During the 1960s, Brazilian artist Amelia Toledo submerged plastic sculptures into the sea, transforming them into hybrid pieces of artificial and natural materials. Later, in the 1970s, New York painter Emily Mason focused on watercolors to spare herself more time to foster her daughters at her studio. In 1980, Howardena Pindell made her seminal video, Free, White and 21, to call out racial injustice through the immediacy of moving images. A decade later, Latinx photographer Laura Aguilar debuted her black-and-white triptych, Three Eagles Flying, which shows her nude body entangled in a rope as well as Mexican and American flags. Another West Coaster, Helen Pashgian, previously brought her meaningful sculptures to the fore. And through it all, Jane Freilicher was crafting her enchanting still life paintings. Though these female artists have often been overlooked by illustrious institutions in the past, a number of new exhibitions are calling attention to their important work. Below, AD examines the lives, oeuvres, and current shows of these six exceptional women—just in time for Women’s History Month.
Between the 1950s and 1990s, Brooklyn-born artist Jane Freilicher painted many still lifes that captured small moments within domestic life. “There has always been a sense of the fragility of life imbued in her work,” the artist’s daughter, Elizabeth Hazan, tells AD. Kasmin Gallery’s current exhibition proves “she [c]ould make intimate paintings that capture both a kind of melancholy and her radiant response to the freshness and beauty of things.”
Isolation is rendered on a colossal level in the minimalist forms of West Coast sculptor Helen Pashgian. And though a range of male artists have always held seats at the art movement’s table, Pashgian’s totemic acrylic sculptures are gaining increasing notice. Strikingly, a forthcoming exhibition at the international gallery Lehman Maupin will mark the artist’s first exhibition in New York since 1969. The show includes some of her 10-foot-tall plinths, as well as her evanescent-looking globular epoxy forms.
Around the same time that Pashgian was hard at work, her Brazilian contemporary Amelia Toledo pushed “sculptures’ ecological materiality,” as Nara Roesler Gallery’s artistic director Luis Pérez-Oramas puts it. An alternative figure in her nation’s Neo-Concretist movement, Toledo was part of a wave of artists shaped by women and queer peers, such as Lygia Pape and Hélio Oiticica. Her first New York survey, which recently opened at at the gallery’s Chelsea space, displays her collected rock and shell sculptures along with her paintings on jute, which were made between 1958 and 2007.
Laura Aguilar’s relationship with her California surroundings was informed by societal norms about body, gender, and race. Before passing away in 2018, the photographer left behind a determined project on self-acceptance. More than 70 photographs and films from that undertaking are currently on view in her first career retrospective at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. The show is bookended by Aguilar’s documentation of her chosen queer families in California’s Chicanx community and the introspective black-and-white self-nudes in which she immerses her body in the West Coast sun’s scorching light.
Participating in the New York art world circuit was both a challenge and a necessity for Emily Mason as she juggled motherhood and her creative practice. Throughout the 1960s, “she still hung out in smoke-filled West Village bars and exhibited her work,” says Steven Rose, who runs the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation, which is dedicated to Mason and her painter mother. She believed in chance operation, particularly as experienced in New York, where “you could be inspired by a tropical fruit in Chinatown and an exhibition on Byzantine art uptown,” as Rose says. A recent exhibition at Miles McEnery Gallery not only presented her 22 ethereally colored abstract paintings, but also emphasized her studio practice, which she maintained at her 4,700-square-foot Chelsea loft for four decades.
Howardena Pindell’s current exhibition at The Shed is her first in New York, where she has been living as an artist and curator for over half a century. The show features Pindell’s first video piece in 25 years, titled Rope/Fire/Water, which she created at the invitation of The Shed. Exhibition curator Adeze Wilford believes that “she uses empirical data and first-person narratives in an effort to highlight numbers and indisputable facts as a reaction to the ways Free, White and 21 was often critiqued or dismissed.” The video, which is presented alongside an installation of Pindell’s historical and new paintings, includes names of Black individuals murdered through state-sanctioned attacks, and “melds the historical conversation to the one we are having as a nation today.”