Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary artists’ approach to motherhood

The December/January issue of The Brooklyn Rail is online, so go check out my article about contemporary artists’ approach to motherhood. I mean, come on, isn’t the entire messy process of creation, birth, and childrearing the ultimate unexplored content for conceptually-rooted art practice? “Ever since the Abstract Expressionists held forth at the Cedar Tavern in the 1950s, the unwritten rule has been that making art is a consuming obsession that leaves no time or space for worldly responsibilities like childrearing. Before the AbExers, an artist like Gauguin left his wife and kids in Denmark to pursue painting in Paris, and later Tahiti. With artists — unlike, say, poets, novelists, or filmmakers — there’s an expectation of an ascetic, blinkered life focused exclusively on making art. Artists with kids have often ignored them while spending all their time in the studio. In Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, Guston’s daughter Musa Meyer tells the heartbreaking story of a disengaged father who had little room in his life for her. So, why then, closing in on the final years of fertility, with scant investigation or evidence that the outcome would be salutary, did I stop using birth control in 1998 and let fate take its course? My decision was more intellectual than emotional. I reasoned that I was an artist. If I did get pregnant, wouldn’t this primal experience strengthen and inform my work? If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t have any regrets. I rolled the dice, and three months later the pregnancy test was positive.

“The iconic mid-century female artists I admire made different choices. Before the feminist movement, ambitious, pragmatic women like Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning rejected motherhood. Louise Nevelson and Grace Hartigan both had children, but ultimately left their upbringing to relatives so that they could turn their undivided attention to making art and tending their vocations. Having a serious career like their male counterparts meant denying their reproductive difference, and also eliminating any references from their work that might be construed as ‘feminine.’ Back then, telling a woman she ‘had balls’ was a high compliment. In art schools, disparaging male professors made it clear that having a successful art career was nearly impossible for women, and that having children was not only a sign of bourgeois conformity, but an indication that they weren’t serious about art. By rejecting and then condemning parenthood, artists themselves helped institutionalize the self-centered, hermetic behavior that is frequently construed as a sign of genius. “As the feminist movement blossomed in the 1970s, female artists gained exhibition opportunities and sexual freedom, but their political awakening only reinforced their disinclination to have children. At the same time, first-wave feminists like Judy Chicago recognized the importance of childbearing as a universal life experience that had been missing from male-dominated, Western art. From 1980 to 1985, Chicago worked on ‘The Birth Project,’ a series of images — made with the help of over 150 skilled craftswomen — in embroidery, needlepoint, crochet, macram, quilting, drawing, and painting, that reflected her fascination with creation and the birth process. Nevertheless, she never had any children herself. When I was contemplating whether or not to have a baby, my role models were not Krasner, de Kooning, or Chicago. Instead, I emulated painter Elizabeth Murray and photographer Sally Mann. These artists, rather than compartmentalizing their studio work from their domestic lives, elected to combine the two in groundbreaking ways…” Read more.


Related post:
IMHO: Elizabeth Murray, a neo-feminist icon

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. I am the person that falls in the category of waiting too late, assuming it would work at 40 but it didn’t. I had three miscarriages and each time I’d get pregnant my first thought was, ‘how will this effect my studio time?’. It’s sad to not be able to breed b/c ultimately I really feel like it would artistically prove to be very inspiring.

    The grief of pregnancy loss has been soothed knowing that i have a studio life. It’s so true, making art heals.

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