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.
* “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
***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.