Donna Seaman on the Forgotten Women Artists of America

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In Identity Unknown, Donna Seaman revisits and revives the legacies of seven forgotten women artists.

By Terry Tempest Williams

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The Countess Nerona, by Gertrude Abercrombie, ca. 1945. (Photo: Richard Norton Gallery)

Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists by Donna Seaman is a passage through the lives of various extraordinary women—all of them largely forgotten in death but revived now on these pages in vivid detail. Working in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., throughout the 20th century, each of these seven women artists, as Seaman writes “must have felt like a lone traveler without papers traversing a hostile land as she struggled to live a freely creative life.” These artists didn’t just live a creative life — they also created vibrant communities around them.

Seaman’s portraits include Louise Nevelson, a mythmaker whose medium was discarded wood; Gertrude Abercrombie, a painter who created a surreal world from her dreams; Lois Mailou Jones, a painter whose vibrant palette vivified her African roots and love of the natural world; Ree Morton, who explored the borders between science and art; Joan Brown, an advocate for public art, whose search for God served a spiritual and communal vision; Christina Ramberg, an artist who explored the erotic tension of the female body through gestures of bondage and engagement; and Lenore Tawney, the animating spirit behind fiber arts who saw her handwork as prayer.

Why did these women create art? Tawney’s response is representative: “I didn’t have to please anyone but myself.” Indeed, Donna Seaman reveals how each of these artists defied convention with fresh vision and a fierce devotion to their work. Freedom was their reward, artful integrity their legacy. These artists created visual disturbances that asked their public to revisit the world in a different way — whether it was Louise Nevelson creating sculptural landscapes made out of wooden scraps, or Joan Brown’s arresting self-portrait, “Year of the Tiger,” where she depicts herself as half-woman and half-tiger and thereby confronts us with our own animal nature.

Identity Unknown reminds us that we don’t need to limit ourselves to the small handful of women that the dominant culture actually honors — that there are other artists to love.

Of course, the world extracted a price from each of these women, including personal betrayals, shattered marriages, and a persistent fear of invisibility — the erosion of self.

Take Christina Ramberg’s dark eroticism, with its erosion of cultural taboos and mores. In her journal, Ramberg writes: “How about implications of rape? Tattooed hands. Gloved hands. Man’s tie binding girl’s waist. Ripped clothing. Bruised skin. Masturbation? Direction from which hands come would be important. Non-aggressive, prowling hands.” Like the rest of the artists celebrated in this volume, Ramberg made people uncomfortable.

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Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists. (Photo: Bloomsbury Publishing)

Seaman’s own devotion to these free-spirited women is apparent in the power of her own voice, rendered in wise and beautiful prose. At times, her words feel like jazz, as she riffs on a painting, an instinct, or a place. Her own beloved Chicago, also home to several of the artists, serves as an example: “To the east, the great lake shimmers and glowers, a moody freshwater sea reflecting sky and cloud, dancing and raging beneath the commanding wind — and deep, cold, glorious body of water that keeps dreams afloat and secrets submerged.” In Seaman’s narration landscape creates culture, and a body of water (whether Lake Michigan or the San Francisco Bay or the Atlantic Ocean) becomes a focal point for inspiration, an anchor for sanity.

Identity Unknown is not a book of art criticism, so much as a critical exploration of what constitutes a creative life. The joys and perils of that life are something that Seaman knows herself, both as a writer and as the daughter of an artist, Elayne Seaman. She understands the discipline and sacrifice required to live an attentive life, how one must balance “the required solitary communion as well as communal support” while making art, especially as a woman. Seaman also understands that for these women, “their allegiance to art brought impetus, direction, order, and meaning to their lives, and their quests reveal that as much as creativity pulls you into your deepest self, it also connects you to the universal aspects of the human experience, from love to fear, anguish to joy, confusion to revelation.”

This struggle intensified in the life of Lois Mailou James, who contended not just with sexism in the art world, but also with racism as a woman of color. In order for James’ work to be accepted on its own merit, she had to submit her paintings to galleries through another person, thus hiding her identity. Early in her career, it was only in Paris that James could be seen as the brilliant artist she was, and not simply as a black woman who happened to paint. Of that period in her life, James said, “It was something that was just unbelievable, a Negro girl being offered this beautiful studio.” This was in 1937. Later, as success came to James and she was recognized as “an important historic link in a path-breaking generation of black American artists,” she rejected what she considered a marginal label, telling her students at Howard University: “Talent is the basis for your career as an artist, but hard work determines your success.”

In a country where whole industries of iconography have been built around Georgia O’Keeffe and Frieda Kahlo, Identity Unknown reminds us that we don’t need to limit ourselves to the small handful of women that the dominant culture actually honors — that there are other artists to love. When I first opened this book, I knew of only one of these seven women; that was Louise Nevelson, a favorite of my grandmother, who often quoted her as saying, “Every room needs at least one moment of black.” For me, that exhortation was meant to encourage us toward daring acts of depth. Identity Unknown is full of them.

In one of Lenore Tawney’s notebooks, she quotes Rilke: “Works of art are always the result of having been in danger.” Donna Seaman has written a dangerous book about dangerous women who were dangerous because they dared to be themselves.

Not only did I not want this revelation of a book to end, I did not want these women’s lives to end — I found myself dreading the end of Seaman’s portrait of each artist. Identity Unknown is a credo to creativity, to lives lived large without apology. In Seaman’s hands, these artists’ magnificent offerings of sculptures, paintings, portraits, collages, and tapestries return to life and inhabit anew our imaginations. In this way, Seaman creates an artistic afterlife for seven women artists whom we can no longer forget.

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