11 Female Artists Who Left Their Mark on Pop Art
From its inception in the early 1960s, Pop Art was a boys’ club. Huge names like Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann perpetuated the myth of the (male) artist-as-genius. The movement emerged amid the post-World War II explosions of capitalist consumerism and mass media, as artists explored new modes of mechanical production, often by taking commonplace consumer goods and pop-cultural icons as their subject matter. Associated with an unemotional, distanced attitude toward artmaking, Pop Art’s codified characteristics are, in turn, stereotypically male.
For female artists participating in the movement, cultivating a persona as a so-called serious artist seemed like the only way to succeed. An alternative strategy was to (often cheekily) critique Pop Art and its workings from the inside out. In many cases, though, these strategies were interpreted as playing by the rules rather than challenging them, and, more often than not, these routes failed to reward female artists with a lasting place in the mainstream. Now, however, with the nuances of their practices better understood, female artists from around the globe are gaining more recognition for their contributions and challenges to Pop Art.
Associated with the Pop movement to varying extents, the following 11 women artists (by no means an exhaustive list) all engaged with its motivations and defining characteristics, some by expanding the genre through feminist inflection, others by working along its margins.
A founder—the only female one—of British Pop, London-born Boty was trained in stained glass at the Wimbledon School of Art and the Royal College of Art, though she likewise worked in painting and collage. As she was also an attractive actress, her talent has often been overlooked. None of her works were shown in Britain from her death in 1966 (at just 28) until 1993. Fortunately, over the past few years, a number of exhibitions have brought her out of obscurity.
In 1962, Boty was featured with her contemporaries Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, and Derek Boshier in Ken Russell’s documentary Pop Goes the Easel. Disorienting and experimental, Boty’s segment departed from those of her male compatriots—as did her practice. Rather than the cool detachment of a Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, Boty’s works sprang from involved interest, referencing political subjects like the Cuban Missile Crisis. In vibrant images of detailed figures against expressionistic swaths of color, Boty also presented a perspective on female experience and sexuality that presented women as desiring, rather than just desired, with men as sex objects, too. It’s a Man’s World I (1964), for instance, is a reflective work that juxtaposes male figures from the Beatles to Albert Einstein with a single red rose, a recurring symbol of female sexuality for Boty.
Drexler has described the unstated narratives in her work as “a kind of music.” Yet her bold, color-block paint-and-paper collages on canvas read like flattened film scenes, with distinct references to gangsters, King Kong, and Marilyn Monroe. In 1964, she was included—as was Strider—in the “First International Girlie Show” at Pace Gallery, along with Warhol, Wesselmann, and Lichtenstein. Still, she wasn’t well known in that decade, and she thought of herself mainly as a writer, especially when comparing her work and career with those of her friends Franz Kline and Willem and Elaine de Kooning.
In addition to writing—she holds three Obie Awards for playwriting—Drexler was a professional wrestler, perhaps reflected in her piece The Winner (1965). Painting over collaged found photographs, she injects a personal narrative and leaves traces of the creative process, complicating the mechanized production typically associated with Pop.
“I create vertigo,” Elaine Sturtevant said of her double take–inducing oeuvre. Working under only her marital last name, Sturtevant executed near-carbon-copy “repetitions” of works by male artists, from Marcel Duchamp to Keith Haring—a practice considered by some to be appropriation art, avant la lettre. While Warhol approved of her aims and gave her one of his original silkscreens to work from, Oldenburg was vexed by her copy of his work The Store (1961–64). Though often subtle, the distinctions between the original works and Sturtevant’s creations are by design. She drew on canonical Pop pieces, yet her works were handmade—painted rather than mass-printed—and they explored artmaking itself as a kind of transformation. She also investigated notions of the (male) artist-hero and originality, authenticity, and authorship, setting her apart but also rendering her inseparable from the Pop movement.
When art-world favor started to evade her, Sturtevant dropped out for a decade, eventually returning in the mid-’80s. Later, at the start of the 21st century, she turned to video art. In 2011, she was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale.
Sometimes known as Sister Mary Corita Kent, Kent was a nun and art teacher at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. Her departure from the school (and the order) in 1968 was partially related to tension between the order and the church over the progressive reforms of the Vatican II movement, but it was also timed with her own artistic commitments and rising renown. Throughout the ’60s, she made radio and TV appearances and lectured around the country. Before Warhol made the medium famous, she was working in serigraphy (screen-printing) because it could be cheaply mass-produced and widely disseminated. Her lively, colorful works speak through graphic simplicity as they combine Bible verses, brand logos, literary quotes, and even Beatles lyrics to explore larger issues like poverty, civil rights, and the Vietnam War, ultimately to effect change. Deeply engaged with her subject matter, she remained an activist up until her death in 1986, earning the moniker “the joyous revolutionary” from photographer Ben Shahn.
Belgian artist Axell was recently included in the museum shows “International Pop,” which toured Minneapolis, Dallas, and Philadelphia, and “The World Goes Pop,” at the Tate Modern. In fact, this past summer, her work Valentine (1966) earned her a spot as the first female Pop artist to be included in the Tate Modern’s permanent collection. The work depicts a female cosmonaut with a toy helmet (a real helmet, formerly donned by Axell’s son) and references Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly into space. Like a classical nude meeting a Monroe-esque pin-up, the woman’s body features a functioning zipper that reveals her figure. Not just an object of male desire, she is self-possessed, seeming to draw empowerment from her traditionally masculine profession.
