Miriam Schapiro dies at 91; pioneer of feminist art movement

When Miriam Schapiro took a break from her career as a painter and moved from New York to California in 1967, it was for her husband's job.

By the time the couple returned to New York eight years later, she had established herself as a pioneer feminist and as an accomplished artist exploring forms that never had been seriously considered by the art intelligentsia in Manhattan. Attracting thousands of viewers and drawing international headlines, her most visible California project was "Womanhouse," a condemned Los Angeles mansion that she, artist Judy Chicago, and 21 of their students and friends turned into a colorful, idiosyncratic, symbol-laden, humor-rich, round-the-clock women's art happening.

Schapiro, who with Chicago founded the feminist art program at the California Institute of the Arts and created arresting "femmages," as she called them, from handkerchiefs, doilies, beads, baubles, and fabric contributed by admiring women around the U.S., died June 20 at the home of her caregiver in Hampton Bays, N.Y. She was 91.

Schapiro had suffered from dementia for several years. Her death was confirmed by Judith Brodsky, the executor of her estate.

As a young artist in New York, Schapiro poured herself into abstract Expressionism and then created what she called her "shrine paintings" — homages to great art of the past, each spanned by a high arch and punctuated with an egg, the universal symbol of fertility. All the while, she was searching, in vain, for "the Madame Curie of art."

Over the years, she recounted her frustration.

"We really didn't have any literature telling us it was a good thing to be a woman artist," she told the Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger in 1999. "When I was trained, there were no precedents, and that was something to get really angry about."

Accompanying her husband Paul Brach to his teaching job at UC San Diego, she became a lecturer there. In 1970, when Brach became Cal Arts' first art dean, she and Chicago founded the school's feminist art program — an unknown idea elsewhere but, as she recalled in a 1989 oral history, hardly out of place at the fledgling art institute.

"At Cal Arts at that time, they were doing the most amazing things," she told an interviewer for the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.

"Victor Papenack, who was teaching design, had his students making radios for a penny each that could be shipped to Third World people. In the music department, they had imported dancers from West Africa, and they were constantly doing a chicken dance in the halls. They flapped their arms and spoke very little English. And then again, in the halls, starting at 6 in the morning, students and teachers practiced their tai chi."

When "Womanhouse" opened in a rundown, 17-room house on North Mariposa Avenue in 1972, Times critic William Wilson called it "a thing of almost boundless enchantment."

Each room was the work of a different artist. The kitchen was flamingo pink, with ceiling and walls decorated by plastic fried eggs morphing into breasts. One bedroom was a tomboy's paradise while another was the "languorously formal arena of a Colette heroine," Wilson wrote.

"Judy Chicago's 'Menstruation Bathroom,'" he wrote, "ought to bring any man to an awed and somber sense of respect."

Schapiro said the scope of the influential project was unsettling.

"We were scared to death because it had never been done before," she said. But she also remembered it moving women visitors to tears: "There was never a word said — it was always the expression on the face: 'I know this. This is art but I know what this is about. I know what this is about…'"

Later in the 1970s, Schapiro helped establish the Pattern and Decoration movement — a radically ornate approach to art that contrasted with the minimalism then in fashion.

"Everything she'd ever done came together," artist Joyce Kozloff, her friend and collaborator, said in an interview. "Her geometries, her subtle sense of color, her fine craftsmanship, her sometimes unexpected leaps of association — even her sense of humor."

"Once she embraced feminism, she was fearless about confronting and exposing all the hidden and not-so-hidden rules about what art is."

Born Nov. 15, 1923, in Toronto, Schapiro grew up in Brooklyn. Her father, an artist and industrial designer, recognized her talent early and lied about her age when she was 14 to get her into a drawing class with a nude model.

She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in art from the University of Iowa, where she married Brach.

When they returned to Manhattan from California, they settled in a West Broadway loft and a summer home in East Hampton.

When she told a Stockton audience that the Pattern and Decoration movement appeared to be on the wane, a woman took exception. "Ms. Schapiro, maybe to you it's on the wane," she said, "but it's not on the wane out here in Stockton!"

Schapiro later told an interviewer that the exchange showed how quickly she had turned back into a New Yorker and adopted the city's "parochial" views.

"It happened very fast," she said. "What can you do?"

Schapiro's husband died in 2007. She is survived by her son Peter von Brandenburg.

Her works are in permanent collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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