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Women's work is never done: a trio of art books showcasing women

Covers of art books featuring women.
Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

One of many happy results of the publishing industry's push for greater inclusivity: more art books showcasing not just women's art, but women's capabilities.

Three recent standouts feature female subjects of every shape and hue from all over the world, doing the things that women have historically done — and also the things that men have historically done. With few words, these books speak volumes. All would make great gifts. A look:

The Only Woman

In The Only Woman, Immy Humes has collected 100 mainly black and white group photographs that feature a lone, trailblazing woman "who claimed space in a man's world."

There are familiar faces among these standouts, including banker Christine Lagarde, Pakistan Prime Minister Benazhir Bhutto, writer and wit Dorothy Parker, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. A young Frida Kahlo looks tiny beside her enormous husband-to-be, Diego Rivera, photographed with a contingent of all-male painters, sculptors and other arts workers at a 1929 May Day march in Mexico City. War correspondent Martha Gellhorn, in a no-nonsense trench coat, engages with soldiers on the Italian front a few months before D-day in 1944. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sits front row center at 10 Downing Street in a shirtwaist dress, flanked by the two dozen men in dark suits who made up her new cabinet in 1979.

Even more fascinating are some of the stories behind lesser known female vanguards — including a shipyard worker, a race car driver, a gold miner, and several scientists, nurses, and medical students. Clarissa Wimbush stands out as the only female member of Virginia's all-Black Old Dominion Dental Association in 1961, as does Gloria Richardson, the only woman at a meeting of Black Civil Rights leaders with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963.

The solo woman at the 1946 assembly of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (yes, really) is easy to spot because of her elaborate hat. But other "Onlys" are harder to pinpoint in these crowded, small format reproductions — lending Humes' book a fun Where's "Walda" vibe at times.

Women Holding Things

Women Holding Things combines so many wonderful elements of Maira Kalman's work: her uncanny ability to balance whimsy and worry, simplicity and depth — and thoughts both mundane and philosophical in spare text and colorful paintings, which often channel Matisse. This volume is an expanded version of a self-published booklet Kalman produced during the pandemic to raise funds to combat hunger.

Unusual for Kalman, the text is typeset rather than handwritten, but the book's jacket copy features her appealing, irregularly capitalized hand lettering. It sets the tone: "You hold in your hands a thing I hold most dear. A Book. If there was ever a time to hold onto SOMEthing, this is it. Hold on, dear friends. Hold on." (Spoiler alert: The charming back jacket reads, "One more Thought. Along with holding on, you could also LET GO. But that is ANOTHER BOOK.")

In paintings bright with jewel-toned pinks, reds, and greens, there are women holding red balloons, tea cups, and garden shears. Several visitors to a museum sculpture garden are holding opinions about modern art, while others are holding court or holding wolves at bay. With Kalman's typical wry wit, stolid Gertrude Stein is depicted at her desk, "holding true to herself writing things very few people liked or even read." A tense Virginia Woolf is shown as "barely holding it together."

Like The Principles of Uncertainty, in which Kalman touted the benefits of "meaningful distraction" in the face of a troubling, often unfathomable world, Women Holding Things ventures into autobiographical material. An atypically dark painting depicts a mother holding the hand of her child as they are being shot by Nazi soldiers in Belarus during the Holocaust — which is what happened to the family Kalman's father left behind when he emigrated to Palestine before the war. A painting of two girls in identical yellow dresses that also appeared in Uncertainty, now carries the rubric, "women holding a grudge," along with the story behind the lifelong animosity between Kalman's mother-in-law and her twin sister.

Of course, Women Holding Things is also filled with many of the things Kalman holds dear and loves to paint — chairs, hats, parks, gardens, ruby red bowls of cherries, vases of red, pink and yellow anemones. In portraits of women holding everything from dog leashes and whisks to malicious opinions, Kalman's latest offers an encouraging paean to fortitude and perseverance.

Great Women Painters

Great Women]Painters, which complements Phaidon's Great Women Artists and last year's Woman Made: Great Women Designers, showcases more than 300 painters born in 60 countries during the 16th to 21st centuries. This handsome coffee table book is arranged alphabetically, from Pacita Abad and Mary Abbott to Marguerite Zorach and Portia Zvavahera.

You'll find plenty of familiar names like Georgia O'Keeffe, Alice Neel, Gwen John, Hilma af Klint, and "the premiere Old Mistress superstar[s]" Artemisia Gentileschi and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. But there are also lesser known artists like Dotty Attie, Anita Rée, Carmen Herrera, and Giulia Lama, and emerging stars like Dana Schutz, Jenny Saville, and Amy Sherald (who painted Michelle Obama's official portrait) — which makes for a rich mix. Each artist is represented by one key painting and a short biographical note.

The goal, writes Alison M. Gingeras in her introduction, is to "renegotiate the canon" by "casting aside the yardstick of auction prices and the subjective categories of aesthetic beauty, technical mastery and 'wall power.'" She argues that instead, "the calculus of valuation" needs to take into account the works' historical context and intellectual content, and the "singularity and difference" of women artists.

There are delights in every era and genre. Some paintings, like Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird," Yayoi Kusama's "Pumpkin," and Marilyn Minter's extreme closeup of lips in "Big Red" are well-known. But surprises abound, not just from artists whose work I was not familiar with, but from lesser-known paintings by well-known artists. Mary Cassatt, often associated with her soft-focus Impressionist canvases of mothers and children, is represented by "In the Loge," which features a woman gazing intently through opera glasses. Leonora Carrington's "The Old Maids" depicts a sort of Surrealist tea party filled with creatures who might have stepped out of a fairy tale. In "The Only Blonde in the World," British Pop artist Pauline Boty's portrait of Marilyn Monroe in one of her best-known roles is set against an abstract background that suggests the divide between the actress' public image and her private self.

Among contemporary works, I was particularly intrigued by Iranian-born Sanam Khatibi's feminist twist on Renaissance pastorals in "Thirty Days of Hunger," Latvian Ella Kruglyanskaya's muscular joggers in "Exit in Flip Flops," and one of Celia Paul's haunting, earth-toned family portraits, "My Sisters in Mourning."

Grandma Moses' folk art "Summer Party" presents a happier scene, and I was glad to be reminded that the late-blooming artist's real name was Anna Mary Robertson Moses. The names and work of all these painters deserve to be better known.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.