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Remembering Miriam Schapiro: The unheralded legacy of a CalArts pioneer

Remembering Miriam Schapiro: former students and colleagues talk about influence of CalArts pioneer

When Miriam Schapiro passed away at the age of 91 earlier this month on Long Island, the art world lost an important painter and feminist pioneer. A restless figure who spent decades championing the work of women in slide-filled lectures she delivered all over the country, she was a notable artist herself.

Perhaps most significantly, Schapiro — who was known as "Mimi" to her friends — also helped establish the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, in collaboration with artist and educator Judy Chicago, who would later achieve fame an notoriety for controversial installation, "The Dinner Party." 

Schapiro was a successful second-generation Abstract Expressionist who always maintained an eye toward the experimental. In the late 1960s, for example, she experimented with computers in her work. But her breakthrough came in the 1970s, when she became one of the leading figures in the Pattern and Decoration movement. In this role, she helped introduce elements of craft into the austere world of high art, which was then obsessed with minimalism. Her works are now in the permanent collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

With Chicago, and a group of CalArts students, she also helped oversee the creation and installation of "Womanhouse," in 1971, a spectacularly influential installation of art by and about women in a derelict mansion in Hollywood. The piece generated headlines in both local and national media.

Though she only spent a total of eight years in Southern California — she was raised in New York and lived there for much of her life — Schapiro was involved in a seminal chapter of the region's art history. She first landed in San Diego in 1967, after her husband, painter Paul Brach, was hired as chairman of the art department at UC San Diego, where she found work as a lecturer. Three years later, she and Brach would relocate to CalArts, where was the founding dean of the art school and she helped lay a foundation for feminist art at CalArts.

The 1970s were a heady time of consciousness raising and artistic experimentation in the greater Los Angeles area, and Schapiro was in the thick of it. To discuss her life and legacy, I gathered a number of her former colleagues and students: Joyce Kozloff, a friend and fellow Pattern and Decoration artist; Mira Schor, a former student who is also an art critic and painter; painter Tom Knechtel, who also studied under Schapiro; and independent curator Michael Duncan, who most recently co-curated the Corita Kent exhibition on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art and has organized exhibitions that have featured Schapiro's work.

Collectively, they describe an artist and educator who was tireless, tough, and committed to the idea that women could use their experiences as women in their art — and a figure whose tremendous contributions remain underestimated by the greater art world:

JOYCE KOZLOFF: I met her in 1967. It was right before she moved to San Diego. She and Paul were very good friends of my husband, [critic and historian] Max [Kozloff]. When we moved to California in 1970, we began to see a great deal of them. Both of us began to be involved with feminism at that time and we were looking at women's art. There was a lot of discussion about if there could be a women’s art and women’s content in art.

I joined a consciousness-raising group at that time and it really radicalized me. There were women from different walks of life and experiences and professions and ages. There would be a subject for the night and each woman had 20 minutes to talk on that subject out of her experience and no one was to interrupt her. Miriam was involved with consciousness-raising as well.

I remember I was invited to a brunch at [painter] June Wayne’s. [Feminist art historian] Moira Roth and Judy Chicago and Miriam were there. They were all planning big projects. Miriam goaded me into saying I'd organize the women artists of Los Angeles. She said something like, "With all your consciousness, what are you going to do?" She really called you on it if you were all talk and no action. 

MIRA SCHOR: At CalArts, you had instructors and you had mentors. Miriam was my mentor. This was in the first year after CalArts had moved up to Valencia. It was incredibly exciting to be there. You knew that you were in a place that was unlike any other. You had painting: Paul Brach was a painter. And you had John Baldessari teaching; he was not famous yet. And there was [happenings artist] Allan Kaprow, who had a very big influence on the school. And you had all of these Fluxus people there.

And you had the feminist program. I was in the Feminist Program. We had a space — a large room — which was very important for women to have. And because of the program, we were in a position that women really hadn't been in before or since. If you were at CalArts, you knew about the Feminist Program. You had to be aware of the issues that were being raised.

TOM KNECHTEL: The Feminist Program was something you couldn’t avoid being influenced by because the school was so tiny. It was pretty inevitable that you’d have some contact with it. A lot of the male painters at the school, including the gay men, really benefited from it — from this permission that artists were given to use their story.

At the time, it was all minimalism. And Mimi really stressed the idea of taking all kinds of risks with what you brought into your art. She was bringing all this personal stuff and stuff with collage and fabrics and it really looked jarring in a way people don’t understand now. She was introducing cultural references that were not part of the high art discourse. And that really resonated with a lot of young gay men. It gave all of these young artists permission to look to their own story.

