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“Working from Home” by Julie McCalden: exquisite and hard hitting

Working from Home by Julie McCalden  The Museum of Bath at Work, Till August 31st, 2015.

Julie McCalden has made an exquisite and hard hitting work for the Museum of Bath at Work. In the visual language of art, “Working from Home” brings attention to female, domestic labour and raises questions about museum practices that promote dominant histories which too often screen out the economic realities of women’s work and lives. 

First you encounter the outer wall of rough wooden panelling (you are to know this is a construction). Then, stepping round to the front, the open ‘fourth wall’, you are looking into a room of the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, furnished with original items. The first impression is of a gorgeous, decorative beauty because, unexpectedly, the silvery patterning of the wall paper on a dark background is repeated over everything – the floor, chairs, tables, the iron stove – a reiteration that makes the whole scene appear to hover and shimmer.

Then your eyes adjust to see the exquisite and diligent craftswomanship and finish of the work. Everything – the clock, stool, cups and saucers, clothes hanging to dry, all diligently, neatly, precisely covered in pattern. There is a pleasure in the skill that carries that totalizing decorative effect – this rich subdued sheen of an orderly, homely interior. Clearly an ‘angel of the hearth’ has passed by here.

Then your mind adjusts and you realize that, beneath the pretty surface, all these objects are the tools of hard, demanding, essential domestic work. The iron stove that must be riddled, fueled and cajoled into life; the carpet beater, the wash tub and scrubbing board speak of back breaking manual work. The iron must be heated on the stove to attack the clothes hanging to dry, the stone waterbottle (these days sold as a decorative object) must be filled from the iron kettle and carried up stairs. And on the table is a pile of newly completed matchboxes – a common form of ‘homework’ that paid a pittance a piece and ate up long tedious, repetitive hours to augment a household budget under pressure.

Working From Home is hosted by the Museum of Bath at Work from which women’s work has been absent; it is an important intervention in an institution that had until now only acknowledged the history of the public practice of (usually men’s) work in factories and workshops. McCalden brings the private drudgery of female domestic work into this space and her own demanding, repetitive, diligent labour in making the piece echoes and expresses its subject. The exquisite decorativeness she produces gives form to the ideology of the ‘naturalness’ of ‘nurturing’ femininity that, drapped over hard domestic labour, prevents it from appearing as real economic work although no economy could function without it.  As Lenin wrote in 1913:

Present-day capitalist society conceals within itself numerous cases of poverty and oppression which do not immediately strike the eye…Millions upon millions of women … live (or, rather, exist) as “domestic slaves”, striving to feed and clothe their family on pennies, at the cost of desperate daily effort and “saving” on everything—except their own labour. Capitalism and Female Labour, V.I.Lenin   1913

Working From Home is a powerful and important piece that deserves to be shown elsewhere.


Why $44.4 MILLION for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting may not be such good news!

9229-Lot-11-OKeeffe-Jimson-Weed-248x300 Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 

In November there was excitement over the “record breakingsale of a Georgia O’Keeffe flower painting for $44.4 million,. Sounds like good news …but the record was for a woman and (as was pointed out in more than one article) it was completely outstripped by the highest price for a 20th Century artist – a Francis Bacon at $142.4m–– more than 3 times as much.

Turning to living artists: there has been some attention given to women breaking the $1million barrier. But again comparison with the men rather removes the shine. Artnet operates a comprehensive price database and crunches the numbers to help investors and collectors to best buys. Their findings are dismaying.

  • The 2 women on the British list Bridget Riley ($5,1m) and Jenny Saville, ($3,4m) were easily out gunned by Damien Hirst – $19.2m for pills in a cabinet.
  • The outright winner, globally, is Jeff Koons – $58.4m for Balloon Dog (Orange). This put Cady Noland, the only woman on the American list in the shade with her paltry $6.6m.

BalloonDogKoons Balloon Dog (Orange) stainless steel, h.12’

 One could go on – the gap between male and female artists’ prices yawns in all categories of art.

But isn’t this just crazy, obscene money, a horrendous commodification of art/culture? How the hell did it come about? What does it mean? And should we care?

In the post war period private galleries multiplied in the major cities of London and New York and ‘art’ become increasingly part of consumer culture. The media joined in on promoting living artists, wealthy nouveau riche collectors were turning to contemporary art. 1973 saw a turning point when Robert and Ethel Scull (money from a taxi business) sold their collection at Sotheby’s. Pieces sold for many times the original price paid to the artists – a Rauschenburg bought for $900 a decade or so earlier, fetched $85,000! Investors took notice, the ball had started to roll in earnest.

