WCA 50th Anniversary Interviews: Suzanne Benton (Part 1)
When I asked Suzanne what inspired her for more than 70 years of making art. She smiles big before replying, “I’m in awe of life.” I smiled knowingly. One only has to flip through her robust catalogue of interdisciplinary work, in order to witness the commitment to a life of wonder, needed to create.
Benton has built an illustrious career that has spanned more than 32 countries, oftentimes, with her daughter at her side. She is a keeper and teller of many stories and her fervent activism on the behalf of women around the world, has been a voice for the voiceless.
Benton, a metal mask maker, mask performance artist, printmaker, and painter was born January 21, 1936, in Brooklyn, NY during the Great Depression. With the men off to war it was “a women’s town.” Perhaps this is where she first learned how to be courageous. Witnessing women working, leading, building community, and thriving while men were off to war was somewhat of a foreshadowing of her future.
Activism is the spirit that seems to drive her. She is the current President of WCA-FL, after reviving the chapter in 2019. Benton went on to lead the largest Women’s March on Washington in St. Petersburg, FL on January 21, 2017.
Her work has been featured in Who’s Who In American Art, Feminists Who Changed America, and purchased by Harvard’s Schlesinger Library Archive.
Three years after reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique she recalls the moment that she was instantaneously transformed into a feminist.
“When NOW’s founding had been announced by Betty and the other founders of NOW were featured on the front cover of the NY Times Book Review Section, I wrote to Betty via the NY Times. In reply, I received a letter on NOW stationary, became a member of NOW.”
The immediacy she felt after receiving that letter on NOW stationary catapulted her into action. In 1971 Suzanne formed both the Central and Western Connecticut branches of NOW.
She is widely known for her feminist mask tales. Often drawing from stories of women in the Bible, and around the world, she uses her masks to tell the truth of their lives.
During our meeting she grabs the mask she uses in her “Bengali Bride” performance. Without missing a beat, she immediately places the mask in front of her face and begins telling the story. I was immediately pulled into the tale of sorrow and servitude faced by the young Bengali Bride. It was purely magical.
Experiencing her 70 year catalogue feels novel-esque. Her latest series of paintings, All About Color, were inspired by the safe inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The paintings are luminescent, vibrant, and other worldly in their construction. These were the paintings that have been “pouring out of her” since the pandemic she says.
Although the pandemic was, and still is, hard for most of us. I found it interesting that she chose to focus on bright beautiful colors instead of venturing into a more somber palette.
However, with someone who is writing a memoir entitled “Spirit of Hope,” I wouldn’t expect anything less.
“We can never lose hope,” she says.
Especially when there is so much work to be done.
You can learn more about Suzanne and her work at http://suzannebentonartist.com and https://www.veteranfeministsofamerica.org/vfa-pioneer-histories-project-suzanne-benton
WCA 50th Anniversary Interviews: Ann Sutherland Harris
WCA 50th Anniversary Interviews:
Ann Sutherland Harris
Art History and Activism
In the months ahead my blog posts will feature interviews with past leaders of Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA) in celebration of the WCA 50th Anniversary. The interviews are part of a project of the WCA Art Writer’s Committee, which produces Artlines and the WCA website blog Art Insights. WCA leadership will also be recognized at our February 2022 conference in Chicago: Occupy the Moment: Embracing our History, Enhancing our Impact.
It is fitting that my first interview in this series is with Ann Sutherland Harris – she was the first president of the Women’s Caucus for Art and a founding member. Ann is a scholar, curator, author and activist. Using FaceTime for conversation and email correspondence, I was able to interview Ann as she shared some significant memories from her life about becoming a feminist art historian. It was an honor to have this opportunity and I want to express my sincere appreciation to her for her time and participation in this WCA Anniversary project.
Over the course of her career, Ann has written nine books and exhibition catalogues, more than a hundred articles and reviews, and participated in dozens of lectures and panels. As an educator for almost five decades, she taught at Columbia University; Hunter College, CUNY; and State University of New York, Albany, before joining the University of Pittsburgh as a full professor in 1984; she retired in 2012. Her awards include fellowships and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the National Endowment of the Humanities; the National Endowment for Art; and the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art. Ann is a WCA Lifetime Achievement Awardee (2005), the recipient of honorary doctorates, as well as Mademoiselle Magazine Woman of the Year (with Linda Nochlin, 1977) and Pittsburgh YWCA Woman of the Year in the Arts (1986).
17th century European painting and sculpture are Ann’s main scholarly focus, especially Italian paintings and drawings, although her research, teaching and curatorial projects have included other subjects and time periods. Ann earned her BA at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, graduating with first class honors in 1961, as well as her Ph.D. in 1965. Andrea Sacchi was the subject of her dissertation; her 1977 monograph on Sacchi is considered one the best studies of that 17th century painter. Ann has also published documents about, and identified drawings by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Carracci, Pier Francesco Mola and Pietro Testa, among others. Her book, Seventeenth-Century Art and Architecture (London: Laurence King), 2005; 2nd ed., 2008, was a highly regarded survey of the seicento, but is now out of print. Ann is currently working on a monograph of all the drawings of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which she hopes to finish next year.
