Why Old Women Have Replaced Young Men as the Art World’s Darlings
Alex Logsdail, international director of Lisson Gallery, remembers the first time his father encountered Carmen Herrera’s work. It was 2008, and the painter Tony Bechara had brought some of her canvases to London for the Pinta art fair. None of them sold, says Logsdail, but his father, Lisson Gallery founder Nicholas Logsdail, was smitten.
“We said, ‘Just leave them here,’” says Logsdail, referring to the unsold paintings. “It sort of seemed blindingly obvious that it needed to be shown, and it was filling a gap in history.”
Demand for older, female artists like Herrera, who was famously 89 when she sold her first artwork and is now a ripe 102, has risen sharply in recent years, the result of a perfect art-world storm. As institutions attempt to revise the art-historical canon, passionate dealers and curators see years of promotion come to fruition, and blue-chip galleries search for new artists to represent among those initially overlooked, prices and institutional recognition for artists such as Carol Rama, Irma Blank, Geta Brătescu, and Herrera have soared.
“She wasn’t discovered”
To be sure, many of these artists have long been known to art-world insiders. Fergus McCaffrey, founder and president of his eponymous gallery, has been collecting Rama’s work since first seeing it at an art fair in Berlin more than a decade ago. He’s since amassed well over two dozen works. Manuela Wirth, co-founder with her husband Iwan of Hauser & Wirth, has long collected Romanian artist Brătescu, although the gallery only began representing her in April. Phillips Collection director Dorothy Kosinski and her husband, the architect Thomas Krahenbuhl, have followed Blank’s work for years, watching sadly as her prices keep moving further out of their reach. Isabella Bortolozzi notes that Rama was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2003.
“They’ve always been visible and exhibiting, but most of them had careers that weren’t at the center of the art world,” says Mary Sabbatino, vice president at Galerie Lelong, which began representing the Paris-based, Lebanese-born artist Etel Adnan in 2014. Adnan, for example, had long been represented by Beirut- and Hamburg-based Sfeir-Semler Gallery.
“When she was picked for Documenta [in 2012], everyone suddenly ‘discovered’ her,” says Sabbatino. “But she wasn’t discovered; the venue finally matched her achievements.”
Consider the trajectory of Rama. Despite her recognition at the Venice Biennale, she was little-known in the U.S., and died penniless in 2015, according to McCaffrey. Ten years ago, Isabella Bortolozzi, who had met her in the 1990s through a mutual friend and art collector, put on a solo show of Rama’s work at her gallery in Berlin, with the eventual aim of realizing a major retrospective; a show of over 200 works spanning seven decades was finally mounted in 2014 at MACBA Barcelona, and subsequently traveled to Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, EMMA Museum in Finland, IMMA in Dublin, and GAM Torino in Rama’s hometown.
“This retrospective raised awareness of Carol’s work internationally,” says Bortolozzi, leading to the current New Museum show, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, that she and New York- and London-based gallery Lévy Gorvy helped produce. Dominique Lévy had joined Bortolozzi in representing the Archivo Carol Rama in September 2016 before being joined by former Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art to form Lévy Gorvy in December.
Seeing the retrospective in Paris convinced McCaffrey, the longtime collector and gallerist, that he needed to bring her work to the U.S. market. He mounted a show of nearly 50 works from between 1938 and 1945 in September 2016.
“Unless you have recognition in the U.S., you don’t really have a market,” he says. “We showed Ramas this time last year in Basel and Americans had no awareness.” This year, his booth at Art Basel in Basel placed Rama alongside the Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, as both artists’ work addressed life under totalitarianism by seeking to liberate the body and its functions. As of Thursday, he had sold five works by her, three of which went to Asian collectors.
Demand from collectors
Demand from high-end collectors for quality work is another key factor driving the market, according to Berlin-based writer and art advisor Marta Gnyp. In a paper she authored earlier this year on the rise of commercial representation for female artists born in the 1910s through the 1940s, she argues that their work feeds collectors’ appetite for something “new,” minus the risk associated with some recent art school grad billed as the next big thing.
“Older women artists became the natural choice for galleries to look at, especially after 2013 and 2014, when all of a sudden it became clear that not every emerging artist is the next Warhol,” she says, noting that they offer the pedigree of being connected to the major art movements of their time.
“The art world is always looking for something that it both doesn’t know and it knows,” says Sabbatino. “They’re fully formed artists, they’re mature artists, they’re serious artists. They’re not going to burn out as sometimes happens with younger artists…and normally the prices are far below the other artists of their generation, so you’re offering a value to someone.”
That “value” comes in large part from the sheer quality of the work, dealers and curators say.
“When you compare Rama’s work to her male peers, there is no justification for the lower status and lower recognition,” says McCaffrey. “It’s just a historical discrepancy, and we’re just at the beginning of that process [of correcting it.]”