By 1997 a Christie’s auction took $206.5m in one session. In September 2008, Hirst sold 56 works through Sotheby’s (by-passing his dealer). On the evening of the day Lehman Brothers crashed and in the teeth of the mortgage crisis the work fetched $127m. As the stock market fell, ‘Art’ became a welcome ‘asset class’ (like gold) and despite some wavering and a dip in 2008, it is back on form. In May 2014 Christie’s took $745m at a single auction of post war and contemporary art and the annual turn over of the art market is reckoned to be in the region of $50 billion!

Beyond the initial investment in materials, time etc, the value of a piece of art is not intrinsic – so on one level these prices are bonkers. Yet neither is the pricing system arbitrary (if it were the gap between male and female artists would not be so consistent). There are questions of taste, of course – for eg Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst would appeal of the hedge funders whose taste without question distorts the market.

However, there are also more serious issues of value and artistic prestige formed with in a wider context. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term ‘the field of cultural production’ for the arena within which multiple players operate – sometimes in contestation with each other – to produce cultural value. Art schools, critics, galleries, art historians, museums, collectors, the auction houses, journals, investors, the media, public awards and prizes all jostle, inform and influence each other. Get exhibited in private galleries, get the critics attention, be purchased by national museums (the equivalent of Fort Knox for ensuring the value of gold). Your visibility and stature go up and so do your prices.

At any point in that complex web you’ll find the effects of sexism: women disadvantaged. Just for example, in the 30 year life of the Turner Prize women have only won 6 times (while on 6 occasions there have been men only shortlists). Check out Gallery Tallying or East London Fawcet’s 2012 survey to see how poorly women are represented in private galleries – hardly ever rising above 1/3. In Tate’s 2014 annual report 24 male and only 8 female artists feature in the acquisition ‘highlights’.

The high prices at auction are like pennants planted in the broader cultural field – brightly coloured markers denoting cumulative cultural value. The problem is systemic, endemic, premised on the value our culture gives to women in general – their ideas, experiences, actions (rather than just their looks.)

BUT before you despair I want to make 2 points:

  1. Viewed historically things are getting better! When I researched the gender balance of exhibitions in London in the late 50s early 60s I found an infinitely worse picture. Frequently men only shows, and when women were included usually between 2% and 8%. This was an unquestioned norm. At the moment the stats vary but do show an average of closer to 30% representation of women in exhibitions in private and public galleries. Although only 6 women have won the Turner Prize 3 of them did so in the last 4 years – a real acceleration.

And, as in any arena of life, this hasn’t happened of its own accord but due to the work of women artists, feminist curators, art historians, cultural commentators, gallery visitors, teachers, lecturers etc

Things have indeed now stalled and the figures give the lie to any comfortable assumptions of equality achieved. It hasn’t been. However – and now for my second point:

  1. because the problem is systemic it can be challenged at any place in the system. The struggle goes on and we can gain strength from the knowledge that ground has been gained over the last half century – and we are now engaged in a further push.

In my small corner as an art historian, my research on Pauline Boty (British Pop artist) has brought her visibility and her prices have risen from c. £20k for a large painting in 1998 (when I co-curated a show in private galleries in London and Tate bought their first Boty) to closer to £90,000 today. As Maura Reilly exhorts us in a recent keynote speech – curating can be activism. In education, from schools through to universities, there is ongoing work to be done – getting female values acknowledged, women artists on the curriculum. A wider audience can take an interest in the work of women artists – attending exhibitions, buying books, querying the policies of museums and galleries.

The $44.4 million for a Georgia O’Keeffe is both ‘record breaking’ and exposes embedded and gendered cultural values; it should be taken as a call to arms. And without question, the debate is on once more and to be pursued wherever one has access

Links and references:

East London Fawcett Audit

Moira Reilly Curatorial Activism: Toward an Ethics of Curation

Women’s Worth: The Price of Being a Female Artist by Anna Heyward POSTED 12/22/14

Who Are the Most Expensive Women Artists at Auction? artnet News, Thursday, December 11, 2014

artnet News’ Top 10 Most Expensive Living British ArtistsColine Milliard, Sunday, April 13, 2014

artnet News’ Top 10 Most Expensive Living American ArtistsRozalia Jovanovic, Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Shock news! Duchamp’s urinal was by a woman…..?

duchamp1Yes, that urinal -“an icon of twentieth-century art” (, ‘the loo that shook the world” (Independent).  Reputedly Marcel Duchamp (Dada* hero) signed a mass produced urinal R.MUTT and, in a radical gesture in 1917, submitted it to an open exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, New York , under the title Fountain.  It was rejected in what is now seen as a crucial turning point in art. Since then it has been celebrated (and castigated!) as the starting point for all the subsequent installation and conceptual artwork that dominates contemporary art today.

