Miriam Schapiro and the Decorative: A Pioneer and Her Progeny

Schapiro’s “The Beauty of Summer” greets visitors upon entering “Surface/Depth.” A case of inspirational ephemera stands at the end of the room. | Photo by Rania Richardson

BY RANIA RICHARDSON | “Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro,” currently on view at the Museum of Arts & Design (MAD), is dazzling in more ways than one. In the 1970s, Schapiro (1923-2015) was a key figure in the intersection of feminism and art. Originally recognized for her hard-edged abstract expressionism, she shifted into a new means of expression that elevated what had been known as woman’s work — efforts such as needlework and scrapbooking. She embraced the decorative, embellishing her canvases with cut paper, fabric, rickrack, glitter, and jewels.

Combining painting with a variety of other materials, she called examples of her signature hybrid style “femmages” — a portmanteau of “femme” and “collages.” The exhibition’s curator, Elissa Auther, noted in a statement to this publication that, along with a circle of feminist artists, Schapiro engaged in “dignifying women’s traditions of creative practice, historically dismissed as artistically trivial for their connections to craft and the domestic sphere.”

Schapiro’s work was an exciting development at the time when female artists faced psychological, social, and professional obstacles in the male-dominated art world. In 1971, with Judy Chicago (best known for “The Dinner Party”), Schapiro founded the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), a radical undertaking designed to address gender issues.

In addition, she was a leader of the Pattern and Decoration Movement — so it comes as no surprise that her work in this area is stunning in color and composition. (American art had historically eschewed the decorative, although it was fundamental around the world; in Islamic art, for example.)

L to R: Schapiro’s transformation from a classic abstract expressionist (“Silver Windows”) to an artist who added craft material to her work (“Again Sixteen Windows” and “Lady Gengi’s Maze”). | Photo by Jenna Bascom, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

Schapiro’s experiments with form yielded canvases shaped in female-centric constructions such as fans, homes, and hearts. “House” is a highlight of the exhibition. The simplest shape of a house is repeated like an infinity mirror. The black color hints at a darker side to domesticity, while the floral and sparkling additions speak to beauty and feminine life.

Schapiro collected ephemera for use and inspiration, and there is a fascinating selection on display in a glass case: buttons, doilies, kerchiefs, pincushions, and the like. Among those items is a copy of the femmage manifesto, “Waste Not, Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled.”

A tribute to the domestic arts, “House of Summer’s Night” shows one of Schapiro’s shaped canvases. | Photo by Jenna Bascom, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

“Surface/Depth” presents work from Schapiro’s seminal years juxtaposed with nine contemporary artists who are continuing in her legacy, fulfilling MAD’s aim of being a creative hub that explores the processes and materials of artists across disciplines, as noted in the museum’s stated mission when it opened in Columbus Circle in 2008.

“Like Schapiro, these artists set into relief our assumptions about what counts as mere visual incident and what is considered the ‘real’ meaning of a work of art. These artists continue and extend her investigation of the antagonistic relationship of craft to art and surface to depth, further demonstrating the value of the decorative as a critical, aesthetic tool that complicates these exclusionary distinctions of value,” Auther wrote.

The exhibition shines a light on the renewed relevance of Schapiro, especially as an unheralded pioneer whose work catalyzed a younger generation of artists. A diversity of makers in various stages of their careers are among the standouts:

Filipino-American artist Jasmin Sian uses a utility knife to cut tiny, elaborative shapes into painted paper, in a labor-intensive process that results in miniature filigree landscapes of gardens and zoo animals.

Josh Blackwell recovers plastic bags and yarn to create intricate sculptures he calls “Neveruses,” that reference baskets and ceramics by using needlework techniques such as darning, weaving, crocheting, and knitting.

Sanford Biggers decorates found quilts with cosmic and celestial imagery, and explores history and race through pattern.

Ruth Root pairs fabric and paint to signify that the materials are equal in value. In “Untitled,” a piece she created for the exhibition, an irregular canvas abuts fabric of her own design that depicts household objects, art pieces, and people, including Schapiro with Chicago in their CalArts heyday.

“Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro,” is on view through Sept. 9 at the Museum of Arts & Design (2 Columbus Circle, btw. Broadway & Eighth Ave.). Hours: Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat. & Sun, 10am-6pm; Thurs., 10am-9pm. Admisson: $16 general, $14 for seniors, $12 for students. Thurs., 6-9pm is pay-what-you-wish. For more info, call 212-299-7777 or visit madmuseum.org.

Josh Blackwell employs plastic bags and colored fibers to create sculptural “Neveruses” with embroidery and darning techniques. | Photo by Rania Richardson

“Untitled,” by Ruth Root, includes fabric that incorporates a 1970s photo of Miriam Schapiro with a bespectacled Judy Chicago. | Photo by Rania Richardson

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