Donna Seaman’s group biography “Identity Unknown” paints lively and overdue portraits of seven underappreciated American female artists.
“Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists”
by Donna Seaman
Bloomsbury, 480 pp., $32
“This is not a book of art criticism,” Donna Seaman observes in her new book about mostly unsung heroines of the American art world. Seaman is quite right: “Identity Unknown” goes far beyond the more narrow question of criticism in discussing seven women artists whose relative neglect places them in unfair obscurity. No more obscurity for this arty septet! Seaman’s lively portraits make the reader eager to rediscover them, a process helped along by the book’s photos of them and their art.
Seaman’s zesty writing brings to life her passion for these subjects: “I was still a gangly girl when I first came under the midnight spell of Louise Nevelson’s sculpture,” she explains, going on to cite her own early experiences with this and other art as a spur in writing “Identity Unknown.” (The title refers to the unfortunate labeling of many historic group photos of artists, in which the males are carefully identifiedbut the females often are not.)
In addition to Nevelson (born in 1899 near Kiev), Seaman writes about Lois Mailou Jones, Lenore Tawney, Gertrude Abercrombie, Joan Brown, Ree Morton and Christina Ramberg (all of them born in the 20th century, in that order). And in each case, the author cites a cycle of “ascendance, erasure, and reclamation” in terms of the artists’ reputations; this new book will assuredly help with that last step.
The descriptions of the artists’ lives, their fascinating quirks, and most of all their artworks, are unfailingly fun to read. Of Abercrombie’s “mischievously funny and coyly romantic” work, “The Courtship,” Seaman observes, “This may be Abercrombie’s most confidently sexy painting.” Jones, who was African American (as well as “charismatic, vivacious, and tough”), was told to “go South to help your people” — but instead went on to Paris, to paint city life with a complexity Seaman finds “thrilling.”
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Brown, located in the Bay Area, “practically swam in a sea of thickly applied oil paint,” later producing an array of remarkable, “boldly inventive” self-portraits, before dying in the dramatic collapse of the Eternal Heritage Museum in India, where she was installing a massive obelisk.
Ramberg is characterized with Seaman’s typical exuberance: “alluring and private, quirky and rigorous, original and knowledgeable.” Seaman goes on to describe Ramberg’s focus on the human figure as “erotic, taunting, disturbing, and mysterious images of bound, broken, disintegrating, amputated, and reassembled bodies.”
Tawney, we discover, “radiated power” and easily got away with claiming to be “a good eighteen years younger than she was.” Her woven art forms became a “new language of fiber art,” and she became the kind of octogenarian who kept a vial and wand handy to twirl soap bubbles in the wind. The peripatetic Morton embraced a wildly diverse artistic vision that included “curiously ritualized and theatrical sculptures,” as well as “earthy, talismanic” work that “has mojo.” She was the kind of ironic self-observer who could write on a grant application, “I did some good work, got some shows, and some reviews. Not bad, for a girl.”
It is Nevelson, however, who particularly fascinates and perplexes Seaman. What caused her eclipse, and the ascendancy of Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo? “Was she too flamboyant? Too strange?” Seaman muses. Nevelson’s work will be “forever open to reinterpretation,” and this bold book is a remarkable step in that direction.