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Artists Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro Photo

Miriam Schapiro

American Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker

Movements and Styles: Abstract Expressionism, Feminist Art, Collage

Born: November 15, 1923 - Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Died: June 20, 2015 - Hampton Bays, New York

Miriam Schapiro Timeline

Quotes

"I am an artist looking for legitimate ancestry."
Miriam Schapiro
"What is a woman doing in the studio when she should be in the kitchen?"
Miriam Schapiro
"The fact that so many women assert themselves as artists is a protest."
Miriam Schapiro
"A woman artist experiences a contradiction in her life. She feels herself as subject in a world that treats her as object. Her work often becomes a symbolic arena in which she can firmly establish a sense of personal identity. She asks, "Who am I?" and proceeds to depict an image, central and clear, which proclaims to an unheeding world her information about who she is. Many women have done this but their images remain unseen and information undigested by a society that insists on only one perspective."
Miriam Schapiro
"As a feminist I am concerned with the politics of aesthetics. As a feminist I question all assumptions about form and formal values, although the paradox remains that due to my background and formal training I often make art whose style seems to be a variance with content. My engagement with form continues as a challenge to me."
Miriam Schapiro
"When I look back on the years of excessive self-doubt I wonder how I was able to make my paintings. In part I managed to paint because I had a desire, as strong as the desire for food or sex, to push through, to make an image that signified."
Miriam Schapiro

"I wanted to validate the traditional activities of women, to connect myself with the unknown women artists who made quilts, who had done the invisible 'woman's work' of civilization. I wanted to acknowledge them, to honor them."

Synopsis

Coming of age during the "macho" styles of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, Schapiro expanded her materials to include marginalized types of domestic craft and incorporate feminist imagery. In addition to creating a path forward for herself and her colleagues, she worked to resurrect the reputations of women artists who had been forgotten or dismissed by art historians. As an activist for equal recognition and respect for herself and her contemporaries, she collaborated with Judy Chicago on the Feminist Art Project and Womanhouse. Her use of autobiographical details, especially her personal/professional conflicts, influenced feminist artists of the late twentieth century to be similarly frank, including Hannah Wilke and Mary Kelly.

Key Ideas

In her "femmage" and assemblages, Schapiro incorporated elements of craft and "low" art, such as sewing, that had been excluded from the realm of "fine art" and merely described as "woman's work." By combining these materials and processes with visual elements taken from canonical art and Old Masters, she sought to elevate these female traditions and place them alongside oil painting and classical drawing as equals.
Schapiro's interest in fabric and sewing, which she often used to create abstract compositions or vibrant colors and hard-edged forms, was influential to the formation of the Pattern and Decoration movement (often called P&D). This style emphasized the visual patterns of marginalized media such as quilting, fabric design, or wallpaper in an attempt to redefine abstraction beyond the Euro-American, male-dominated movements of the twentieth century by reasserting traditionally feminine elements of abstract art-making.
Schapiro embraced the decorative as a positive quality, fighting against artistic snobbery that had long dismissed decoration as a trivial sign of inferior art or craft, often with associations of femininity. Incorporating brilliant colors, geometric patterns, and tactile materials into her compositions, she created works that were unapologetically ornate, but also grounded them with allusions to traditional fine art to form hybrids whose artistic pedigree could not be marginalized.

Most Important Art

Miriam Schapiro Famous Art

Dollhouse (1972)

On the surface, Dollhouse masquerades as an ordinary object. A long rectangular wooden structure that resembles a house, it rests on a matching base. The six separate sections (or rooms) are revealed when six corresponding shutters are opened. At the top of the structure is a triangular shape forming the house's roof. Each room is decorated, from the bottom living room and kitchen, to the mid-level bedrooms (one intended for a starlet and the other a seraglio, or a chamber belonging to a woman in a harem). The top two rooms consist of a nursery on the left and an artist studio on the right.

Dollhouse was created as part of the collaborative art installation Womanhouse (1972). In this ground-breaking work, Schapiro, along with her friend and fellow-artist Judy Chicago and twenty-one students from the Feminist Art Program took over a deteriorating Hollywood house and filled it with what was viewed as "traditionally-woman-themed" art such as craft, needlepoint, and weaving as well as paintings and collages. Open to the public for a period of three months, they also staged performances within the house to draw attention to the work.

Rich with metaphor, Schapiro intended the dollhouse as a statement on the lives of women. When closed, the house reveals nothing, suggesting the way a woman's public persona was supposed to convey well-trained compliance and little individuality. Yet, when access is granted to the interior, much is revealed about the personal interests and lifestyle of the owner of the house. While the traditional roles of homemaker or caregiver are included, there is more to be discovered beyond the female stereotype and opportunities for her to choose to be sexual or glamorous. Just like the shutters can reveal or conceal these rooms, so women control their lives and the perception of their public and private lives. When Dollhouse was placed in Womanhouse, it acted as a "house within a house" and further reinforced the message of the larger work.
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Miriam Schapiro Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Education

Canadian-born American artist Miriam (Mimi) Schapiro was an only child born to Jewish parents of Russian descent; Theodore Schapiro, an artist and industrial designer, and Fannie Cohen, a homemaker. Her grandfather, who emigrated from Russia, was responsible for inventing the first movable eye for dolls and made his living making teddy bears.

Moving to Brooklyn, New York as a child, Schapiro's early interest in art was nurtured by her family. After informally studying drawing with her father, she participated in art classes at the Museum of Modern Art and live model drawing courses offered by the Federal Art Project. She also frequented the studio of her friend's brother, the Surrealist artist Federico Castellon.