Ann says that she “has always believed that the study of any artist should include their drawings. When such studies survive and can be connected with known paintings, they reveal not only the artists’ preliminary ideas, but also changes made either to please patrons or satisfy the artist.” To her “an unidentified 17th century drawing is an orphan seeking a home under the right name.” She even owns a few such orphans herself that she still hopes to identify.
I first became familiar with the name Ann Sutherland Harris in graduate school during a course devoted to women artists – her trailblazing work was the foundation for our class. In 1976-77 Ann organized the groundbreaking exhibition Women Artists, 1550-1950, co-curated with Linda Nochlin, which presented the work of eighty three women artists from twelve countries. The show traveled across the United States from Los Angeles and Austin to Pittsburgh and Brooklyn, bringing wide public attention to women artists and gender issues that had been previously left out of the discourse of art history. The exhibition and the 367-page catalogue (I have one on my shelf!) changed art history. Today that mission of equality and inclusion is supported by many art historians, as the work for and about women artists is not yet finished. And Ann herself has continued to write about women artists past and present, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Alice Neel.
Ann Sutherland Harris was born on Nov. 4, 1937, in Cambridge, UK. Her Scottish father, Sir Gordon B. B. M. Sutherland, was an accomplished physicist. A fellow of Pembroke College and Master of Emmanuel, Cambridge, his research focused on spectroscopy. Her Swedish mother, Gunborg Wahlström (Lady Sutherland), met her father when she came to Cambridge to work as a baby nurse for a Swedish woman married to a colleague of her father. Ann says her mother was a great cook, made beautiful clothes for her daughters, and could fix anything in the house. Education was important to both of her parents.
When asked I asked how she first became interested in art, Ann explained: “I was made aware of painting as a career very early because my Swedish grandfather, Filip Wahlström, was an artist. He painted many portraits and views of the city of Göteborg (Gothenburg) and other places in Sweden. My sisters and I stayed with them twice for the summer months and I saw his studio, works in process, and finished works in their house that had walls painted yellow and other colors I had never seen indoors before! On the last visit before we went to America, I climbed up on the rocks overlooking the entrance to the harbor and made a painting of the view. I remember adding touches of yellow here and there at the end, and when I showed it to the grown-ups, they praised my technique. I thought the word must mean using yellow!”
Ann and her family lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan during part of her youth; she attended Wellesley College as a freshman. It was at Wellesley that she took her first art history class and fell in love with the subject. After her first year of college, her family returned to the UK and Ann enrolled at The Courtauld Institute – the rest is (art) history… and an autobiography that I hope Ann will someday write!
An Interview with Ann Sutherland Harris
MKM: What motivates your work as an art historian?
ASH: Nothing motivates me more than seeing a fine artist’s name being attached to works that are not by them. I believe it is my job to protect the reputation of the artists on whom I have published monographs or substantial articles. I have written complete or partial biographies of several Italian artists – Andrea Sacchi, Andrea Camassei, Pietro Testa, Pier Francesco Mola – none familiar names to the general public. A mistaken attribution may be below the level of quality of an artist whose work I know well: sometimes it may be a good work, but not by this hand. These attributions come from owners of drawings with ambitious attributions written on them (most artists in my period did not sign their drawings), or hopeful attributions written on the back of the canvas [and do have a chance sometimes], or are on the painting itself. Even these are sometimes added afterwards, and are not common on Italian seicento (17th century) paintings, though they are often found on Dutch painters’ works. I always study artists’ drawings as well as their paintings or sculptures, when possible, as they allow us to see them thinking through the process from start to finish. My role as a biographer of an artist is to identify and document as many of their works as possible and to describe the techniques, stylistic habits, mannerisms, color preferences, typical types of figures, etc. so that others can recognize this artist’s work when an unknown example emerges from attics or museum storage. For example, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654) is much in the news now because many museums and collectors would like to have a work by her. The only complete study of her work was published in 1999 (by R. Ward Bissell), but new attributions keep emerging. Bissell listed 108 works by her recorded in old inventories that cannot be matched to works known today. Everyone agrees that many of these “new” works are probably not by her but there is rarely unanimous agreement about the most plausible candidates. I find this all fascinating! I also believe that it is important not to clutter up her production with paintings that fall short of her well-established levels of quality.
MKM: Is there a piece of research or writing that you are most proud of?