The art world is “quite shallow and quite lazy”
Given the undeniable high quality of these women’s work, why has it been overlooked for so long? Part of the answer—as in many other parts of the labor market and society at large—is simple sexism. Men have long dominated many facets of the art world, from galleries to museums to criticism.
These women were working well before the women’s liberation movement made inroads in the West; even women gallerists such as Rose Fried, Logsdail points out, weren’t keen to show Herrera’s work in the mid-20th century. Sabbatino observed that Louise Bourgeois didn’t have her first retrospective until 1982 (the Museum of Modern Art’s first given to a woman), when she was already in her seventies. She recalled, in the 1990s, selling a major early wood sculpture by Bourgeois from the 1940s to a collector who was tremendously resistant to the price—then around $250,000. If a similar work came on the market now, Sabbatino estimated, it would fetch somewhere near $10 million.
There’s also what Marian Ivan, director of Ivan Gallery in Bucharest, calls “the laziness of the art world.” He describes being chastised a decade ago when he began working with Brătescu, then in her eighties.
“I remember a collector telling me, ‘Why do you keep working with this old lady? She has no future. She’s eighty-something, you should focus on the artists who are twenty-something,” says Ivan. But he believed in her work—which ranges from photography to painting and delicate, colorful collages. In 2013, Berlin’s Galerie Barbara Weiss began representing her; Hauser & Wirth started representing her this April. At Art Basel, its first art fair as her gallery, Hauser & Wirth sold five works for between €15,000 and €70,000.
“The art world in general is quite shallow and quite lazy and doesn’t pay attention,” says Ivan of Brătescu’s long years of working without recognition. “But if an artist is really good, eventually people will take notice.”
Ideally, that would be the case, but sadly, many gifted women artists whose careers began in the mid-20th century are likely still awaiting recognition. People interviewed for this story were quick to point to others whose renown did not yet match their talent.
Still, those years of relative obscurity often became a source of strength, says Sabbatino, allowing these women artists to hone their vision and sense of self-worth as they continued to produce work without the need for accolades.
The South African artist Sue Williamson says she’s experienced a noticeable increase in interest from private collectors over the past three years, even though she has worked continuously since her first solo show in 1984. Part of that she attributes to the growing acceptance of socially engaged work, which was previously more the domain of museums. But she also says it could be a function of age.
“Women in later life often push aside their anxieties about satisfying the market, and competing with their male colleagues for attention, and just make work which pleases themselves, first and foremost,” she observes. “That fearless work, borne out of their years of experience, can be extraordinary. Critics often see then that the earlier work was also very strong…they just hadn’t noticed it at the time.”
Williamson made her first appearance this year at Art Basel in Basel’s Unlimited sector, with a large-scale installation, “Messages from the Atlantic Passage.” It features hand-engraved glass bottles bearing information about African slaves hanging from nets and was one of the most well-received projects at the fair.
Artists that have been “left out of the story”
The demand for older female artists has been bolstered by institutional efforts to address gaps in their collections and imbalances in programming, sometimes driven by women who have recently assumed positions of power in institutions or as collectors with influence on museum or non-profit boards. This year, for example, Maria Balshaw became the first woman to direct Tate Britain and Frances Morris the first woman to direct Tate Modern. Anne Pasternak became the first woman to head one of New York’s two encyclopedic museums when she was named director of the Brooklyn Museum in 2015, and Nancy Spector rejoined the Guggenheim in New York as chief curator and artistic director earlier this year.
Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum in New York, says museums everywhere are realizing that “there’s been a lopsided focus on the white male experience” in art history, and are working to correct that.
“There’s a widespread effort all across the country on the part of museums to look for artists that have been left out of the story,” she says, noting that extends to artists of color, queer artists, Latinx artists, and others. At the Whitney, that process of “soul-searching” began when the museum moved to its new downtown location, and she and other museum staff researched and inventoried its collection in-depth.
The museum’s investigation into its collection and its shortcomings highlighted its lack of any work by Herrera, ultimately leading to the acquisition of one of her paintings for the opening display of her 2016 retrospective, “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight.”
“She obviously created this strong, rich body of work, and we didn’t have an example in the collection,” Haskell says.
Gnyp observes that showing work by women artists, or other marginalized artists, is also one way curators distinguish themselves today, and “get points” for being inclusive.
“It’s easier to get attention if you show an older, forgotten woman or an African-American artist,” she says.
Valeria Napoleone, a London collector who vocally supports women artists, hopes this institutional attention leads to the writing and criticism—the documentation, in other words—that will firmly establish these artists as part of the art-historical canon.
“It’s really the critique around the work, the analytical thinking and writing around the practice of female artists and documentation that will go into art history,” Napoleone says. That way, “Nobody can say, oh we couldn’t see it because nothing was written about it.…There will be no excuse.”
