There has never been a shortage of women artists, but until recently they’ve struggled to achieve recognition. Over the last few years, museums and galleries have been combing the past for those left out of the traditional story of art and introducing their life and work to the public. This year is another filled with major exhibitions dedicated to historic and contemporary women artists. Here are six who are getting the spotlight.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943)

Sophie Taeuber, as she was born, was one of the most radical women in modern art. And yet, despite being the only woman on a Swiss bank note, she remains relatively unknown, even in her native Switzerland. Taeuber trained as an artist and textile designer and became a leading member of the revolutionary cultural movement that flourished in Zürich during the First World War: Dada. Rejecting rationality and social conventions, Dada artists embraced absurdity, experimenting with unfamiliar materials and methods to create their own spontaneous and subversive art, poetry and performances.

In 1922, Taeuber married the German-French sculptor Jean (Hans) Arp, which helped her gain traction in this mostly male avant-garde circle and at the same time eclipsed her work. That work was wide-ranging: she was a multidisciplinary artist – as well as a teacher and a dancer – who dismantled the barriers between everyday crafts and fine art. Unfazed by traditional art historical categories, she applied the formal language of abstraction to bedding, furniture and interiors. Throughout her life, she created lyrical and life-affirming abstractions that sang of freedom – her paintings, tapestries, beadwork and marionettes are full of colour, rhythm, chance.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction will open on 20 March at the Kunstmuseum Basel, before travelling to Tate Modern and MoMA later in the year.

Above images, left: Vertikal-horizontale Komposition mit gegenseitig Dreiecken. Stifung Arp e.V., Berlin. Foto: Alex Delfanne.

Right: Kopf. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn. Gift of Jean Arp in memory of Sophie Taeuber-Arp.

Alice Neel (1900-1984)

A “romantic bohemian type communist”. That’s how the FBI, who kept a close eye on her in the 1950s, described Alice Neel. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she moved to Spanish Harlem in New York in 1938. There, before and during the civil rights movement, she immortalised the men, women and children around her in oil paint, affording the same consideration to people of colour that earlier painters reserved for an exclusively white, and often male, elite.

Today, Neel is regarded as one of the greatest and most empathetic American painters of the twentieth century. During the height of Abstract Expressionism, when figuration fell out of fashion, she continued to paint fresh and candid portraits of the people who populated her world – friends and family, writers and artists, people she bumped into on the street. No matter who they were, she gave each of her subjects her unsparing attention – so much so that you can barely imagine the artist blinking as she began to paint directly onto the canvas without a preliminary sketch. The results, rendered in both sombre and vivid palettes, are at once scrappy and intense. Capturing humanity in all its guises, Neel gave us portraits of not just bodies but also souls. Two portraits of the artist’s mother, painted 20 years apart, capture the inevitable ageing process in her gradually furling fingers, whitening hair and grooved face. “For me, people come first,” Neel said in 1950. “I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”

Alice Neel: People Come First will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York on 22 March, then travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Above images, left: Ellie Poindexter, 1962. Oil on canvas. 76.2 x 61 cm. 30 x 24 1/8 in. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy the Estate of Alice Neel and Victoria Miro.

Right: John with Bowl of Fruit, 1949. Oil on canvas. 76.2 x 61 cm. 30 x 24 in. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy the Estate of Alice Neel and Victoria Miro.
Eileen Agar (1899-1991)

Like Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Eileen Agar elevated the everyday. Her witty and imaginative paintings, collages, photographs and assemblages are packed with natural found objects – shells, bones, feathers – and pair abstraction with imagery lifted from classical art and ancient myths and themes such as sexual pleasure.

Born into a well-to-do family in Argentina, at the age of six Agar was sent to boarding school in England, where she remained for the majority of her seven-decade-long career. A stint in Paris introduced her to Cubism and Surrealism, two movements that suffused her early works, including Ceremonial hat for eating Bouillabaisse (1936); she was the only British woman selected for the International Surrealist Exhibition at London’s New Burlington Galleries that same year. But despite the exposure that came with being associated with such groups, Agar saw herself as working independently, and it wasn’t long before these avant-garde inspirations developed into her own distinct style – a spirited and clear-eyed style that captured the changes occurring in society before, during and after the Second World War.