After a brief period of art study at Hunter College, she transferred to the State University of Iowa where she earned her B.A. in 1945, M.A. in 1947, and M.F.A. in 1949. She also was one of the founding members of the Iowa Print Group. While at school she met art student Paul Brach whom she married in 1946.

Early Training

Miriam Schapiro Biography

Schapiro returned to New York City in 1952 and quickly became part of the art scene. She lived in the same building as artists Philip Guston and Joan Mitchell, frequented the infamous artist hangout, the Cedar Bar, exhibited her work in local galleries, and taught children's art lessons. Her work at this time, like so many of the New York City-based artists, was mostly in the vein of Abstract Expressionism.

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Miriam Schapiro Biography Continues

Shortly after the birth of her only child Peter in 1954, Schapiro struggled to find not only the time and space, but also the desire to paint. She had to build herself back up as an artist. In describing this process, she stated, "I talked to myself as if I were reborn, totally new on this earth. 'You have to have turpentine. You have to have your paints laid out. You dip the brush in the turpentine. You mix the color you want. You start to draw.' I repeated this litany, followed my own instructions. I began to work again." This struggle to combine her roles as wife, mother, and artist would influence her political and artistic feminism.

Newly energized, Schapiro began to consider her gender as a component of her art. Her work of the 1950s featured recurring symbols, including the tower, window, and egg, which would form the foundation for her Shrine paintings. These objects were a visual comment on the many facets of a woman's life, and Schapiro's notion of female compartmentalization and objectification. She later explained "women see themselves in fragments, in parts...not only mind-body, but also parts of the body."

While creating works about the female experience, Schapiro faced the limitations of being a woman in the male-dominated art world. She remembered that when a male art historian visited her artist husband, he remarked on his discomfort at having to walk through Schapiro's studio (a repurposed dining room) to reach the living room of their apartment, forcing him to confront a woman artist at work. Despite the prevalence of misogyny, her work gained critical attention, earning her a Tamarind fellowship in 1963 and a Ford Foundation grant in 1964.

Mature Period

Miriam Schapiro Photo

In 1967, when her husband's job led to a cross-country move, Schapiro became assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. While there she was an early adopter of computer technology, creating geometric-themed works. One of these paintings, OX (1967) became an iconic example of early feminist art because of its reference to female genitalia.

A faculty job at the Art School of California Institute of the Arts begun in 1970, led to an introduction to the artist Judy Chicago. The two decided to co-teach a class and, in 1971, founded the Feminist Art Program. Talks with students and women artists led to the collaborative art piece Womanhouse (1972) which involved the co-opting of an abandoned house and turning it into a work of art. Related to this installation, she created her career-defining work Dollhouse (1972). In this supportive feminist environment, Schapiro also turned her attention to great artists of the past and made the first of what would be an important body of work, her Collaboration Series which paid tribute to female master artists such as Mary Cassatt.

During the 1970s Schapiro began to make collage works, incorporating traditionally domestic materials within her painted canvases. She referred to these pieces as "femmages." Along with other like-minded artists focused on using decorative motifs, many of who were active feminists, Schapiro was part of the formation of the Pattern and Decoration (P&D) movement - also known as Pattern Painting.

After returning to New York City in 1975, Schapiro's desire to advocate on behalf of women in the art world grew in parallel to her rising career (which included a prestigious 1976 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts). She was involved in the founding of the New York Feminist Art Institute in 1979 and later joined the College Art Association to fight for better representation of women artists at the university level. Her drive to include more women in the canon of art history was partly fueled by a memory from when, in a library in her twenties, when she was dismayed at her inability to "find a woman artist of the stature of Velasquez or Vermeer."

Later Period

Miriam Schapiro Portrait

In the 1980s, Schapiro created a series focused on the woman-as-entertainer. Her interest in dance and costuming dated to her childhood and her fascination with the beautifully illustrated programs her parents would bring back from performances of a favorite Russian cabaret group. In later years, Schapiro's art became increasingly autobiographical. In Mother Russia (1994) she used her fan motif to pay homage to her Russian descent. She also created works that explored her Jewish heritage and her relationship with her father.

Late in her life, Schapiro suffered from a dementia-related illness. After a long health battle, she died at the age of ninety-one.


Legacy

Schapiro was a leading voice in the development of the Feminist art movement. Through her art she helped to elevate the status of works often perceived as "craft" art and paved the way for female artists to embrace these materials, such as Polly Apfelbaum, Deborah Kass, and Mira Schor. In describing Schapiro's legacy, Schor stated, "Through her work and her teaching she influenced the work and changed the lives of women artists all over the world who heard her lecture and saw her work."

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Miriam Schapiro
Interactive chart with Miriam Schapiro's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Sonia DelaunaySonia Delaunay
Frida KahloFrida Kahlo
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso

Friends

Judy ChicagoJudy Chicago
Philip GustonPhilip Guston
Joan MitchellJoan Mitchell
Larry RiversLarry Rivers

Movements

Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
CubismCubism
Feminist ArtFeminist Art
Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro
Years Worked: 1943 - 2015

Artists

Mira SchorMira Schor
Hannah WilkeHannah Wilke

Friends

Carolee SchneemannCarolee Schneemann
Judy ChicagoJudy Chicago

Movements

Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Feminist ArtFeminist Art
CollageCollage

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised by Sarah Archino

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised by Sarah Archino
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Useful Resources on Miriam Schapiro

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

written by artist

Rondo

By Miriam Schapiro

artworks

Miriam Schapiro Recomended resource

By Thalia Gouma-Peterson

Miriam Schapiro: A Retrospective, 1953-1980 Recomended resource

Edited by Thalia Gouma-Peterson

More Interesting Books about Miriam Schapiro

in pop culture

Womanhouse

By Johanna Demetrakas

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