ll show their work if it’s flowers or babies. Browning feeds it back to you by painting flowers all over the place. It’s understated defiance. That was what I kept seeing in the work: these small steps that began to change portraiture. Take Ellen Emmet Rand; I doubt she thought of herself in feminist terms—whatever the terms would have been in those days—yet she did consider herself an important professional artist. She had to be defiant. That’s what I was looking for.
I made works only of women who I’d met, so I that had my own sense of their presence—not that I knew them well. I had the great pleasure of meeting Elizabeth five years ago. She invited herself to the studio, and we spent an afternoon together talking like two sculptors (she wanted to know if I had seen any good cherry wood lately). (laughter)
I really enjoyed working on the Bourgeois. When I was making it, somewhat by accident the cloth dropped and I thought, she was French, this is like Carpeaux—like a smock. She often worked in big shirts—like her husband’s old shirts—and she was so small, these little legs sticking out of this big garment. That’s how she projected herself. I thought, There’s got to be a monument. She’s on a base, a little 20 inch cube actually. She’s a little higher than normal eye level to me.
JD So we look up to her.
JS On one hand, it shows her petiteness, on the other, the grandiosity of the personality. The hair and the cloth—things that women’s work brought into art history—became important to me. I wanted them to be imposing sculptures, but in a somewhat 19th-century monument mode.
JD How long did you have to develop this show?
JS Two and a half to three years. It took months just to work through the collection and narrow it down. Even once I chose the theme, I kept saying there must be more women’s portraits somewhere because there are more women’s names on the lists. Some of the paintings were literally thrown in a bin somewhere—they’d never been shown. Some were in terrible condition. Some were terrible looking.
I found that the women sculptors, of whom there were many, were better artists for the most part than the painters. They had careers and big commissions, but since they had to submit a self-portrait painting, generally these were painted by someone else. There was one that cracked me up: Hazel Brill holding a hammer and a chisel. It was the most static, dull, I mean … The painters had such an advantage because they had the skills to bring vitality into the work. It confirmed my feeling that we needed to get good sculptors represented sculpturally in the exhibition.
JD I was struck by the generosity of your concept of resurrecting artists whose time came and went, or artists who never had a time. Was this a conscious decision? You could’ve done, Judith Shea and the powerful artists I want to be associated with. You could have pulled a Lee Lozano and been, There’s no other bitches but me, bitch! Me and the boys. (laughter)
JS Gee, I hadn’t thought of that. (laughter)
JD That would have been a power move. Instead, you did the solidarity move, which hopefully empowers the generations to come by honoring the generations that have passed.
JD Let’s talk more about your career. I remember some of your shows at Willard in the late ’70s through early ’80s of cut out pieces of fabric like clothing pattern pieces; they were minimal, diagrammatic—about the concept of clothing. Deconstruction was not yet a trend at that time, right?
JS No, this was before the use of that word, which came out of philosophy and art history, was common.
JD But you were deconstructing.
JS Actually, some of them were constructed too, but not by patterns. They were made for how they would look on the wall. They were made to look like they were pieces of clothing, so you would recognize them.
JD Like a sleeve? Or the front of a jacket?
JD They reminded me of the way fashion designers will make a pattern sample out of some very plain fabric just to see how it fits.
JS Right. That’s how it starts, with draping. These days it’s called three dimensional design for fashion. I used to teach it.
JD That’s a through-line in all your work.
JD Did you see yourself as an artist before you went to fashion school?
JS Yes, I always identified as an artist. Even as a little girl I was making all kinds of things. It was not called art: in the less sophisticated world, art is painting. I did do some drawings. At an early age I asked my mother to teach me to sew.
I was in the generation before the teenage doll, before Barbie. I have four siblings, but one was a sister close in age to me. We had baby dolls of all different sizes, and then we had a set of nun dolls. Hers were all pristine in their packaging on a shelf. Mine literally had no faces left because I had washed their faces to reapply new makeup and new paint, and they had no hair because I had done so many hair-dos.
I wanted to learn how to sew so that I could make things for them to wear, so that I could turn some of them into boys so they could have boyfriends. Some of them had to be ladies, so I had to learn how to pad up their little outfits since they were all baby dolls. Some of them had to wear berets to cover up their hair so they could be boy dolls. Some of them had to be French. It was a whole world of costume, really.
JD Was your mother making your clothes?
