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A Feminist Art Pioneer Finds Her Work on a "Man's Street"

Miriam Schapiro's "femmage" and "cunt painting" come to a New York City block once dominated by male artists.
© The Estate of Miriam Schapiro courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery

Eric Firestone leans out the window of his gallery space at 4 Great Jones Street. In two days, he’ll open his first public exhibition at the top of the building, a four-story walk-up.

“It’s such a romanticized block,” he says. He lists the artists who’d shown or lived nearby: Walter De Maria, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenny Scharf. Additionally, the city had once evicted musician Charles Mingus from the area, and Don DeLillo immortalized it with his 1973 novel, Great Jones Street.


Firestone has been a gallerist for 22 years. He established a space in East Hampton in 2010, and this upcoming show, he says, will be his “entrance into the city.”


© The Estate of Miriam Schapiro courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery

“I don’t know what will walk in the door,” he says, “but I think there will be a whole new audience of people that will open themselves up to me and what I’m doing, and vice versa. That’s the beauty of the city.”

For this pivotal first exhibition, Firestone chose to display works by an artist who, like the block’s artistic past, was fading into the annals of history. Miriam Schapiro, one of the founders of the Feminist Art Movement and Pattern and Decoration, had once been a big name downtown. She left New York for San Diego in 1967 and, along with Judy Chicago, founded the Feminist Art Program at the newly established California Institute of the Arts.


“She was showing with André Emmerich as early as 1958,” Firestone says. She and Helen Frankenthaler were the only women on his roster at the time. For some reason, though, Frankenthaler and Chicago are better known today. Firestone says that part of the beauty of mounting this show is the ability to have a conversation about why that may be. Schapiro died this past summer, which makes now, as much as ever, a perfect time to reexamine her work and celebrate her legacy. Firestone’s show runs concurrently with the exhibition, Miriam Schapiro: A Visionary, at the National Academy Museum.


Miriam Schapiro: The California Years, 1967-1975, at Eric Firestone Gallery, comprises work that varies in media and composition, while a feminist message weaves throughout. The works from 1967 to 1971 feature acrylic on mylar and canvas and feature both subtle and more obvious female symbols—Keyhole and Side OX feature distinct hole shapes, while the disjointed geometric forms in Horizontal Woman No. 2 may only reveal a woman to viewers upon a close look. Firestone describes the images in these works and others now on view at the National Academy as “the central core and the quote unquote cunt painting.”

Notably, Schapiro was one of the first artists to work with computer programming. As early as 1968, she fed drawings into the new machine and used the perspectives it spit back out. Her Computer Series mirrors the concern with geometry evident in her other work from the period.

After 1971, Firestone says Schapiro “broke the code” and began creating her iconic “femmages,” collages that incorporate materials from the home, such as doilies, upholstery fabrics, and hankies, more typically associated with the female sphere. In these, Firestone points out an indication of “bleeding and staining” that reconnects to the female body.

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© The Estate of Miriam Schapiro courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery

“She had such huge notoriety for this work,” says Firestone. “You’re able to see the breakthrough, moving through these different pieces.” Firestone notes the reverberations of her work in contemporary artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Sanford Biggers (the femmages) and in Wade Guyton (the Computer Series).


Firestone doesn’t have a particular interest in feminist art, but he does have an interest in work he wants to “get behind and believe in. At the end of the day, the work is really strong. The feminist dialogue is really important, but it’s not why I enjoy the work.” He views it on the strength of its historic impact and believes it should be in conversation with other artists who have become household names. “If you’re focused on historical art, you should always be reexamining movements and who was making what and where. Sometimes, there’s a discovery, or we find an artist who hasn’t been shown correctly in a long time, and we are in the aerial position to rethink it. I love fighting for the underdog.”

With his inaugural public show, Eric Firestone is bringing work by a visionary feminist artist to a block that’s been celebrated for its male artists. With plenty of femmage and yonic iconography to go around, Miriam Schapiro’s art lends Great Jones Street a much-needed perspective.

Miriam Schapiro: The California Years, 1967-1975, runs through March 6, 2016 at Eric Firestone Gallery. Click here to learn more.


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