SCHOR: [Mimi] could be very nurturing. But it was not a role that she played consciously. And even though she could be very difficult, she could also be very practical. That was very important to me as a student. We worked at Womanhouse three days a week. It was a long drive. There was no working bathroom, so we'd have to hold it in until lunch. Everything could be so fraught and so intense. And she would say something like, "You know, you can put gesso on a canvas with a sponge." And I was like, "You can?!"

KNECHTEL: Mimi, in many ways, was very much a formalist, especially in the work from the '70s, where there’s a tough, rigorous sense of structure to her pieces. So I remember her walking people through their pieces formally. She’d be like, "How are you using color here? What is this drawing doing there?" That ties into her background. She was part of a secondary wave of Abstract Expressionists, so the formal qualities in art were really important.

She was also very tough. The most frightening words you could hear were, "Do you have a moment?" If you disappointed her, you heard about it. But she was also capable of really amazing generosity. When I was a young artist out of school and beginning that process of getting my work seen, she was generous about setting up meetings with people in New York. And I remember when I had my first show at Rosamund Felsen, she walked with me piece by piece and talked to me about each one.

SCHOR: When Womanhouse opened, it got national attention and most of it was positive. We were in Look magazine and Time magazine and the L.A. Times. We knew we were doing something important. But that also meant that Mimi and Judy were under scrutiny. It was almost like a sibling rivalry. They had to deal with how the press would deal with one or the other. Mimi was older. And there was one article that described her as grandmotherly — and she was only like 48 years old.

But they needed each other. Mimi had more experience. And, in a way, she had more to lose. She had been in the art world. She had exhibited at Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York, which was this incredibly prestigious gallery at the time. So there was a real risk there for her. 

KOZLOFF: She came to feminism as an older woman. And she made some sacrifices by doing that. But once she turned to it, she was hooked.

SCHOR: The art world was incredibly macho. But Los Angeles had a freewheeling aspect and an interest in new ideas. And there was something interesting about Mimi’s separation from the New York art world which was so serious and competitive. I think it gave her the opening. And CalArts gave her the space.

KOZLOFF: When she got back to New York in 1975 — or around that time — she was gung-ho to start things here, too. Some of us were interested in starting a publication for and about women. That became the Heresies Collective, [which published the art and politics magazine Heresies]. It existed into the early '90s.

What we wanted to do was form all of our own structures. Miriam was really enthusiastic about that. We were buoyed by the things we felt we could change. Not everything has changed. But some things have changed.

KNECHTEL: Mimi had a big influence that hasn’t really been acknowledged. She went around the country doing these talks about women and the work they were doing. I think those kinds of conversations were not just parochial to women. Younger artists were hungry for something else, too. 

KOZLOFF: She was a wonderful lecturer. She had a lecture about women artists. Mimi had her own collection of slides that she took around and showed. Everywhere she went, she would ask women to give her slides to add to her collection.

SCHOR: The lectures delivered such an important message. It was like, "You can be an artist. This is the work that women are doing. You can be a professional artist." Hearing that was very exciting for countless women. And that’s one of the things that I’ve always felt was so important about her. 

MICHAEL DUNCAN: But she was not only one of the leading feminist artists, she was one of the leading Pattern and Decoration artists. They were sort of an organized group of artists, starting in the 1970s, interested in exploring pattern and decoration in their art. They really positioned themselves in opposition to minimalism, which was in vogue at the time.

KNECHTEL: She was taking a lot of risks. It will be the type of work that people will begin re-examining — that work from the '70s and the '80s. It’s really terrific painting. When you see it in a show, it’s great stuff.

KOZLOFF: I love the work that she did. They're iconic and rich, but also very bold pieces. The fans and the screens — the large ones — they were a combination of an almost architectural structure in scale, and then they drew you in, and there were these inner worlds within them. She really pulled it off.

DUNCAN: Miriam was exploring the feminist roots of decoration, dealing with craft, women’s work, sewing and patterns and decoupage — they all fed into her subject matter. She was not afraid of touching on traditional feminine modes and doing her own twists on them and making them personal. She makes a place for all of those anonymous women in the past who never considered themselves artists — who weren't allowed to consider themselves artists. It's a more democratic vision of art than the gallery model.

SCHOR: She was difficult. But none of us ever lost our sense of indebtedness and affection and respect for her.

I remember she invited me to speak on a panel at the College Art Assn. in 1976. I was 26. And I remember walking down the hall with her, and all of these art department heads began to approach her. Now, it was mostly men who were chairs of art departments. And they were all stopping her and saying, "Mimi, can you come speak at my school?" And I was like, "Wow." It was a moment of power — a kind of cinematic moment. And it made me so happy to see it.

For more on Miriam Schapiro, see Ruth Bowman's oral history interview with the artist at East of Borneo, and Mira Schor's memorial essay at Hyperallergic.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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