Venus Drawn Out: Insights from Curator Susan Harris

Lynda Benglis, Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, Lygia Clark, Anni Albers, Yayoi Kusama—all visionary artists of the 20th century, and all are among the 40 females whose drawings are included in the Armory Show’s inaugural curated exhibition on Pier 92, “Venus Drawn Out.” In advance of the opening, we asked curator Susan Harris for her personal insights on the show, which includes three large-scale drawing projects—four freewheeling, cast paper pieces by Lynda Benglis, a 15-foot drawing by Inka Essenhigh, and a temporary wall drawing by Pat Steir. While the exhibition is an undeniable homage to female artists, Harris manages to shift the spotlight away from the classic discussion of artist gender, and towards a vibrant selection of artworks that exemplify the intensity and deeply personal stories that great art can convey. “I’m not going to say that that doesn’t exist in works by male artists, but I think it very much is something palpable in works that I’m working with,” she says. Read on for Harris’s insider guide to eight of the show’s highlights. 

Anni Albers, Wall XI, 1984

“She studied weaving at the Bauhaus in the early ’20s because that was the only option open to women at the time, and she became one of the most famous American textile designers; she brought attention to weaving as not just an activity that women do in the home but as a living art form. She matured during WWII—she and her husband Josef Albers came to the United States in 1933—so for this generation of artists, the whole chaos of life in WWII was tinged with a necessity that art could bring order and meaning to life during this crazy time. The drawing in the show almost looks like rectangular tiles, but ones that keep slipping. There’s something so heartfelt about them; you feel the hand of the artist in these shapes that jostle against each other in orange and gray.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 36 - Special, 1920

“We have a beautiful flower image from the teens, which was both scorned and then later taken up as being so exciting because of its female sexualized imagery. It’s something that Georgia O’Keeffe herself didn’t even accept—she rejected any Freudian interpretation of these—so I don’t know where on the spectrum they lie truly, but they were very shocking, open images that, regardless of what she says about them, we experience as having to do with female sexuality. She was a woman in a man’s world—Stieglitz’s circle is men—and she became a model for so many people.”

Lee Bonticou, Untitled, 1983

Lee Bonticou is an artist who I’ve always been so fascinated by. She was the only woman artist who showed with Leo Castelli in 1960; it was a very macho group of artists in his stable. She had a lot of acclaim starting in the ’60s—she has that large commission at Lincoln Center that I always visit, like a pilgrimage—and I’ve seen her work at the Whitney, but she sort of dropped out of sight in the ’70s. She has made hundreds of drawings and the relationship of these drawings to her sculptures is incredible. She too would use the circle, or orb, as something dark and mysterious. Her acclaim as a woman artist was just before the ’60s, but she was of a generation that was not at all interested in thinking of herself as a woman artist. She was an artist, period. Donald Judd saw her work as being prototypical for Minimalist art, and it is very interesting to see where these different movements and artists would take from her, and claim her as being an important influence.

Nancy Spero, F111, 1968 

Nancy Spero is someone that I worked with and was very close to when she was alive. I have this amazing work on paper—she regarded them as paintings, and she only worked on paper—which is a fascinating aspect of her work. This is one of her war paintings; she was responding to the horrors of the Vietnam war and this particular one [looks] like a rocket, going up with these bloodied bodies. They’re so beautiful that you don’t notice the violence of their making—she would kind of scratch the paper to make it look as if the paper is being attacked, as people were being attacked. She wanted to convey the atrocities that were being committed to civilians in Vietnam as well as our own soldiers.”

Carol Rama, Le malelingue, 1981 

“She’s an Italian artist who hung out with Duchamp and Man Ray and that circle of artists back in the ’30s and ’40s and has a vast range of work that is not always identifiable with a particular style. The drawing we have in the show is from the ’80s, she’s done these naked women with serpent tongues. It is rather calligraphic, sort of elegant, and also really outrageous. She would often use naked women and play around with genders, fragments of bodies, snakes and leeches, limbs that have been amputated—I don’t know if she was trying to be provocative, but they were very provocative. She came of age with fascism in Italy, so she was reacting to the constraints of that system and the politics of the time. As a woman, she was completely and totally outrageous and broke all of the rules. Her works have the power and the personal exigencies that Louise Bourgeois has.” 

Helen Frankenthaler, Relay II, 1976

“She broke new ground; the notion of the beautiful has been so undervalued. And she was someone who wasn’t interested in being seen—a lot of these older artists were not interested in being a role model for women artists, they found it insulting to be considered as a woman artist and just wanted to be regarded as an artist. Pat Steir told me that in the ’90s she had a show and she received a phone call while she was in the bathtub. Her husband said, ‘you have to take this phone call!’ and it was Helen Frankenthaler, who was notoriously ungenerous toward other artists. She said ‘I’ve been following your work and I really like your show.’”

Louise Bourgeois, Change the Direction of the Music Staff, 1997

She’s such a key person for all of us, as a woman. I have this beautiful drawing, and I don’t think it in and of itself is so legible in addressing a lot of the personal angst that her art is about. She was dealing with coming out of this very patriarchal society, she was exorcising her personal demons throughout her life, and as a woman, more than many of the others, she achieved a great deal of success, but not until relatively later in life. She was prolific in the area of drawing and I think this one speaks to how she traversed all these movements in art—assemblage, Surrealism, and Minimalism too. There are beautiful, repetitive elements in it; one can imagine her doing this drawing almost as a therapeutic process to deal with frustrations and anxieties.”

Inka Essenhigh, Summer Landscape, 2013

“She falls outside in terms of age. I received a proposal from Pace Editions, a 15-foot drawing by Inka Essenhigh. I was looking for something large, and I was thinking, ‘I have Pat’s drawing, what else can I find in that scale?’ I thought, ‘this is too wonderful and ambitious to pass up.’ It’s something that is new in her body of work and it is a beautiful drawing. And I thought, ‘that’s the way we can open up the conversation about the relationship of drawing to these artists’ practice. When we talk about the issue of being a woman artist, the experience of being a woman artist, there’s Pat Steir and there’s Inka Essenhigh. Let’s see what happens out of the contrast of their two experiences.”

Atsuko Tanaka, 1986

Atsuko Tanaka was a Japanese artist and part of the Gutai Group. She is well known for a piece she did in 1956 called the Electric Dress, which she wore to exhibitions, with these neon tubes of light. She worked with light and sound and, along with the other Gutai artists, was involved with the performances. She too was working in the context of WWII in Japan, with the bomb and the anxiety that ensued, and on her own she did mostly paintings and drawings and was working with abstraction. She used the circle, like Kusama, but her use of the circle was not as personal, it was sort of archetypal. The circle in this drawing that we have is so beautiful; it is cellular and it’s also cosmic, both microcosmic and macrocosmic of the universe, and there’s these beautiful, graphic worldscapes. You feel the anxiety that she was feeling at this moment in time—and throughout time.” 

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