Thursday, June 19, 2008

Interviews with Female Artists

To The Editor:

While it was exciting to see your interview with Marlene Dumas, it was maddening to see so much space devoted to questioning her “validity” in the art world, and discussing the negative effect of Ms. Dumas’ art career on her child. Imagine a similar interview with Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons. It is precisely these kinds of subtle reinforcements that keep the “top selling female artists” lagging so far behind the top selling males.

Kate Kretz

GGRRRRR! A few weeks ago I made a comment about how interviews with male artists differ from those of female artists. To help prove my point, last Sunday's NYTimes Magazine featured an interview with Marlene Dumas, one that prompted me to send a letter to the editor last night. To her credit, author Deborah Solomon seemed to focus on pointing out that there might be some sexual bias in the art world:

"It has been eighteen years since Dumas made her American debut at the Tilton Gallery in New York, and the critical response to her work has been divided, more or less, among those who admire her earnest theatricality and those who deplore her theatrical earnestness. An art-world blog, Anaba, has taken to listing the names of Dumas’s supporters and detractors as if they were superdelegates charged with putting an artist into office. Are you pro-Dumas or anti-Dumas? 'All of the anti-Dumasers are men,' the blog noted in 2005, in a reference to a group of influential critics that includes Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, who has described Dumas’s work as “flat-footed.” Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic at The New Yorker, says without remorse: 'She is a good second-rate artist. I just don’t think it has much that other people don’t have. There is a certain glamour of sexual perversity, but it seems a little thin to me.'

It may be late in the game to accuse male critics of sexism, a charge that smacks of ’70s-style boosterism while failing to acknowledge that women can be as sexist as men. Nonetheless, the charge persists, particularly among Dumas’s supporters. 'People either love Marlene’s work or hate Marlene’s work, and I think it’s a sign of a sexist conspiracy,' says Nicole Eisenman, a figurative artist who is now 43 and based in Brooklyn. 'There is an aspect of her work that is women’s work. It’s a mother painting her child, which makes it easy to dismiss.' She went on to say that Dumas’s work can easily hold its own beside the best male painters of her generation. 'I think she is as good a painter as Peter Doig' — a reference to the Scottish-born painter who receives nonstop raves for his conceptual landscapes — 'and actually, I think she is better than Doig.' "

As someone who has had flippant negative criticism about my work published on an international scale, I can tell you that reprinting these critic's comments again does Marlene Dumas a great disservice, even put to the service of trying to raise questions of sexism. I don't have time to go through past Koons and Hirst interviews, but I doubt that questions of their "validity" in the art world has ever been given so many column inches.

Ms. Solomon spent many paragraphs talking about Dumas' husband, who is also a painter, even though he has not painted anything in FOUR YEARS. (A John Currin interview MIGHT mention in one sentence that he has a wife who is a practicing professional artist in her own right.)

There are also several paragraphs devoted to Ms. Dumas' relationship with her daughter. The author points out that Dumas' daughter is studying child psychology (hint, hint), then proceeds to relate an entire conversation (about shopping!) between the mother and daughter, only part of which I reprint here:

"Dumas returned to the table, and we resumed our conversation, only to have Helena approach a few minutes later. 'I’m sorry,' she told her mother. 'I don’t want to interrupt, but we had a date.' She said she wanted to go shopping for a watch for her birthday, which was three weeks away.

'Not now, Helena, not now,' Dumas said with a hint of impatience (mine: um, I am talking to a reporter from the New York Times!), adding that she was in her studio until 3 the previous night and wasn’t feeling up to a shopping expedition. Then she turned to me and said: 'Every time she has a birthday — she still has that from childhood — she gets so into the birthday it overrides everything else. Whatever it is, if it’s a cat, if it’s a watch — can we please not think of that now?'

'I just like the window-shopping,' Helena said, and there was something touching about her persistence. The watch seemed as good a symbol as any for the predicament of a child who wanted more of her mother’s time."

Do we even know if Jeff Koons HAS any children, not to mention what they think of him and whether he gives them enough of his time?!

For all of the author's efforts to discuss Dumas' struggles, I would argue that it is the subtlety of what is emphasized in these interviews that keeps women artists where they are. Work to do. Happy Thursday.

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