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Women, art and inequality in the gallery world: Sprüth Magers exhibition fuels an old debate

The women are back — and they have something to say.    

German feminists Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, whose Sprüth Magers gallery expanded to Los Angeles in February, are revisiting the exhibition “Eau de Cologne” starting Tuesday in the Mid-Wilshire space. The five-woman show debuted in ’85 at Monika Sprüth Galerie in Cologne, before the two gallerists had teamed up, featuring then-emerging contemporary artists Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler and Rosemarie Trockel. It was meant to address inequities Sprüth saw in the male-dominated gallery scene at the time and bring critical and commercial attention to the artists.

“It was a provocative act,” Sprüth says. “We were aware of these very interesting women artists who were not that visible and didn’t have any power in the art market in those days. These five artists, they had a very subtle, unique way of discussing the role of women in society, intellectually and aesthetically.”

“Eau de Cologne” was again staged, with different works by the artists, in ’87 and ’93. In tandem, Sprüth published a zine, in ’85, ’87 and ’89 featuring German and American female artists and writers. The exposure helped pave the way for the five core artists, who went on to international art stardom.

The magazines and the first three “Eau de Cologne” shows — as well as a recent re-staging in Berlin last year — form the basis of the L.A. exhibition. Sprüth and Magers hope the exhibition provides historical perspective on the gallery. And, Sprüth says, there’s still a need for discourse on the topic of gender inequities in the art world.

“It’s not resolved. Power is not equal between men and women in the art world,” Sprüth says. “Male artists have much higher prices. If you look at the collections of museums, most great collections, there are always more male artists than women. It’s still a big issue.”

Recent statistics culled by an L.A. artist back that up. 

Since 2013, L.A.-based artist Micol Hebron has led a crowd-sourced project examining female representation in contemporary commercial art galleries around the world. Her “Gallery Tally,” incorporating nearly 5,300 artists at more than 500 galleries in 33 cities, shows the average ratio is 31% female. Sprüth Magers falls just below that, she says, with women constituting about 28% of the represented artists. Hebron also analyzed top auction sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams & Butterfields from 2012 to 2014. Work by female artists, living and deceased, drew 11 to 14 cents on the dollar compared with their male counterparts, she says. 

“We make up 51% of the world, there’s no rational reason there shouldn’t be an equal percentage except that in the art world, as in any other field, women’s labor is valued less,” Hebron says. “The problem is not the individual galleries, but the patriarchal system we have. That needs to be addressed by everyone, the galleries, the collectors, the artists, even.”

It’s not just a numbers game, Sprüth says of her L.A. gallery, where all the vintage furniture in the offices is from female designers working in Midcentury California.

“Percentage does not resolve everything. Our energy and example was influential, I hope,” Sprüth says. “We always thought it was important how visible our support of women artists was in order to be a role model and encourage young women.”

The L.A. “Eau de Cologne” show, Sprüth Magers’ third exhibition locally, features works from the late-1970s to 2016. It highlights ongoing themes in the artists’ works, particularly pertaining to roles of women in society and in the art world.

Among the work on view is Kruger’s new “Untitled (Never Enough),”   a reinvention of imagery she produced in ’96 for the British magazine Dazed and Confused. Another Kruger image — depicting a woman’s hands covering her face over the text “Are We Having Fun Yet?” — appeared on the cover of the second “Eau de Cologne” magazine in ’87. A reworked version now fronts the L.A. exhibition poster. 

A set of black-and-white works from Sherman’s ’76 murder-mystery series will be on view as well as her lesser known broken dolls series from ’99. The former addresses female archetypes in film; the latter, distorted body image.  

Holzer will display hand-painted, enamel plaques featuring snippets of text — “What a shock when they tell you it won’t hurt and you almost turn inside out when they begin” —  from her early ’80s Living Series. Her ’80s-era marble and granite benches, featuring sandblasted text, will also be on view.

Lawler produced two site-specific wallpaper works based on images she created in the late ’90s and mid-2000s. One, “(Bunny) Sculpture and Painting (adjusted to fit),” depicts installations by Jeff Koons and Peter Halley from a ’99 Whitney Museum exhibition; another, “Andy in L.A. (adjusted to fit),” depicts a photograph of an Andy Warhol image.   

Trockel will show an installation of wool paintings from 2012-15. The colorful yarn canvases will show alongside her small sculptural works from the same period. They’re shelf-like constructions made from wood, foam, plastic and metal.

The original three “Eau de Cologne” magazines will also be on view.

Sprüth hopes they continue to spark conversation.

 “A main focus, historically, of this gallery is to support strong women artists,” she says. “And not just for our gallery, but for the discourse in the art scene. It needs to go on.”  

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“Eau de Cologne.” Sprüth Magers, 5900 Wilshire Blvd. Through Aug. 20. (323) 634-0600, www.spruethmagers.com.

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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