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy will open at London’s Whitechapel Gallery this spring.

Above image: Eileen Agar, Erotic Landscape, 1942. Collage on paper 255 x 305 mm. Private collection ©Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images. Photograph courtesy Pallant House Gallery, Chichester © Doug Atfield.

Nina Hamnett (1890-1956)

The Landlady (1918) fixes us with a firm gaze. Her dark hair is scraped back from her face, her lips pressed together. She rests her forearm on the table in front of her, one finger tapping at the pale, rosy cloth – impatient for a late payment? A china cup sits in its saucer. A lamp leans to the left, off-kilter. This is one of several portraits painted by the Welsh artist and writer Nina Hamnett, who, in an interview in 1924, said, “My ambition is to paint psychological portraits that shall represent accurately the spirit of the age.”

Dividing her time between London and Paris, Hamnett was associated with both the Camden Town and Bloomsbury groups and the School of Paris. She documented her colourful life among the avant garde in two lively memoirs: Laughing Torso (1932) and Is She a Lady? (1955). Playing up to her nickname, “Queen of Bohemia”, she stuck to her word, painting frank and intimate portraits of some of the most significant writers, artists and collectors of the 20th century. She herself was a model – posing for Walter Sickert, Roger Fry and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska – and it was perhaps her own experience that enabled her to capture on canvas the character and emotion of her sitters. She also produced landscapes and sombre still lifes, every element with the same sculptural quality and strong presence.

Nina Hamnett will open at Charleston in East Sussex on 9 April.

Above images, left: Der Sturm, c. 1913, Nina Hamnett (1890-1956). Private Collection. Photo© Bridgeman Images. Oil on canvas.

Right: Portrait of Torahiko Khori (1890-1924), Nina Hamnett. Private Collection. Photo© Stephen White. Oil on canvas 61 x 50.8.
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

The American artist Helen Frankenthaler was just 23-years-old when she painted Mountains and Sea (1952), a pastoral abstraction created by diluting oil paints with turpentine and pouring them directly onto raw canvas like dyes. Fluid green and blue forms evoke the topography suggested by the title, while the misty pink, red and yellow stains suggest a floating world, airy and evanescent. With this one seminal work, Frankenthaler paved the way for a new influential movement in American art – and within her soft and dissolving veils of colour, viewers took comfort.

Pollock-esque but without the angst, Frankenthaler’s liquidy paintings brought with them a new approach to colour. In her hands, it’s not lines but colour that is used to define space. She sparked the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Colour Field painting and continued to innovate throughout her 60-year career, dabbling in multiple formats and mediums, from small and large canvases to watercolours, works on paper and prints. But there’s something instantly identifiable about all of Frankenthaler’s art, which – whether delicate and gauzy or wild and gestural – is always instinctive and carefully considered.

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty will open at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London later this year.

Above image: Copyright for all works by Helen Frankenthaler: © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / DACS / Print Publishers. Photograph credit: Tim Pyle, courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

Lubaina Himid (born 1954)

As a master’s student of cultural history at the Royal College of Art in London, Lubaina Himid wrote a thesis called “Young Black Artists in Britain Today” (1984). It sprung from the idea that black people could be important artists – an idea, she said, regarded as crazy at the time.

Lubaina was born in Zanzibar and moved to the UK as a child in the 1960s. Before receiving her master’s degree, she studied theatre design at Wimbledon College of Art, and her early interest in the stage is threaded through her installations. She was an active member of the 1980s British black arts movement, which sought to make black people visible in art and show how creativity could spark social engagement and change. In 2016 she won the Turner Prize, the first winner to be a non-white woman. Whether painted on paper, canvas or wooden panels, her bright and exuberant figures celebrate black creativity while challenging issues of marginalised histories and racism.

Lubaina Himid will open at London’s Tate Modern on 25 November.

Above image: Lubaina Himid, Le Rodeur: The Exchange, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 183cm x 244cm. Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

Please check each venue’s website for up-to-date information on the exhibitions mentioned.

Words: Chloë Ashby.

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