If it seems unclear today just how much Miriam Schapiro has contributed to the body of American art, that's only because she's not finished yet. For the past three decades, she has been hard at work toppling some of the establishment's most revered conventions, flouting some of her most blustery critics, and laying the groundwork for some of the most socially relevant and subtly articulate work to come out of the Counterculture Generation. In short, she is a pioneer. And given all that, Missoula should probably count itself lucky to be hosting Schapiro's first-ever solo exhibition in the Rocky Mountain West, Miriam Schapiro: Works on Paper, a 30-Year Retrospective, which goes on view this Friday at the Art Museum of Missoula (AMM).
The exhibition itself is as layered and as understated as Schapiro's work has always been. Fifty-nine pieces, representing all the phases and themes of her life's work, come together to create a kind of mosaic of the woman who, for all intents and purposes, founded the school of feminist art. And in her case, that's more than just a turn of phrase. It was in 1968 that Schapiro, now a resident of Tucson, Ariz., teamed up with painter and installation-artist Judy Chicago to create the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif., the first curriculum of its kind anywhere. And it's no understatement to say that their renegade project-along with their voluminous work over the years-influenced an entire generation of women artists, many of whom, perhaps, would not have become artists were it not for them.
That's quite a legacy to capture in fewer than 60 works of art. But what has made Schapiro's work so deeply influential is the very fact that there is so much of it, and that it is so varied. The Tucson Museum of Art, along with the broad-minded folks at AMM, have managed to distill all of that work into a wonderfully instructive exhibition, one that gives full rein to Schapiro's peripatetic style while still making the work direct enough to be ingested one eyeful at a time.
Certainly, it helps narrow things down somewhat that the show limits itself to works on paper. But bear in mind, this is an artist who has thrived in flat, ornamental, two-dimensional media, like paper and cloth. Crafts that were traditionally the domain of women, and that were habitually dismissed as "decorative," became her stock in trade. There are, for example, pieces of female collage, or "femmage" as she calls it, an expressive combination of painting and piecework that pays homage to women's experiences, traditions and modes of expression. You can see it full-force in pieces like "Patience," a dense honeycomb of tiny cloth swatches, lacquered over with a lace apron. Or "Invitation," a pastiche of fabric and paper that bears more than a passing resemblance to a midwestern quilt. There is an almost obsessive layering of patterns and geometries at work in pieces like these, an attention to detail that can best be described as true craftswomanship.
Then there are the more straightforward pieces, ones that address more confined themes. These include her treatments of women's social history (her imprinted lithographs of crocheted catch-words, like "Bread," are something to see). Or her homages to women artists (you'll see more than one paint-and-paper rendering of Mary Cassatt and Frida Kahlo). Or Schapiro's own explorations of her personal history (a favorite here is "Papova," a poster-art silkscreen of a bundled, wintry figure, executed in the Russian Modern style of the 1930s). Like a lot of the topical feminist art of the 1970s, a few of these pieces may seem somewhat dated, perhaps even perishable. But there is no questioning the artist's mastery over her materials as well as over her subject matter; and it seems clear that these pieces, more than any others, are indispensable parts of the colorful crazy quilt that is Miriam Schapiro's life work.
To get the fullest sense of what Schapiro is all about, though, you had better ask her yourself. And you'll have a chance to do that later this month, when she and her husband, the painter Paul Brach, take up a week-long residency in Missoula for a series of lectures, workshops and receptions, with the compliments of the Art Museum of Missoula, the Art Associates of Missoula and the University of Montana. For those seven days-and for the good many young artists who have followed her-we can be grateful for the fact that Miriam Schapiro is not anywhere near finished yet.
Miriam Schapiro: Works on Paper, a 30-Year Retrospective opens this Friday, Sept. 3 at the Art Museum of Missoula. Runs through Nov. 24. Schapiro and Brach will conduct an artists' lecture Wednesday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. at the UM Recital Hall. For information on exhibition tours or other events, call 728-0447.
"Mary Cassatt & Me" by Miriam Schapiro (mixed media collage on paper, 1976)