Women Pop Artists Are Finally Getting Their Due
One of Rosalyn Drexler’s friends clipped a newspaper review of her first-ever exhibition, in the 1950s, even though it pegged the artist as a housewife with a “lively imagination.” True, Drexler was married and her early sculptures were made at home with stuff from the family junk drawer. But the creative powerhouse who went on to write scripts, wrestle professionally, and is still painting wry, collaged paintings was far from the average mid-century homemaker.
Beyond underestimating Drexler, that review also exposed a glaring double standard. Her male peers were revered for cooking up art inspired by the kitchen, like Andy Warhol and his boxes of Brillo scouring pads, or Claes Oldenburg and his oversized ice bags. When they did it, it was Pop art. When Drexel did it, it was cute.
Installation view of “Seductive Subversions,” 2010. Courtesy of The University of the Arts, Philadelphia.
Pop art—the popular 1950s and ’60s movement that turned consumer culture into fine art—has long been represented by a coterie of American and British men, even though it always included an international cohort of female artists such as Evelyne Axell, Dorothy Grebenak, Marjorie Strider, Chryssa, and Kiki Kogelnik. These artists added dimension to Pop art by pioneering soft and neon sculpture, and by focusing on consumers instead of consumer products. “Male artists moved into woman’s domain and pillaged with impunity. The result was Pop art,” wrote art historian Lucy Lippard in a 1972 article about household images in art for Ms. magazine. “If the first major Pop artists had been women, the movement might never have gotten out of the kitchen.”
But the movement did get out of the kitchen and into the art market. Works by the movement’s biggest names—Warhol, Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Tom Wesselman—have fetched multimillion-dollar sums, most recently in July 2020, when Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting (1994) sold for $46.2 million at a Christie’s auction. For now, prices for their female counterparts trail far behind and are still being mined from the margins of art history by scholars and curators.
Installation view of “Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?” at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, 2016. Artworks © Rosalyn Drexler / Artists Rights Society (ARS). Photo by Charles Mayer Photography. Courtesy of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
“Women were not bankable at that time,” Drexler said of the 1960s in a 2004 interview. “I received no offers. In my naivete I thought it was because I was not a painter.” Prices for large-scale wooden sculptures by Marisol matched her male Pop counterparts in her heyday (they have yet to reach $1 million at auction), but she was an exception. The market for female Pop artists is still catching up to the men of the movement, and hovering at values well below women active in other 20th-century movements like Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. (The Sotheby’s movement description for Pop art, for example, doesn’t yet name a single female artist in the narrative it tells potential buyers.)
Institutional exhibitions have played a major role in drawing attention to women Pop artists, especially since a landmark group show a decade ago. “Seductive Subversion” opened at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2010 and included 25 artists as it toured to the Sheldon Museum of Art in Nebraska, Tufts University Art Galleries in Massachusetts, and the Brooklyn Museum. The same year, another group exhibition dedicated to nine women Pop artists opened at Kunsthalle Vienna, “POWER UP — Female Pop Art,” and traveled to Deichtorhallen Hamburg and the Städtische Galerie Bietigheim-Bissingen. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) in Nice is currently hosting “She-Bam Pow Pop Wizz ! The Amazons of Pop,” a large show of 165 artworks by about 40 artists.
Some artists have also had solo exhibitions over the past decade, with the Museum of Modern Art mounting a 2014 retrospective for Sturtevant and her appropriated “repetitions” of works by better known male artists. Drexler had a major exhibition at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum in 2016, and Jann Haworth had a solo show at the Pallant House Gallery in 2019, plus another at London’s Gazelli Art House this year. Idelle Weber had two solo shows at Hollis Taggart in 2013 and 2018, before her death in March of last year.
It’s telling that this wave began at a university art gallery, which served as a bridge between the scholarship elevating these artists and the public. “It was new territory,” said Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery curator Sid Sachs, of his years of preliminary research for “Seductive Subversion.” There had been isolated efforts studying single artists, like historian Sue Tate and curator David Mellor rediscovering (and salvaging) British Pop artist Pauline Boty’s paintings from her brother’s garage in the 1990s, but few scholars were looking at the women of Pop as a cohort.
Jann Haworth, installation view of “Mannequin Defectors” at Gazelli Art House, 2020. Courtesy of Gazelli Art House, London.
Where Sachs sourced the works for the exhibition hinted at the extent to which buyers had ignored them. “Many of the objects were still owned by the artists themselves,” he said. “That tells you something of the market.” Sachs claimed the first sale from Faith Ringgold’s “American People” series was of a work shown in “Seductive Subversion.”
Other exhibitions may have also contributed to the handful of flashbulb market moments for female Pop artists. “The record price for Sturtevant was achieved, $5 million, on the heels of her retrospective at MoMA, which spurred a lot of revived discussions around the artist,” said Rachael White Young, a specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, of the artist’s Warhol Diptych (1973), which sold at Christie’s in 2015. In fact, Sturtevant’s three top auction results to date were all achieved within months of her posthumous MoMA retrospective—two of them just days after it opened.
Another major moment was the sale of Boty’s BUM (1966) at Christie’s London in 2017 for a record £632,750 (nearly $838,000)—more than double its high estimate—which, according to Mila Askarova, founder of Gazelli Art House (which also represents Jann Haworth), “triggered interest for female artists working in these decades.” Sturtevant, Boty, and Marisol are among the women Pop artists who’ve achieved the highest prices at auction to date. Those whose auction results have topped out in the $100,000 to $250,000 range are Kogelnik, Axell, and Martha Rosler, while others have garnered significantly lower secondary-market results.
For now, museums seem to be largely responsible for collecting this group’s works. LACMA acquired a major plexiglass and neon sculpture by Weber, Jump Rope (1967–68), in 2016. Dealer Garth Greenan, of the namesake New York gallery that has represented Drexler since 2014, claimed he’s witnessed mostly institutional interest in her work, and has placed many works with museums over the last five years including the Whitney, MoMA, and the Rose Art Museum (which acquired the 1962 painting Lost Match after hosting her solo show). In turn, Greenan said, the museums have “really featured them [prominently]. I think a lot of people see the work there,” which sparks interest in the private sector.
Individual collectors have been slower to acquire women Pop artists, but “it’s only a matter of time,” Young suggested. “The key factor here is new collectors, many of whom are on as much of an educational journey as a collecting one.”
That journey is being led by scholars, who are clarifying the unique contribution of women artists to Pop. “They were in between two feminist waves, and not recognized in their message of proto-feminist or as conveying a very emancipatory message,” said Hélène Guenin, curator of the current group show at MAMAC Nice. Sachs added that women artists were instrumental in developing soft sculpture, considered a formal innovation of the movement.
When asked whether she feels there’s been more interest in her work and that of other female Pop artists in recent years (some of whom are also still living, like Rosler and Drexler), Haworth said: “Yes, but what are the factors? Disentangling those factors, to get to what might be a useful answer, is pretty hard.”