BUT, as a convincing article in this  November’s Art Newspaper argues, Duchamp stole this iconic act from fabulous Dada poet and artist  Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, .

The evidence is pretty damning: two days before Fountain was rejected, Duchamp wrote to his  sister (Dada artist Suzanne) to tell her that “one of my female friends, under the masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.’

It was not until  decades later, in the late 50s/early 60s, that Duchamp, wanting to re-establish his position as an artist, started laying claim to Fountain. However he made a rather telling error: the supplier he says he got it from never stocked this particular urinal. The original was long lost but a photo survived (above) and Duchamp authorized his dealer to make copies that he authenticated and are now showcased in premier art museums around the world.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, however, has been lost from mainstream histories. Friend and colleague of Duchamp she made Dada sculptures out of found objects and had a track record in plumbing as art – the sculpture entitled God (below) was an S-bend mounted on a wooden block.

God in colour Jane Heap, the editor of an influential journal, The Little Review, described the Baroness as  “the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada” and published her poetry along side the first appearance of James Joyce’s  Ulyesses.

The BaronessBorn in Germany in 1874, Elsa acquired her title from her third marriage (to an impoverished aristocrat who deserted her) and pitched up (alone) in New York in the teens of the century, a fully formed avant-gardist. She was integral to the free verse movement and one of the New York Dada group that including Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia et al. She was outrageous, a kleptomaniac and proto punk challenging all codes of behavior, arrested for dressing in men’s clothes or not dressing at all (going about semi naked). One of the first performance artists she concocted and sported amazing costumes – tomato soup tins as a bra; hats of a bird cage (with bird) or a birthday cake complete with burning candles; tea-balls and cocktail spoons as jewelry.  She shaved her head and lacquered it red, wore yellow face powder with black painted lips. She demanded equality in sexual agency and mused on ejaculation, orgasm, oral sex and impotence in her poetry which broke all boundaries of form as well as content.

Breaking the rules of gendered behaviour and totally uncompromising in her commitment to Dada, the Baroness was deeply threatening to the men in her circle.  Just as I have argued in relation to Pauline Boty (Pop artist), I think that, as a woman, she perhaps presented a transgression too far: dying, poverty stricken, in Paris in 1927  she has been written out of the mainstream histories.

How different the story of 20th century culture would feel now if a woman had been  acclaimed as an epoch shattering, free thinking, paradigm shifting creator.

But hang on.  Scholars have been aware of the Duchamp’s letter since the 1980s! It’s in the news now because, although reprinting and praising the book in which the revelation is made, Museum of Modern Art (NY) has still refused to acknowledge Elsa’s role – as does Tate (check out Tate’s  website account of Fountain  no mention of Elsa!) And this deceit is the really shocking news.  There is just too much is invested in the fiction of Duchamp’s heroic act. For a re-vision to be made acres of critical theory, art historical and curatorial analysis would, and should, be disrupted  along with comfortable, (gendered) notions of genius and innovation,

And of course the Baronness is not the only women Dadaist to be marginalised.  Check out this list of 10 women Dadaists you should know (do you?)

Doubly transgressive in rejecting both their social role as women and all  accepted notions of art they offer a radical, innovative take on the Modernist shake up of art. Artists like Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven need to be put back into the frame –  foremothers of punk, riot grrls, pussy riot et al and inspiration to all women challenging the status quo.

* Dada: early 20th century, anarchistic art movement – precursor of Pop and Punk.


Gammel, I. Baronness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.

Body Sweats: The Uncersored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven ed Irene Gammel

Baroness Elsa on Freytag-Loringham and New York Dada in “Women in Dada; essays in sex, gender and identity” ed Naomi Sawelson-Gorse 1998, MIT

Rene Steinke, Holy Skirts, (novel based on the Baroness’s life)

Maryland University hold a stunning collection of papers on Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (letters, poems, drawings etc) in their Special Collections:

Allen Jones doesn’t know what’s happening* – the women Pop artists do!

p16 With love to Jean Paul Belmondo@72

Pauline Boty With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo

Pop artist Allen Jones is in the news: The Royal Academy is giving him a major retrospective exhibition and his sculptures of fetishized naked women as furniture are causing a rumpus again. He doesn’t seem to understand why women are so pissed off with these objectifying, demeaning images and is wriggling on a pin. One moment saying he is a feminist, another that it has nothing to do with women as such, he’s just an artist doing that avant garde, thang of challenging and offending accepted values in art**

The story of Pop is, indeed, of young male artists gleefully putting up two fingers to the masters (sic) of ‘serious’ Modernist orthodoxy. Transgressively they were bringing raw, ‘low taste’ popular culture into the hallowed halls of the galleries: Warhol’s soup tins and Marilyns, Lichtenstein’s blow-ups of comic book pages along with Wesselman’s nudes, Phillip’s strippers and Jones’ women – it is noteworthy how often women’s objectified, sexualised bodies are wielded as weapons in this Oedipal battle!

