CINDY NEMSER - ARTIST, WRITER, ART AND THEATER
CRITIC, CURATOR, EDITOR OF THE FEMINIST ART JOURNAL, AUTHOR OF THE FIRST BOOK ABOUT WOMEN ARTISTS, ART TALK: CONVERSATIONS WITH 15
Posted: April 21,
1969, I met a group called
was planning an all women exhibition called "X to the 12th Power." I was invited to one of their meetings
and someone asked me the question that changed my life. "Have you ever experienced any discrimination due
to being a woman?"
That query woke me up!!!
I began to realize how much sexual
discrimination I'd experienced from the time I was born in 1937. As the daughter of Jewish middle class parents
who sought to be "Americans," no one thought of preparing me for a Bat Mitzvah. None of the women in
my family had ever had one, although the boys had Bar Mitzvahs. So I was deprived of a serious religious education.
But I visited my grandfather at the synagogue on high holy days, and I loved Passover, when my grandmother and
my mother's sisters and their husbands all got together.
I was a fat kid, teased by my cousin Barry, (who to this day addresses me as Cecil the Nicil). When he called me
names, I cried. His father, Uncle Eddie called me a cry baby. No one stood up for me. From the time I was a small
child I loved to draw and paint and art became my consolation. I wanted to be like my much admired Aunt Shirley,
who had her own art school. When I was 12 I read Irving Stone's Lust for
Life and immediately identified with Van Gogh, who was also an outcast
but became a famous artist. So, though I had no encouragement from anyone, including Aunt Shirley, I was determined
to be an artist, too. In high school I made it my major. To my despair, none of my art teachers ever praised my
work. With great misgivings, I let go of art as a vocation. However, my art teachers had sent us to the Met and to M.O.M.A. and in those magical places my fascination with art was cemented.
I attended Brooklyn College, majored in education, and married Chuck Nemser in my junior year. After graduation
in 1958, I was assigned to P.S. 44, an elementary school in a poverty-stricken area of Brooklyn, where the children
were ill equipped to absorb the curriculum and the teaching staff consisted of hard working but discouraged women
while the administration was comprised of harassed men, some also sexist.
I taught there during the day, and took classes at night at Brooklyn College graduate school and obtained an M.A.
in literature. I also joined the newly formed Union and went out on the first teachers' strike. This experience,
which taught me I had courage, and Emerson's dictum that nothing was as important as developing as a person, encouraged
me to keep searching for a situation where I could be more effective and more fulfilled.
After 6-1/2 years at P.S. 44, I learned that NYU had a graduate division, the Institute of Fine Arts, which offered
courses in every period of art history. I was ecstatic to discover I could become an art historian and study with
the greatest minds in the field. With no hesitation, I gave up teaching and enrolled. I was also thrilled, though
a little overwhelmed, that after eight years of marriage, I was also to become a mother. I gave birth to my daughter
Catherine after my first year at the Institute.
But, as a wife and a new mother, my illusions of the joy I would have being instructed by greatest minds in the
field were soon shattered. I had no encouragement from my professors, although I studied assiduously and had excellent
marks. My thesis advisor, Donald Posner, told me I wasn't fit to obtain a PhD as I was too old to sit at the feet
of a professor (I was 29). Another professor, Colin Eisler, told me that, since I was a wife and mother, I should
become a volunteer. But I still retained the illusion that hard work and dedication were all that was needed to
reach the heights. I was still too insecure not to believe that somehow I hadn't worked hard enough or wasn't smart
enough. I had no clear idea that without a male mentor, I could never make my way up to the highest positions meted
out by the men's club that controlled the snobbish, sexist world of art history
Once I attained my M.A. from the Institute, in 1966, I obtained an internship at M.O.M.A. where cronyism and prejudice
toward women also prevailed. I had no powerful male helping me, so I left and created a successful art tour business.
While I enjoyed the lecturing, I didn't want to be a business woman.
Through my first artist friend Irene Moss, I found my way to the world of artists that I had yearned for in my
youth. Moss connected me with Arts Magazine, and eventually, I wrote articles for all the art journals. I was the
first to interview Chuck Close, Vito Acconci, Eva Hesse, and many famous artists.
In 1969, I encountered
a feminist organization called Women Artists in Revolution, (W.A.R.),( See intro paragraph.) A visit with that group changed my life. I became an
avid feminist, determined to fight for women's in the arts.
As a critic who had worked briefly at the headquarters of Arts Magazine, I had seen from the inside how dismally dealers, art publishers and writers dealt with
women artists. Fortunately, around 1970, Arts
hired a sympathetic editor, Gregoire Müller, who allowed me to do an article about the situation. It was one
of the first published pieces about sexism in the art world. I called it, "Forum of Women Artists," as
it was made up of quotes. I asked the women how they felt about their status. Most refused to answer honestly,
for fear of angering the establishment. The piece caused a stir.
