Breaking the glass ceiling

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 72

Breaking the glass ceiling

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 72

Female artists are attracting attention for commanding high prices – but why is their work still valued at less than their male counterparts? Rachel Spence investigates

Last winter, headlines were made as a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe smashed the record for prices at auction for women artists. Entitled Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, the 1932 painting of a white flower, which once hung in the dining-room of George Bush Jr, sold for $44.4 million (£28 million). This quadrupled the previous record for a work by a woman artist, Untitled by Joan Mitchell, which was sold in May 2014 for $11.9 million (£7.8 million).

O'Keeffe's value at auction is impressive – until you hear the figure generated by her male counterparts. This year, Femmes d'Algers, Version 'O', a 1954 painting by Picasso, sold for over $179 million (£116 million) in New York, trouncing its nearest competitor, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, a 1969 triptych by Francis Bacon which sold for $142.4 million (£92.8 million) in 2013.

It is a truth now universally acknowledged that women artists, both dead and living, are woefully undervalued. Iwan Wirth, owner of the leading international gallery Hauser & Wirth, which represents artists including Louise Bourgeois, Berlinde de Bruyckere and Bharti Kher, has described women artists as "the bargains of our time". In 2012, only three per cent of the lots that sold for over $1 million at auction were by female artists. Moreover, among the top 500 artists sold by value last year, only 19 were women.

According to Wirth, the gap is particularly clear in the Abstract Expressionist movement. "Just compare the prices of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell to those of [Mark] Rothko and [Willem] De Kooning." (Helen Frankenthaler peaks at $2.8 million and Joan Mitchell has sold for $11.9 million, while the men have fetched $86.9 million and $27.1 million respectively.)

Now, however, connoisseurs are recognizing this untapped reservoir of talent. Museums, for example, are ramping up their number of one-woman shows. Two wonderful artists, the Romanian textile specialist Geta Bratescu and the Indian abstractionist Nasreen Mohamedi, previously unknown on the western scene, have both had solo shows at Tate Liverpool recently. At one point this year, all of Tate's London spaces were devoted to the female triumvirate of Sonia Delaunay, Agnes Martin and Barbara Hepworth. In 2013, London's Hayward Gallery simultaneously devoted both its spaces to the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh and the Cuban-born conceptualist Ana Mendieta.

Next February, Bonhams will curate a Post-War and Contemporary Art sale that will highlight pieces by women. Works already consigned include works by Richier, the Sicilian abstractionist Carla Accardi and Dadamaino, an Italian conceptualist. As an example of a discrepancy that owes more to prejudice than quality, Ralph Taylor, head of Bonham's Post-War and Contemporary Department, cites the case of Richier. A French female sculptor of the same generation as Giacometti, her attenuated figures tread the same existential path as those of the modernist master, yet her highest-price work fetched £1.2 million, while his peaked at £91.6 million. "It's extraordinary," says Taylor. "There is a relationship between their work but no-one could accuse her of simply following in his footsteps. She was a true original."

So why has it taken until now for art's market-makers to recognize this untapped pool of talent? Taylor points out that while the gender pay gap affects women in most professions, women artists earn even less than the average. "In the US, women still only earn two-thirds of male salaries, but artists only earn one third." He points to "subconscious tribal prejudices" in the "post-war, macho" art world which were still active as late as the 1960s. Judy Chicago, the artist responsible for The Dinner Party – the feminist painting which imagined dinner plates as the vaginas of prominent women – has recalled the devastating effect on her when Walter Hopps, then director of the Pasadena Museum of Art, inexplicably refused to look at one of her sculptures. Years later, he explained to her that, at that time, "women in the art world were either "artists' wives or groupies" and he didn't know how to deal with the fact that, as he said to me, my work was stronger than a lot of the men's."

Chicago's anecdote is revealing of the struggles that women artists have faced, throughout history, to be taken seriously. Valeria Napoleone, an Italian-born, London-based art patron, only collects works by female artists. Her 300-strong assembly includes pieces by Turner Prize-winning painter Tomma Abts, Polish conceptualist Goshka Macuga, the Egyptian textile artist Ghada Amer and Dutch wall painter Lily van der Stokker. "Women have been historically ignored," says Napoleone, her voice simmering with passion. "There are no women in art history books – and the market follows that critical space."