In 1991 the Royal Academy held a huge retrospective of Pop Art in which women were much pictured (usually sexily) BUT out of 202 Pop works only ONE was BY a woman***. There was almost no comment at the time on this extreme gender imbalance (imagine the furore if it was the other way round – only 1 man!) – It seemed as if with its sexy pin ups and reified body parts Pop was inevitably masculinist (if not misogynist) so the absence of women didn’t really matter…

…and yet….women (as subjects rather than objects) did and do have pleasurable often erotic experiences in popular culture (Pop’s source material) : fans of film and pop stars, enjoying dancing, fashion and interior design. They were also endlessly addressed and influenced by deeply gendered, usually sexist advertising. Differently positioned (culturally) to men in relation to pop culture, surely women artists would have something different to say about it?

Of course they did. A range of women made names for themselves as Pop artists at the time producing a fascinating body of work that variously critiques, celebrates, parodies and indulges in mass cultural experience from a female perspective. Among others one can name Marisol, Rosalind Drexler, Evelyn Axel, Idelle Webber, Marjory Strider, Nikki de Satin Phalle and of course, British artist Pauline Boty. Despite the prevalent difficulties for women artists in the 60s, they exhibited, sold work, contributed to debates – and then were written out of or marginalized in the histories.

Locked within his masculinist and self referential art world Alan Jones is indignant, confused and hurt by the response to his sculptures which he feels has damaged his career, forgetting the high prices and public acclaim he has also received (a little ‘privilege checking’ in order here, I think). Time to wake up and smell the coffee, Allen, and it might help to take a look at women’s Pop art work.

Women Pop artists are, at last, being written back into the story. Seductive Subversions (a touring exhibition in the States 2009-10 plus compendious book) brought them to attention, re-writing the story of the 60s. A range of other exhibitions and publications continues the job – notably for the UK the exhibition I co-curated of Pauline Boty’s work (with accompanying book) in 2013-14.

Pauline Boty was a serious, well educated and talented artist and also a beautiful, hip player on the swinging 60s scene. She produced a fabulous, vibrant body of collages and paintings that are both celebratory of popular culture experience and express a prescient grasp of gender politics and a radical gendered take on contemporary politics. Along with Belgium artist Evelyn Axel and American Dorothy Iannone, Boty reached for a visual language to speak of a proactive, subjectively experienced female sexuality. See for instance 5-4-3-2-1 (‘oh for a Fu…’ declaims a banner on the right) or her desiring gaze in With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo (above). She was also busy exposing the problematics of gender politics (Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies) and of the representation of women in the media (It’s a Man’s World II).

Thanks to their feminist foremothers women now feel a right to both a place in the public world and to sexual fulfilment on their own terms, often within popular culture experience. Yet they must negotiate an ever more pornified and immersive mass cultural landscape – aware of its allure and its dangers.

It is the mix of critique and celebration in Boty’s work (and to be found through out female Pop art) that speaks to a current generation. Refusing to relinquish either the right to expressing a proactive and pleasurable sexuality or to an intellectual grasp of the issues at stake the work is complex and sophisticated. As such it wrecks a ‘silent demolition’**** on Jones’ slick and objectifying nude sculptures which are revealed as pawns in a male art game.

Buy my accessible and richly illustrated book  “Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman”  Available on Amazon and eBay.


* “You Don’t Know What Is Happening, Do You Mr Jones?”. Asked Laura Mulvey in 1973 in a key essay in Spare Rib of that title. It would seem he still doesn’t

* *see him wriggle in articles in The Guardian and The Telegraph and The Guardian again

***Nikki de Saint Phalle “Portrait of My Lover”  note a nice irony here – the ‘Lover’ has a dart board for a head, real darts embedded!.

**** to borrow a phrase from Thomas Crow writing of Boty’s work in “London Calling”, Artforum , vol. 31 Summer 1993, 81-3.


Welcome to the Art and Women blog. Engaging in contemporary debates I aim to celebrate the work of women artists while also exploring and exposing the reasons for their frequent exclusion from or marginalisation in culture. I’m interested in new revelations of past artists and their reinsertion into the story of art, in contemporary art work by women and also in observing and commenting on the  gendering of the the field of art, both past and present.