Is it just a coincidence that the two women who figured in early New York Pop art were subsequently edited out of most exhibitions and books on the subject? Only now, after decades of revisionist/feminist art history is some attention finally being given to the work of Rosalyn Drexler and Marjorie Strider. This is good news, but it doesn’t mean that we should dismiss the previous decades of silence as simply the not-surprising behavior of a less-enlightened time. The marginalization of Strider and Drexler underlines the fact that Pop art is the only big postwar movement not to include at least one woman as a major figure. Think about it for a moment: Abstract Expressionism makes room for Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner; Minimalist abstraction, Agnes Martin; Post-Minimalism, Eva Hesse; video art, Joan Jonas, among many others. Is there something about Pop as a style, as a socio-economic entity, as a particular body of content that made the appearance of a major woman artist within it so difficult? Well, I’ll leave this question to art historians. Today I want to take a glance at the work of Marjorie Strider (saving Drexler for another time, perhaps).
Strider emerged abruptly in January 1964 in a group exhibition of Pop art at Pace Gallery titled “The First International Girlie Show.” Her contribution, which by some accounts inspired the show, was a large triptych showing three views of a bikini-clad pin-up. Done in a bright, flat illustrational style with a minimum of modeling, the three figures sported three-dimensional breasts (“build-outs” as the artist termed them) that, by literalizing the volumes of Playboy-style imagery, drew attention to and subtly critiqued what would later be called the “objectivizing male gaze.” Despite this implied critique, and despite Pace Gallery’s hunger for more “girlie” paintings, Strider quickly moved away from this kind of work. Her next set of paintings were still lifes incorporating similar painting-relief strategies, but with a far more sublimated eroticism.
Strider had two solo shows at Pace in 1965 and 1966, then no more one-person New York gallery shows in New York until 1973 (at a much less powerful gallery). In the meantime, she had left the medium of painting for indoor/outdoor installations involving brightly colored “ooze” (polyrurethane foam) pouring out of the windows of various buildings and down staircases, and provocative street collaborative performances with Hannah Wiener and John Perrault. One can easily imagine a very different career had Strider continued to produce variations on her “Girlie” pictures.
In a 2002 essay on Eva Hesse, art historian James Meyer links the work of these two artists in 1963-64, a period when Strider and Hesse were friends. Meyer suggests that Hesse’s project of “despecifying” the body by isolating the breast-like or genital forms was “an effective way to elude the sexist (and prurient) expectation of those years that a woman artist should, or could only, produce an art that reflected her gender and erotic desire.” Meyer speculates that Strider’s “move away from the Girlie series as early as 1964 may have been based on a similar motivation.”
An entirely understandable motivation, but one that hardly reduces our desire, and art history’s need, to see more of those paintings!