JS She was an excellent seamstress. She made some, but she had five kids. We had my grandmother’s sewing machine in the house. I went to catholic schools, so I always wore a uniform. In my teen years I eventually started making clothes for myself—
JD Were these from patterns?
JS I had patterns but I mashed the patterns around based on my ideas. I could make something and fit it to myself and recut it. My mother found these experiments embarrassing. My designs probably were not very flattering to me because I was working things out. Some of them I never even wore because I never got them to fit properly. They really remained like things.
JD You went to Parsons to study fashion?
JS Yes—my poor parents, five kids, two sons. My father was thinking, Do I really need to educate my daughters any further? I had no interest in academics but I had a neighbor a couple years older than me. She had done research on art schools, so she gave me all the booklets. I didn’t know the world of art: I thought that most artists were dead. My parents certainly didn’t know anything about it. My father felt that I would be throwing money out the window.
Studying design was more practical. I wanted to do it. The old Parsons was a magnificent school; before they merged with the New School, it was so intensive. The foundation year was art history, color theory—art school foundation. Even before I got out I realized I had outgrown my passion for it. I worked very briefly—not even a year—in this field. I had no sense of business. You really had to play the game and I felt lost in that situation. I took my savings from that job and went to Europe and traveled around. When I got back I got freelance jobs doing costumes for rock bands, hot pants for boutiques.
When Parsons merged with the New School they offered Parsons graduates the opportunity to come back and get a B.F.A. By that time I had a full time job, working at the U.N. in a folk art shop doing display and design. I went to school at night. Meeting other artists, that’s when I really started to see—
JD We’re talking the late ’60s, early ’70s?
JS Exactly. Right at the turn of the decade. In 1974 the first director of Artpark, Dale McConathy, who had been my mentor during my Parsons years, invited me to go there. He knew what I was doing, but nobody had a name for it. I believe the first one I called Untailored Clothing Workshop. I was developing this theory that had to do with the structure of clothing, from cutting a hole in a piece of cloth and putting it over your head to the French baroque idea of the completely built piece of clothing. I also was teaching a class using the Met’s collection. It was a fabulous moment. At Artpark, you basically ate with everyone that was there. That was when I first felt part of a group of artists and the art world community.
I still didn’t know what to call what I did, and I didn’t know what to do with it either. It wasn’t saleable as fashion. Even in the art world there was really no place for it, but other artists responded to the work. There was a kind of minimalism to it: the idea that I had deconstructed this whole history into a system that went from absolutely simple to absolutely complex.
JD It also took the diagrammatic, conceptual analysis that people were doing in the art world and brought it back to something practical that we all use every day: clothing.
JS Right. It was firm ground for me; it was a history I knew. It didn’t dawn on me that there was no arena for it. Even though I was incredibly shy, and a rookie as an artist, I was confident about it. In retrospect, I realize it was also important that it was figure based. At the time, the New York art world had no place for the figure. In fact, the first time I heard that word I remember someone used it on me in a derogatory sense—”Oh, that’s figurative?”—and I had never heard it. I had to go look it up!
JD You were conveying the absence of the figure by making a sleeve or a sheath.
JS Nevertheless, it was abstract enough to be acceptable.
JD So it was not a huge jump for the corporeal to appear inside its clothing in your sculptures.
JS There were leaps, but it is remarkable how plodding the evolution of my work has been.
I wanted to get a little bit of 3D in there. The first step was something that they call in patternmaking, dart manipulation. Basically, as you put a dart into something, you’ve created a cone. Suddenly it’s three-dimensional. It was still very planar, very geometric. I began with a peplum, which was like a little skirt sticking off the top of a shirt. It just kept evolving, but the cloth would not hold the form because intrinsically it was soft. So, I started slavering it with hot wax or gesso—anything anybody told me might work.
JD To stiffen it up?
JS Yeah, but I still couldn’t get the form the way I had wanted it to be. I spoke with Marjorie Strider, I think, who said you could cast them. I didn’t even know what that meant, to be honest. I knew what bronze sculpture was and so on from studying art history, but I didn’t know how it was made. Around the same time, I was teaching this class at NYU which was held at the Met and I did a lecture on armor for my class. In the Met’s collection I found big glass slides of etchings that somebody had done from the pieces of armor from the crusades that were found in the desert.
JD Of fallen warriors?
