Miriam Schapiro

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Miriam Schapiro

Miriam Schapiro (born 1923) was one of the leaders of the Feminist Art Movement in the early 1970s. She was also one of the first artists to use the computer as a creative instrument and 14 was among the founders of the "Pattern and Decoration Movement" in 1974.

Miriam Schapiro was born on November 15, 1923, in Toronto, Canada. Her artistic training began at age six when her father gave her weekly drawing assignments. She attended classes at the Museum of Modern Art and learned to draw from the nude model at age 14, when she attended Federal Art Project classes. She received both her undergraduate (1945) and graduate (1946, 1949) degrees in art from the University of Iowa, where she studied printmaking with Mauricio Lasansky. While at the university, Schapiro met and married fellow artist Paul Brach. They moved to New York in 1951, when Abstract Expressionism was exerting a powerful influence. Schapiro's Cubist-derived style was transformed by that influence, leading her into a series of painterly, calligraphic figural and landscape works. Known as one of the "second generation" Abstract Expressionists, she began to show at the Andre Emmerich Gallery in 1958.

Beginning in 1960 Schapiro gradually eliminated the abstract expressionist brushwork from her paintings, introducing a variety of geometric forms. Rectangular window-like openings in some works were prophetic of her subsequent "Shrine" series.

Between 1963 and 1965 Schapiro painted variations on the "Shrine" motif: four framed compartments stacked vertically in a narrow strip and centered in a white rectangular field. The bottom compartment was a mirror (self-reflection); the next contained an egg (woman/creator); the third was an image fragment borrowed from the history of art; and the top frame contained the color gold (aspiration).

The "Shrine" series was pivotal in Schapiro's career and foreshadowed much of her mature work. Her use of self-referential symbols became increasingly important. Also, the motif of the centralized framed space would evolve into a womb, a house, a window, or a stage in later works.

Schapiro and Brach moved to California in 1967, where she taught at the University of California, San Diego. During the late 1960s Schapiro experimented with the window form and, aided by a computer, with strictly geometric structural compositions. In Big Ox (1968) a pink and orange hexagon frame surrounds a central open space, while four diagonal "arms" extend out from the hexagon. She later recognized the open central form as "vaginal iconography," a common theme in many works by women artists. In the same year, Schapiro began to use the computer to design and develop her paintings. These abstract compositions featured rectilinear forms strongly projecting into space, using multiple vanishing points.

In 1970 Schapiro met Judy Chicago. The two artists shared a feminist viewpoint and a desire to confront their own life experiences as women through the medium of art. In 1971 they founded the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. They formed a program for training women artists and with their students created a major project which involved the renovation of an old mansion. By 1972 "Womanhouse," with rooms reflecting aspects of women's experiences, had become a feminist art gallery, a forum for women artists, and a stage for performance art.

Intensely involved in teaching, Schapiro stopped painting during this period. She and artist Sherry Brody created a dollhouse for "Womanhouse," a project that became an inspiration for her subsequent work. The rooms within the dollhouse were chosen to illustrate women's roles within the home: nursery, living room, kitchen, seraglio, and a studio for the woman as artist. The dollhouse was a three dimensional realization of Schapiro's earlier "Shrine" series. As a part of the project she researched the traditional types of art that women had made—usually involving stitchery and fabric.

In 1972, when she began to paint again, Schapiro moved to a completely new style. She introduced the element of fabric collage, which seemed to burst forth from the paintings, dominating the old geometric forms. Schapiro cut pieces of patterned cloth and combined them with acrylic paint to create a beautifully orchestrated symphony of pattern and color. Schapiro and Melissa Meyer coined the term "femmage" to apply to this type of collage art form that would characterize her work from this time on. Femmage utilizes arts, materials, and techniques that historically have been associated with domesticity, and therefore with women: quilts, embroidery, lace, crochet, carpets, and fabric design. In combining these art forms with her paintings, Schapiro asks that we view them in a new light and that we re-evaluate the so-called "decorative arts" in this new context.

In 1974 Schapiro and Robert Zakanitch formed the Pattern and Decoration group of New York City artists. Schapiro and Brach moved back to New York in 1975, and she increased her involvement with artists who championed the elevation of pattern/decorative arts from a secondary to a primary classification. The movement became a strong force in the art world by the late 1970s.

In Schapiro's "Collaboration" series (1975-1976) femmage patterning was employed to frame works by women artists of the past. Anatomy of a Kimono (1976) was a monumental ten-panel work in which she explored the beauty of pattern and color relationships in the traditional ceremonial garment. In the late 1970s she also began to incorporate actual fabric items produced by women into her canvases, such as handkerchiefs and doilies.

During the years 1979-1980 Schapiro created large shaped canvases using the archetypal images of houses, fans, and hearts. In Homage to Goncharova (1979) she paid tribute to the theater and costume designs created by Natalia Goncharova for the Ballet Russes in the 1920s. Her interest in theater continued in the "Presentation" series of 1982-1983, in which an abstract "figure" was enclosed by two borders resembling a proscenium arch and curtain.

The figure finally asserted itself in Schapiro's work of the mid-1980s. I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (1984) and Master of Ceremonies (1985) each presented three dancers on a stage. The lively abstract qualities of the dancers and cut out patterns owed a debt to artists such as Matisse, Kandinsky, Sonia Delaunay. Schapiro maintained her feminist viewpoint in these works. The image of creative woman/artist was contrasted with both the male figure and woman as ballerina/vamp.

Schapiro continued to work with dancing figures in large paintings such as Ragtime (1988) and in her monumental public sculpture, Anna and David, a 35-foot outdoor piece in Rosslyn, Virginia. Her 1989 book, Rondo, contained a colorful accordion foldout with a string of highly animated dancing figures as well as a series of Schapiro "signature" images: the kimono, the heart, pieces of fabric, a crocheted bag.

Miriam Schapiro has been the recipient of four honorary doctoral degrees; two of the institutions to honor her were the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minnesota and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She has received many awards including the Skowhegan Award, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the Woman's Caucus for Art honors award, the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and in 1996 the Rockefeller Foundation Grant for Artists Residency at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Italy. New York NARAL honored Schapiro on the occasion of their 25th Anniversary (fall 1996). Her published artist books included "RONDO", an accordion style art book published by Bedford Press and four "Book Mobiles" for children published by Pomegranate Artbooks.

Her work can be found in numerous private and public collections. Selected Public Collections: The Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum of Art, New York, New York; The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; The National Gallery of Art and The Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; The La Jolla Museum of Art, La Jolla, California; The Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota; The Indianapolis Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana. International Collections: The Luswig Museum, Aachen, Germany; The Australian National Gallery, Canberra, Australia; The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia.

Further Reading

For biographical information see Miriam Schapiro: A Retrospective, 1953-1980, a catalogue of her show at the College of Wooster, edited and curated by Thalia Gouma-Peterson; American Women Artists, by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein (1982); and "From 'Femmage' to Figuration," by Susan Gill, Art News (April 1986). Her chapter in Working it Out, edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels (1977), provided a personal insight into her life and philosophy as an artist. For the context of both the Feminist and Pattern and Decorative Art movements see The Pluralist Era: American Art, 1968-1981, by Corrine Robins (1984). Articles by Schapiro appeared in Heresies, a magazine she helped create. Other information was gathered from Steinbaum/Krauss and The Smithsonian Institute. □