Getting Beneath The Surface Of Decorative Art


In the 1970s, artist Miriam Schapiro invented the term “femmage” — combining the words feminine and collage — to describe her new approach. In spirited style, she brought the objects of women’s domestic lives, like bits of fabric, lace and embroidery to her canvases, weaving her feminist politics into her art.

For Schapiro, who achieved earlier acclaim for her Abstract Expressionism works, there were no hierarchies or distinctions between categories of art and craft, or between the abstract and the decorative. She pushed boundaries, uplifted the decorative, encouraged the work of other women artists and created a body of work that has been acclaimed and honored. Schapiro died in 2015.

“If there ever was an audience for her femmage work, the time is now. We are at a moment where I think audiences are much more open to accepting beauty in works of art and are not dismissive of something decorative as all surface, or having no meaning,” says Elissa Auther, the Windgate Research and Collections Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, who curated the recently opened show, “Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro.”

The show combines 29 of Schapiro’s richly patterned canvases with the work of nine contemporary artists whose work crosses the boundaries of art and craft, following in her tradition. The contemporary artists include Sanford Biggers, Josh Blackwell, Edie Fake, Jodie Mack and Sara Rahbar, and their works are personal and political.

“All of these artists have intense interest in pattern and ornamentation, and all are committed to reappropriating the term ‘decorative,’” Auther says.

Along with Schapiro’s femmages are her writing, including the influential essay she wrote with Melissa Meyer, “Waste Not, Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled – Femmage,” and the collections of objects used in her pieces, including traditional women’s needlework, buttons, fabric hearts, stencils, ribbons, embroidered handkerchiefs and doilies.

Some of Schapiro’s works, like “Gates of Paradise” (1980) and “Tapestry of Paradise” (1980), seem inspired by Persian miniature painting, with their fabric floral designs overlapping the detailed geometric borders framing the work and other geometric frames within. The work is full of vibrant color, arabesque patterns on patterns and coded messages compelling close examination. “The Beauty of Summer” is rectangular shaped, overflowing with flowers and designs, both painted and made of fabric. By recycling materials, the works beome stories within stories, with chapters opening to the viewer.

Some densely patterned pieces are in the shapes of fans and hearts — she embraced forms that others may have devalued as sentimental, as she saw no distinctions. Her series of eight neutral-colored prints called collotypes, “Anonymous Was a Woman,” are inspired by the detailed handiwork and history of forgotten women.

Schapiro’s biography is relevant to her work. Born in Toronto in 1923, she was the only child of Russian-Jewish parents, and grew up in Brooklyn. One grandfather invented the first movable eye for dolls in the United States and manufactured “Teddy Bears,” named for Teddy Roosevelt, and the other was a rabbi in the East New York section of Brooklyn and a tailor who designed clothing for Admiral Perry and his team of explorers when they headed to the Arctic. Her father, an artist, ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket in 1926. Schapiro began sketching at age 6 and later took classes at the Museum of Modern Art.

At Iowa State University, she received her BA and two master’s degrees, and met her husband, the painter Paul Brach. Later on, when he was later teaching at the University of Missouri, she had several jobs, including secretary to a rabbi. She has said that her marriage to Brach deepened her Jewish identity; she was affected by his retelling of his experiences as a soldier during World War II, as he was among the Americans who liberated Theresienstadt.

Brach and Schapiro moved back to New York in the 1950s, when she devoted herself full-time to her art. At the time she was painting in an angular abstract expressionist style and exhibited her work regularly. In 1967 they moved to California, where she taught at the University of San Diego, and in 1971, she and artist Judy Chicago co-founded the first feminist art program at the California Institute of Arts, and the important installation “Womanhouse.” Through leading workshops all over the country and through her own artwork, Schapiro furthered a new and inclusive understanding of art based on women’s lived experience.

Schapiro spent the last decades of her life in East Hampton, L.I. She would collect materials for her work from antique shows and estate sales, and at the end of the summer would hold a sale at her home of the materials she didn’t use.

In an interview, Judith Brodsky, an artist, professor emerita at Rutgers, chair of the board of the New York Foundation of the Arts, a close friend of Schapiro’s and executor of her estate, explained that Schapiro’s renewed interest in Judaism grew out of her involvement in the feminist movement and her interest in the lives of earlier women artists. (She also did several narrative works, not included in this show, referencing Jewish figures like Anne Frank and Frida Kahlo, with Jewish imagery, on house-shaped canvases.)

“I think that the whole business of using domesticity for art comes out of a childhood where the Jewish tradition of the importance of home and family life were key elements in her upbringing,” Brodsky says.

The exhibition is meant as a conversation between the works of Schapiro and the nine artists. It’s as though Schapiro created the vocabulary. Jasmine Sian, a New York-based artist, recycles scraps of brown paper bags to make very delicate paper cuts, with imagery drawn from nature and intricate, ornamental borders. Sanford Biggers collages antique quilts, which have their own coded messages, with other found objects to create large pieces whose geometric patterns form the edges.

Using an overturned table as his display stand, Josh Blackwell creates sculptural objects out of plastic bags that are decorated, embroidered and laced with bright colors, resembling baskets or textiles.

While several of the artists told Auther that they felt Schapiro was influential in their careers, Blackwell is the only one with a personal connection. In a telephone interview, he recalls meeting Schapiro when he was a graduate student at Cal Arts in the 1990s. She was invited back to talk about her experience founding the university’s feminist art program. He expected a formal lecture, and instead she led a consciousness-raising session, asking all of the students how they came to feminism. For Blackwell, who now teaches at Bennington College, “having an artist whose work was influential to me in significant ways invited me into a conversation — not as a spectator but as an active participant — about feminism and making art; it was really important in my graduate experience.” He adds that he was struck by her warmth, generosity and strength.

Shapiro has inspired Blackwell in his own teaching and his artwork. The son and grandson of women who made clothing and theatrical costumes, he grew up amidst a lot of sewing and crocheting, and through Schapiro’s example felt empowered to bring these practices — “not something marginal, or a hobby, not lesser than painting but equivalent” — into his artwork.

Commenting to The Jewish Week about the relevance of Schapiro’s work in these times, Jennifer Samet, director of research at the Eric Firestone Gallery, which represents Schapiro’s estate, says, “Increasingly, there is greater acceptance and interest in the radical turns that artists make over the course of their careers, and how it leads to innovative, experimental work. Schapiro also embraced her own identity as a woman and mother in her work, even when she was making paintings rooted in an Abstract Expressionist vocabulary. Contemporary artists are still finding ways to reinvent gestures and vocabulary associated with a rigorous modernist tradition. There is a generous spirit in Schapiro’s work in terms of revealing untold stories and personal identity that I think is in line with and has a lot to offer younger contemporary artists.”

“Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro” is on view through Sept. 9 at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan,