Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood

Ever since the Abstract Expressionists held forth at the Cedar Tavern in the 1950s, the unwritten rule has been that making art is a consuming obsession that leaves no time or space for worldly responsibilities like childrearing. Before the AbExers, an artist like Gaugin left his wife and kids in Denmark to pursue painting in Paris, and later Tahiti. With artists—unlike, say, poets, novelists, or filmmakers—there’s an expectation of an ascetic, blinkered life focused exclusively on making art. Artists with kids have often ignored them while spending all their time in the studio. In Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, Guston’s daughter Musa Meyer tells the heartbreaking story of a disengaged father who had little room in his life for her. So, why then, closing in on the final years of fertility, with scant investigation or evidence that the outcome would be salutary, did I stop using birth control in 1998 and let fate take its course? My decision was more intellectual than emotional. I reasoned that I was an artist. If I did get pregnant, wouldn’t this primal experience strengthen and inform my work? If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t have any regrets. I rolled the dice, and three months later the pregnancy test was positive.

Catherine Opie, "Self-Portrait/Nursing" (2004). Chromogenic print. 40 × 32 inches.Edition 7/8. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director's Council and Executive Committee Members, 2005. © 2008 Catherine Opie. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, CA

Getting Past Denial

The iconic mid-century female artists I admire made different choices. Before the feminist movement, ambitious, pragmatic women like Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning rejected motherhood. Louise Nevelson and Grace Hartigan both had children, but ultimately left their upbringing to relatives so that they could turn their undivided attention to making art and tending their vocations. Having a serious career like their male counterparts meant denying their reproductive difference, and also eliminating any references from their work that might be construed as “feminine.” Back then, telling a woman she “had balls” was a high compliment. In art schools, disparaging male professors made it clear that having a successful art career was nearly impossible for women, and that having children was not only a sign of bourgeois conformity, but an indication that they weren’t serious about art. By rejecting and then condemning parenthood, artists themselves helped institutionalize the self-centered, hermetic behavior that is frequently construed as a sign of genius.

As the feminist movement blossomed in the 1970s, female artists gained exhibition opportunities and sexual freedom, but their political awakening only reinforced their disinclination to have children. At the same time, first-wave feminists like Judy Chicago recognized the importance of childbearing as a universal life experience that had been missing from male-dominated, Western art. From 1980 to 1985, Chicago worked on “The Birth Project,” a series of images—made with the help of over 150 skilled craftswomen—in embroidery, needlepoint, crochet, macramé, quilting, drawing, and painting, that reflected her fascination with creation and the birth process. Nevertheless, she never had any children herself.

When I was contemplating whether or not to have a baby, my role models were not Krasner, de Kooning, or Chicago. Instead, I emulated painter Elizabeth Murray and photographer Sally Mann. These artists, rather than compartmentalizing their studio work from their domestic lives, elected to combine the two in groundbreaking ways. Murray had her first child, a son, in 1969, before her work was well known, and her daughters in the eighties when her life was financially more secure. It’s clear from Murray’s paintings that raising children, rather than diminishing her art-making capacity, inspired her. The paintings channel the screaming, fractured energy and frustration that come from being both an artist and a mother, but ultimately transcend specific circumstances to make a more universal statement about life’s challenges and satisfactions that is neither masculine nor feminine.

Mann’s emotionally fraught, and often controversial, photographs of her children, sometimes nude, proved that birth and childrearing do not automatically turn women into retrogressive panderers to small-minded conventions. The images of her children, both moving and disturbing, reference the staid genre of child portraiture but iconoclastically vault into uncharted and arguably forbidden territory.

From Acceptance to Integration

The parenting calculus has changed dramatically. With better childcare support systems in place and fathers who are more actively involved in caring for children, artists are more open to having kids. Often, to be sure, they wait until they’ve had some solo shows, gain gallery representation, and perhaps nail down a tenure-track teaching job. That’s not to say that raising a family is now the unambiguous norm for female artists, or that it carries no costs, real or perceived. Plenty of artists still try to hide the fact that they’re pregnant for as long as possible so that it has minimal impact on their exhibition opportunities. Inevitably there are those who wait too long to conceive, and then find that when the time for procreation is at last convenient, they are no longer fertile.

As Joe Amrhein, owner of Pierogi 2000 in Williamsburg, puts it, time flies when you’re having fun in the studio. Many artists Amrhein knows who were biologically unable to have children have gone through the arduous and expensive process of adopting kids from other countries. Some artists are content with their choice not to breed; others look wistfully back at the missed opportunity. One forty-something childfree printmaker explained that while she and her photographer husband didn’t actually decide not to have children, he was ambivalent, and not wanting to make the decision unilaterally, she let her time slip away.

Regardless of how artists procure their offspring, many keep the art making process rigidly separate from their childrearing responsibilities, and most seem to rely on committed fathers to handle their fair share of the workload. Lisa Sigal, whose work was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and who was profiled in the November issue of Art News, maintained her studio after the kids were born, and had her first solo show when the youngest was six. Even before Segal had a gallery, she and her husband, painter Byron Kim, split the childcare responsibility 50/50 so that they got equal time to work. When the kids were young and required so much attention that the 50/50 arrangement was inadequate, rather than taking them to daycare, they devised a babysitting cooperative with neighbors so that each set of parents took all the kids once a week and had the other days to themselves. I asked Sigal what advice she might give to an artist who is wondering whether to have a baby. “If she is interested in having a family, she should do it now,” she said. “Don’t sacrifice having a family for an elusive career that may or may not materialize.”