ASH: Yes – my survey of 17th century art and architecture in Italy, Spain, France, Holland and England. The only books available for my students covered both the 17th (Baroque) and 18th (Rococo) centuries but that meant very thin coverage of the many wonderful painters, sculptors and architects who transformed European art in the 1600 hundreds. I decided to study 17th century Italian art rather than any period of the Renaissance when I was a student at the Courtauld Institute because the centuries 1300 – 1600 had already been studied by scholars since the nineteen twenties. This was not true of the 17th century where many excellent artists had never been the subject of a monograph (art historian’s term for a biography).
MKM: Outside of art history, what are some works of art from literature, music, or film, that are important to you?
ASH: I love good movies, and classical music, especially J. S. Bach [I am a mediocre pianist], and chamber music rather than symphonies. I used to read a novel or two in the summer. Now I am more likely to read autobiographies. I also have a garden to care for which is both rewarding and frustrating.
MKM: In addition to your work as a scholar, you have curated several exhibitions. Can you please tell us about your most memorable experience from curating the ground-breaking exhibition, Women Artists: 1550-1950?
ASH: Where to begin?! The opening at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977 was amazing – huge crowds, and I arrived in a limousine with Philippe de Montebello, then the Director of the Metropolitan Museum, where I had a job for a while. The opening in LA was much quieter but attendance soon grew to records. Memorable too were some of the responses from curators to whom we wrote to ask for loans . . . “Why do you want to show so many women’s works together? Do you think they’ll all look alike?”
MKM: If you were organizing/curating an exhibition today, which artists (living or dead) would you like to show?
ASH: I think that Diane Samuels, an artist who lives in Pittsburgh, ought to be far better known. She has done some wonderful installations – one for Brown [University] in Providence, RI (a covered glass bridge between science buildings with quotes from scientists of the past, many suggested by students). Occasionally I have thought that an exhibition of artists’ portraits of their parents would be an unusual but revelatory. Alice Neel’s moving paintings of her mother would be in it but I recall seeing other examples that seemed among the best works by the artist in question . . . I should have taken notes!
MKM: Along with your work as a scholar and curator, you are celebrated for your feminist activisim. Over the course of your career, you served on several university committees concerned with the status of women, in 1970 you testified before the U.S. Congress Special House Subcommittee on Education in support of women’s equal rights in higher education, and you advised the establishment of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. You have been a champion of women on many occasions and in many ways. What strategy do you think best enables the women’s movement to continue to break down white male hegemony? Are there particular genres that you find are best suited for this task – such as the visual arts, performance, social activism, or writing?
ASH: They are all good . . . every time a woman does something amazing like getting a Nobel prize and it gets press coverage, it’s good for all women, especially in male-dominated professions.
Wherever we see an obvious discrimination against having women in positions of power or influence etc., we should speak up and at least point out the problem. I once threatened to come up on the stage and give the commencement address myself at a meeting of women concerned with women’s situations at Pitt – available childcare etc. Well, goodness me, the next graduation had a woman give the address! But not since, I think. The situation for women in higher education has changed enormously to our benefit since I and some other women made a fuss in 1958 (Columbia Women’s Liberation, we called our small group . . .) but salary differences persist, and of course those of us in the “humanities”, popular with women, earn a lot less than scientists, who are usually male. I also think that the focus on the situation of people of color in education at all levels is more deserving of focus and change now. This involves both sexes, obviously.
MKM: What are the specific spaces, be they academic, political, or otherwise, you deem imperative for us at this pivotal moment in history to occupy – to be agents of lasting change?
ASH: We always need to be alert and remember that now many – maybe most men – are feminists. My son spends as much time being a great father to his two daughters, and to cooking etc. as my daughter-in-law does. His father certainly didn’t! Still, it seems impossible for a woman to become President . . . I’d love to see Elizabeth Warren as President . . . but is this country ready for her?
MKM: Can you share a seminal experience of feminist activism?
ASH: Many . . . during the 1958 riots when students took over some of the dorms and classes were cancelled at Columbia, where I was an Assistant Professor, I was outside in the large plaza in front of the campus buildings and was standing near a cop in full masculine regalia on his motorcycle. “You work here?” he asked. I said yes. “You a professor? I said yes. Married?” I said yes. “I bet you have a lot of fights!” he said. I don’t think I responded but meeting me even briefly may have given him something to think about . . .
MKM: What would you like to impart to feminist art historians and artists today? What do you hope future generations will achieve? What should they know?
ASH: I really think that women have made so much progress compared with the world I knew in the nineteen sixties that I cannot think of anything. Women do not dominate the world of politics, but even here women like Nancy Pelosi and Stacey Abrams in Georgia are impressive political leaders in very challenging situations.
MKM: What did/do you most appreciate and enjoy as a member of WCA?
ASH: I love our awards ceremonies – so much fun and… moving.
MKM: What do you envision for the WCA community today, and in another 50 years?
ASH: No idea! I guess the WCA will go on as long as this national organization can link women artists with shared interests and goals, and a mutual interest in making sure our best artists get attention…
MKM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
ASH: I tend to offer advice to others far too often so I often have to tell myself to shut up!