Meet Cindy Nemser - art critic, theatre critic, novelist, humorist, journalist, and ardent feminist.

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Letter from Katherine Spencer

10:11 AM Posted by Cindy Nemser No comments
February 2014



Hello Cindy,

       I am pleasantly surprised to have found your email address online, and I hope you don't mind my contacting you. I am a thirty year old painter living with my husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts. unfortunately I have never had a significant woman teacher or artistic mentor, although I have plenty of peers who are women artists. I just learned about you two days ago while I was researching Eve Hesse. I checked Art Talk out of the library and I was blown away to see Sonia Delauney, Alice Neel (two of my absolute heros), Louise Nevelson and Eve Hesse (becoming heros as well for me), and Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner all in the same book! I sat down today and read the entire thing, taking many notes. I became impressed with the questions you asked, and the points you argued with these artists.

       The book is so very valuable to our history, and I am so grateful to have the words of these women to cheer me on. As I read I became curious to see what you were up to today. Someone should ask Cindy what she thinks of how things have progressed, regressed, or stayed the same for women artists, I thought. I just now googled you and found your blog. Have you found a publisher for Firebrand yet? Are involved with feminist artists today, like the Gorilla Girls? I would love to hear about what you are up to now. And I think you should have a proper Wikipedia page!

All the best,

Katherine Spencer 


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Dear Katherine,

       I was delighted to hear from you. Your enthusiasm for Art Talk is so encouraging to me. Have you heard of the Feminist Art Journal? I was the publisher and editor from 1972-77. I left the art world a at that time as I was burnt out by all the responsibilities of being one of the first feminist art critics. At this time my health is not good, but I still try to keep up with what is going on with women in the arts and women in general. I was there way before the Gorilla Girls. I was there at the inception of feminist art movement. If you want to know all about me go to my archive at the Getty Research Institute. I'm not sure, but I think it may be up on line by now. In any case a complete copy of my unpublished memoir will be up after February 25,when the person handling it, John Tain, returns to his post there. I have no idea how to find a publisher for the memoir as it is both an historical account of the period and my personal experience being there. I agree I should have a Wikipedia page for myself and a Wikipedia page for The Feminist Art Journal which I could not get the Art Index to list at that time. As for now, I need an intern who can help me organize my digital files and help me distribute the FAJ to other archives which handle various arts, as the magazine covered theater, music, film, crafts and literature by women. As for the progress of women in the arts, we still have a very long way to go. Gloria Steinem nails it in the latest issue of Ms. Women are still under represented in all forms of work including art work. We still have a star system with only a few like Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic getting all the attention and the rest still ignored. I think the art of today is, for the most part made up of junk. It has appropriated its ideas from the much more interesting innovators, both male and female of the 70's. By the way Abramovic was not even on the scene when I wrote a seminal piece on body art. However, after all the other male body artists have moved on, she is happy to parade her naked self as a sex object. No wonder the folks at MOMA love her. Cindy Sherman who built her ideas on those of Eleanor Antin, is also not threatening to the status quo. Why has Alice Neel been completely ignored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum? How is it that everyone in the art world knows of Henry Moore, but not Barbara Hepworth? Only a few people know how important and innovative Sonia Delaunay was. Even Louise Nevelson has been ignored for many years. Only Judy Chicago reins as queen bee at the Brooklyn Museum. To me she deserves the dubious distinction of insisting that women of achievement should be remembered for their vaginas (or cunts as she would say). As in all the other political and economic movements that are stirring today, women in the arts must take a strong stand. Picket the museums again, have demonstrations, don't beg. Demand. It is important to start organizing women artists groups again and even, more important don't waste time and energy in petty bickering. or working to make yourself more important than any one else. If we work against each other, regressive forces are sure to pull us apart and dissipate the threat of action. I wish you lived in Brooklyn where I live. I really need help to get the message out once again.

Keep in touch,

Cindy Nemser


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Dear Cindy,

       I am so happy to have heard back from you! I have to say I agree with your take on the art world today. There are some great women artists out there, but we have a long way to go. When I learned about an incredible black woman performance artist, Senga Nengudi, who in the 1970's was an important influence on David Hammons (now a prominent New York artist and a MacArthur Fellow), I was saddened that I had never heard a peep about her before, although I was very familiar with Abramovic. Why is it that women performance artists of today so often use the Abramovic tactic of baring their bodies? I can't help but observe that performance artists who perform nude or in provocative clothes happen to also be white, thin, and in general, stereotypically attractive. I do understand how important the body is as a tool to communicate, but I don't buy it that these women need to be so beautifully naked for their art. There's an unspoken pressure in the culture to be a "sexy female artist;" it's desirable-and marketable.
       When I first learned about the Dinner Party as a young woman I was so excited that it existed, but I feel Chicago's rhetoric is more divisive than productive, to say the least. And on and on! I feel that the power of big money in the galleries, museums, and auctions is responsible for stifling good art or exploiting young artists and thereby hampering their potential. The structures that cater to wealthy collectors or donors tidy things up so that it's difficult to really put a finger on the discrimination against women. But it's there! And the schools are certainly not immune to the pressures of the money in the art world. Reading your interview with Sophia Delaunay, I was struck by what she kept saying about art's relationship with money having changed. I had just read an interview with Duchamp from the sixties and he said the exact same thing. Although I couldn't come into town more than once every four or five weeks, I would gladly offer you what help I can with digital file organization and spreading the word about the Feminist Art Journal. In exchange I'd love to hear your memories of the beginnings of the feminist movement in art, and your thoughts about what can be done today. I've attached my resume to this email. I could also try to find an intern for you who lives closer to where you are. If you would like to meet up and discuss this idea, let me know, and we could figure out a weekend when I could come into Brooklyn. I'm curious about the Getty Research Institute archive. I'll have to take a look at it!

 All the best,

 Katherine Spencer

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