I also contributed to an alternative newspaper called Changes; it gave me the opportunity to do a taped interview with Louise Nevelson. In it, one minute
she spoke like a queen, declaring, "I am a women's liberationist." But, when I provoked her by asking
how she felt about being left out of an important exhibit at the Met, she morphed into a guttersnipe, hissing,
"I'd like to sue Harvard. I'd like to take a gun and shoot that other little snot nose, (She meant Rosalind
Krauss, an historian and critic, much influenced by Clement Greenberg, an art world king maker, whose disciples
taught at elite schools, owned top galleries and curated at premier museums including the Met and M.O.M.A.]). The
interview was an art world sensation.
At my suggestion, Brian O'Doherty, the editor of Art in America, commissioned me to write an article about the treatment of women artists before the present
day. I researched thoroughly and discovered that there were great women artists in the past, but they had been
written off by art historians and critics in the nineteenth century. I tested the premise right up to the present
by sending queries to all the prominent 70's critics. Most of them revealed their misogyny. Entitled "Stereotypes
and Women Artists" my article contradicted Linda Nochlins's claim that there have been no great women artists.
Then I met Patricia Mainardi, an artist, writer and member of "Red Stockings," a radical organization.
The feminist activist Robin Morgan had given Pat $200 to start a feminist art newspaper and Pat invited me to contribute.
I showed her some of my writings spoofing the haughty, hypocritical sexist art establishment, and she wanted them
all. She invited me to join the board. I brought Irene Moss with me and Women and Art was born.
However, when we began the second issue there was a split
in the political ideology of the board. Moss, Mainardi and I left
and started The Feminist Art Journal, into which I introduced a "Male Chauvinist Pig of the Month" page. We had contributions
from women's artists and art historian organizations both locally and around the world. I considered my "Stereotypes"
piece to be the most significant analysis of the reasons that the status of women artists' was so low. There was
not one female artist mentioned in Jansen's Key Monuments of the History of Art, the bible of the field, therefore
I published it on the front page of F.A.J.
It later was featured in the Journal of Aesthetic Education and included in Judith Loeb's Feminist Collage.
Cindy holding copy of F.A.J.
In 1971, I became a founding member of "Women in the Arts" and joined them when they picketed M.O.M.A.
Chuck took the historic photograph of the event.
After my articles appeared in Arts Magazine
and the F.A.J., I was invited
to lecture and conduct seminars at colleges, museums, and women's organizations all over the country. I did a slide
talk as part of the presentation based on my "Stereotypes" piece. I enjoyed working with the eager women
students and even sparring with the skeptical males.
In the spring of 1972 I was invited to speak at a National Women's Conference at the Corcoran School of Art, in
Washington D.C., where I distributed the Journal to women from all over the country. This was a terrific launching
for the magazine and our readership increased greatly. At the event I had the opportunity to speak with Patricia
Sloane who was the key note speaker. I wrote up the conference for Art in America.
In 1973, Pat Sloane and I did three
panels about women artists and the art world at the College Art Association held at the N.Y. Hilton. Some of the
participants were Marcia Tucker, Audrey Flack, Betty Parsons and Lee Krasner. All the sessions were jammed. At
the third one, Louise Nevelson strode into the auditorium and spoke forcefully of her struggles, but though she
could have, she never hogged the microphone. Later women artists and historians from all over the world began to
testify about the male prejudice of art teachers, dealers and curators. The room was pulsing with energy and the
women vowed to take actions to remedy the situation. What an experience!!!
The young woman sitting next to me hugged me when I told her I had put the panels together. "I'm a painter
from Philadelphia , she said. I want to put on an all women artists' exhibition there. Could I come and see you?"
Of course, I said yes!
As Diane Burko and I conferred as to how to go about putting on a major exhibition, I got a flash and said: "Why
only one show?" Why not have a city-wide festival with as many institutions, both public and private, presenting
the work of women in all the visual arts, as well as panels of significant art world women? The main exhibition
would be entitled "Women's Work," and should be a juried exhibition made up of Marcia Tucker, Adele Breeskin,
Anne d'Hanoncourt, Lila Katzen and myself. Each juror could invite 20 American artists she thought to be the most
I also offered to curate my own exhibition called "In Her Own Image." The whole festival would be called
"Philadelphia Focuses on the Visual Arts" or "Focus."
Diane was ecstatic. She got together a committee of women supporters. I traveled back and forth to Philadelphia,
once to help convince the supporters to take on all the necessary work that would be required; later to help persuade
powerful Philadelphia people to participate in making the festival come to pass. In the spring of 1974 "Focus"
became a reality!
