I Read: Originals: American Women Artists.


This book. This book. These bars?! This book?!? I could put it down, because I needed to digest each artist, each pearl of wisdom, each new hit of history. So much of Munro’s crazy ass art writing looks to unpack the woman artist psyche while bathing in the twin rivers of religion and secularism and where they spill into the material of creativity.

Seriously. I can’t put it any other way.

Munro begins with Mary Cassat and travels through art history to her present moment (published in ’79, Originals is in itself a fun historical document of where the Big Brain was at in the late 70’s). She ends with Patricia Johanson. The book covers so many women, and so many genres. Munro, through interview as much as possible, coalesces the primary source material into a reflection of the individual artist and how she fits, expands, broadens, deepens, and sometimes outright rejects her time and place.

One of the more interesting tensions (to me I read it I am interested in certain things maybe you will read it and feel all together differently, my friend) is the relationship the women have to motherhood and artistry. Mind you, covering the turn of the century to the late 70’s means a lot of women infinitely more entrenched in Typical Gender Roles and Pressures than my generation (don’t argue, you know it’s true). So many of the women express the choice that nothing, ultimately nothing, could come between them and their work. And so they left behind, and continue to leave when called to, relationships, potential parenthood, jobs, geographies, schools, so forth. These women relentlessly pursue the thing that burns them up, the work itself.

Thomas (I’ll confess, I don’t know the first one but the second is) Apollo 12 Splash Down, ’70 

This book will illuminate history and light a fire under your ass if you’re looking for it.

Each page felt like a discovery, not just of the psyche and women themselves, but of form and fashion. Women working in paint, working in metal, working in Earth, working in textiles, working in mosaic (I about fell over reading about Jeanne Reynal).

My top favorites, personally, were Alma Thomas, Mary Frank,

Lee Bontecou,

Bontecou, Untitled ’80’98

and Joan Semmel.

(I went so far as to buy a reproduction of a Thomas. Her work is so damn bright and cheery and dynamic and alive!!! Which is how I’m trying to be right now so.)

The shortcomings of the book are obvious and worth discussing. The artists present are painfully, predominately white. As the book moves closer to its present time, some artists (Eleanor Antin, big big yikes) make work and statements that are just plain racist cringe. These statements and work are not seriously looked at or analyzed. The beautiful interviews with black women artists look at how racism affected these women specifically, which is about as woke as Munro gets. She is there to analyze art, to write about art, and what moves the vision and spirit of the artist…in the late 70’s. The art world is still painfully white and limited in its scope, though there are constant shifts for the better. This is not an excuse, but a warning should you read the book (which I would still recommend). The moments I mentioned are cringe, just that. There is no out and out slurs or put downs whatsoever.

Frank, Walking Woman, ’77

In a similar vein, being a product created smack dab in the middle of Second Wave Feminism, gender/sexuality/queer discourse is pretty damn near nonexistent. I think at one point Munro even calls a lesbian artist’s partner a “friend”, but I should check myself on that.

Semmel, Touch ’75

Frankly, I don’t want to bog you down with the 100+ quotes I want to pull from Originals. That’s tedious and boring. Just know it is a beautiful and abundant pleasure to situation yourself in the long, wonderful, wild, and arduous history of women. I will absolutely return to Originals again and again, for all that juicy goodness. Read the book to find inspiration, to find challenge, to find hope. Pairs well with being quarantined during a pandemic and a fizzy clear drink.

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