Important Art by Miriam Schapiro
Beast Land and Plenty is a large-scale, non-figurative work. Painted in broad, gestural brushstrokes, the canvas is filled with swirling forms in shades of blue, green, orange, red, and yellow, as well as black and white. The work follows a pattern of movement from dark to light, with the deepest blues and black on the left side of the canvas, while the far right of the canvas is painted in vibrant hues of pink, yellow, and white. In some areas the brushstrokes are controlled, while in other portions of the canvas appear larger swatches of colors including most prominently the thin wash of blue in the bottom center of the canvas.
Part of the second generation of Abstract Expressionist painters in New York, here Schapiro embraces the raw, emotional energy of this style. Yet Schapiro also succeeds in approaching this style on her own terms, developing her own process in which she would thin the paint with turpentine before by manipulating it across the canvas in broad wiping gestures.
In another break from typical Abstract Expressionism, many of Schapiro's paintings from this period were based on black-and-white copies of works by the (male) Old Masters; this particular painting stemmed from a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Tintoretto. While drawing inspiration from other artists is not a new concept, Schapiro specifically referenced these male artists, recreating their work in her own style, to place herself on an equal playing field. Seizing artistic control in this fashion was an important gesture, prefiguring her future oeuvre and her activism on behalf of women artists.
Shrine (for R.K.) II depicts a vertical black column in the center of a cream-colored rectangular canvas, against which rises a curved tower-like structure with four framed sections. The elements included reference a personal symbolism that appears in multiple works. The bottom section of the tower is a framed silver square. The next contains a carefully drawn pencil-sketch of an egg, one that emphasizes her talent for shading detail. The third section contains another simple pencil still-life drawing featuring fruit, most notably an upright pear in the top left of the work. The curved uppermost section is a mustard-yellow panel framed in a brilliant dark blue.
Schapiro created a series of Shrine works that utilize symbols such as the tower and window shapes and the egg and fruit to create a visual account of the life of a female artist. When describing these works, Schapiro equates the golden color of the top section as a symbol of her career hopes and desires; the bottom section is meant to reference a mirror where a person can see herself and look inward for artistic motivation. The two middle sections are conventional drawings. In the series, the upper image always references great art of the past (here a traditional still life), while the egg in the remaining section represents in Schapiro's words, "the woman, the creative person, I, Myself." The implications of fertility and production are presented in terms that both reaffirm her gender (the egg) and complicate it (the visual language of Old Masters).
The paintings of this series are one of Schapiro's earliest organized series of works and an autobiographical reflection on her position as a woman artist that would deepen throughout her career. Here she captures "artistic struggles" of ambition and personal reflection with a connection to her own experiences.
Big Ox No. 2 is composed of a large orange shape centered on a plain white canvas. At the shape's center is an eight-sided form (of uneven length sides) with four long lines radiating out to the four corners of the canvas. Despite the flatness of the composition, the interior and exterior edges of this shape are shades of pink, which create a limited illusion of three dimensions. The shape also relays the title of the work, legible as the letter "O" placed on top of an "X" to form the word "OX."
While in California, Schapiro was one of the first to see the benefit of computers for artmaking, establishing herself as an artist who in many ways was ahead of her time. Working with a physicist at the University of California, San Diego, she used computer-generated images and transferred them into large-scale canvases, including a group of paintings that featured this "OX" shape.
These works demonstrate Schapiro's skill at appropriating an often male-dominated art style, here that of Minimalist shapes and forms, and injecting it with a sense of feminine energy to encourage a dialogue about gender. For all its hard-edged masculinity, the form also evokes the female body both in the pink colors and the vagina-like center opening. For Schapiro, the "O" shape was an expansion of her earlier "egg" symbol, frequently used to reference the female body. Along with Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann and other feminists of the day, Schapiro's use of vaginal imagery was meant to reclaim the female body as powerful; it was a political, not a sexual gesture.
Never one to shy away from a bold statement, Schapiro later described the impact of these works (despite the limited attention they received from the male-dominated art world) stating "This work, the early work of cunt art, and various ways that women show themselves holding a mirror to themselves contributed to the changing ideas of modernism. It was radical, as radical as Cubism, but not touted in the same way. Not written about in the same way, not exposed in the same way." She continued, arguing that her painting "continues to be underground art, even though I have that painting hanging in a major museum in the West" before concluding that "it makes no difference. It is my bottle, with a little note inside. My note, a note that can be read only by women."