This Artist’s Mission Is to Uncover the Art World’s Forgotten Women

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jan 24, 2018 8:46PM

Andrea Geyer, Constellations (Carrie Stettheimer after Genthe), 2018. © Andrea Geyer. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery.

Andrea Geyer, Constellations (Regina M Andrews after Campbell), 2018. © Andrea Geyer. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery.

In 2012, artist Andrea Geyer set out to research the life and work of Lillie P. Bliss, one of three women who founded the Museum of Modern Art. But she quickly ran into a sizable hurdle. “There was almost no information on this very important figure,” Geyer tells me over the phone on a recent afternoon, as she’s putting the finishing touches on “If I Told Her,” her latest solo exhibition, at London’s Hales Gallery.

This dearth of information came as a surprise to the artist. How was it possible that such scant record existed for a person who established one of the globe’s most important art institutions? So Geyer set about researching Bliss’s circle in order to tease out her story. And in turn, her inquiries led her to a whole history of forgotten, underrecognized women.

“It felt like taking a lid off of a blender. An archive exploded into my face,” she recalls. “There were all of these incredible women that I, as a feminist artist and person living in New York, was not aware of—and I wanted to figure out why.”

At the time, Geyer was in the midst of an artist research residency at MoMA; these overlooked women quickly became the subject of her study. Her resulting project, Revolt, They Said (2012–ongoing), represents the accomplishments of over 850 women, each of whom indelibly influenced the American cultural landscape in the early and mid-1900s. It materialized as a sprawling web of women’s names across one wall of the MoMA, and an online database of their biographies—many of which had been omitted from history books.

Andrea Geyer
Asterism (After Gertrude Arndt), 2016
Parque Galería

Since the beginning of her career, Geyer, who was born in Germany in 1971 and now lives and works in New York, has been interested in stories and figures that have been unlearned or left out of our collective memory. As a young artist, she found herself living outside of mainstream culture—and increasingly aware of how the achievements of minority groups (women, homosexuals, people of color) had been glossed over by popular history. “If you’re not part of a particular mainstream, then you realize early on that something is not quite right, no matter where you look,” she recalls.

In one early work, Spiral Lands (2007–2009), Geyer explored the history of colonialism in America, and the role of photography in building a narrative of the West as an unoccupied territory, “which of course, it was not,” she says.

Through images, ephemera, and text, the piece imagined the experience of a fictional female photographer who traveled across the Southwest trying to make sense of the country and its past. In the process, she realized that her knowledge of America’s founding had been incomplete—absent the displacement and struggle of American Indians—and “recognized the necessity to entirely rethink how to relate herself to history,” Geyer explains.

For the past six years, however, Geyer’s interest in erased histories has focused on the stories of real women. In particular, her research around Revolt, They Said spurred a succession of performances, sculptures, collages, and installations that uncover the buried narratives of women associated with Modernism.

Andrea Geyer, Collective Weave, 2017. © Andrea Geyer. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery.

Geyer’s current exhibition at Hales Gallery brings together four such works, each of which gives form to what she refers to as the “ghostly absences” of women in art history. The most direct expression of this is “Constellations,” a body of black-and-white photo-collages that feature portraits of women who ran influential artist salons, from well-known (but underrecognized) figures like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to lesser-knowns like Jessie Redmon Fauset and Hilde Radusch.

Rather than depicting the figures in straight portraits, however, Geyer has fractured, faceted, and rearranged their images as if processed through a kaleidoscope or blender. The image of Fauset, a black writer who ran a Harlem Renaissance salon that helped to cultivate work by the likes of poet Langston Hughes, shows her smiling face intact, but her body is spliced into angular, upside-down parts.

These alterations complicate, even damage, the images of these influential women—which is precisely Geyer’s intention. For her, it isn’t enough to simply call attention to these individuals; she also wants to tell the story of their erasure, to represent the fact that they have been “held hostage by male patriarchal histories.”

“I want to look at why things are forgotten,” she explains. “I’m interested in how can we materialize this broken condition in which we exist.”

Andrea Geyer, If I Told Her, 2018. © Andrea Geyer. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery.

Two sculptural works in the show grew out of Geyer’s research into SFMOMA’s founding director, Grace McCann Morley, another prominent character in the history of American museums. Her accomplishments were immense: She led one of the West Coast’s largest institutions, established the first film program at an American museum, and helped open the first major museum in India. But again, her legacy has been largely overlooked because, as Geyer asserts, she was a woman and a lesbian. (Some have speculated that she was ousted from her SFMOMA position because of her sexuality.)

As a tribute to Morley, Geyer created a group of tapestries, called Collective Weave (2017), printed with illustrations from early lesbian magazines. Three sculptural ladders, dubbed If I Told Her (2018), were inspired by the cover of an early lesbian journal, The Ladder, which showed a drawing of its namesake structure extending into the clouds. Geyer was drawn to the image because it represented “the potential to get somewhere and create access to things that are otherwise inaccessible.”

Geyer’s ladders are decorated with flowing hair, an addition that recalls Meret Oppenheim’s famous 1936 sculpture, Object (Fur Breakfast) (the first artwork by a woman acquired by MoMA). The hair “stands for all kinds of bodies that are rendered illegible within the museum context,” Geyer explains.

Andrea Geyer, Time Tenderness, 2015. Photo by Filip Wolak. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The final work in the show documents Geyer’s 2015 performance, Time Tenderness, commissioned by the Whitney Museum to help inaugurate its then-new building. The video tracks dancers as they move and speak in front of various works of art in the museum’s collection. Their actions and words highlight the stories behind the objects—but also those behind artworks and artists that have been left out.  

“No matter what museum installation you’re looking at, you’re also looking at the things that are not there: works that are not rendered relevant or present or visible within the context of a collection,” Geyer says. “I’m really interested in what happens at the meeting point between something that seems absent, but is nevertheless present.”

In some ways, the Hales show appears to be a culmination of Geyer’s investigations into the forgotten women of Modernism and the cultural mechanisms—collecting, hiring, and patronage—that led to their omission and ultimately favored white men. But, as Geyer will tell you, her work is far from done.

Right now, she’s compiling a book that brings together her recent research. Typical of Geyer’s practice, though, it won’t simply serve as an encyclopedia of overlooked women. Instead, she sees it as a handbook—one that will teach readers “the ways in which we can continue to crack open machines that silence all of these interesting, important, central voices.”

Alexxa Gotthardt