April 21, 2017
Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists by Donna Seaman is a passage through the lives of various extraordinary women—all of them largely forgotten in death but revived now on these pages in vivid detail. Working in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., throughout the 20th century, each of these seven women artists, as Seaman writes “must have felt like a lone traveler without papers traversing a hostile land as she struggled to live a freely creative life.” These artists didn’t just live a creative life — they also created vibrant communities around them.
Seaman’s portraits include Louise Nevelson, a mythmaker whose medium was discarded wood; Gertrude Abercrombie, a painter who created a surreal world from her dreams; Lois Mailou Jones, a painter whose vibrant palette vivified her African roots and love of the natural world; Ree Morton, who explored the borders between science and art; Joan Brown, an advocate for public art, whose search for God served a spiritual and communal vision; Christina Ramberg, an artist who explored the erotic tension of the female body through gestures of bondage and engagement; and Lenore Tawney, the animating spirit behind fiber arts who saw her handwork as prayer.
Why did these women create art? Tawney’s response is representative: “I didn’t have to please anyone but myself.” Indeed, Donna Seaman reveals how each of these artists defied convention with fresh vision and a fierce devotion to their work. Freedom was their reward, artful integrity their legacy. These artists created visual disturbances that asked their public to revisit the world in a different way — whether it was Louise Nevelson creating sculptural landscapes made out of wooden scraps, or Joan Brown’s arresting self-portrait, “Year of the Tiger,” where she depicts herself as half-woman and half-tiger and thereby confronts us with our own animal nature.