JS Yes. They were literally sticking out of the sand in these drawings. It’s not like the pageant armor you see in museums, which is all for show, rarely used in battle. I thought, Oh my god that’s what I’m working on. Like clothes—they look like little shirts, a little vest, a piece of a leg. Often they were hammered iron or cast iron. So then I brought a little cloth piece to a foundry and I said, “Can I cast this?”
John Lash (at Johnson Atelier) showed me how to work with wax on a piece of cloth that was raw, and mold the form and cool it off. You had to have a certain thickness so it would hold the form and then they just put it through. But he told me, “Your cloth is going to be destroyed in the process of making it.” That’s how that began and that changed everything. Once I was casting, then you become a metalhead. It’s like magic: you can cast anything and it’ll stand up—off the wall, off the floor. Once I took that step, so much became possible. That’s when my sculptures really became figuration.
Having literally sidled into three-dimensional figuration, Judy Collischan, invited me to be in an exhibition at Hillwood. The show took proposals for outdoor sculptures. I realized I had no idea what you could do with the figure outside because I’d been working in lifescale, and nature is enormous. My sculptures could get lost. Also, the whole motif of outdoor sculpture that I had learned had nothing to do with what I was doing; it was all enormous, welded, abstractions. I got an NEA grant, and that year they had something they called a US-French exchange—it somehow gave you a couple of letters of introduction—I proposed to go to Paris to look at all the gardens.
So I started looking at the French gardens—and then of course I wanted to go on and see the English 19th-century work—the stuff the modernists basically buried, thinking I should know what that is—and then I went to Greece. I was immersing myself in the history of Figuration, really. The big light bulb was to realize that it just happened to be my circumstance that I grew up in the middle of the abstract century, but all the other centuries of art had been figurative primarily.
JD It was only after the advent of photography that the painters, sculptors thought, Hmm, what else could we do? Because photography was taking over representation—
JS And also industrialization, I think the whole romance with the machine was formative.
I was on the other end of it, and realizing I needed to go back. When I was a student, it was like, don’t look at that stuff! So, I delight in doing that Bourgeois monument in the show because it employs all the ideas about art the 20th-century brought, yet it refers back to the history that indeed Bourgeois came out of,—that her work, in a most interesting way, plays with. She also is not an abstractionist, really. She’s a figurative artist, even in her early work. It all references body parts.
JD So we’re getting back to the generations in a way—back and forward. You were quite young when you started with Willard Gallery, weren’t you?
JS ’78 or ’79. So, yeah, somewhere in my late twenties.
JD It seems you’ve pretty much gotten every award that exists for an artist, yet you’re somewhat under the radar. You’re a treasure for fellow artists. Do you think about your position in the art world?
JS I do. Wouldn’t we all—at least some part of us—want to be high-profile artists? But some work doesn’t lend itself to that. In my best self, when I’m not upset about it, I feel very lucky that I had this commercial creative beginning. It didn’t last long because I realized even though I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to make, I knew that I wanted to continue to explore creatively, and making things was central to me. I wanted to make things myself. Even in the fashion business there were no designers that actually needed those skills, anymore. There were assistants.
It was a simple decision in that way: I loved making things too much. The art world is like that too, maybe always has been, for sculptors. It’s always been an atelier system; you can’t possibly make every square inch of the whole process yourself. I went through periods where I had seven assistants, but I never would let them do the part that really made the work. I probably have a couple assistants that might question that … (laughter) A couple of good ones did work with me in the formal creation part, but at every juncture I would make the same basic choice: that my only great love in life is making these things.
I was reading something about Anish Kapoor, whose work I just love, but I could never make these giant things that then linger on the globe, and that somebody else has to deal with for the rest of time. Then also, I’ve continued to work in lifescale because I like the direct rapport you have with the thing.
I remember the day when I made my first head in clay. I’m just working, working, working—like any artist. I’m watching my hands make things, and then all of a sudden this thing was looking back at me. It literally knocked me over. I fell back into a chair. My God. It flashed through my mind that every person in the history of humankind who ever made a head has had that experience. That’s what I live for: the richness of that engagement, and discovery, and learning. Some people feel that’s a negative. I think there was a review once where the critic wrote, “Shea needs to learn that she can’t do everything.” Well, I haven’t learned that yet. (laughter)
Her Own Style: An Artist’s Eye With Judith Shea will be on view until January 13th at The National Academy Museum, New York.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.