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Where were the Lesbian Pop Artists?

The queer community is frequently said to have given birth to the 1960s pop art movement. With the heavy use of camp and clever plays on consumerism, gay men were attracted to and very prominent within pop art. However, lesbian artists are notably absent from the movement’s art historical records. While it is possible that lesbian pop artists existed yet remained unrecorded, the complete lack of information on such women makes it more likely that there were no lesbians creating pop art. Due to the community’s exclusionary attitudes towards women artists, the invisibility of lesbians at the time, and the attractive emerging feminist art movement lesbians were largely not drawn to or accepted into the pop art movement.

One of the most important contributing factors to the lack of lesbian pop artists is the lack of women in the movement as a whole. The artists who became successful and influential within the movement were entirely male while women remained strangely absent. An ideal example of the lack of female pop artists is found in the exhibition and its accompanying film, “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968”. This 2010 exhibition attempted to display the work of and interview women pop artists. However, many of the artists included created work that was distinctly not pop. For instance, Martha Rosler and Faith Ringgold were both featured within the film, yet did not actually work within the pop art movement; neither running within the same circles as other pop artists nor creating work that was stylistically pop. The fact that they were included in the show reveals the limited number of women pop artists available.

(L) Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, 1967-72. (R) Faith Ringgold, The Flag is Bleeding, 1967.

(L) Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, 1967-72. (R) Faith Ringgold, The Flag is Bleeding, 1967.

Although not all necessarily pop, the experiences these women shared would be relevant to the plight of all women artists of the time. Exclusionary practices towards women, queer artists, and artists of color were common; one of the most recurring troubles being finding gallery representation. For example, Rosalyn Drexler was exhibiting at Reuben Gallery along with emerging pop artists George Segal, Claes Oldenburg, and more when the gallery closed. While her male peers had no issue finding new representation, Drexler inexplicably struggled. While her work was at a level comparable to her peers, her gender was apparently not. She also recalls the societal expectations upon women artists who must work while caring for their husbands and children saying, “I couldn’t go to the factory and use drugs. I couldn’t go to Andy’s and hang out”. Drexler’s peer Idelle Weber reiterates this idea, saying, “We were the only ones with children so we had a hard time going out to play”, claiming further that if her contemporaries knew that she had children it would have ended—or at least greatly limited—her career. This idea of a boys’ club in which the women cannot play is a recurring theme for women artists of the 1960s. While their work may have been innovative and visually strong, it was difficult to advance while being excluded by peers.

(Top) Rosalyn Drexler, Home Movies, 1963. (Bottom) Idelle Weber, Munchkins I, II, & III, 1964.

(Top) Rosalyn Drexler, Home Movies, 1963. (Bottom) Idelle Weber, Munchkins I, II, & III, 1964.

The lack of innovative, successful, and influential women artists has been thoroughly explored in Linda Nochlin’s famous article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in which she attributes the dearth of women in the field to a system structured to prevent just such a thing. The limited options of education for women artists, societal expectations discouraging women entering the arts, and a romanticized ideal of the male genius has historically led to the institutional exclusion of women from the ranks of the truly great. While this piece does not directly address the plight of lesbian artists, one can assume similar structural inequalities prevented lesbian women and straight women from achieving notoriety. In addition to gender discrimination, lesbian artists’ sexuality increased the difficulty of obtaining success in a field dominated by straight men.

So where were the women of the pop art movement? While the creators of pop art were largely male, the subject of the artwork was largely female. Most are aware of Warhol’s infamous factory filled with Warholian Superstars, a group primarily composed of women who acted as muses for Warhol while generating publicity, appearing in his films, and being captured in his prints. The subjects of Warhol’s silkscreens were primarily women; some were even pop artists themselves. For example, Rosalyn Drexler appeared in a series of silkscreen paintings in which she dressed as a wrestler. Another example is aspiring pop artist—in the field of film—Valerie Solanas, who attempted to have Warhol produce her play Up Your Ass. He rejected the play as too pornographic, but gave Solanas a role in his film I, A Man. Following a drawn out period of conflict between the two artists and Solanas’s mental struggles, Solanas shot Warhol.

It’s telling that the most notorious lesbian involved in the 1960s pop movement attempted to kill its most prominent artist. Solanas’s actions are undoubtedly a result of her preexisting mental issues, yet her other complaints may still hold true. Solanas was frustrated at her inability to break into the ranks of creators of pop art and in the patriarchal barriers she saw in her path. While her actions were inexcusable, Solanas was just one symptom of a larger problem.

The pop art movement was a notorious boy’s club. Built upon the groundwork laid by gay abstract expressionists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, pop art proved to be friendly to gay artists; allowing men like Andy Warhol to lead the art scene. Lesbian artists had no foremothers to look to and would have had a difficult time breaking into the pop art scene being both queer and a woman. Interestingly enough, one of the powerful players in the 1950s art world was a lesbian, Betty Parsons of the Betty Parsons Gallery. Parsons has a claim towards launching abstract expressionism, starting the careers of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Rauschenberg among many others. It would be easy to assume that Parsons herself ignored other women and lesbian artists; however, Parsons did not just represent straight, white men. Unsurprisingly, though, they were the ones who attained “greatness”. Parsons did not play favorites, refusing to cave to the demands of the most successful artists at her gallery at the expense of the least successful (which in this situation means she did not cave to the privileged straight, white men at the expense of artists who were queer, female, or of color), and at the same time refusing to give unprivileged artists an extra push. This is the difference between straight, male artists and queer, female artists; the privileged group is able to confidently use their privilege in ways that help one another while the unprivileged group often cannot or will not. It is not the fault of Parsons that she did not give more of a helping hand to lesbians of the abstract expressionist movement or the pop art movement, but of those who would condemn her had she done so.