Carolanna Parlato, who recently had a solo exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, says she waited until she was reasonably secure financially to have her daughter, but in retrospect wishes she had done so sooner. “I should have had my daughter in my twenties,” she said. “If I had, then she’d be in college already.” Parlato, who had her first solo show when her daughter was two, says she became more purposeful and focused in her work after she was born because her time was limited and her financial needs more urgent. Parlato, like Sigal, relied on friends, family, and neighbors for childcare in the early years.

On the subject of artists with children, dealers tend to fall into two diametric camps: those who have kids and think breeding is a “fantastic experience,” and those who are childless, aren’t really quite sure which of their artists are in fact mothers, and don’t particularly care to discuss it. According to one gallerina, of the seventeen employees in the Chelsea gallery where she works—which is owned by a childfree woman—not a single one has kids. One or two of the artists might have been parents, but she wasn’t sure. This evidence suggests that dealers without children aren’t interested in the process of parenting, and may be less open-minded about artists who are. The upshot is that emerging artists who choose to breed can still be quietly ostracized by childfree galleries, but they’ll be warmly welcomed in child-friendly ones.


The Mother Lode

The accepted wisdom among the first generation of feminist artists who disdained baby-making was that women who reproduce spend at least a year or two making idiosyncratic, excessively inward-looking “baby art” and then, if they are lucky, eventually get their wits about them and return to their previous, more serious work. It’s a condescending view, perhaps, but to my mind more or less valid. Growing a baby from a seed is an inexorably life-altering, eye-opening, intense experience, and always will be. In the first stages, child-rearing is so existentially consuming and preoccupying that it cannot help but suffuse any artwork.

Substantively, baby art could often be too soft and sentimental for leading-edge galleries; it was not talked about and rarely shown in the old days. But there are many subtle and undetectable ways that having a baby can inform an artist’s work beyond the cliché of tender studies of sleeping infants. When my daughter was an infant in 2000, I became obsessed with time. Although a painter, I was determined during that period to make labor-free art. I wanted the work to be as closely integrated with my other daily activities as possible, so I began collecting data about everyday life and creating myriad charts and graphs. My most overt baby art included looping videos that featured my daughter’s daily routine in excruciatingly slow motion. This temporal sensibility, a direct outgrowth of my experience as a mother, still influences my art practice today.

Some contemporary artists, in fiercely honest work, apprehend the entire messy process of creation, birth, and childrearing as raw material for their art practice. Baby art thus often takes the form of site-specific installations and conceptual projects that recall Mary Kelly’s seminal 139-piece Post-Partum Document. From 1973 to 1979, Kelly, one of the early feminists, employed quasi-scientific visual strategies to document her ongoing relationship with her newborn son. In a contemporary context, the complex processes and emotions involved in raising children could certainly provide rich material for practitioners of relational aesthetics with post-studio practices. Such artists’ collaborative, expansive approach to their art, and their reluctance to embrace the hermeticism of previous generations, suggest that peak creativity and the embrace of worldly responsibility are no longer considered mutually exclusive. Raising a family and making art can, in fact, become one seamless activity. One day, an artist may turn a museum into a daycare center, or perhaps create a performance piece in which she invites her cohort for roller-skating play dates in the Guggenheim spiral.

Of course, it would be naïve to contend that nowadays reconciling motherhood and art making is always a smooth and effortless endeavor. But contemporary female artists are more determined than their predecessors to overcome barriers to harmonizing the two aspects of life rather than acquiesce to them. Emerging artist Jennifer Wroblewski, mother of a six-month-old, was originally discouraged when older female artists she knew intimated that her pregnancy would adversely affect her career. Rather than accept the projected consequences of professional indifference and potential dismissal, Wroblewski decided to curate an exhibition tentatively titled “Mother/Mother” that would explore ideas garnered from the process of parenting. With a couple of solo shows in the works and an A.I.R. Gallery Fellowship for support, Wroblewski hopes to turn what used to be seen as the “harbinger of the end of a woman’s career” into a sanguine beginning. The show, which will feature work by Julie Heffernan, Monica Bock, Sharon Thomas, and Dana Lee, is scheduled for Fall 2009.

The most important factor in elevating the status of baby art is that over the past decade or so, artists, including women, are achieving phenomenal success at much younger ages. Many artists now already have considerable traction in the art world by the time they have kids. And when important female artists have babies, their baby art can’t be dismissed by curators and furtively squirreled away in the flatfile. Catherine Opie’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim illuminates this shift. In one photograph, Opie, overweight, naked, and tattooed, nurses her son Oliver. In another, Oliver poses atop a kitchen chair in a tutu. Jenny Saville, one of the renowned “Young British Artists” who ascended in the 1990s and now shows at the high-powered Saatchi and Gagosian galleries, has announced that her upcoming fall exhibition will comprise paintings based on photographs taken while she was giving birth. As the taboo fades, the capacity to bear children and raise a family are now recognized as a source of unplumbed, original material. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Contributor

Sharon L. Butler

SHARON L. BUTLER is an artist and Associate Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. She blogs at Two Coats of Paint.

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