She also hopes it’s not just a trend. Although social progress moves in fits and starts (and often retreats), the movement towards inclusivity does coincide with a broader enthusiasm for women’s voices and stories, visible in other cultural fields including television, film, literature, and music. Women in their seventies and older, such as author Joan Didion, fashion icon Iris Apfel, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, have become hip icons for young women.
“It’s in the trend of what we call ‘parité,’” says Frank Elbaz, founder of Galerie Frank Elbaz in Dallas and Paris, who represents the artist Sheila Hicks, born in 1934. “I think this trend touches the art world, and we are rediscovering major women.”
Bortolozzi attributes the art world’s belated embrace of Rama’s work to “a convergence of social, aesthetic, and political positions.”
“There has been increasing interest in the position of female artists of the past, and the fact that Carol Rama combined issues of sexuality and abstraction in what was and to a large extent remains a male-dominated cultural field has to be acknowledged as being of great significance to cultural production today,” she says.
“Quite simply, work of great quality has its own time scale, [and] engages minds according to its own terms,” Bortolozzi adds. “Sometimes this happens at great speed, within the lifetime of an artist, sometimes more slowly, and at a more profound level, its influence prolonged and enduring. This is particularly true of Carol Rama. It’s as if you suddenly realize this work was there all the time, but you were simply not equipped to see it.”
Appreciation for an artist is also borne of the intimate relationships around which the art world turns. Alison Jacques, a London gallerist who represents Blank, Hicks, Maria Bartuszová, and Lygia Clark, among others, says building up interest in these artists is a strategic process, which she explains to estates and the families of the artists she works with when she asks for certain works.
“It’s about sowing seeds,” she says, beginning with a few key works she can offer at modest prices to collectors who she knows sit on museum boards and whose homes are frequented by curators. She’ll also engage the right curators who she believes will recognize the artist’s talents, and the market builds from there.
“If you do your work, the market will follow,” she says, citing the example of Clark, who was little-known outside of her native Brazil when Jacques began representing her in 2010. She became the subject of a MoMA retrospective by 2014, and had achieved an auction price of $2.2 million the prior year. At Art Basel in Basel, she sold a number of works by Blank, including a painting from late 1990s for €150,000, two works by Clark for $190,000 and $250,000, and two works by Hicks for between $30,000 and $35,000.
Of course, those kinds of numbers bring the big dogs in. In her paper, Gnyp cites over a dozen examples of top-tier galleries adding women in their seventies and older (or deceased) to their rosters since 2010, including Mira Schendel, represented by Hauser & Wirth since 2014; Ruth Asawa, with David Zwirner since 2017; Senga Nengudi, with Dominique Lévy (now Lévy Gorvy) since 2015; and Phyllida Barlow, with Hauser & Wirth since 2010.
Their access to institutions around the world, as well as a global base of the world’s wealthiest collectors, has helped further propel these women to prominence and send their prices skyward.
A 2009 New York Times story on Herrera said her larger paintings were selling on the range from $30,000 to an “unimaginable” $44,000; Herrera told the paper, “I have more money now than I ever had in my life.” Her paintings have recently sold for the mid- to high-six figures at auction; in fall 2016, Cerulean (1965) went for $970,000 at a Phillips evening sale. At Art Basel last week, Lisson Gallery reported selling a 1949 oil on burlap painting by Herrera for $750,000; McCaffrey multiple works by Rama for between $50,000 and $800,000; and Lévy Gorvy five Rama works, each priced between $300,000 and $600,000. McCaffrey notes that they’re “still completely undervalued” compared with her Italian contemporaries such as Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, and Alberto Burri, whose works routinely sell at prices in the millions.
With those works out of reach to all but the most price-insensitive collectors, these older women represent an opportunity to own the highest-quality work for sums that won’t make one’s eyes water.
“When people can’t buy…what was considered a masterpiece by another generation or another canon of artists, they look elsewhere, and they’re willing to pay more for that as well,” says Sabbatino.
“There’s a certain anger”
To some, the belated, and sometimes posthumous, recognition for these women is disturbing, particularly when money, for many of them, was scarce.
“It’s this disparity between the way she lived her life, trading art for meals, and what has happened” to her market, says McCaffrey of Rama. “The injustice of that is kind of shocking…there’s a certain anger to it—why are you giving it to me now, when I’m in my late seventies or early eighties?”
But Bortolozzi says accolades were “something that Carol was never concerned about.”
Ivan says Brătescu was similarly unmoved by the recent attention, regretting only that she is too old to install her shows in person.
“The sad part is she cannot travel,” he says. “And she always liked to travel.”
For some artists, the timing is just right. Barlow, the British sculptor representing the U.K. in this year’s Venice Biennale, told The Guardian that she likely couldn’t have handled the pressure of showing at Venice at an earlier point in her career. Meanwhile, for Williamson, being at Basel this year is “totally exhilarating,” she says.
Neil Dundas, the senior curator at Goodman Gallery, is also basking in the glow of Williamson’s success. He sums it up simply: “These are women whose time has come.”
—Anna Louie Sussman