Undoubtedly, the absence of women in the curatorial and critical arenas has fed into their invisibility as artists. Until recently, women were almost entirely absent from major museum directorships. According to a 2014 report by the US-based Association of Art Museum Directors, women run less than a quarter of the most powerful art museums (those with budgets of over $15 million) in the US and Canada. Furthermore, even when they are at the helm they earn nearly a third (29 per cent) less than their peers. Major global institutions – New York's Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre in Paris, London's Tates and National Gallery and Madrid's Prado museum – currently boast no female leadership.

Given that men still hold institutional power, it is little wonder that it is rare to hear a woman artist hailed as a true great. Yet who is to say that Hepworth's visceral, organic expressions are less innovative or influential than Henry Moore's curvaceous, pared-down forms? "Who says what is avant-garde? What is cutting edge? What is revolutionary?" demands Valeria Napoleone. Napoleone and Taylor both point out that women artists have been all too often, as Napoleone puts it, "in the shade of their male companions". The most expensive painting by Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner sold for £2,061,563 ($3,177,000), while a painting by her partner Jackson Pollock was traded for £37,871,877 ($58,363,752). Marisa and Mario Merz, a husband-and-wife duo who were both luminaries of Italy's Arte Povera movement, have top prices of £206,500 and £1,058,500 respectively.

Clearly, correction is needed. Nevertheless, it must be noted that women often harbor different attitudes to success from their male peers. Beatrice Merz, the daughter of Marisa and Mario, and herself one of Italy's most respected curators, remembers her parents quarreling over Marisa's reluctance to promote herself. "She believed passionately in Mario's talent and chose to stay a step behind him in terms of public recognition," Beatrice recalls. "He used to tell her to push herself forward more but she didn't want to." A similar story applies to French avant-garde colourists Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Only when Robert died in 1941 did Delaunay make a reputation for herself as a serious painter – rather than textile and clothing designer.

It is possible that, in shying away from the spotlight, women artists deepen their practice. No-one who saw the recent solo shows devoted to Agnes Martin at Tate Modern or the Indian abstractionist Nasreen Mohamedi at Tate Liverpool could doubt their brilliance and originality. Yet both women chose to seclude themselves from the art world and renounce family life. (Martin built herself a house on a remote mesa in the New Mexican desert, while Mohamedi devoted herself to her work as an artist and teacher at Baroda University in India).

"Women feel less weighed down by peer pressure. As a result, they approach their work with more intention, focus and purity," says Merz, who has specialized in research on female artists who have refused to follow mainstream trends. (Her 2013 exhibition of Ana Mendieta at Turin's Castello di Rivoli, which preceded the Hayward show, finally brought the artist the recognition she deserved, after decades of being eclipsed by her husband, the minimalist Carl Andre.)

There's little doubt that the situation is changing. Already younger galleries, many more of which are run by women than in the past, are more female-friendly than their predecessors. Now regarded as one of London's most worthwhile spaces, Islington gallery Hollybush Gardens is run by female directors Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl. Out of the 13 artists they represent, eight are women – including Andrea Büttner, who won the (women-only) Max Mara contemporary art prize and subsequently had a solo show at Tate Britain.

In South London's Peckham, fledgling commercial space Bosse and Baum also actively prioritizes women artists. Its director, Alexandra Warder, says, "It is widely known that more females graduate from art school but more men are represented in galleries." A report last year by the collective Gallery Tally found that in New York and Los Angeles, for example, just 30 per cent of represented artists are women. "This is little different, say, to the legal world, where equal number of men and women qualify as lawyers, but there are pitiful numbers of female partners leading these companies," continues Warder. "We're redressing that balance, and have fun as we do so."

Napoleone, meanwhile, has set up a new project, Valeria Napoleone XX, specifically to fund work by women in public institutions in the UK and New York. "This project is not about filling a gap because it such a huge black hole!" says Napoleone. "It's about encouraging a conversation. Money doesn't change the world. Ideas do." If these are dreamt up by women, there is, finally, a space for them to be seen and heard.

Rachel Spence writes for The Financial Times.


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