Female creators rise in all their splendor and defiance in Donna Seaman’s wonderful new book that chronicles the lives of seven American artists. These women, one of whom died only in 2007, have already been mostly forgotten by the art world, which Seaman sees as inexcusable and here does her best to correct. She claims her book, “Identity Unknown,” is not a work of art criticism or a feminist manifesto but her own exploration of the forces that propelled these women to create while facing obstacles their male counterparts didn’t have to consider.
Seaman’s interest stems from long personal experience. Her mother, Elayne Seaman, produced elegant ink paintings. Watching her work as a little girl gave Seaman an early understanding of her mother’s passionate need to create. Seaman went on to become an art student herself and flirted with the idea of pursuing the field professionally but got sidetracked by her love of writing, particularly biographical profiles, which she approaches with empathy and ample curiosity.
Among the seven artists explored in “Identity Unknown” is Louise Nevelson, who built large and intricate black wood sculptures that resembled ancient temples. A Russian Jewish woman who was born in 1899, Nevelson grew up in Maine using wood scraps and other discarded objects for her creations that were always painted black. She also loved to make open-faced boxes, which she felt brought order to chaos. Seaman believes Nevelson’s affinity for transforming old and battered pieces of wood into new forms was inspired by her own brokenness. She came to America with her parents to escape the pogroms, and her mother was often beset by depression. She created “Sky Gate, New York,” a gigantic black wood wall that stood in the mezzanine of 1 World Trade Center before its collapse. She also created two Holocaust memorials in Israel and Japan. Seaman describes Nevelson’s great walls and towers as “wooden poems, each box a stanza, each piece a word, yet they are not tethered to any one language. They speak to everyone.”
Another of Seaman’s subjects is Gertrude Abercrombie, who painted stark landscapes filled with regal female figure with feline eyes. A telephone appears in her work as a recurring motif. Seaman believes her portraits suggest her fear of entrapment and her simultaneous desire for security and safety. Her paintings contain ivory towers, blocky houses and empty rooms that sometimes resemble cells. “Split Personality” shows the lower half of a woman standing in a long skirt while the upper half of her body hovers nearby. Abercrombie suffered from insecurity and drank too much. She found the demands of motherhood and marriage exasperating. Based in Chicago, she never had a major gallery show, and her renown was short-lived. Seaman laments her disappearance, believing that in her paintings “we see a flatland, an open-air stage under the moon’s eye.”
Seaman’s list of artists is sure to introduce most readers to figures they don’t know. Loïs Mailou Jones was a black artist who painted luxurious impressionistic watercolors and oils with a palette knife. She was drawn to the busy marketplaces of Haiti for inspiration. She later became fascinated by African cultural motifs and created intricate textile designs that she illustrated in stunning watercolors. Ree Morton worked as a sculptor using twigs and branches while living as a Navy spouse and raising three children. Joan Brown created swirling expressionistic paintings.
What makes Seaman such an enchanting biographer is her willingness to embrace uncertainty, often stopping mid-narrative to pose questions regarding an artist’s possible intentions. She is intrigued by Christina Ramberg’s erotic drawings of bound and broken women wearing tightly fitted undergarments, often with their faces hidden or missing. She considers the possibility that her work is a meditation on the eroticism of bondage, but her research leads her elsewhere. In a 1973 interview, Ramberg said, “Watching my mother getting dressed, I used to think that this is what men want women to look like; she’s transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating … In some ways, I thought it was awful.” She goes on to speculate about Ramberg’s intentions: “Was Ramberg commenting on the peculiar ordeals women subject themselves to in order to achieve body shapes deemed desirable and fashionable? Did she see women as captives of a sexist society? Or could it be that her female torsos are fitted with impregnable corsets as armor that mocks the iconography of sexual invitation?” Seaman brings this same inquisitiveness to the work of Lenore Tawney, who spent endless hours making enormous hanging structures composed of thousands of threads painstakingly woven together.
Seaman finds connections that seem to tie these women to one another.
She notices how most of them rely on autobiographical expression and how they like to use materials others deem worthless. She is impressed by their determination, despite the forces that threatened them, and their ability to keep working, often without outside nurturance or mentoring. Most of them were open to changing mediums as they evolved. Morton grew obsessed with painting decorative bows, flags and banners in deliciously shiny colors. Jones became intrigued by African masks, which she incorporated into her paintings. Brown went on to create outdoor sculptures filled with bright colors and bold geometric designs that reflected her growing interest in Eastern mysticism and later experimented with charcoal and graphite. When her work as a painter began to trouble her, Ramberg temporarily switched to sewing magnificent quilts, using stacks of fabric remnants she found in Japan. Abercrombie, in her later years, switched her focus to painting objects such as coffee grinders, shaving brushes and mugs using jolly pinks and soft grays as her compositions grew more formulaic and less nuanced than the gloomy self-portraits she had produced earlier.
When Seaman was a young aspiring artist at the Kansas City Art Institute, she would spend hours looking at old black and white photographs of Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and other luminaries sitting happily in a cafe, engaged in lively conversation. Usually, there would be a woman or two among them with a dismissive caption that read “identity unknown.” She remembers feeling indignant at their casual erasure, but now, in this captivating book, she has resuscitated their complex and accomplished lives.
Elaine Margolin is a writer and critic in New York.
By Donna Seaman
Bloomsbury. 480 pp. $35