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Miriam Schapiro's Femmages at Museum of Arts and Design's Surface/Depth

March 2, 2018 - by Merrill Lee Girardeau
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Miriam Schapiro (1923-2015) was a pioneer of feminist art, incorporating traditional decorative craft into her painting and sculpture. This spring, come to the Museum of Arts and Design and see Schapiro’s work along with that of her artistic heirs at Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro. This exciting exhibition opens on March 22.

Beauty of Summer

The Beauty of Summer, 1973-1974, Acrylic, fabric on canvas, 70 x 50" © Miriam Schapiro/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Schapiro proved a multidisciplinary master throughout her long career. She produced astounding paintings, embroidery, fabric work, and sculpture. In contrast with the stark, somewhat macho compositions coming out of the Abstract Expressionist movement with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Schapiro and her contemporaries favored an ornate art full of materials and designs traditionally associated with feminine domesticity.

Schapiro, along with Judy Chicago of The Dinner Party (currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum), founded the California Institute of the Arts’ Feminist Art Program. One of their artistic collaborations was Womanhouse, a Hollywood house repurposed for room-sized art installations by female artists from the program.

Surface/Depth will feature Schapiro’s mixed-media canvases, such as "Connection," featuring a collage of found handkerchiefs. Baby Block Bouquet is a large heart-shaped piece with black background and layered geometric and floral fabrics. Orange Crush, shaped like a lady’s handheld fan, also sticks out for its use of juxtaposed fabric swatches and its form, a shape once associated with female fragility.

baby block bouquet schapiro museum arts and design

Baby Block Bouquet, 1981, Acrylic, fabric, glitter on shaped canvas, 63.5 x 69”. © 2017 Estate of Miriam Schapiro Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Schapiro, who also founded the Pattern and Decoration Movement, was fiercely protective of arts and crafts’ legitimization in the art world. Her “femmages” (a term Schapiro coined) radically celebrate art objects traditionally consigned to the home and banished from the art gallery.

Her artistic descendants include Sanford Biggers, Josh Blackwell, Edie Fake, Jeffrey Gibson, Judy Ledgerwood, Jodie Mack, Sara Rahbar, Ruth Root, and Jasmin Sian. Works from all of these artists will show alongside Schapiro’s. Fabric, sequins, fringe, and glitter will shine from these contemporary pieces, proving Schapiro’s spearheading influence in the use of decorative fragments to fashion something new.

Jeffrey Gibson’s animalistic sculpture Speak to Me in Your Way So I Can Hear You will be featured, with its four pale wooden legs and fringe descending from its colorful beaded back. A diptych from Jasmin Sian represents the more reserved side of decorative arts with a recreated doily, although it’s made with repurposed deli bag paper.

Miriam Schapiro Tapestry of Paradise

Tapestry of Paradise, 1980, Acrylic, fabric, glitter on canvas, 60 x 50", Brooklyn Museum © Miriam Schapiro/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Items from Miriam Schapiro’s estate will also be on view. These will include needlepoint, fabric swatches, and folk art. Her cache of historical materials prove the breadth of inspirations she used to make her complex “femmages.” 

Surface/Depth was curated by Elissa Auther with the support of Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy at the Museum of Arts and Design. It will open March 22 and close September 9, 2018.

The Museum of Arts and Design is located at 2 Columbus Circle. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am - 6pm. Thursdays open 10am - 9pm. For more information, call 212-299-7777 or visit madmuseum.org.

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