This work by Joan Mitchell is a powerful abstract composition in blue, highlighted with touches of white and green

Women's History Month

Can you name 5 women artists?

By Zoe Fortin

First created as “Women’s History Week” in 1981, the event was extended into a month-long celebration in 1987 and has been celebrated every March ever since. Starting in 2016, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NWMA) has brought greater attention to Women’s History Month in the art world by leading a popular campaign, entitled #5WomenArtists. Asking cultural organizations and art enthusiasts the question “Can you name five women artists?”, the campaign wants to help increase awareness of gender inequality in art collections. This year, we have responded to their provocative prompt by sharing the stories of five women artists we have admired and championed.

1. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

“At last, a woman on paper,” Alfred Stieglitz supposedly remarked when he first saw Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Her independence in New Mexico, her androgynous outfits and, most of all, the common interpretation of her flower paintings as sexual imagery all led to O’Keeffe’s becoming a feminist icon. The metaphorical understanding of her paintings, first proposed by Stieglitz in 1919, was widely rejected by O’Keeffe. Instead, it is important to note her flowers only accounted for part of her body of work, which often explored landscapes, music, and photography. While O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1946, Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, notes that she “was always very keen to assert that she was an important artist, not just an important female artist.”[1]

This work by Georgia O’Keeffe depicts the facade of a barn
Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887–1986. Barn, 1926. Oil on canvas . 7 x 7 inches

2. Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)

This work by Elizabeth Catlett shows a mother looking down and nestling the head of the child
Elizabeth Catlett, American, 1915-2012. Mother and Child, 1956. Terra-cotta. 7 x 7 x 11 ¼ inches high. Signed lower back. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Elizabeth Catlett knew something about perseverance and overcoming life’s struggles: after winning a competition for a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, she was rejected because she was African American. Her experience, along with her great-great-grandmother’s stories of slavery and female resistance, translates into representations of strong and powerful women, such as Torso, Portrait of Joan (1960), which represents art educator, writer, actor, and political activist Joan Sandler. These women are often looking upward in a defiant tilt. Mother and Child (1956), now part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is different: the woman still appears to be strong, but the interaction is more intimate and protective.

This sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett shows a simplified bust and portrait of Joan Sandler
Elizabeth Catlett, American, 1915-2012. Torso, Portrait of Joan, 1960. Terracotta. 25 3/4 x 14 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches. Signed with artist’s initials. Private collection.

3. Ruth Asawa (1926-2013)

Like Catlett, Ruth Asawa experienced extreme hardships. Her parents, who had immigrated from Japan to California, suffered financially during the Great Depression and endured racism, her family being sent to an internment camp when she was 16. Discrimination did not stop after the war and Asawa, who had studied to be a teacher, could not get hired because she was Japanese-American. However, Asawa’s artistic career took a positive turn when she joined Black Mountain College, where she studied with Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. In 1947, “she went to Mexico,” recalls her son Paul Lanier, “and saw that they were making these wire baskets to carry eggs. So she learned how to loop the wire. It’s almost like crocheting.”[2] Her time at Black Mountain College, where she lived among other creative women, convinced her to become an artist and encouraged by Albers, Asawa continued to experiment with the looped wire sculptures for which she is now widely recognized, while advocating for arts education in San Francisco.

Abstract wire creation by Ruth Asawa
Ruth Asawa, American, 1926-2013. Untitled, S.446 (Hanging, Seven Lobed Single-Layer Continuous Form),c. 1952. Looped brass wire. 78 x 14 x 14 inches. Private collection.

4. Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

“They call me sauvage in Europe, ’cause I’m direct and I say what I think,” Joan Mitchell said in the documentary Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter.[3] Her personality attracted similar comments in New York, where Peter Schjeldahl, reminiscing about a dinner party in the 1970s where he met the artist, called her a “towering original.”[4] Raised in Chicago where her mother, a poetry magazine editor, hosted Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, Mitchell ended up spending long stretches of time in France. There, she received her first major European solo exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1982, making her the first female American artist to be given the honor. Mitchell found success as a painter as early as 1951, when she took part in the “Ninth Street Show” organized by the influential Artists’ Club and supervised by Leo Castelli. Often associated with Michael Goldberg, Adolph Gottlieb, Elaine de Kooning, or Helen Frankenthaler, Mitchell developed a unique combination of textured brushstrokes and rich colors, seen in Loom II (1976), and declared about her work: “abstract is not a style, I simply want to make a surface work.”[5]

This work by Joan Mitchell is a powerful abstract composition in blue, highlighted with touches of white and green
Joan Mitchell, American, 1925-1992. Loom II, 1976. Oil on canvas. 76¾ x 44¾ inches. Private collection.

5. Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977)

Nicknamed “Gertrude Stein of the Midwest” and “Queen Gertrude,” Gertrude Abercrombie “was at the hub of several overlapping cultural circles, and her Chicago was at the center of everything.”[6] In her neighborhood of Hyde Park, she held parties and salons, often hosting the city’s musicians, artists, and writers, who at times performed and stayed at her home. The daughter of opera singers who nurtured her creativity, Abercrombie inspired James Purdy and Richie Powell, and lived “the life she wanted, free of society’s prejudices, surrounding herself with people on McCarthy-era America’s margins.”[7] While working for the WPA in the 1930s, Abercrombie started to develop her own Surrealist style, often repeating symbols, such as doors and cats, working in relatively small formats, and noting: “Surrealism is meant for me because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see.” [8]

Painting by Abercrombie showing a bright blue sea in which are floating a tree, a red rook and a staircase leading to a door. In the grey background is a moon and a cloud
Gertrude Abercrombie, American, 1909-1977. The Red Rook, 1948. Oil on masonite. 16 x 22 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private collection.

Cover image: Joan Mitchell, American, 1925-1992. Loom II (detail), 1976. Oil on canvas. 76¾ x 44¾ inches. Private collection.

1. Quoted in Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe Tate show to challenge sexual clichés,” The Guardian, March 1, 2016
2.Paul Lanier, interviewed by Melissa Block on “All Things Considered,” NPR, August 9, 2013
3. Marion Cajori, Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, 1992
4. Peter Schjeldahl, “Tough love: Resurrecting Joan Mitchell,” The New Yorker, July 15, 2002
5. Interview with Yves Michaud, “Conversations with Joan Mitchell, January 12, 1986,” Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, 198
6. Robert Cozzolino, “The Sorceress in the Center of Everything,” Gertrude Abercrombie, Karma, 2018
7. ibid
8. Donna Seaman, “Girl Searching,” Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists, 2017