Betty Parsons

Betty Parsons

Women artists during the abstract expressionist and pop art period were often painted as something other, frequently being depicted as links between the work that was truly abstract expressionism or truly pop. For example, Grace Hartigan was originally categorized as an abstract expressionist. When her work began to be viewed as a threat to the “true” abstract expressionism, one free from any type of figural work, she was repositioned as part of the second generation of the movement, including other women artists such as Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler (as this was the second generation of a movement women were finally allowed to join, similar to how lesbians were largely excluded from the first waves of queer cinema). Following that she was depicted as a forerunner of new expressionism. Following this repositioning she was cast as a link between abstract expressionism and pop art. Depicting women artists as a link between different artistic movements is a powerful way to downplay their worth. They are shown as neither the true innovators of a new movement nor the true giants of the last, merely as something in between. This is a fate that befell many pop-related women artists including Hartigan, Yayoi Kusama, and many more.

Arising around the same period of time as pop art, the feminist art movement proved very attractive to lesbian artists. In fact, many of the supposed pop artists included in the Seductive Subversion show are more frequently categorized within the feminist art movement. This is not to say that the feminist art movement was never used as a way of ignoring and ghettoizing the accomplishments of women artists, this happened fairly frequently. But the lure of political art in which women artists were on equal ground was very strong. The woman-dominated field of feminist art was more attractive to lesbians who would not have to fight and claw their way to having the respect that straight, white men were simply given. Lesbian artists such as Tee Corinne created work that celebrated women’s bodies and sexuality in a way that sought to escape the male gaze. One could claim that this is what the feminist art movement was about, creating a space where men could not dominate the discourse and the voices of women were heard.

Lesbian artists generally had three main options in regards to how they presented—or hid—their sexuality. The first option was to keep their orientation private and compete with male artists using subject matter that did not relate to their sexuality. The next was to participate in the feminist art movement creating work with and for women. The last option was to make lesbianism the decisive subject of their work and demand that their sexuality be seen as a part of their work. Out of these three options working within the feminist art movement generally proved to be the path of least resistance. One could participate in a community of women artists and enjoy a level playing field.

Many lesbian artists were drawn towards figural work. This is likely for a number of reasons, for example, the fact that women’s bodies in mainstream artwork were presented by men for men and ignored women who loved women entirely. Figural work allowed lesbian artists to express their desire for the female form in a way that subverted the heterocentric depiction of women’s bodies, a message that would be difficult or impossible to express within the pop art movement. If work such as Corinne’s Yantras of Womanlove were presented within the culture of pop art it is likely that the subtle subversion of mainstream desire would be overlooked. Additionally, the largely non-figural pop art was a movement based upon commerciality. Privileged artists could view the commercial as nonpolitical, because for them it was. Unprivileged artists, in dealing with the commercial, were forced to make it political. Idelle Weber’s work, for example, frequently depicted cinematic images of men and women dancing. Coming from the perspective of an artist from a privileged group, such as Roy Lichtenstein, these images would have been fairly unemotional. Coming from the perspective of a woman artist who would likely have, say, a complicated history with the depiction of women in films the work is suddenly personal and political. Lesbian artists could not participate in pop art in a way that would be accepted as pop art. Their unprivileged perspective would create a sense of political motive, even if there were none.

Tee Corinne, from Yantras of Womanlove, 1984.

Tee Corinne, from Yantras of Womanlove, 1982.

Another factor likely contributing to the lack of lesbian pop artists is the invisibility of lesbians of this time period. The pop art movement found its legs prior to the Stonewall riots in 1969 that most audiences agree upon as the beginning of an active gay rights movement. One of the side effects of the uprising was an increase in the production of artwork that was overtly LGBTQ related. However, artists before the gay rights movement generally kept things quiet. Rauschenberg and Johns may have experienced male privilege, and likely straight privilege as they generally attempted to pass, but they were not able to express their sexuality freely. Women artists were who were already at a disadvantage due to their gender would likely have no reason to want to disclose their sexuality.

Even within the LGBTQ community lesbians were largely invisible. Even in minority groups there are hierarchical levels of privilege, and lesbians were solidly lower on the ladder than gay men. Despite the fact that the queer community faced constant discrimination they were still a part of a kyriarchal society and many behaved in a way that discriminated against women, people of color, and transgender men and women. If lesbians were not treated as equals even within their own community could they truly expect mainstream society to treat them fairly?

While gay men acted as leaders of the pop art movement lesbian artists were barred entirely. Through exclusionary attitudes towards women, attractive alternative movements, and lesbian invisibility, the pop art movement proved to be both unappealing and unattainable for many lesbian artists.

This is a paper that I wrote for my Queer Looks class. Reading it over, it seems as though the question could just as easily be, “Where were the women pop artists?”. Just as a point of clarification, I was contrasting the complete lack of lesbian pop artists to the prominence of gay pop artists. While I think that gender played just a large a role as sexuality in the exclusion of lesbians, I think it’s interesting to consider the fact that while gay men were able to act as leaders in pop art, lesbian women were not.

I would recommend watching some of the Seductive Subversion interviews. Also, if you know of any lesbian pop artists (From the early movement, not lesbian artists working later on in a pop art style) let us know in the comments!

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