Summary of Miriam Schapiro
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-20th century to be similarly frank, including Hannah Wilke and Mary Kelly.
- 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 20th 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.
Important Art by Miriam Schapiro
Beast Land and Plenty
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of New York University Art Collection, Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York, New York
Shrine (for R.K.) II
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.
Oil, metallic paint, and pencil on canvas - Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
Big Ox No. 2
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."
Acrylic on canvas - Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
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.
Wood and mixed media - Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Anatomy of a Kimono
Anatomy of a Kimono is a monumental installation of ten panels, together measuring more than fifty-two feet long. A collage of collected bits of brightly colored and diversely patterned fabrics, handkerchiefs, bits of needlepointed text, and pieces of lace, it includes both abstract patterns and recognizable images such as a Japanese kimono, an obi sash, and a pair of kicking legs in motion. When viewed as a whole, the colors on each panel build from light pale tones to dark shades, ending in a vibrant explosion of reds, yellows, and orange color combinations.
The work was inspired by a book about Japanese kimonos, gifted to the artist from her assistant, Sherry Brody. The traditionally female task of kimono making combined Schapiro's lifelong interest in costumes, dance, and the theater with notions of women's work of craft, but it also integrated visual elements of Cubism. Bringing together "high" and "low" artistic production, Anatomy of a Kimono consolidated multiple aspects of Schapiro's artistic and political ambitions. This assemblage is perhaps the most elaborate example of a technique Schapiro called "femmage." While inspired by the practice of collage, in femmage Schapiro modified that process by using traditionally feminine "craft" materials, such as fabric, to elevate a functional object, the kimono, to the status of fine art.
This large and visually dramatic work was a powerful feminist statement, reclaiming the type of production that had often been dismissed or ignored as "woman's work" and transforming it into a monumental presence. Although the materials are unassuming textiles, materials that women had long worked with without any recognition of their artistry, their adoption by an established artist on this scale made them impossible to ignore. This was a political gesture of strength and determination to gain recognition and acceptance for different modes of artistic production. Indeed, the final panel, which figures the "kick" shape speaks to this empowered breaking down of boundaries. She explained, "I ended the painting with the kick so that the painting would walk or strut its way into the '80s."
Acrylic and fabric on canvas - Private Collection
I'm Dancin' as Fast as I Can
Brightly colored and full of movement, I'm Dancin' as Fast as I Can weaves together three dancing figures in a complex and autobiographical narrative. Building upon her femmage technique, this work combines fragments of vibrant fabrics with paint to create a rainbow of patterns and shapes. The result is part of a trilogy of paintings created in the mid-1980s, where Schapiro attempted to visualize the struggle of asserting her identity and balancing the masculine and feminine aspects of her personality.
A male dancer in a formal suit appears on the left, striding away from the center of the canvas. His left hand holds a cane while his right hand grasps the brim of his hat. On the far right, a ballerina raises her arms to form an oval above her head, bending one leg to form a ninety-degree angle. Both of these figures strike stereotypical dance poses and appear much more static than the central female figure, who is depicted with multiple legs and arms to suggest a flurry of motion. She appears suspended between the two edges; her face turns to the left while she is connected to the dancer on the right with a brightly colored rope.
The flurry of motion of the central figure represents Schapiro's conflict in deciding between the male or female models in her personal life and her career. Drawing on her childhood, she struggles to reconcile her relationship with her father (the male dancer) and her mother (the ballerina). For Schapiro, her father was the inspiring force, the artist who worked in her chosen field, while her mother adopted the more traditional role of homemaker. Inspired by and emulating her father, Schapiro had more difficulty relating to her mother, feeling a need to reject her lifestyle to achieve artistic success. As the male figure moves off the stage, his coattails reveal miniature self-portraits of male master painters including Goya and Rembrandt and signatures of Van Gogh and Picasso. He carries with him the world Schapiro wanted to join, but to follow that life demanded her to sever the rope (or umbilical cord) that connects her with her mother.
While this particular depiction was deeply personal for Schapiro, layered with allusions to family interests in dance and costuming, the internal conflict between career and family spoke to a struggle shared by many women. As such, the painting demonstrates Schapiro's ability, as an artist, to give voice to issues central to women and the female experience.
Acrylic and fabric on canvas - Private Collection
Drawing from her familiy's heritage, Mother Russia connects Schapiro's feminist concerns and traditional forms of "woman's work" with a history of female artists from Russia. An open fan with alternating rows of red and white vertical stripes, the upper row includes silkscreened images of Sonia Delaunay, Antonia Sofronova, Olga Rozanova, Nina Simonovich Efimova, and Vera Muchkina, as well as an image of Schapiro herself, wearing a hat and veil. She joins a pantheon of revolutionary women artists and role models. Below is a narrow row which features embroidered gold text of one repeating word, "poejdka" or "journey." The following row consists of reproductions of artworks created by these women and below that is a row of red and black bands with an abstract design beneath, followed by another row of text reading "kooperaunia" or "cooperation." The final section consists of a sheaf of wheat placed behind a sickle, hammer, and red star to reference the symbols of the Russian flag.
Since the early 1970s, Schapiro made works that she considered "collaborations" in which she paid tribute to great artists of the past. Mother Russia, the most elaborate of these collaborations, helped to bring to light and remind viewers of the great work of female artists from a short but significant period in Russian history. From 1910 to 1920, female Russian artists took active roles in the Russian Revolution and helped shape Soviet culture, but they were quickly forgotten or overshadowed by their male colleagues. For Schapiro, this work was a way of bringing these women back to "the forefront of our cultural consciousness."
Furthermore, including herself among the portraits of these women, this work acknowledges Schapiro's own Russian ancestry and the deep artistic roots from which she descended. This particular image of Schapiro was captured by her students during their collaboration on Womanhouse (1972). This brings another level of meaning to the notions of "journey" and "cooperation," extending the revolution to the present day linking modern art workers and students with their female ancestors.
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas - Collection of Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California
Biography of Miriam Schapiro
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.
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.
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.
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 Velazquez or Vermeer."
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.
The Legacy of Miriam Schapiro
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
- Hannah Wilke
- Mira Schor