Another piece, Ice Cream (1964), caused a stir after it was censored on the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Facebook page earlier this year. When created, it was misunderstood as playing into the status quo. Now, however, it is seen as an expression of sexual liberation and female pleasure, standing in opposition to the merely ornamental female figures that dominated the male-centric Pop Art movement.
After moving to New York, Argentine artist Minujin became friends with Warhol, whom she later featured in her politico-economic performance piece Paying off the Argentine Foreign Debt with Corn, “the Latin American Gold” (1985/2011). Like Warhol, Minujin investigated consumer culture, but her practice was a far cry from his sanitized, mass-produced works that held viewers at a remove. Instead, Minujin worked against the historically passive consumption of art and the increasing influence of new mass-media forms. She created Happenings and experiential environments (often incorporating neon and day-glo colors) that straddled the border between Pop and participatory, conceptual art.
Perhaps the most Pop-inflected of her works are her interactive painted mattress sculptures, which invoke (and invite) sexual activity while referencing product packaging and consumerism through their bright, geometric colors. Meanwhile, for her well-known Minuphone (1967), a viewer dialed a phone in a telephone booth that emitted various colors and sounds as his or her face appeared on a television screen, translating human bodies into mediated forms.
Borrowing imagery from Warhol and Lichtenstein to create handmade rugs, self-taught artist Grebenak explored the boundaries between fine art and craft. Indeed, before entering the gallery space, her works were first for sale in the gift shop of the Brooklyn Museum. Incorporating logos of brands ranging from Con Edison to Bugatti (her dealer, Allan Stone, collected the luxury cars), Grebenak melded popular and consumer cultures with American folk art, as well as elements of the personal with the generic. Her one-of-a-kind works stand in contrast to the sleek, ubiquitous products they reference, not to mention the mechanized, manufactured art the male titans of Pop were creating at the time.
In her youth, Paris-born Venezuelan artist Marisol (born Maria Sol Escobar) moved to New York City, where she developed a friendship with Warhol, even featuring in two of his films. For a spell, she was arguably as famous as Warhol himself, showing at both the Venice Biennale and Documenta in 1968. Yet she eschewed the spotlight. Her first New York museum solo show, “Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper,” at El Museo del Barrio in 2014, recently reignited interest in her work.
Trained in Abstract Expressionism under Hans Hofmann in New York, she shifted her practice in the early ’50s to incorporate a combination of pre-Columbian folk influences and Rauschenberg-esque assemblage—in part, as a response to her mother’s suicide. Her life-size wooden sculptures step beyond the boundaries of Pop, and she was hesitant to associate herself with the movement. Humorous yet eerie, her works incorporate found objects and depict celebrities of the era, from the Kennedys to Bob Hope, as well as marginalized groups and even her own family.
Strider’s sculptural painting practice satirizes men’s magazines. Girl with Radish (1963) exemplifies the combination of humor and challenging content that characterizes her works. The piece features a close-up of a generic, stylized female—easily plucked from any ad or comic strip—who upends the conventional open-mouthed, sexualized coquette by holding a radish between her teeth. The radish is one of Strider’s signature “build-outs,” the 3D elements she added to the surfaces of her paintings, which depict everything from store-bought vegetables to pin-up girls. Particularly in the latter case, she emphasized aspects of the female form typically subject to the male gaze so that her work could expose and destabilize it.
Strider’s practice was in continual stylistic flux. In 1969, she helped organize “Street Works,” a months-long public performance series that included contributions from Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci, and Strider herself. In the ’70s, she created massive soft-sculpture installations out of urethane foam, and, in later decades, she returned to depicting female figures, exploring their line-drawn abstraction against stylized, rainbow-colored backgrounds.
Chicago-born Weber moved to New York at 25 and was included in a MoMA group show the same year. Displaying the influence of Edward Hopper as well as her training in graphic design, Weber’s works contain the clear, simplified, and hard-lined language of advertising, but injected with an enigmatic moodiness. In her ink-and-watercolor paintings, anonymous figures—businessmen in suits, exercising women, couples—stand in stark silhouette against patterned backgrounds. Archetypal rather than individual, they capture the uniformity and isolation associated with urban life in the 1960s. It’s unclear whether these scenes are intended as a critique of or a more neutral reflection on this ethos. Nevertheless, they stand apart from other, mass-produced Pop pieces in the way they belie their hand-painting from close up. Her figures are thought by some to have inspired the opening credits for the hit TV show Mad Men.
At first involved with Viennese gestural abstract painting, Austrian artist Kogelnik moved to the U.S. in the early 1960s and quickly found herself among the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Joan Mitchell, and Claes Oldenburg, in an era characterized by the space race and the sexual revolution. While her later works resemble (and critique) fashion advertisements, her output from the ’60s explores gender, eroticism, and the human figure in relation to postwar scientific and technological development. In Fly Me to the Moon (1963), a stylized rocket speaks to Kogelnik’s particular interest in space travel, while the female and male figures in the scene ambiguously either cruise through the cosmos or engage in sex.
Distancing herself from her Pop contemporaries, Kogelnik said she decided to focus on rockets instead of Coca-Cola cans. Yet, in these works, floating outlines of humans-cum-robots, spliced body parts, and a strategic, often-sparing use of color tell of the dissolution of the individual and personal agency in the consumerist society that Pop critiqued.
Cover image: Portrait of Corita Kent in her apartment c. 1970. Image courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles; Portrait of Marisol by Jack Mitchell, 1969. Image courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York; Portraits of Marta Minujin, Rosalyn Drexler, Kiki Kogelnik, and Evelyne Axell via Wikimedia Commons.