The main exhibition was held at the city's Civic Center. My show, in which I displayed 46 artists, was at the Fleisher
Memorial Art Gallery. The Philadelphia papers raved about the events, and The
New York Times sent Grace Glueck to write it up. I created a black and
white catalogue, reproducing the art works in my exhibition, as a centerfold in the F.A.J. and wrote about "Focus"
After the third and forth issues of the F.A.J.,
both Mainardi and Moss ceased editing the magazine. But with Chuck keeping the books, and second reading, Carolyn
Mezzello, and later Jeri Bachmann doing the layout, and Barbara Jepson copy editing, we soldiered on, publishing
articles by Gloria Orenstein, Lucy Lippard, Frima Fox Hoffrichter and other distinguished art historians and writers
who did pieces on little known highly creative women. Most articles were on the visual arts but sometimes they
covered the other arts as well. I did so much writing for the magazine that I had no time to contribute to other
publications, some of which, I and other contributors, had attacked for their corrupt behavior and sexism. The
subscription list accelerated and I found it hard to keep up with assessing the art scene for significant subjects,
assigning articles, editing submissions and answering letters. Fortunately I found a dedicated college student,
Diane Addrizzo, to take care of the subscriptions and mailings.
Before I cut my ties with the art magazines, I published an interview with Lee Krasner in Arts and an article in Art Forum,
which drew attention to her "Little Image" paintings that indicated that she influenced her husband Jackson
Pollock. I also helped to make Alice Neel a feminist cause célèbre by writing about her bohemian
life as well as her work in Ms.
Magazine. In 1975, Neel painted
a portrait of Chuck and me in the nude, which was reproduced in New York
Magazine and the Village Voice.
At this point I put my taped interviews into a book and called it Art Talk:
Conversations with 12 Women Artists. I had a hard time getting a publisher
as they couldn't understand the need for it, even though a book about women artists had not appeared since the
1930's. Because of an article in Ms. I was contacted by Scribners. It was published exactly as I wrote it.
It was exciting interviewing the artists. Some like Sonia Delaunay, Dame Barbara Hepworth and Louise Nevelson were
historic figures and grand dames. I formed a friendship with the tragic Eva Hesse, and there was a lot of laughter
with the wicked, but hilarious Alice Neel.
When Art Talk came out, Scribners
gave me $100 for my "book tour," which I supplemented by giving slide talks at universities and institutions
around the country. In California I met Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago. Chicago was determined to have me see
vaginas in all her paintings, but I resisted, saying I felt entitled to interpret her works as I saw fit. Judy
strongly resented my response, and, in one of her autobiographies, called me "Cindy the Nemesis."
In 1975, I was proud to receive an Art Critics Fellowship from the N.E.A. In 1977, I was completely wowed when
The Minneapolis College of Art and Design asked me to be their Commencement Speaker.
In the summer of 1976, I wrote my first novel, a satirical roman á cléfé about a woman artist
ready to do anything, including providing sexual favors, to reach the top. I think the book scared the publishers
because it exposed the misogyny and dishonesty of the art establishment. It was way ahead of its time.
By the summer of 1977, I was
burnt out and had to close the F.A.J.
and leave the public arena for a time, though my heart was always with the fight for equality. I turned inward
and began to write fiction. My next novel, Eve's Delight, dealt with a woman's sexual needs, and it found a home in 1982 with Pinnacle Books.
In 1989 Patsy Cunningham, the widow of Ben Cunningham, asked me to do a monograph about her husband. I'd met Ben
many years ago and had written a favorable review in Arts about his fabulous optical painting. I had also done
a catalog introduction for his traveling exhibition, so I agreed . The result was Ben Cunningham "A Life with
Color" JPLArt Publishers/Texas.
In the 90's, I wrote an article about women artists for Ms. depicting violence, and
a piece about the lack of produced women playwrights for the Dramatist
Guild Quarterly. I published humor pieces for the New
York Times and Newsweek and did theater reviews for many publications.
In 1995 HarperCollins did a reprint of Art Talk,
adding three more 70's interviews. The book is has been translated into many languages and is in libraries and
museums all over the world. It is considered a classic and is always available online and in bookstores.
Cindy with Betty Friedan and
In 2005, I wrote a memoir, Tales of the 70's Art World: As Told by A Feminist
Art Critic. The book is filled with historical facts and stories about
my encounters with a few male artists, but mainly the great women artists, some of whom, such as Lee Krasner, have
finally come into their own. It also fills in the gaps in women's art history missing from other books about the
In 2007, I curated an exhibition at the Tabla Rasa Gallery in Brooklyn called "Women's Work: Homage to Feminist
Art." consisting of women artists' of the 70's, dialoging visually with young artists of the twenty-first
century. The exhibit received super reviews.
I also created my blog in 2008 called Cindy Nemser's Forum, and I have continued to lecture about the need to hold
demonstrations and sue, if necessary, for the equal validation of women's art in all important venues.
Cindy Nemser is in the process of archiving her tapes and papers, seeking a publisher for her memoir, and attending
to her blog at www.cindynemser.blogspot.com
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