Miriam Schapiro: Pioneer of Feminist Art

Federico Tibytt

Schapiro confronts gender discrimination with her technical and thematic aesthetics.

With the death of Miriam Schapiro (November 15, 1923 — June 20, 2015), contemporary art lost one of the leading exponents of feminist art. In recognition of her invaluable cultural legacy, the Museum of the National Academy of Art in New York has organized the first retrospective exhibition devoted to the late artist. The pieces selected for the show highlight an entire life dedicated to art and activism in defense of women’s rights.

Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro.

Born in Toronto in 1923, Miriam was the daughter of Russian artists who encouraged her artistic training from a young age. After the Great Depression of the 1930s, her family moved to New York City, where the young Schapiro had the opportunity to start her training at the Museum of Modern Art. After completing her pre-university studies, she received a scholarship to study at Iowa State University, where she met her future husband, artist Paul Brach.

In her early years as a professional artist, Miriam created drawings and paintings influenced by abstract expressionism, as seen in her piece Fanfare. Although she achieved some success with her work, Schapiro experienced the gender discrimination suffered by women at the time in a largely male-dominated field.

Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro, Fanfare, 1958.

By 1960, she and her husband moved to California, and it was there that Schapiro began her long journey in feminist activism, focusing on the search for themes and aesthetics that would represent women’s identities and their roles in society.

After the research she conducted alongside physicist David Navilof, Schapiro became one of the first artists to apply computer software in the visual arts. She produced iconic artwork for the feminist movement, such as her well-known piece OX, from 1967, that super-imposes a letter O on a letter X, made from computerized geometric figures that recreate the female genitals.

Miriam Schapiro
Miriam Schapiro, OX, 1967.

During the 1970s, Schapiro founded the first feminist art program in the US at the Art Institute of California. She joined 28 other women to create a display called Womanhouse, where she exhibited her work Dollhouse (1971) in front of more than 10,000 visitors. This piece was described by the artist as a work which “represents the beauty, charm and the supposed safety and comfort of home, with the unspeakable terrors that exist within its walls.”

Another of Schapiro’s great contributions to the feminist cause is the creation of the femmage category, a collage style using materials, objects and craft techniques identified culturally with women. The aesthetic concept can be seen in the many fan-shaped pieces exhibited in the retrospective.

Despite the importance of her legacy, Miriam Schapiro remains a little-known personality. This large exhibition sponsored by the Museum of the Academy of Art in New York is an excellent opportunity to get to know and admire the work and historical significance of this invaluable artist.  ■

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