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The Language of Art is Still Defined by Men

Gender roles are ingrained in all of us. From the time we are born we are all “stamped” by our sex. Thousands of years of oppression will not change easily or quickly. Sometimes we lose this perspective and expect change now. 

Since women artists have been working openly for just over 45 years, it is clear that we still have much work to do. We are pioneers in ideas, in visual information, yet the language of art is still defined by men. We are locked in by habit and are not used to seeing large numbers of women’s work. It is not within our comfort zone. The current statistics of gallery shows have remained around 20 percent women to 80 percent men, even in recent years.1 (Only 27 women are represented in the current edition of H.W. Janson's “classic text” History of Art, up from zero in the 1980’s.2) So the art viewing public, the students, the teachers, rarely see our “frame of reference.” We do have some exceptions now, but they are by and large one of many exceptions, rather than the rule.

We are more than ready for the numerous panels, interventions, and exhibitions on the subject. I have heard so many times from women this year, in response to one demeaning comment by a public male figure after another, “What century is this anyway?” Many of us older women think it's about time. Finally!

There is a new generation of women artists coming up strong and forceful, with new ideas on gender and sexuality, and on the nature of art in general. In some ways, they are tapping traditional forms, sometimes translating them into new media, sometimes not. Often their work is hard for me to look at, to grapple with. But if I don’t look, I will never understand their language, will I?

Five years ago, along with younger artists Emily Harris, and Katie Cercone, I began a bi-monthly group called REPRESENT to discuss generational differences in open sessions—the disparity between ideas, in outlook, and the formidable hostility sometimes found between younger and older women artists. The idea came out of a discussion with a young artist, Simone Meltesen, who asked me why older women artists are often so angry at younger ones. “It’s not our fault,” she said, “that we get the grants, and galleries and sales.” REPRESENT has been meeting for five years, and has been remarkable in its ability to bridge the gap and develop discussion surrounding these issues.       

It is common for our history to be lost. Young women often don’t know what it was like back in the 1960’s and ’70s. At the age of 30 in New York City (1969), I became deeply involved with the examination and exploration of the constraints of gender inequality. My art became a visual voice for my experience of liberation and its process, an attempt to understand and share the nature of my reality. The fact that I wasn’t alone was, in a word, thrilling. We were suddenly many women artists, we just kept coming—from small towns, the suburbs, the inner city—and we were all looking for and finding each other. 

Coming out of this isolation and denial that had characterized women’s role, uncovering the untouched self, the parts and pieces that were there, was the only way we were able to be free. We did not stop at consciousness-raising; we bonded and called each other “sister.” We constantly talked to each other. At the end of one meeting we would arrive home and call each other, analyze, and talk more. We openly protested at the museums and galleries about art, and we marched and demonstrated about women’s issues in general. Fundamental questions arose as women artists searched, looking for the truth within ourselves, meaning in the dark and shadowed recesses of our beings.

What does women’s art look like? Forty years later, do we now know? I don’t think so. Do we have an idea? Maybe? Will we ever, I am not sure. But it certainly is worth a try. And what do I think about nature and nurture? I don’t know yet but neither does anyone else.

So keep working women artists! Bring your voice to the fore, and let’s see what happens. And come to REPRESENT and add to the dialogue with us. 

Lastly if you want to know about our history from us personally, come to the Speak Out which Kay Turner, Marjorie Kramer, and I will be holding next March at Fordham University during Women’s History Month. 

*For more info about REPRESENT and the Fordham University Speak Out:


  1. Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott, After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel, 2007).
  2. “Get the Facts,” National Museum of Women in the Arts


Nancy Azara

NANCY AZARA is an artist who exhibits her sculpture and collages throughout the U.S. and abroad. In 1979 she co-founded the New York Feminist Art Institute (NYFAI), a school and resource for women in the arts. Her work was recently shown at Asya Geisberg Gallery, NYC in the exhibition Totem and will be in the exhibition Milk and Night at the Sensei Gallery, New York September 5 ? 24, 2014.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2014

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