A Show of More Than 130 Women Artists From California Is Bringing a Once-Sidelined Group Into the Spotlight. See Their Works
Nearly 300 works by 132 women artists are on view in an exhibition in Pasadena.
You probably won’t know the names of most of the artists represented in a fascinating exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of History—and you won’t be alone.
“Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960” presents 132 women whose works—and biographies—are being rediscovered through careful ongoing detective work.
“We didn’t know who these women were,” Joseph Morsman, one of the show’s curators, tells artnet News. “They didn’t have bios. Sometimes they didn’t even have a name. They’d sign their paintings with their first initial because they wanted to disguise their identity, as women’s art was considered inferior.”
The exhibition highlights such figures as Matilda Lotz, a kind of American Rosa Bonheur known for her animal paintings; Pauline Powell Burns, the first African American—man or woman—to publicly exhibit work in California; and Mary Blair, who did concept art for Disney animations and designed the “It’s a Small World After All” ride, but also created landscape paintings. Both halves of her practice are represented here.
Morsman and co-curator Maurine St. Gaudens organized the exhibition based on St. Gaudens’s 2016 book Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860–1960, a massive four-volume project that offers many possibilities for exhibitions.
Because of the Pasadena exhibition’s long run—it was originally scheduled for six months, but has been extended for two additional two weeks due to popular demand—Morsman and St. Gaudens took the unusual step last month of rehanging portions of the show to add new works. An astonishing 294 works are currently on view.
“There are hundreds of women who have gone under-appreciated for their work, so we could have filled many more galleries,” Morsmans says. “There are artists in the show who weren’t in the book—and they weren’t in the first half of the exhibition.”
The latest additions to the show include works by Hilda D. Levy, an Abstract Expressionist who Morsman claims is already attracting the attention of art dealers on the strength of her work in the exhibition.
“The son of the artist reached out two weeks before we did the rehang,” Morsman says. “He has 200 pieces of her work. When I saw that, I flipped, because she’s as good as any of the Abstract Expressionists working in that period, and nobody knows who she is.”
The exhibition also brings out works that have never been seen by contemporary audiences, such as a rare example by Helen Klokee, who is considered one of the first Modernist painters in California. “Nobody had ever seen her work,” Morsman says. “I’ve had curators and historians come in just to see this piece. They’ve all written about her, but they’d never seen her work.”
If St. Gaudens and Morsman had their way, the art world would be far more familiar with names like Florence Young, who documented Los Angeles’s Chinatown in 1932, before it was torn down to build Union Station. The Pomona College Museum of Art owns all 24 paintings Young made of the doomed neighborhood, but they sit in offices or storage, and have never been shown publicly. Six are now on view in Pasadena.
There’s also Nelbert Chouinard, the founder of the Chouinard Art Institute, which evolved into the California Institute of the Arts. “Everyone thinks Nelbert was a man,” Morsman says. “Nelbert was born Nelbertina Murphy, but when she was a young girl, her brother couldn’t pronounce Nelbertina. He shortened it to Nelbert, and it stuck.”
Chouinard exhibited her paintings in New York and Minneapolis before moving to Pasadena in 1905. She founded her school in 1921, and largely gave up her career as an artist as she dedicated herself to educating others, including Disney animators, who were required to study at the school. (Walt Disney was a friend of Chouinard’s who believed fiercely in her teaching methods.) The five pieces on view in Pasadena are the only ones her family owns (the whereabouts of the rest of her output is unknown).
Another highlight is Elizabeth Borglum, the first wife of Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore. The Borglums met in art school in San Francisco, where Elizabeth, almost 20 years Gutzon’s senior, was a student teacher.
“She taught him how to paint and draw, but she’s more or less been written out of his biography,” Morsman says. The show features 10 of her works, the biggest selection of Elizabeth Borglums ever shown.
Other can’t miss pieces include the only known self-portrait by painter Donna Schuster and Phyllis De Lappe’s The Eyes Have It, a searing response to a bad review by an art critic.
To put the show together, Morsman and St. Gaudens had to act as curators, art historians, private investigators, and genealogists, teasing out the long-forgotten details of these women’s lives. Morsman tracked down biographical information about Almira Judson, for instance, after sifting through old census records and searching on ancestry.com. That connected him to Judson’s nieces. “They never knew the artist, but they had her diaries from when she studied at the Académie Julian in the 1880s in Paris,” he says.
“This show is about letting people know art in California didn’t start in 1960 with the Ferus Gallery. It was going on many years before that,” Morsman says. “We wanted to show that women artists were out there painting. They were capturing history.”
See more work from the exhibition below.
“Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960” is on view at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 West Walnut Street, Pasadena, California, September 29, 2018–April 13, 2019.
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